Greek and Roman authors and their portrayal of women as evil
The topic of Witchcraft and Sorcery was one of the most common themes written about by Greek and Roman authors in ancient literature. A common feature of such writing was the portrayal of women as having some magic powers, often using them for evil purposes hence the term “witch” which is thought to have been derived from the word Wicca, meaning someone who cast a spell. Coupled with the witch-hunts that were common in many parts of Europe in the Middle Ages, this term began to be used to describe females only and to signify evil (Russell, 23). The works of Homer, Theocritus, Apollonius, Horace, Lucan, and Apuleius while different in many ways have a certain similarity in the portrayal of a single female character as having magical powers and other characteristics considered evil among the people of ancient Greek and Rome. This essay provides a deeper analysis of this portrayal by Greek authors represented by Homer, Theocritus and Apollonius and Roman authors represented by Horace, Lucan, and Apuleius.
Homer’s The Odyssey which was the first piece of literature in which the famous character Circe makes her first appearance, was written in around 700B.C. Circe is a goddess, the daughter of the Sun and lives on the island of Aeaea. One of the incidents worth noting in the Odyssey is Odysseus’ visit to Aeaea, where Circe turns his men into animals. With the help of Hermes, a god, Odysseus gained immunity to Circe’s magic potions and forced Circe to convince him to become her lover. The description of how Circe mixed potions and uses her wand to enhance the effect of her spell portrays her as a woman who uses black magic to get what she wants. Homer, however, deviates from the traditional stereotype of witches being ugly old hags, describing Circe as having golden braided hair, the speech of a human being and special powers. Homer still ascribes to the traditional portrayal of witches using their skills to gain some sexual favors as Circe turns Odysseus’ men into pigs and erases their memory of home to ensure Odysseus stays with her (Homer, 47).[“Write my essay for me?” Get help here.]
Apart from Circe, Homer’s The Odyssey has some notable female characters, each of them used in a different way to further his portrayal of women as evil. Penelope, the grieving wife of Ulysses, is as complex a character as they come. Homer first paints her as a grieving mother, oblivious to the advances of her suitors. This quickly changes when she is described by Telemachus as an intelligent woman who for three years drove men out of their minds with empty promises. While apparently mourning for her husband, Penelope lead these suitors one with the promise of marriage to one of them immediately she finished showing her wedding veil. Unbeknownst to them, she destroyed her work every night so that she never actually finished sowing. Homer portrays Penelope as a deceitful gold digger who used her seductive charm to become wealthy by her suitors (Homer, 67).
Homer also tells of another charming woman, Clymenestra, who was consistently pursued by suitors in her husband’s absence. Despite her strong character, she falls for one of her suitors and colludes with him to plot the death of her husband Agamemnon once he returned from his noble pursuits. Again, Homer depicts a woman as being evil, only capable of love when it fulfills her selfish desire, and quick to dismiss the vows of marriage once they do not serve her needs at the time as is implied by Clymenestra finally causing the death of her husband.Clymenestra is also depicted as one having no self-control, and needing the validation of a man which coincides well with the theme of male domination consistent in The Odyssey.
Closely related to Homer’s Circe is Medea, her niece, and the subject of Apollonius’ Jason and the Argonauts. She was quite infamous, as is shown by her appearance in the works of many other writers such as Euripides and Ovid. In Apollonius’ story, Medea is smitten by Aphrodite with love for Jason to complete the plans of Athena and Hera. This backfires, leading Medea to help Jason in getting the Golden Fleece and she returns to Greece as Jason’s wife. In Greece, she is an outsider who does not fit in. When Jason later betrays her for a younger, local woman, Medea vengefully punishes Jason, giving her the sinister reputation she has had for centuries (Homer, 64). Not only did she make a poisonous robe that killed Princess Jason was to marry, she later killed all her children in horrible ways. Apollonius’ portrayal of Medea seems to appeal to readers’ sympathy, in telling of her love for a husband who later betrayed her (Homer, 89). Unlike other authors who describe the evil characters with no hint of humanity, Apollonius lets a reader see into his character’s betrayal, perhaps in an attempt to explain her evil. The magnitude of Medea’s actions, however, have made readers throughout succeeding centuries experience certain difficulty in reconciling their sympathy for her with her destructive actions.[Click Essay Writer to order your essay]
It is of interest to note that Apollonius himself was said to have been associated with witchcraft. One of Apollonius’ more intriguing spells was the PGM Xia (Ogden, 113). It involved the use of a Typhon’s skull and the chanting of an incantation while spreading herbs and incense to summon one’s demonic assistant. The assistant remained loyal only if she stayed in the form of an old repulsive hag. If she were allowed to transform into a young and attractive maiden, however, she would escape. The evidence of his spells still being practiced 300 years later paints Apollonius as a skilled sorcerer, once again bringing into question why a woman practicing the same kind of magic would have been labeled evil. It seems like the evil was attributed to women, regardless of the existence of men who performed similar actions (Ogden, 133)
Theocritus’ second Idyllic about a woman called Simaetha. On her way to the temple, she sees a young man named Delphis and is completely struck by her intense attraction to him, so much so that she is taken ill for several days. Upon sending for him, Delphis admits that he was planning to come to her of his own accord but later betrays her with another lady. Simaetha then turns to magic to win her lover back(Hunter, 44). Once more, the use of magic is portrayed by Theocritus to be for selfish purposes and evil intent. Simaetha uses aniunx bird in casting her spell, attaching it to a wheel which when spun would imitate the mating call of the iunx, a sound presumed to draw the desired lover to her house. Simaetha is portrayed as anything but the demure, proper Roman women of ancient Rome as she brazenly goes after a man to the point of using a spell to ensnare him (Hunter, 38). Although driven by love, Simaetha’s use of magic spells for her own agenda made her go down I n history as one of the evil women of ancient Greece.
