In this nineteenth-century re-imagination of religious ritual, the priestess of Apollo sits on a tripod at Delphi, inhaling fumes (not shown) to allow her to communicate with the god. The connection between drugs and good forces was lost over time and transferred to witches.
Witches’ Tools: Potions, Wands, and Magic
In Greek myths, powerful herbs were depicted as rare and difficult to obtain. The term for herb, good or bad, was pharmakon (the root word for our modern “pharmacy”). The word is variously translated depending on context. Herbs were usually mixed into a drink or a mushy stew in bowls or large cauldrons. They were also soaked in water and the liquid sprinkled or made into an unguent to rub on the body.
Wands were occasionally used to transmit or activate an herbal liquid or potion. Even the gods, who could transform people or animals or manifest their will simply by wishing it, also used herbs and special tools such as wands and love arrows to achieve their desires. In the scene below on a 4th-century B.C. Greek ritual vessel from southern Italy, Hypnos, the personification of Sleep, helps Zeus (disguised as a swan) seduce Leda. Sleep holds a long, curving wand over the pair, probably a tool to drip sleep-water from Lethe, the underworld river of unmindfulness or oblivion.
There was a great deal of crossover between religion and magic in antiquity. Practitioners needed to speak the correct words, make the right gestures, and offer the appropriate sacrifices and substances to gods and spirits of the upper and lower worlds. Ancient gods of the underworld were acknowledged and honored with their own specific rituals. Certain potent plants, whose roots extended down into darkness, were sometimes associated with the lower world.
Humans tried to make gods feel inclined and even obliged to help them, but they could not force divinities to act. Over time, however, powerful, selfish Greek herbalists—who used drugs and invocations entirely for personal motives—gained new powers. In Roman literature we find more clearly identifiable witches, who control underworld beings and natural forces.
Circe: The First Witch?
In Homer’s Odyssey, Circe, daughter of Helios the sun god, appears as the first witch (sort of) in classical literature. She was a beautiful and sensual minor goddess who worked the loom like a proper female. Although immortal, like mortals she had to obey orders from the more important gods. When hosting Odysseus’s hungry crew, she mixed drugs (pharmaka) into a mushy potion (sitos) of cheese, barley, honey, and wine, and then tapped the men with her wand (rabdos) to transform them into pigs and wolves (and other animals as well, in other stories). Her words were not reported.
In this scene on a drinking cup, Odysseus enters from the left, sword drawn. Circe holds her wand and the potion that has transformed the men. She was originally painted white to emphasize her sensual nude flesh, though only traces of white remain.
Luckily, the god Hermes gave Odysseus the herbal antidote, called in Greek moly (The Odyssey Book X:305). This was a very rare plant with a black root and white flower. After Odysseus used the plant—exactly how is not specified—he was able to resist Circe and threaten her with his sword. Frightened yet impressed, she invited him to bed. First, however, the hero demanded an oath from her (horkon, a formal swearing by the gods) that she would do him no harm. Only then did he accept her seductive invitation.
In the Homeric epic, Circe has few of the negative qualities we associate with witches, and she remained true to her oath not to harm Odysseus. Aside from using a wand to activate her potions, her other supernatural knowledge involved finding the entrance to the underworld and calling dead spirits to come there; but the dead merely provided information they knew when alive.
About 600 years later, the Roman poet Ovid was more specific about herbs and drugs. In his Metamorphoses, he uses words like gramen, medicamen, herba, and venenum—the last meaning “poison” or “venom.”
Ovid describes Circe’s and Odysseus’s amorous encounter similarly to Homer, but tells how she reversed her spell on Odysseus’s men by moving her wand backwards and reciting her incantation in reverse.
In other stories in Metamorphoses, Circe becomes a far darker figure. She calls upon underworld spirits and the forces of nature for her own devious purposes. When her offer of love is rejected by a youth, she vengefully turns him into a bird. When his friends threaten her in order to find out what happened to their companion, she invokes divinities of darkness, like Night, and of the underworld, like Hecate. In Metamorphoses XIV: 397-416, Ovid writes:
She sprinkled them with harmful drugs and poisonous juices, summoning Night and the gods of Night…and calling on Hecate with long wailing cries.
Marvelous to say, the trees tore from their roots, the earth rumbled, the surrounding woods turned white, and the grass she sprinkled was wet with drops of blood. And the stones seemed to emit harsh groans, and dogs to bark, and the ground to crawl with black snakes, and the ghostly shades of the dead to hover. The terrified band shuddered at these monstrosities.
These monstrosities are standard Roman portents, the sorts of inexplicable manifestations that signaled divine disfavor and required appeasement through religious ritual. Circe invokes and brings about what are usually warnings from major divinities—and her acts cannot be mitigated through proper religious channels. Whereas Homer depicted Circe as a dangerous but controllable female, ultimately loyal to Odysseus, Ovid casts her as a powerful, negative force acting outside social and religious norms. She has become a true “wicked witch.”
Circe’s power to transform men into beasts has fascinated writers and artists for millennia. As just one example, in this 17th-century Flemish painting on view at the Getty Museum, Circe and Odysseus stand surrounded by many more animals than Homer ever envisioned.
Read more on ancient witchiness—specifically about Medea—in Part 2.
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Berti, Irene, and Filippo Carla. 2015. “Magic and the Supernatural from the Ancient World: An Introduction.” In Ancient Magic and the Supernatural in the Visual and Performing Arts, ed. Irene Berti and Filippo Carla, 1–18. New York: Bloomsbury Academic.
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Rocca, Giovanna, and Montserrat Reig. 2015. “Witch, Sorceress, Enchantress: Magic and Women from the Ancient World to the Present.” In Ancient Magic and the Supernatural in the Visual and Performing Arts, ed. Irene Berti and Filippo Carla, 67–78. New York: Bloomsbury Academic.
Scarborough, John. 1991. “The Pharmacology of Sacred Plants, Herbs, and Roots.” In Magika Hiera, ed. Christopher A. Faraone and Dirk Obbrink, 138–174. New York: Oxford University Press.
Stratton, Kimberly B., and Dayna S. Kalleres. 2014. Daughters of Hecate: Women and Magic in the Ancient World. Oxford: Oxford University.