Ancient Witches IX (Guest Post James Harrington)

Ancient Witches IX (Guest Post James Harrington) July 7, 2019

I asked  for new voices and got some outstanding writers! Today we hear from the erudite James R. Harrington.

James R. Harrington earned his M.A. in Ancient History at California State University Fulleron and is a member of the Torrey Honors Institute. James has been a classical educator in a variety of settings over the past thirteen years. He lives in Houston with his wife, Sharon, and their daughter.

Harrington began with a series on shields in classical literature and now moves to witches as a theme.

On shields, Mr. Harrington responded to thoughts on his first post.  Harrington wrote about the shield of Herakles, He continued to the shield of Aeneas and followed up on that post. We turned to a shield in Ovid.   He concluded with Quintus and a follow up.

Now he turns to witches with a second post , a third,  a fourth, a fabulous fifth, a sixth, a seventh, an eighth, and now a ninth:

Rome’s first recorded witch hunt, the repression of the Cult of Bacchus, was long past by the time Ovid sat down to pen his epic Metamorphoses.* Thousands had reportedly died for crimes including “secret nocturnal rites,” “private initiations, combining men and women,” orgies, forgery, and murder.** This description fits in nicely with Renaissance descriptions of the Witches’ Sabbath, which should clue us in to the long shadow Rome casts on the European imagination.*** It should come as no surprise, then, that Ovid’s Metamorphoses provides us with an account of a particularly “witchy”° Wicked Witch, in the by-now-familiar character of Medea.

Medea, as she appears in the Metamorphoses, is animated by a sense of romantic “frenzy” comparable to Vergil’s Dido. This is not the teenage passion of Apollonius of Rhodes’ Medea, but a violent emotional imbalance that serves as the driving force behind the witch’s maleficium. While her motive for helping Jason and his father may begin with frenzied love, Medea’s magical career degenerates to mere “witch’s tricks” in the murder of King Pelias.°° The Medea of Ovid’s Metamorphoses thus lacks the complex motivations ascribed to her by Euripides, Apollonius, and even Ovid’s earlier work, Heroides. She is a “basic” witch.°°° And oh the witchy things she does! In the space of a few pages, Medea makes her exiled hero invulnerable, betrays her own father, gives the gift of youth to whom she wishes, and kills a crowned king. This essentialized Medea becomes the perfect purveyor of destabilization and revolution, the very things the Senate feared when they brutally repressed the Cult of Bacchus.◊

The Medea of Metamorphoses is the perfect target for an Augustan witch hunt. She is a foreigner devoted to dark gods and dark rituals. She is a poisoner with knowledge of secret drugs who incites daughters to murder their fathers and remove duly appointed leaders. Medea even rides through the air in a snake-drawn chariot to spread wanton destruction and escape the law. Then or now, here or in Salem, she is the essential folkloric Witch.

*For a survey of the persecution of the Cult of Bacchus see: Erich S. Gruen, Studies in Greek Culture and Roman Policy. Berkeley: University of California Press, 1996. pp. 34-78.
**Ibid., p. 34. following Livy 39.8.3-39.1.
***Charles Williams, Witchcraft. Berkeley: Apocryphile Press, 2005. pp. 153-172.
°Witchy in the technical sense of the word, not that cute Starbucks barista with midnight hair, Eva Green eyeliner, and bedazzled pentagram necklace who dots her I’s with little skulls when she spells your name on your latte –and no, she’s not into you, she does that for everybody.
°°See endnote 297 in: Ovid, Metamorphoses. A.D. Melville trans. New York: Oxford University Press, 1998.
°°°PSL brew included.

◊ or Greek philosophy, Isis worship in the capital, individual divination and magical practice, Druidism, Christianity, or Second Temple Judaism (twice, along with a banishment from the City under Claudius)


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