The stories told of the magic performed by the women in Greece through the characters of Circe, Medea and Simaetha tells of an apparent bias in the judgment of a person of the female gender. The women of Greece are portrayed as evil, sex-fiends who were repugnant either in looks or behavior and whose sole aim is to gain the affections of a man. This stereotype is mad much worse by the sexual connotations, which put some doubt on the claims of burning love for the objects of their affection. Men who practiced sorcery, however, were not the subject of much controversy, manifestly evident in the fact that the term “sorcerer,” often used for the male version of a witch does not come with an implication of evil or the stereotype of ugly and repulsive physical features. The fact that the Greek authors analyzed in this essay seem to further this agenda paints a picture of the prejudice against women in those ancient times.
One of the most famous witches of Roman literature is Canidia, in Horace’s poems. Canidia has portrayed as the stereotypical witch; a repulsive and frightening old hag. Canidia and her counterpart Sagan, mentioned in Horace’s poems as well, are dressed in black attire with pale skin and dirty nails and hair. Canadia is described as having locks entwined with vipers. Her rituals portray a certain inhumane quality, especially when she abducts a boy and buries him in the ground, keeping his head just above the surface, so that she can make a powerful erotic spell. The boy was starved and always teased with glimpses of food to make his internal organs stronger with longing, making the spell even more potent (Horace, et.al, 21) Just like the stereotypical witch Canidia uses her magic to satisfy her depraved lust. Horace deliberately portrays Canidia as a depraved practitioner who practices black magic perhaps to discourage the payment for witches’ services in ancient Rome (Flint, 77)
Erictho in Lucan’s Pharsalia is often described as a “living caricature of wickedness” (Johnson, 26). Lucan took a completely different approach in his portrayal of Erictho as a witch who unlike other witches who use their powers to attain wealth, sex or power, commits evil acts just for the sake of it and delights in her actions. Lucan describes her as a woman willing to commit any crime and would not have any hesitation given a chance. Instead of being a symbol of fertility as most Roman women were expected to be in ancient times, Erictho represents destruction and death. Erictho sacrifices babies to the gods. In one particular reference, she tells the gods that she has never had any hesitation in murdering a child to give the gods the entrails. In another grimmer picture, she tears the fetus from the womb of a pregnant woman to give an offering to the gods. Erictho is also given lethal powers by Lucan. She is described as being more poisonous than a snake, with the ability to destroy entire fields of the crop by simply walking over them. Roman women characteristically presented themselves with some level of modesty, but Erictho is brazen and shameless. Lucan also describes her as physically repulsive and bizarrely sexual, with an affinity for defiling the dead. In this way, Lucan has stuck to the traditional portrayal of witches as ugly and disgusting in the worst way possible, choosing only to vary his narrative with her unique senseless cruelty (Lucan, 56). [Need an essay writing service? Find help here.]
In The Golden Ass by Apuleius, the practice of witchcraft being exclusive to women who are sexually deprived or desirable seems to be a common theme. Apuleius brings out more clearly the tendency of men throughout history to blame the effects women may have on them on dark magic, acting as an excuse for their immorality and also allowing them to apportion the blame for their actions on someone else. The women described as “not at all bad-looking” and “really in heat” at the start of the Golden Ass already sends a powerful message on the stand Apuleius takes on the matter of women and their power (Apuleius & Sarah, 32). The numerous sexual encounters in his narrative serve to further his agenda. Pamphile is one of the sinfully seductive seductresses in the narrative. The narrator is warned to “watch out for her criminal enticements” because “the moment she sees a handsome young man, she becomes possessive and cannot see or think of any other thing.” Pamphile’s evil nature is brought out through this warning which includes a cautionary tale on how she would instantly turn into a rock, sheep or any other animal any man who does not cooperate or fancy her (Apuleius & Sarah, 53).
