By Raven Grimassi
“The oldest references to witches in Western literature appear around 700 BC. The ancient Greek writings of Hesiod and Homer contain the first descriptive accounts of witches and witchcraft. In such tales we find the characters known as Circe and Medea, both sharing a connection to the goddess Hecate. The earliest word used by the Greeks to indicate a witch was pharmakis. Historian Georg Luck, in his essay Imagining Greek and Roman Magic, states that pharmakis “became one of the standard words for ‘wise-woman/witch’, used as a substantive.” He goes on to mention during this same period the word also expressed an association with “drugs and incantations.” Later the word pharmakis would translate as venefica in Latin, which is addressed later in this article.
The ancient Greek writer Hesiod makes the earliest mention of the goddess Hecate. Hesiod tells the tale of how Hecate aided the Olympic gods in their battle against the Titans. Because of this, Hecate enjoyed an elevated status among the Olympic gods even though she was never formally a member. In his work, The Theogony, Hesiod speaks of Hecate as a goddess of fertility and abundance, associating her with farmers and agriculture. With the passage of time, Hecate and her witches would be viewed as a dark goddess of the Underworld and would become a dreaded presence. As we shall see, it was the agenda of Roman emperors and law-makers to purposely malign witches and convince people they were dangerous company. However, the essential character of the witch developed much earlier than this and we must look further into the past.
The witch-figure most likely evolved from the primitive shaman or sorcerer/sorceress character common to tribal communities. Such individuals possessed knowledge of the medicinal properties or effects of various plants, and were believed to be in touch with the Otherworld in a special way. As noted earlier the ancient Greek word for witch is “pharmakis,” and from this we derive the modern English word “pharmacist.” Because of their knowledge and position within the community the witch-figure was also most likely the keeper and transmitter of myth and lore.
In Latin the word for witch was originally saga, which indicates a fortune-teller. This was later changed to venefica, which indicates one who prepares love potions. The earliest laws against witchcraft dealt with the use of herbal potions employed in love spells. The root word for venefica is the same as that for the word venereal, derived from the Latin vene, indicating Venus. The word venefica was later used to indicate one who possessed knowledge of poisonous plants, and over the course of time this became its specific meaning. Eventually almost all Latin words for poison were based upon vene as a rootword for poison, particularly when referring to witches and witchcraft. No doubt the witch-figure commanded respect but was also viewed with a healthy fear of his or her power and knowledge.
One of the most powerful figures in ancient times to be associated with witchcraft was Circe. Circe appears in the tale of Ulysses who lands on Circe’s island during his travel back to Greece. According to the story, Circe turns Ulysses’ men into swine and he is enchanted by one of her herbal love potions. He stays on the island for a year, and is then freed by the intervention of the god Hermes who gives Ulysses an herbal antidote. An alternative interpretation of this scenario is that this tale was meant to excuse the gluttony and drunkenness of Ulysses’ men and to pardon his acts of adultery with Circe while living on the island. In the tale of Medea, she kills her husband and their children after her husband leaves her for another woman. Is this the act of a witch, or is it more the act of a lover scorned? Such things happen even in modern society all too frequently and have nothing to do with the religion of the people involved. The popular term given by defense attorneys for such crimes of violence is “temporary insanity.”
With the rise of civilization and the establishment of governments, the witch became maligned as an evil and destructive character. Laws against witchcraft and magic appear long before the rise of Christianity in many ancient cultures such as Rome. Independent, free-thinking, and self-empowered people have always been viewed as a threat by governments. The rulers of Rome feared assassination by poison (as did later the Kings of Europe) and thus anyone with an advanced knowledge of herbalism was a potential enemy. Additionally Witchcraft was a secret society, which also contributed to suspicion concerning its practices.
The ancient Roman poet Horace was among the earliest to portray witches as ugly old hags in contrast to the earlier image of the witch as a beautiful seductress reflected in the writings of Hesiod and Homer. The Romans valued youth to excess, and the association of old age with witches was designed to rob them of power and vitality in the public mind. Horace writes in his Epodes that witches worship Proserpina and Diana. Both deities were viewed in a negative light by the followers of the Roman State religion who favored the so-called “high gods.” Diana and Proserpina were the deities of rural pagans and magicians, both classes that were looked down upon by the sophisticated city dwellers.
Ovid wrote that a belief in witches (striges) was a superstitious peasant belief having nothing to do with State religion. Therefore the witch was a popular figure to ridicule and malign. Horace also makes the connection of the moon with the practice of Witchcraft. Ancient Greek/Roman literature depicts the Witch involved in human and animal sacrifice, practices that were common in the vast majority of ancient cultures including archaic Aegean/Mediterranean and Celtic cultures.
However, as religions evolved over the centuries, the Witch was never portrayed as having moved beyond such practices. It is interesting to note that the ancient Greeks classified witches among those who practiced “illicit religions.” The reason for this is that in Greek culture, and to a degree in Roman culture, a “recognized” sect had to have a temple. Magicians, diviners, witches, and other subculture figures were comprised typically of the poor segment of the population and therefore had no funds to build and maintain temples. This is one of the chief reasons why witches were not portrayed in ancient times as people of a religious nature but rather as magic users. This view persisted despite ancient writings that told stories of the witch Medea who prayed to Hecate, and the witch Canidia who prayed to Hecate, Diana, and Proserpina.
