Wed
Mar 23 2011 2:12pm

SFF and the Classical Past, Part 9—Witches, Curses, Compulsions

Granny WeatherwaxApologies for last week’s interruption. This is the penultimate post in this series. (About time, you’re probably saying: isn’t she tired of talking yet?) I’m going to talk here about Classical ideas about magic, and how this is (or isn’t) reflected in the genre.

Witches in the classical tradition go all the way back to Homer’s Circe. But the post-Archaic literary image of the magician is clearest from Theocritus’s second Idyll and Apuleius’s Metamorphoses. In Idyll 2 a woman performs a love spell to bind her lover to her:

“But now I shall bind him with these love-charms. If he still torments me, I swear by the Fates it’s Hades’ doors he’ll beat upon; such is the power of the noxious drugs I keep in my box, whose properties I learnt from an Assyrian stranger.”[1]

In the Metamorphoses, the witch Pamphile is also concerned with love-spells, and with transformations—it is the theft of one of her ointments that causes the transformation of Lucius into a donkey. Her chamber, too, is filled with noxious drugs and paraphernalia:

“...[S]he set out all the usual apparatus of her infernal laboratory: every kind of strong-smelling drug, metal plaques inscribed with mysterious characters, the remains of birds of ill omen, and a whole array of different parts of dead and buried bodies - here noses and fingers, there nails from gibbets with flesh sticking to them, elsewhere a store of blood from men who have died a violent death...”[3]

Death, and particular a sort of fascination with the weird and abnormal, is a large component of ancient magic. The fourth-century CE orator Libanius found before one of his speeches, “a chameleon some months dead, its head set between its hind feet, one of the forefeet gone and the other closing the mouth in a gesture of silence,”[4] which he took as an attempt to curse him. When the emperor Tiberius’s adoptive son Germanicus fell ill in 19 CE, Tacitus claims that, “examination of the floor and walls of his bedroom revealed the remains of human bodies, spells, curses, lead tablets inscribed with the patient’s name, charred and bloody ashes, and other malignant objects, which are supposed to consign souls to the powers of the tombs.”[5]

Witches are dark figures, concerned with potions and poisons. They are almost always associated with harm, with insalubrious deeds, and with curses.

Curses, on the other hand, are by no means universally associated with witches. Indeed, curse tablets (Latin defixiones, Greek katadesmoi, both words which carry the meaning of binding), appear to be a legitimate means of addressing the divine. You scratch your wishes on a lead tablet, transfix it with nails, and either bury it somewhere, or deposit it in a well or pool in the sanctuary of a god. Like this one from Uley in Britain. The god is then supposed to carry out the appropriate act.

The idea of a curse seems to fall somewhere between “magic,” an act undertaken in order to compel supernatural forces, and “prayer,” in which supernatural forces are supplicated and entreated to produce the desired result. A lot of people like to draw this distinction between magic as compulsion and prayer as supplication. Myself, I’m not so sure it’s entirely so clear-cut, especially when you consider the Greek magical papyri from Egypt, which combine entreaty with attempts at compulsion, and includes some truly disgusting things involving dead puppies. And fetuses. (David Frankfurter has a whole paper on one incident of fetus magic in Graeco-Roman Egypt here. Ick.)

As you may have noticed, there’s one major difference between the classical idea of the witch and the depiction of the magical practitioner in fantasy. Magic in fantasy is most often morally neutral, capable of being used to bring good as well as harm. The witches in Terry Pratchett’s Discworld might be terrible old women, skilled with manipulation (“headology”) as well as medicine, and can be distinctly odd, but they’re not bad. (Although one or two of them end up that way.) Wizards muck about with grand conjury and the cosmos. In Pratchett’s Discworld, as in Le Guin’s Earthsea, there is a noticeably gendered difference between magic qua sorcery and magic which involves smaller, more domestic—in the root sense of the word—scales. It’s by no means a universal distinction, but across the genre, it’s frequently there.[6]

In fantasy, often, magic is merely another orientation towards the world, frequently treated in mechanistic or quasi-scientific terms. Sorcery, in Steven Brust’s Dragaera universe, seems to be just another branch of the sciences, while “witchcraft” likewise has quantifiable results, although arising from different practices.[7] This treatment of sorcery as science is common to any number of works. Because magic is measurable, it’s not—epistemologically, at least—terrible.

Magic, too, is frequently distinct from relationships with the divine. The most notable exception to this rule of thumb that comes to mind is Lois McMaster Bujold’s Chalion universe, in which death magic is actually death miracle, requiring a theological act of grace to be completed. Bujold’s gods cannot, it seems, be compelled.

Other gods can be. But then, if there was only one sort of magic in it, the genre would be a much less interesting place.

[1] Theocritus, Idyll 2, trans. Verity.
[2]I know, the Qu’ran isn’t actually a classical text. But I do like the Daybreak sura, and a little extra refuge from harm never went amiss.
[3] Apuleius, Metamorphoses, trans. Kenney.
[4] Libanius, Orations. 1.249.
[5] Tacitus, Annals 2.69, trans. Grant.
[6] In antiquity, there is a similar gender-and-status difference between the astrologer and the witch.
[7] I oversimplify, yes.


Liz Bourke is reading for a research degree in ancient history at Trinity College, Dublin. A longtime SFF fan, she also reviews for Ideomancer.com.

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3 comments
Sharat Buddhavarapu
1. Sharat Buddhavarapu
It's really remarkable how much we inherit from Greco-Roman culture even at the beginning of the 21st century. Great write-up, although I don't think I'll be clicking on the link to the paper on the fetus magic, blegh!
Paul Howard
2. DrakBibliophile
In many cultures, "bad luck" just doesn't happen. It is *caused* by somebody.

This somebody is often given the label of witch.

The "Witch" doesn't always *gain* something by causing "bad luck". It's just something they do.

Mind you, there were also "wisewomen" who were sometimes considered "good witches".
Mieneke van der Salm
3. Mieneke
Actually, I'm sorry to see this series coming to an end. I've really enjoyed these posts! Guess I'll have to savour the last one a bit extra this week!

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