Women empowered with supernatural abilities can be found in all ancient cultures, often serving a positive and a negative purpose in everyday life and the quest to know.
Witchcraft and the many variations denoted by that general term can be traced back to the Ancient Egyptians and Mesopotamians, especially the Babylonians. Those who practiced magic (the term “witch” is an Old English derivation), divination, and the performance of supernatural acts served both a positive and a negative purpose. Within the Judeo-Christian framework, however, there is no such dichotomy: witchcraft ran counter to religion and later became identified with the works of the devil or Satan. In the ancient world, two women stand out as the iconic witches the western tradition has come to accept as examples of the dark side.
The Witch of Endor
In Exodus 22:18 Hebrew law declares, “thou shalt not suffer a witch to live,” (or “sorceress”) while Deuteronomy 18:10 states “There shall not be found among you anyone…who uses divination, one who practices witchcraft…or a sorcerer…” Such passages were used in the late 15th Century Malleus Maleficarum to justify the witch hunts of the late Middle Ages. Yet in I Samuel 28 King Saul visited the most famous necromancer (from the Hebrew terminology) of the Old Testament: the witch of Endor.
The witch practiced divination and could call the dead back. One modern translation refers to her as a “medium.” From the account in I Samuel several facts can immediately be determined. King Saul came at night, in disguise. The work of a witch was best concluded in the dark. The woman thought that a trap had been set: mediums and “spiritists” had been persecuted for practicing their arts.
Saul asked the medium to bring up the prophet Samuel. When Samuel appeared, however, he declared that Saul would lose his kingdom because God was now his adversary. The fact that Saul used divination to request help in preserving his kingdom demonstrated the strong antipathy toward such arts since he felt he could no longer call upon God and was going against his own edicts to eradicate such practices.
Circe and Odysseus
Although Greek mythology and lore contains the accounts of many witches, Circe, in Homer’s Odyssey, may be the most colorful and remembered. Odysseus landed on her island during his long trek home following the Trojan War. It is here that he encountered the beguiling woman who had transformed several of his crew into pigs.
The passages are full of magic and aspects of witchcraft. Circe used potions and a magic wand. She cast spells. Her magical ointments (sometimes referred to as magical rejuvenation) retransformed the pigs back to men. Circe can make herself invisible. Odysseus overcame her power with a magical root, given to him by the god Hermes. Although the passages do not say exactly how the root was used, it rendered Circe’s potion useless.
This magical root, called molu, may have been garlic, according to some interpretations. Garlic is one of the oldest spices in the ancient world, often equated with warding off evil, perhaps because of its curative powers. Little wonder garlic came to be identified as a defense against vampires in later centuries.
The outcome in the Odyssey was positive. Circe, after swearing an oath not to attempt any more magical arts against Odysseus, slept with him and fed his entire crew. She shared the secrets of necromancy, which would help Odysseus in subsequent adventures.
Abundance of Witchcraft in the Ancient World
Scholars have determined that the terms used in the ancient world to denote “witch” and “witchcraft” were both feminine and masculine. During the formation of the early Christian Church, Simon Magus was considered a witch or “wizard.” Yet, as in the time of the 16th and 17th Century Witch Craze, witchcraft was more often associated with females. Circe and the Witch of Endor are but two colorful examples of the phenomenon.
- T. Witton Davies, “Witchcraft,” International Standard Bible Encyclopedia Volume V (William B. Eerdmans Publishing Co. 1939)
- Daniel Ogden, Magic, Witchcraft, and Ghosts in the Greek and Roman Worlds (Oxford University Press, 2002)
- New American Standard Bible, 1973