Celebrating The Witches' New Year

Witches at tea

The Witches’ New Year has me thinking about magic, witchcraft and spells.

Now, the boring part about researching witches is wading through the Christian-infused rhetoric, which warns against evil or, from the pagan perspective, complains that Christians don’t get it, and should simply leave peaceful pagans alone. Once you get past that nonsense, though, there lies some truly fascinating information about witches.

I once believed, for example, that the persecution and dislike of witches and witchcraft stemmed from the Christian era, when affiliation with pagan sects was discouraged and witches were burned at the stake. Now, however, it seems that long before the Salem Witch Trials or Torquemada, the Greeks were railing against soothsayers and witches (typically, women such as Medea, who had knowledge of poisons and hallucinogens, and weren’t afraid to use them).

Hekate and her three-headed dog, Cerberus
William Blake’s “The Triple Hecate” (1795).

In the law courts of Athens, the “daughters of Deianeira,” women who were found to be poisoners, were tried and put to death if convicted. I’ve mentioned her before this, in an earlier blog entry. Deianeira was the wife of Hercules. She had unwittingly poisoned him after being raped by Nessus, a psychopathic centaur who ‘fell in love’ with her beauty one fine day.

In the midst of the attempted rape, Hercules shot the centaur; as Nessus lay dying, he tricked Deianeira into thinking that if she combined his semen with olive oil and the blood dripping from the arrow stuck in his side, she could use this magical concoction to prevent Hercules from falling in love with any other woman.

Deianeira came from a long line of women before her who wanted to prevent some guy from running off, and so she took Nessus’ bait. However, Nessus had lied about his recipe. Deianeira applied it to Hercules’ cloak, and Hercules died. Ever after, women who administered love philtres, not knowing they were poisons, became known as the “daughters of Deianeira.”

Early church fathers continued this tradition, debating whether women who used love philtres should be forgiven: “even if someone concocts a magical drug for some other purpose, but kills with it, we consider such a deed to be intentional. For women are always doing this. They try to induce men to love them with their incantations and binding spells and they give them drugs that defy their intentions.” (Magic, Witchcraft, and Ghosts in the Greek and Roman Worlds, p. 104).


So by the earliest centuries A.D., followers of Hekate already had a bad reputation. This bad reputation was also fueled partially via literature’s Medea, Circe, and Calypso, the earliest witches to be written about in the Western tradition.

When you think about it, the skills a woman could possess that marked her as a witch were highly intimidating, if not dangerous and lethal. A witch was a woman with power over life and death, skilled in the arts of necromancy; she learned how to use drugs (pharmakon) for the purpose of administering either a love philtre (binding spells to inspire rapture in another), enacting revenge (often by making someone sick or killing them), or as abortifacients.

However, witches were following a long tradition starting with magic rituals emanating from Egypt. “Magic” was defined rather differently in those days, since there was more happening then that was inexplicable, obviously. One thing that has remained the same, though, is the principle of jealousy, causing women to accuse one another of being witches even if they weren’t.

Hermione, a noblewoman in 425 B.C., said to Andromache, her slave, “I am hated by my husband because of your drugs. You are destroying my womb and making it barren. For the soul of an Asiatic woman is clever at this kind of thing. But I will foil you.”

Andromache replied, “It is not because of my drugs that your husband hates you, but because you are unpleasant to him. I’ll tell you a love potion: it is not beauty but good character that delights one’s lover.” Ultimately, drugs were the supposed means of women’s magic, but the fear that women would enchant only to destroy persists in modern prejudices against women even today.

Medea, as portrayed in the pre-Raphaelite style of Evelyn de Morgan (1889).

Regarding the nature of Hekate’s cult, it has been remarked, “she is more at home on the fringes than in the center of Greek polytheism. Intrinsically ambivalent and polymorphous, she straddles conventional boundaries and eludes definition.”

For more research I’ve done on the history of witches and witchcraft, look here and here.

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