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Women & Witchcraft Before the Bible

Updated on July 22, 2016

The Night of Enitharmon's Joy, 1795

William Blake 1795
William Blake 1795 | Source

History of the Word "Witch"

In most of ancient history, BCE, the word "witch" comes from two legendary monsters. The "strix" and the lamia. These two words eventually led Roman tradition to the association of magic and witches. The "strix" (literally “screech owl” in Latin) was supposedly an evil monster that flew through the night, preying on sleeping children by devouring or sucking their blood. The lamia was a similar monster, originally a legendary queen of Libya who was punished by Hera, by murdering her children. Lamia then became a night-wandering creature doomed to prey on children. In medieval and early modern Europe, as early as 470 CE, images of literary depictions of human witches would resonate. The "strix" shrieking in the night, and the lamia, drinking the blood of children. Spell work would later transform these ideas into our more modern words for witch. These would later turn into "wicca" (the Old English word "witch") and "kasheph" (the Hebrew word "to whisper").

The Strix and the Lamia

Strix: Literally meaning owl.
Strix: Literally meaning owl. | Source
The Lamia: In this 1909 painting by Herbert James Draper
The Lamia: In this 1909 painting by Herbert James Draper | Source

Romans Performed Witchcraft

In Roman times, both men and women used magic. More men performed magic spells than women did. Witchcraft typically entailed common or low magic worked via simple spells, charms, and curses, as opposed to complex rituals of high or learned magic. Witchcraft in these times were not associated with the devil. Most magic was performed on blessed days, normally invoking a deity to help the magic be successful and profitable. One of the most important purposes of magical rites in the ancient world was divination. They took many different forms. Divination was a major aspect in ancient Egypt, Greece, and Rome. Tarot cards started as a card game in these ancient times. Pendulum work was used to draw answers from the gods. Another common form of divination was to cast lots (Latin, "sortes"), which later came to be called "sortilegium," which would eventually become a general term for other magical practices. The most common form of magic were love and binding spells. Love and binding spells could be used for the same purpose: to make people fall in or out of love (binding spells could also be used to physically harm someone). Love spells were usually executed with potions and binding spells were usually spoken or written. Voodoo dolls were also quite common (though not directly connected to modern voodoo). They were used in a binding ritual, and then an animal would be bent, broken, or harmed gruesomely in some way in order to harm someone.

Love Potions

"The Love Potion" by Evelyn De Morgan
"The Love Potion" by Evelyn De Morgan | Source
"Beguiling of Merlin" by Burne Jones 1470
"Beguiling of Merlin" by Burne Jones 1470 | Source

Some Magic Was Illegal

The topic of witchcraft and magic in the ancient world did lead to a discussion to the degree of which magical practices were condemned, legally or some other way. Greek and Roman law prohibited any magical practices aimed to commit a crime, such as murder or theft. They also usually focused on the effects of magic rather than magic itself. In the Greek world, a person could go to court over wrongful or harmful magic that someone had caused them. The penalties could be as severe as any for committing an actual, physical injury or crime. In the Roman world, the term, "veneficium" (act of poisoning) became a general term for harmful acts performed by any magical means. In the second century BCE, there were mass executions for what was referred to as "veneficium." Thousands were executed. In 297 BCE, a legal code stated that "maleficarum," which was the most common term for harmful, criminal magic, could be punished by crucifixion or burning.

"The first known instance of the crime of poisoning at Rome was in 331 B.C., when a high mortality, the result, probably, of a pestilence, was attributed to poisoning. Even Livy doubted the validity of the charges, but he gives the whole account as found in his sources. After many leading citizens had died from the same disease, a slave-girl gave information to the curule aediles that the reason for this high mortality was the poisons prepared and administered by the Roman matrons. On investigation they found about twenty matrons, including patrician ladies, in the act of brewing poisons, which they declared were salutary. On being forced to drink their own concoctions to prove the charges false, they perished by their own wickedness. Following this, a hundred and seventy more were found guilty of the same offense. The second case of extensive poisoning is found in 186 B.C. in connection with the licentious worship of Bacchus. After a careful and extensive investigation of four months, carried on throughout Italy, the praetor Quintus Naevius made a grand exposé resulting in the condemnation of two thousand persons. Poisoning was one of the crimes prominently mentioned with the rest."

