(THE CONVERSATION) Living on Boston’s North Shore in the fall brings the beautiful turning of leaves and pumpkins. This is also the time for people to travel to Salem, Massachusetts, where the infamous 17th century witch trials took place, and visit its popular museum.
Despite a troubled history, today there are people who consider themselves witches. Often, modern witches share their traditions, crafts, and stories on TikTok and other social media platforms.
As a scholar who works on the myths and poetry of ancient Greece – and as a native of New England – I have long been fascinated by cultural conversations about witches. Witch trials in the Americas and Europe were in part intended to reinforce power structures and persecute the weak. From ancient Greece to puritanical New England, witches have functioned as easy targets for cultural anxieties about gender, power, and mortality.
Ancient Witches: Gender and Power
While modern witchcraft includes many different genders and identities, witches in ancient myth and literature were almost exclusively female. Their stories were partly about navigating gender roles and power in a patriarchal system.
Fear of female power was an essential part of ancient anxiety about witchcraft. Moreover, this fear was based on traditional expectations about a person’s innate gender abilities. From the creation account in Hesiod’s “Theogony” – a poem that emerged from a poetic tradition between the 8th and 5th centuries BC – male gods like Cronos and Zeus were depicted with physical strength , while the female figures were endowed with intelligence. In particular, women knew the mysteries of childbirth and how to raise children.
In the basic framework of Greek myth, therefore, men were strong and women used wits and wiles to deal with their violence. This gender difference in traits combined with ancient Greek views of bodies and aging. As women passed through life stages based on biology – childhood, adolescence through menstruation, motherhood and old age – the aging of men was linked to their relationship to women, particularly at the time of marriage and birth. have children.
Both Greek and Latin have one word for man and husband – “aner” in Greek and “vir” in Latin. Socially and ceremonially, men were essentially considered teenagers until they became husbands and fathers.
Female control over reproduction was symbolized as a kind of ability to control life and death. In ancient Greece, women were expected to take on all the responsibilities during the upbringing of young children. They were also the ones who exclusively took on special roles in mourning the dead. Suspicion, anxiety and fear of mortality were then transmitted to women in general.
This was especially true for women who did not fit typical gender roles like the virtuous bride, the good mother, or the helpful spinster.
While Ancient Greek has no word that directly translates to “witch”, it does have “pharmakis” (someone who dispenses drugs or medicine), “aoidos” (singer, enchantress) and “graus” or “graia” (old woman). Of these names, graus is probably closest to later European stereotypes: the mysterious old woman who is not part of a traditional family structure.
Just like today, strangeness also invited suspicion in the ancient world. Several of the characters who can be called mythical witches were women from distant lands. Medea, famous for killing her children when her husband, Jason, offers to marry someone else in Euripides’ play, was an Eastern woman, an outsider who did not adhere to expectations of the behavior of a woman in Greece.
She started her story as a princess who used concoctions and spells to help Jason. His powers increased male virility and life.
Medea is said to have learned her magical art from her aunt, Circe, who appears in Homer’s “The Odyssey”. She lived alone on an island, luring men into her cabin with alluring food and drink to turn them into animals. Odysseus defeated her with an antidote provided by the god Hermes. Once her magic failed, Circe believed she had no choice but to submit to Odysseus.
Witches over time
Elsewhere in the “Odyssey”, we find similar themes: the sirens who sing Ulysses are enchantresses trying to take control of the hero. Earlier in the epic, the audience sees Helen, whose departure with the Trojan prince Paris was the cause of the Trojan War, adding an Egyptian drug called nepenthe to the wine she gives to her husband, Menelaus, and the son of Ulysses, Telemachus. This wine was so strong that it made people forget the pain of losing even a loved one.
In each of these cases, women who practice magic threaten to exert control over men with tools that can also be part of a good life: songs, sex, and family. Other myths of monstrous women reinforce how misogynistic stereotypes drive these beliefs. The ancient figure Lamia, for example, was a once-beautiful woman who stole and killed infants because her children were dead.
Empousa was a vampiric creature that fed on the sex and blood of young men. Even Medusa, aptly known as the serpent-haired Gorgon who turned men to stone, is said to have been such a beautiful woman that Perseus cut off her head to show her friends.
These examples are drawn from myth. There were many living traditions of women’s healing and singing cultures that have been lost over time. Many scholarly authors have traced modern practices of witchcraft to ancient cults and the survival of pagan traditions outside of mainstream Christianity. Recent studies of ancient magical practices show how widespread and varied they were.
While ancient women were likely suspected and slandered for witchcraft, there is no evidence that they faced the kind of widespread persecution of witches that swept Europe and the Americas centuries ago. The late 20th century, however, saw a resurgence of interest in witchcraft, often in concert with women’s empowerment movements.
Modern witches cross international borders and learn from each other without leaving their homes by creating communities on social media, like TikTok. If fear of female power led to paranoia in the past, exploring and embracing witchcraft is now part of reclaiming female history.
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