Ancient Witches VI (Guest Voice: James Harrington)

Ancient Witches VI (Guest Voice: James Harrington) June 17, 2019

The Hellenistic kingdoms bound the Mediterranean world together more closely than at any time since the Bronze Age. Rome eventually absorbed these kingdoms into its own empire and added new areas such as Gaul and Briton. As travel and communication became easier than ever before, a new koine emerged: not merely a common Greek language, but a set of common practices and beliefs as well. Magic and witches were not immune from this mass Mediterranean syncretization. The Greeks of the classical age had already begun to work out an organized system of magical practices and practitioners.*

The Hellenistic kingdoms and the Roman Empire added to this system, with the Romans formally outlawing certain magical practices.** The literary tradition followed these trends, with Apollonius of Rhodes’ Medea serving as a template for later Greek and especially Roman writers.*** Keeping a watchful, if friendly, eye over the first of the new cohort of Roman writers was Augustus Caesar’s personal taste-maker and zealous proponent of anti-magical legislation, Maecenas.° Thus, the portrayal of witches and magical practice in Vergil, Horace, Ovid, Statius, Valerius Flaccus, and Lucan became standardized, as official and popular expectations of what a witch and her magic should be became settled.°°

We should therefore not be surprised, when we come to Vergil’s Aeneid, to find that witchcraft is linked with Dido, the founding queen of Rome’s arch-enemy Carthage. While Dido herself is not a witch, she does have recourse to a priestess who helps her perform some very familiar baneful magic when Aeneas deserts her:

But now the queen, as soon as the pyre was built beneath the open sky … she drapes the court with … wreaths of death, and to top it off she lays his arms and the sword he left and an effigy of Aeneas, all on the bed they’d shared … Altars ring the pyre. Hair loose in the wind, the priestess thunders out the names of her three hundred gods, Erebus, Chaos, and triple Hecate, Diana the three faced virgin. She’d sprinkled water, simulating the springs of hell, and gathered potent herbs, reaped with bronze sickles under the moonlight … And Dido herself, standing before the altar … with one foot free of its sandal, robes unbound—sworn to die, she calls on the gods to witness, calls on the stars who know her approaching fate.°°°

Dido sacrifices herself to the gods of the Underworld in order to bind her people to perpetual war against Aeneas and his heirs. All the witchy elements we know and love from the Argonautica are here: pharmaka, pacts with Underworld gods, Hecate, Diana the night huntress, astrology, a blood sacrifice, and malicious intent.

As self-described witch Pam Grossman reminds us, however:

[The witch’s] is a slippery spirit: try to pin her down, and she’ll only recede further into the deep, dark wood.◊

Following Euripides and Apollonius’ Medea, Dido is a woman wronged who resorts to witchcraft in a last-ditch effort to even the score with a powerful man. Aeneas has dallied with the poor queen, allowing her to believe that he intends to be her husband and then abandoning her the moment his Destiny calls. He cuts and runs, leaving the armor and weapons that are the symbol of his virtue (or a more literal translation: manhood) behind for Dido to use as a conduit for her hex.◊◊ However, like Apollonius’ Medea, Dido is intended to be a sympathetic character. Saint Augustine, a fellow North African, famously remarked in the opening of his Confessions that reading about Dido as a young man moved him to tears.◊◊◊ Thus, with firm folklore beliefs about “The Witch” established, Vergil is able to deftly give his audience the “witch” they expect, and the sympathetic enemy they didn’t.


*Pam Grossman, Waking the Witch: Reflections on Women, Magic, and Power. New York: Gallery Books, 2019. p. 72.
**Ibid., p.73.
***A Companion to Ancient Epic, Miles Foley ed. Malden: Blackwell Publishing Ltd., 2009. p. 115.
°Charles Williams, Witchcraft. Berkley: Apocryphile Press: 2005. pp.17-19. I am indebted to a friend in Classics for pointing out the tight connections between the depiction of nefas, maleficium, and the underworld Maecenas’ literary friends/clients Horace (ode 2.12, 2.17) and Vergil (Georgics IV and Aeneid IV and VI).
°°For an example of how this streamlining process works in modern folklore, such as the “vampire” tradition in New England, see: Michael E. Bell, Food for the Dead: On the Trail of New England’s Vampires. Middletown: Wesleyan University Press, 2011. pp. 148, 287-292.
°°°Virgil, Aeneid. Robert Fagles trans. New York: Penguin Group, 2006. p. 145. translating for lines IV.498-525
◊Pam Grossman, pp. 2-3.
◊◊As Grossman says: “Sexing and hexing become entwined, as they so often do when it comes to depictions of witches.” Pam Grossman, p. 50.
◊◊◊Jennifer S. Oberst “The Use of Vergil’s Aeneid in St. Augustine’s Confessions,” Anthós (1990-1996): Vol. I, article 10. Again, I also owe my classics friend for this insight delivered in one of the best Socratic discussions with a group of 9th graders that I’ve ever seen.

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