Witches in Literature

Witches in Literature

(religion, spiritualism, and occult)

One of the earliest references to witchcraft is found in Apuleius's, The Golden Ass (also known as The Metamorphoses). The novel was adapted from a story called "Lucius, or the Ass," possibly by the Greek author Lucian. Apuleius was born in Madauros, in Roman Africa, in the second century CE. He was the son of a local Romanized African aristocrat and was educated in his home town, in Athens and Carthage. He also lived briefly in Rome.

In this romance, Apuleius says that when in Thessaly he was in a place "where by common report of the world, sorcery and enchantments were most frequent. . . The very stones in the street I thought were men bewitched and turned into that figure, and the birds I heard chirping, the trees without the walls, and the running waters were changed from human creatures into the appearances they were. I persuaded myself that the statues and buildings could move; that the oxen and other brute beasts could speak and tell strange tidings; that I should hear and see oracles from heaven conveyed in the beams of the sun." Thessaly, after the invasion by the Persians, had become famous for its sorcerers and witches and for their magics, "from calling down the moon to brewing magical herbs for love or death."

In the first book of The Golden Ass story, the protagonist Lucius encounters two men. One, Aristomenes, tells Lucius fantastic stories of magic, witchcraft, and a witch named Meroe. The story is set in second century Rome. Lucius is driven by desires for magic, necromancy, and sexual encounters. Indeed, Lucius indulges in relentless lovemaking. He stays with a man named Milo and his wife Pamphile, and is later advised that Pamphile is a "witch of the first rank. . . she is constantly ablaze with desire, and your youth and handsome bearing make you a suitable target for her." Lucius finds himself drawn into the art of magic. The town where he is staying, Hypata, is known as a place where magic and sorcery are widespread.

Lucius soon finds himself transformed into the shape of an ass; he finds his inability to speak especially frustrating. After many amorous adventures, Lucius finds true meaning in the cult of Isis and returns to human form. Throughout the story, many details of Roman religion and everyday life are included. It has been suggested that the book was written in response to the rapid rise of Christianity in and around Apuleius's home town, since Madauros was one of the earliest centers of the new religion.

In the Bible and the Talmud, there are many instances of witches and witchcraft. The Torah expressly forbids witchcraft, stating, (Deuteronomy 18; 10-12) "There shall not be found among you any one that. . . useth divination, or an observer of times, or an enchanter, or a witch, or a charmer, or a consulter with familiar spirits, or a wizard, or a necromancer." In the Torah there is a prohibition against the existence of witches and against the practice of witchcraft, with emphasis to show that a witch is looked upon as necessarily being a woman (the Hebrew term is mekasefa, a feminine form). In the Apocrypha, Enoch I, it is said that two hundred angels led by Shemhazi came down from Mount Hermon and that, "they took for themselves, they and all the others with them, took themselves wives, and each chose for himself one. They began to come upon them and cleaved to them and taught them magic and witchcraft and they taught them to cut roots and plants." In other words, angels came and married human women and taught them magic and the use of herbs.

In the centuries just before and after the beginning of the Common Era, the Jews were thought to have magical powers. In the Talmud, there is the story of how Simeon ben Shetah hanged eighty witches in Ashkelon—all women who had lived together in a large cave and, according to the story, had "harmed the world" (Hagigah 2:2). It seems likely that the women were killed primarily because they were priestesses of a Pagan cult. Throughout the Talmud it is difficult to see whether the witches are Jewish or not, although in many instances they obviously are.

Probably the best known witches in literature are the three "Weird Sisters" of Shakespeare's Macbeth. Rosemary Ellen Guiley points out that this play, written at the very beginning of the seventeenth century, is one of the most influential literary works to help establish the negative stereotype of the witch as an ugly old hag. The goddess Hecate appears as Queen of the witches, at one point complaining about their actions saying, "I, the mistress of your charms, the close contriver of all harms, was never call'd to bear my part, or show the glory of our art?" Even though they have no names, the three witches are unique as females in Shakespeare's plays in that they come across as extremely strong characters, being stronger even than Lady Macbeth.

Morgan le Fay of the Arthurian stories was well versed in herbal lore. She was the sister, or half-sister, of King Arthur and, according to some reports, mistress to the magician Merlin. She was an enchantress and a shapeshifter and is usually portrayed as a worker of negative magic. Although generally portrayed as a beautiful woman, in some instances she is described as a hag or crone. According to early literary accounts, she is the daughter of Avallach, king of Avalon the enchanted island (also known as "The Fortunate Isle" and "The Isle of Apples"), but in Arthurian lore, she is generally the daughter of Gorloës, Duke of Cornwall and Igrain. After her father died, Morgan was brought up by her stepfather, Uter-Pendragon. Although sent to be educated as a nun, Morgan secretly learned the magical arts.

Morgan le Fay actually seems to have taken shape in the early twelfth century in the leys of the Breton minstrels, who adopted her from a water nymph of Breton folklore. There is also a correspondence to the Welsh Modron and the Irish goddesses Macha and Morríghan. Some feel that it is because of this pagan background that the later Christian writers changed her from an initially good person into a worker of evil magic.

Morgan tended the wounded knights at Camelot, working her healing magic on them. When Guinevere's cousin Guyomar visited the castle, Morgan and he fell deeply in love, but Guinevere forbade them to meet. For this Morgan was to hate Guinevere for the rest of her life. She created the Green Knight and sent him as a test for Arthur and his knights and to frighten Guinevere. After slaying the Green Knight, Gawain became the Knight of the Goddess, Morgan's champion. When Arthur was finally mortally wounded during the Battle of Camlan, it was Morgan who took him to Avalon in her boat to be healed. This view of Morgan as a healer has its roots in Celtic mythology. The Vita Merlini, c. 1150, by Geoffrey of Monmouth, states that Morgan was one of nine sisters who ruled Avalon (they included Gliten, Glito, Glitonae, Mazoe and Tyronoe), and presents her as a healer and a shape-shifter.

In Homer's Odyssey there is the witch Circe, a daughter of Helios who lived on the west of the island of Aeaea. Earlier married to the king of the Sarmatians, Circe poisoned her husband and went to live on Aeaea—the name meaning "wailing"— where she built herself a magnificent palace. The name Circe is aligned with kirkos, the falcon, and Barbara Walker points to the same root from the Latin circus, originally an enclosure of funerary games.

Circe cast a spell over all who landed on her island and, by means of a magic potion, turned them into animals. She turned Odysseus's companions into swine. Odysseus himself escaped by means of the herb moly, given to him by Hermes, and forced Circe to restore his men. However, he spent a year with Circe, forgetting all about his wife. Circe was slain by Telemachus, who had married her daughter Cassiphone.

Circe was not depicted as the ugly old crone witch. Homer spoke of her as a "goddess with lovely hair. . . radiant. . . the beautiful goddess singing in a lovely voice. . . (in) a white shining robe, delicate and lovely, with a fine girdle of gold about her waist." Statius, the Roman poet, in his Thebais describes the appearance of Witches as "with flowing hair and barefooted, as is the custom."

The Witch Book: The Encyclopedia of Witchcraft, Wicca, and Neo-paganism © 2002 Visible Ink Press®. All rights reserved.