Another character of interest in Apuleius’ Golden Assis the witch Meroe who was said to have turned a former lover into a beaver because beavers are famed for escaping their pursuers by biting off their testicles. A clear message that something akin to this would happen to her lover who had been unfaithful (Apuleius & Sarah, 68). Meroe has no qualms in destroying a man in this way; the most heinous retribution a man could undergo by threatening his masculinity. Such a threat is sure to control even the toughest of men.
The women of Rome seem to have suffered a fate similar to that of their Greek counterparts, only made worse by the extremism in the authors’ description of their wickedness. In ancient Rome, it was a common belief that women who drank committed all sorts of adultery, with the Romans going as far as allowing a husband to beat his wife to death for the crime of drinking. The placing of the stereotype of witchcraft on women who were considered to be most vulnerable to bouts of uncontrollable anger made the whole practice to be looked upon with a mixture of fear and disgust. It caused the consequent expulsion of certain religions that gave women a pivotal role as they were believed to be similar to witchcraft. Despite the public maltreatment and prosecution of women associated with black magic, it is documented that famous men sought to have their diviners, and this was accepted by society. Julius Caeser as in The Lives of The Twelve Caesars openly admitted to having favorites in the field of magic.[Click Essay Writer to order your essay]
From the analysis of relevant literature, it is noticeable that ancient mythology and literature was used by various authors as a medium of portraying witchcraft and sorcery as a woman’s domain that was malevolent and misused for selfish gain or the sheer pleasure of it. Authors use crimes synonymous with the most evil perceived of any woman, in the form of infanticide and the threat to a man’s virility. Some of the authors target the very core of felinity by describing their characters as barren, either by choice or otherwise, and giving them sexual deprivation of unfathomable proportions that drives them to heinous acts. The women’s sexuality is underscored by some of these authors who portray the power a woman may have over a man as being the effect of black magic and not a natural occurrence.
Against a background of meekness, humility and some form of class that was expected of both Greek and Roman women at the time, the characters of these works all defy the norm and present a very different picture. The authors’ works all agree on the woman being an evil creature, although some go about it in a more humane way than others, allowing the reader to feel some sympathy for the character in being able to relate to their experience. While attempting to portray different levels of wickedness, the authors all describe the woman of the ancient times as an evil creature who was not to be trusted.
The vilification of women by the two different cultures reflects on the issues of equality between men and women that is still a vibrant subject up to date. For ages, men have been viewed as the stronger sex in various cultures; among the manifest injustices to women is in education. In most traditions, women were not allowed to go to school and were perceived as domestic workers whose place was the kitchen and raising children. Some cultures in third world countries in Asia and Africa still downplay the girls and deny her a chance to go school; marry her off early in exchange for commodities as bride price. This brings in the question of why women have been sidelined in for ages as seen from the above-discussed philosophers and authors. The world, however, is coming to age and women have been granted equal opportunities as their male counterparts.[“Write my essay for me?” Get help here.]
In conclusion, I am of the opinion that both women and women should be treated equally. The above-discussed texts proof that we have come a long way into embracing our equality and the world should thus strive to ensure that all women are accorded their rights and privileges just like men. We should seek to instill the fact that both males and females are equal and only differentiated by our genders. Both the Greek and the Roman cultures failed to express this in the past but have since made amends; there is thus potential for all sections of the world to emulate the same.
Apuleius, and Sarah Ruden. The Golden Ass. New Haven [Conn.: Yale University Press, 2011. Internet resource.
Flint, Valerie I. J. Witchcraft and Magic in Europe.Athlone, 1999.
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Horace, et al.The Complete Odes and Epodes: With the Centennial Hymn. Penguin, 1983.
Hunter, R L. Theocritus and the Archaeology of Greek Poetry.Cambridge UP, 1996.
Johnson, W R. Momentary Monsters: Lucan and His Heroes. Cornell UP, 1987.
Lucan. Pharsalia.Cornell UP, 1993.
Ogden, Daniel. Magic, Witchcraft, and Ghosts in the Greek and Roman Worlds: A Sourcebook. Oxford UP, 2002.
Russell, Jeffrey B. A History of Witchcraft, Sorcerers, Heretics & Pagans.Thames & Hudson, 2007.