Witchcraft in Ancient Greece

Witchcraft was alive and well in Greece.

The best and certainly the most numerous examples of Ancient Greeks using magic are the curse tablets which have been found by the hundreds. They're usually inscribed in lead.

This is a curse tablet found at Pella. It says (and I paraphrase a great deal to make it readable): I call upon upon the daimones to bind the marriage of Thetima and Dionysophon, so that Dionysophon never wed any woman but me. May I grow old with Dionysophon, and no one else. Have pity upon me dear daimones, for I am alone and abandoned. Do this for me so wretched Thetima perishes miserably and let me be happy and blessed.

Such a nice lass.

Anyone could write their own curse tablet, and many did. The tablets were usually buried, often in cemetaries, or thrown into water or wells. The idea was to get the curse as close as possible to the more chthonic of the Gods. Curse tablets when they invoked a deity usually called upon Hades (Lord of the Dead), Persephone (His Queen), and Hermes Cthonius (Messenger to the Underworld). Clearly not deities you wanted to meet socially.

You could also hire a professional for all your magic needs. Plato's Republic(!) actually mentions professional magicians, of whom Plato says in Book 2, section 364C : ...and that if a man wishes to harm an enemy, at slight cost he will be enabled to injure the just and unjust alike, since [the magicians] are masters of spells and enchantments that constrain the gods to serve their end.

Apuleius in The Golden Ass calls Thessaly the land of magic and witchcraft.

A Greek witch was called a pharmakis, from which we have pharmacist and pharmacology. Their basic job was herbs, medicines and poison. The odds are very good that a sick person might go see the local witch woman rather than an expensive doctor. The brilliant historical writer Mary Renault mentions this in The Praise Singer. She has the poet Simonides explain his great old age by saying whenever he fell ill in a strange town he avoided the doctors and asked for the local wise woman.

There was a hazy zone between between Gods and Goddesses and normal humans. In between were many demi-god half-breeds who had special attributes on account of their divine side, but who nevertheless were mortal. I don't think they count for real witchcraft but some of them are very witchy.

Circe was either a witch or a minor Goddess, depending on which version you read. Either way, she had a tendency to turn people into animals.

Medea was an outright witch and used ointments and potions to both poison and heal. She is often described as a priestess of Hekate, but I suspect it's a later association. The Goddess Hekate is worth a book, but the grossly over-simplified story is she's associated with witchcraft and the darkness, potions and poison, and is almost certainly pre-Greek.

Hekate is the only Goddess whose priestesses might automatically be considered to practice witchcraft, though even in their case it's unclear. Other priestesses had no magic power of their own. They did their work through sacrifice and prayer, asking the Gods to intercede, or in the case of the Pythoness at Delphi, acting as a conduit. There was a world of difference between a priestess and a witch.

I have a scene in one of my books in which a witch woman appears. I'd love to quote it to you, but unfortunately it would be a huge spoiler.

Thanks so much Amalia for the idea of writing this.


Amalia Dillin said...

This was great!

That curse tablet is awesome. I've been running across some things having to do with curses surrounding the Trojan War and Helen (non-tablet-related of course), but haven't really explored it--there was so much other stuff I had to get through first. It seems like curses are kind of their own thing though, outside of witchcraft, since anyone could cast them.

So basically witchcraft, while occasionally involving manipulation of or appeal to divine forces in special instances, was more practically a potion and poison business? I'm kind of just as fascinated by the difficulty I have discerning the line as I am by the explanation--no doubt a product of my very monotheist cultural and religious upbringing.

Do you ever find it difficult to appreciate the seriousness of the sacrifice and the religious ritual for your characters, coming from a modern world which has turned all those gods into fairy tales and products of the imagination?

And thank YOU for the shout out :)

Gary Corby said...

Hey Amalia, thanks so much for the idea. This is hugely interesting.

The potions and poisons were the practical side of the witch business, and within the limits of ancient pharmacology would have worked. But the witch preparing what we might call a natural antibiotic would not know whether the plant she used or the prayer she uttered or both was the important element, and given natural variation of the ingredients it would have been impossible for her to tell. Animal sacrifice falls into the same logic. We know which works and which doesn't, but they don't.

Same goes for curses. Some of those people who'd been cursed had accidents shortly afterwards. Obviously the Gods answered the prayer. The ones who weren't affected...maybe the Gods decided not to interfere in those cases.

I love your question about the difficulty of projecting a modern brain into an ancient world view. I'm going to save that for another post because I've had some fascinating examples recently.