Source: Kaufman, David B. Poisons and Poisoning among the Romans

Poisons and Burnings

Socrates is about to consume hemlock in this painting by Jacques-Louis David
Socrates is about to consume hemlock in this painting by Jacques-Louis David | Source
Public burnings
Public burnings | Source

Women and Witchcraft

Because magic could be placed to the Provincial Governor or even local authorities, women were often the target of false claims. In Medieval times, these claims were often fueled by the Church. In Medieval Europe, stereotypical prostitutes or salacious women, weren't always the first targets. Valued, middle-class women, princesses, healers, those that owned acres of farmland from an inheritance, recently widowed with large inheritances, strong or extremely independent, rather than actual magic. Roman charges were used when magic went wrong, or there was some “proof” of some wrong-doing. Most binding and love spells went unchecked. It was proof of "veneficium" that would prove to be strong women's undoing. Proof from a man's claim that a wife was killed, could frame a woman under Roman law.

A woman in a position of dominance was already a sickening notion to Roman men. The idea that it might be possible for a woman to defeat a man physically or through use of mystical powers terrified them. Although male ‘wizards’ existed, women with ideas above their station were seen as the real problem. Women that didn't obey or held property over a man were seen as wicked. Poisons were easily concealed. Even Nero was rumored to have poisoned those in office to usurp their dominance and make himself Emperor.

"In 154 B.C. two former consuls were poisoned by their wives. Cases of poisoning seem to have multiplied rapidly from this time forth. In Quintilian's day the word "adulteress" was considered p158synonymous with that of "poisoner," but even two centuries earlier Marcus Cato asserted that every adulteress was a poisoner. Cicero mentioned some venefici among Catiline's friends. Catiline was also accused of having poisoned his son because Aurelia Orestilla hesitated to marry him as long as a stepson stood in the way. In the Philippics Cicero alludes to a friend of Antony, who had given his nephew poison. Wife-poisoning seems to have been common. Cicero had several cases dealing with persons accused of having administered such drugs. The speech in behalf of Cluentius supplies us with a number of details on the subject. The younger Oppianicus accused Cluentius of poisoning, but Cicero's speech was mainly concerned with the earlier prosecution by Cluentius of the father of the present prosecutor, and in it he made some startling disclosures showing that the elder Oppianicus was really a villain and a poisoner. His victims were his own wife, Cluentia, his brother's wife, Auria, killed in pregnancy to prevent her bearing a child who would bar his inheritance of his brother's property, and his brother. This same man, through intermediaries, tried to bribe the slave of the physician attending Cluentius to poison him. Cicero, in this speech, also mentions, by way of parallel, the case of a certain woman of Miletus, who in pregnancy had accepted a bribe from the alternative heirs and procured her own abortion by drugs.

"In the early Empire, this crime must have been very frequent at Rome among all classes of society, to procure an inheritance, to eliminate a husband or stepson, or to rid one of his enemies, all of which was lamented by Juvenal and Tacitus and their contemporaries. Juvenal adds: "If you want to be anybody nowadays, you must dare some crime that merits narrow Gyara or a gaol; honesty is praised and starves. It is to their crimes that men owe their pleasure-grounds and high commands, their fine tables and old silver goblets with goats standing out in relief." We learn, from the same author, of mothers deliberately poisoning their own children, for no particular reason, and even showing defiance when apprehended. The most deplorable thing of all is the fact that the women, supposedly the weaker sex, killed for hire. Of course, among the male sex professional killers were common. Juvenal mentions the case of a woman who stabbed her husband, after poisons proved ineffective, since the husband, anticipating her attempt, had secured himself against poison by prophylactics. Juvenal also advises a father to take an antidote before dinner because his son is praying for his death which has been postponed so long. Nonius Asprenas, a close friend of Augustus, was accused of poisoning one hundred and thirty guests."

Source: Kaufman, David B. Poisons and Poisoning Among the Romans

Real Witches - History Of Real Life Witches (Documentary)


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