To discourage people from having personal dealings with witches, the witch was associated with many perversions and evil deeds. Roman officials fostered the image of the witch as a grave robber, a very horrid thing in Roman culture because Roman religion honored the dead as well as the ancestral spirit. All of these factors created an unwelcome environment for witches, keeping them out of the public eye. The fact that witches were forced into social isolation made Roman officials feel less threatened since it became increasingly difficult for their enemies to locate witches and obtain herbal potions. The witch was now fully established as an undesirable in society. Depicting her as old and ugly took away the physical vitality of the witch figure and made his or her appear less dynamic. In ancient Roman culture youth was celebrated and old age was dreaded. Like the Greeks before them, the Romans held to the philosophy that “good” was beautiful and “evil” was ugly. Thus the witch was purposely depicted as an old ugly hag.
With the establishment of Christianity as the official religion of Rome circa 325 AD, the Witch was already viewed as a doer of evil deeds and the Church quickly assigned her to the company of demons and devils. The power of Rome was replaced by the Roman Catholic Church, which sent monks and bishops into various regions of Europe to establish churches. Augustine, the most influential Christian theologian, taught that pagan religion and magic were invented by the Devil. He was the first person to associate witches with the devil. Thus the attitudes of earlier Rome towards witches, now assimilated and redesigned by the Roman Catholic Church, were carried to northern Europe and the British Isles. Within a few centuries the stereotype of the witch as an evil servant of Satan was established throughout Europe.
In the King James version of the Bible, the verse Exodus 22:18 reads “Thou shalt not suffer a witch to live.” However, in the original language of the text, the word kashaph meant a poisoner, or more specifically one who assassinates by using poison, and not literally a “witch” as indicated in the King James text. Whether the mistranslation was intentional or simply misguided, the King James translation provided support to those who took the lives of many people charged with practicing witchcraft. Another biblical verse used to support the death sentence for those convicted of witchcraft was Leviticus 20:27. Although this verse does not contain the word witch (mistranslated or otherwise) it and other related biblical verses were used by the Church and secular courts to indicate witches and witchcraft as inclusive in the meaning of the text.
The linking of witches and witchcraft to Satan first appears around 400 AD due largely to the undertakings of St. Augustine of Hippo. St. Augustine taught that anything pagan was evil and must therefore come from the works of the devil. The Church, convinced that anything contrary to the beliefs of Christianity must indeed be evil, declared everything associated with pre-Christian religion as evil. Therefore, witches were then assigned by the Church as servants of the Judaic-Christian Satan figure, even though the witches did not subscribe to the concept of the devil.
The devil, or Satan, is a Judaic concept, a personification of evil that was almost unique in ancient times. Christianity, its foundation being rooted in Judaic religion, inherited the concept of the devil or Satan from Jewish religion. Witchcraft was already long established centuries before the world knew of this Judaic-Christian concept. The Church, eager to discredit paganism, grafted the devil onto pre-Christian religion. It even went so far as to use art to portray Satan (who is never physically described in the Bible) with horns, hooves, and pointed ears just like the pagan horned god of antiquity.
Extreme physical and psychological torture was used to extract “confessions” from those accused of practicing witchcraft. The torture continued until the person admitted to the charges against them or until they died from the trauma. Questions regarding devil worship were put to the accused that had no basis in any past historical practice or in practices actually documented by any research during the period of the trials. The Church, together with the Inquisition, created the concept of devil worship by witches along with the details of its beliefs and practices. People were then forced people to confess to membership in the witches’ sect by means of horrible pain and suffering.
Despite the insistence of the Church that witches worshipped Satan, references to the worship of the goddess Diana by witches persist through the Renaissance era in Witchcraft trials, and are noted as late as the end of the 19th century by such folklorists as Charles Leland. Even as early as 900 AD the Church addressed the worship of Diana by the “society of Diana” in the Canon Episcopi. This document stated that the followers of Diana were deceived by Satan regarding her worship and that everything they professed to experience was mental delusion.
The 18th century saw the beginning of the decline of witchcraft persecutions. It came both in the modification of laws and in the attitudes of judicial authorities who grew inclined not to take the charges of witchcraft seriously. France was among the first to modify its laws dealing with witchcraft, taking place in 1682. The next to follow suit was Prussia in 1714. Great Britain modified its witchcraft laws in 1736 followed by Russia in 1770, Poland in 1776, and Sweden in 1779.
In essence the judicial system began to view the practice of witchcraft as a pretense to possessing power, an act of fraud. People who performed divination, magic, or any types of enchantments risked a year in prison. England repealed this act in 1951. Following the repeal of the Witchcraft Act in 1951, the writings of Gerald Gardner introduced the world to the religion known as Wicca. Gardner portrayed witches as a secret society driven underground by Christianity and surviving as a subculture for many centuries. Gardner’s witches were healers and magicians who worshipped a god and goddess figure. They were neither the beautiful evil witches of Greco-Roman times, nor the ugly evil witches of the Middle Ages. Today the witch has rightfully taken his or her place in modern society as a religious and spiritual individual.
The beautiful witch is back!”