Matthew Delman said...

It's a problem for anyone writing in a time period other than their own. That's why I tend to avoid writing historical fiction (the issue is too great that you're going to give a character opinions they couldn't have had given the culture they lived in).

This is why I tend to dislike people who say things like "oh Thomas Jefferson was full of crap about liberty because he owned slaves." Well duh, he would've been ostracized by his society if he hadn't.

/rant about modern morals imposed on past time periods.

CKHB said...

And, of course, Hekate became a little better known after the witches/magic-users in Joss Whedon's Buffy the Vampire Slayer started invoking her name on a regular basis...

Gary Corby said...

You're right Matt, there's a fine balance to be made between a main character with whom modern readers can relate, and one who is true to his period. Sometimes the balance can be a little tricky to find!

Hi Carrie, yes, Willow and friends did a lot to improve Hekate's public image, though even before that she was a well-liked deity in Wicca. Hekate has followers to this day.

Merry Monteleone said...


This is such a great post! Are you working only with a witch character or oracles, too? I don't know nearly enough about the oracles but find what I have read fascinating.

Witchcraft is a really deep and interesting topic, maybe largely because it's viewed almost scoffingly. But if you look, superstitions and pagan traditions permeate a great deal of most societies throughout time - and some of the earliest homeopathic traditions, which were started by 'witch doctors' hold medicinal value.

Many Sicilians, up to this time even, still believe in stregherria - some following more pagan wiccan philosophy and some practicing Catholics who incorporate very old traditions into their religious beliefs. I've often wondered if that wasn't one of the deciding influences in our practice of revering Saints and asking them to intercede in our lives. A way to bridge the chasm between the pagan beliefs they were giving up in favor of the one God.

Gary Corby said...

Hi Merry,

I'm sure there'll be oracles in the books somewhere down the line, but the character I mentioned is very much a witch woman.

It's an interesting question whether any modern witchcraft could be traced back to Greco-Roman roots. The Italian tradition of stregerria would surely have to be the best candidate. Has anyone proven an unbroken line?

Merry Monteleone said...

Hi Gary,

You know, I don't know if it's possible to prove and unbroken line in strega tradition. I'm more familiar with Sicilian traditions, which I would guess are broken and added to by nature - so many different societies invaded and so many different influences became a part of the fabric there. The dialect itself (which is largely dying out now) isn't purely Italian. There are a lot of terms and phrases that actually have their roots in other languages, and I've heard some of it heavily stems from Arabic.

There are still practicing strega's in this century and through the mid-1900's I know that many sicilian american immigrants put more trust in a good witch doctor than a medical one. (My grandmother took my father to one when he was a small child and that was in the 1920's or 30's) To this day I know people who can tell if you've had the malocchio put on you (evil eye) and how to take it off... actually, I know how to do that.

But I can't say any of it is an unbroken line - there are old traditions mixed in with current beliefs. All of the Sicilians I know are also practicing Catholics, so we wear our good luck medals on a different chain from the holy ones (it's bad luck to wear them together :-)

So I guess I don't know if there's any unbroken chain of the tradition, and I kind of doubt it. I don't know of anyone who still worships the gods and goddesses, except Wiccan traditions maybe and those are different gods and goddesses than in the Sicilian, Roman, or Greek traditions... and I think Wiccans and Pagans have adopted some gods from Greek and Roman traditions that weren't originally part of their own pagan history... but I could be wrong there.

It would be interesting to study, but I don't know that you could find a difinitive unbroken line because so much of the traditions were passed down by oral tradition, usually from parent to child. Especially when you're dealing with people who were largely uneducated throughout many centuries, they wouldn't have been able to write it down.

Amalia Dillin said...

Merry and Gary-- There are definitely some people, here and there, in America and Europe who still worship the old gods and goddesses of these mythologies. Largely, I suspect that they're considered crackpots by most people who know about it, but they exist for sure from the research I've been doing. In Greece, is isn't recognized legally as a religion, but they're out there. The Olympians definitely still have a cult, and so do Thor and the Norse gods.

Right now the most popularized cult in the Norse tradition is traveling around through prisons, which is kind of scary and twisted--there's also another cult in the Norse tradition that's associated with Nazism and the like, which really makes me sad and disturbed, as they use it to justify white supremacy.

Wikipedia tells me there are a couple thousand practicing Greeks who believe in the Olympian Gods still--I don't know how accurate those numbers are, but here's the link: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Supreme_Council_of_Ethnikoi_Hellenes

I gather that there is some controversy about the sacrificial aspects...

All that being said, whether or not those people who worship also engage in behaviors that would be considered witchcraft, I don't know. It kind of brings us back to the question of what differentiates witchcraft by the more modern definition, from polytheistic religious ritual. Animal sacrifice? Incantations and spells? Curses? An argument of course could be made that the christian faith engages in all of these things to varying levels and degrees...except instead of animal sacrifice, Christianity had a human one in Jesus.

Sorry. That was a little scarily controversial. No offense to anyone intended, I just find the similarities of myth and practice cross culturally/religiously fascinating.

Gary Corby said...

Merry, I think you've got the background for a fantastic novel here. This is amazing, you're immersed in the traditions, you know the people, the culture. This is a gold mine for a good writer like you. I would seriously love to read a story you set in this world.

Gary Corby said...

Amalia, I hadn't heard about Old Norse religion spreading through prisons. That's very weird and more than a little scary.

Amalia Dillin said...

It really, really is. There is some concern that it is being twisted and used to justify and glorify murder and violence, which makes me sad, but wouldn't be that unusual. Of course other people, who are practicing, deny that this is the attraction. I guess though, that if you had killed or hurt someone, accidently or with pre-meditation, Odin might seem more forgiving about it, all things considered... But why Odin and not Ares or Poseidon or Zeus? Why Norse?

I'm curious as to how it was introduced in the prison culture to begin with as a religious faith/practice. Who was proselityzing for Odin and Thor? I guess it only really takes one guy with some charisma, but it really seems odd.

I also have a friend who has a friend who worships Thor (outside of the prison system) and seems to have incorporated elements from the modern reimagining of Thor from the comic books into the old myths in a pick and choose kind of way. Very fascinating!

Sorry--I kind of hijacked the topic into Norse Mythology without meaning to.

Gary Corby said...

Amalia, I'm guessing the Viking raider reputation for rape/pillage/burn has something to do with it. Few of the other old time religions have the same image problem.

On your friend's friend's Thor...The Build-Your-Own-God approach is quite popular at the moment and has resulted in a number of ancient deities being remodeled in ways I'm sure the original worshippers would barely recognise. I wouldn't presume to say whether it's valid or invalid, but it's certainly different.

Amalia Dillin said...

I don't know why the Olympian gods don't have the same reputation for violence and mayhem. Zeus and his brothers did plenty of raping, and they didn't even bother to limit it to their enemies, but took any woman passing by. Homer certainly gives us the impression that there was plenty of glorified raping and pillaging between enemy cities at war, too. Hector at one point even seems to get fired up to fight to save his wife from becoming some other man's war-spoil/slave/concubine.

The recipe is there. All the elements and bastard children and horrible punishments. It's just like Stephanie says though-- somehow it got glossed over and pushed under the rug. Maybe because of the renaissance?

Geoff Carter said...

Great post; it is a shame we don’t know if it worked!
I would take issue with the use of the word ‘witchcraft’, perhaps a little bit anachronistic in a polytheist context?

Merry Monteleone said...

Wow, Gary, I should have stopped back earlier! And I'll have to check out Amalia's blog, such great info. here.

I did know that there are sects here and there that worship some of the old deities - norse, celtic, definitely egyptian - very big in neo-pagan circles. There are also different people who hold reverence to literary characters, though I'm not sure how far this goes, I do know there are whole covens of practicing wiccans who wear the half moon tatoo on their forehead, from the Mists of Avalon, which is a retelling of the King Arthur legend from the female perspective.

I think, too, there's been somewhat of a resurgence in interest in ancient history, maybe because we live in a time where more information is readily available to the masses, rather than just the intellectual elite.

Thanks, Gary, that's definitely an idea for a backdrop for a novel. And might be something I toy with, it sounds ripe for something in magical realism... right now I'm working on a YA, but I might think about that for a backburner plot.

Gary Corby said...

Hey Geoff, great to see you again! We chatted ages ago on the Archaeology Network about the effective range of bows. I loved reading your work on Hadrian's Wall. Very impressive and wholly convincing.

Geoff Carter said...

Thanks, I remember, and I'm sorry I missed your blog for so long Gary, quite remiss of me; while the internet is a big place, I always try to reciprocate, especially where I think my readers would enjoy a blog.

You have interesting and well- written posts, no punches pulled, and I am very glad to see you have so many followers.