Posts Tagged ‘shakespeare’
That’s right. It’s here… The dreaded Valentine’s Day. You’re either trying to find the perfect gift for your significant other (and anxiously awaiting what they’re getting for you!) or else lamenting your singlehood on a day that just can’t resist pointing it out to you. It’s the day to brush up on erotic magick, investigate love spells, and delve deeply into the romantic [Check out last V-Day’s Blog on Ancient Greek & Roman Love Magick!].
From the chalky sweetheart candies to the constant barrage of red, white, and pink: love and love magick are all around you on Valentines Day…or at least they’re supposed to be. If anything, I think that Valentine’s Day has gotten a little too specific over the years. Romantic love is all fine and dandy, but there’s more than one kind of love in the world. The ancient Greeks believed that there were five types of love: agape (pure abstract love), eros (passionate, erotic love), philia (philosophical love or devotion to causes), storge (familial love), and xenia(hospitality and generosity as love) Thanks to the passing fancy of courtly romance in the European Medieval period (and the works of Chaucer and Shakespeare), Valentine’s Day has been associated with only one of the Greek types of love: eros , or passionate, erotic love. Why can’t it, indeed why shouldn’t it include the others?
Other February love festivals around the world and throughout time have celebrated love in a variety of different ways. The Zoroastrian Sepandarmaz of late February celebrates the love one has for the nurturing earth as well as the love one has for those who have nurtured you over the years (parents, teachers, friends, etc). The name of the festival comes from an antique Persian dialect (Avestan) and references a feminine divine aspect of the ancient creator god Ahura Mazda. In Romania, the traditional festival of Dragobete is a spring festival (Feb 24) associated with the ideas of the nesting and mating of birds and the revival of nature from the winter. Snow collected during Dragobete is a powerful addition to love and health potions. Like Valentines Day, Sepandarmaz and Dragobete involve the giving of gifts between couples or those who hope to be couples, but they also incorporate elements of universal loves beyond the romantic. The ancient Roman Lupercalia was a festival of sacrifice to the spring, to youth, and commitment to one’s relationships conveyed particularly by a celebration in honor of the marriage of the divine couple of Jupiter and Juno. And it too incorporated elements of romantic love as well as love beyond that singular, albeit amazing category.
And while these festivals might seem far away and foreign to you, think about how you’ve celebrated Valentine’s Day throughout your own life. You certainly probably included multiple types of love into the Valentine’s Day of your youth. In the good ole elementary school days, everyone in my class sent out cartoon coated paper cards and bits of candy to everyone else. Certainly that qualifies as an expression of xenia . Although I will admit, I do recall a lot of drama regarding who got what labels on their candy hearts; the best ‘Cutie Pies’ and ‘I Dig You’ being reserved for my best friends and playground crushes. I also distinctly recall making big doily accented Valentines for my mother and other members of my family. Carefully coating them in macaroni and glitter as if it were the most prized of presents I would be giving them. That’s a whole lotta storge right there. Why, as we’ve gotten older has love become more individualized? What about our society has conformed our love into a little tightly packed box reserved for only one person. Love magick is believed by many to be one of the most powerful forces around. Focused between two people it is an innately special and intimate reward. But that doesn’t mean there isn’t love beyond that special bond. The heart is ceaseless in its capacity to love, and while that love could and should be projected along different paths and in different forms, you don’t have to stop at just one kind of love on this impending holiday. Love for the world and for those others whom you cherish in it can also be celebrated on Valentine’s Day, the only day we, in the western world, truly celebrate the integral concept of LOVE. We give thanks on Mothers and Fathers Days, we celebrate Family on Thanksgiving: but at no other time in the Gregorian calendar do we actively celebrate such a beautifully abstract and complex notion as love as we do on Valentine’s Day.
Valentine’s Day is a day of love. Whether we project love to just one person, or to our friends or to society at large, we are projecting it. With every paper heart, or cupid cookie; with every ‘Be Mine’ and rose bouquet, love is being sent out into the world. Positive thoughts and energy are zinging through the cosmos as a result. Whether you buy into the pop culture and merchandise, it is a day of immense positive power in the world. Celebrate it accordingly. Send some love out into the world and be loved in return. Bake some cookies for your office, send flowers to your grandmother or favorite cousin, make Valentines cards with and for the other mom’s in your soccer carpool. And yes, if there’s a significant other in the picture ~ not only should they get some sexy candles in the bedroom, and the best labeled candy hearts in the bag, remember that they are getting the best present of all: You and your love in return.
At its most basic level: alchemy is a philosophy. It advocates the idea that things are changeable. That they are transmutable from one form to another: from base to gold, solid to liquid, young to old and back again. During the Renaissance and Enlightenment, when the practice of alchemy was at its peak; alchemy came to be applied not just to natural elements such as metals, but to nature and people as well. For several centuries, ‘Alchemy’ became the category under which magickal transformations were shelved. Alchemy was both an early form of science and a continuing form of practical magick. Indeed, the work of the alchemists of the 16th -18th centuries formed both the basis for the modern study of chemistry, as well as the foundation of traditional high magick as we know it today. The studies perpetuated by these same alchemists also continued the tradition of philosophic, mathematical, and supernatural studies of the Pythagoreans and practitioners of Qabbalah who had tread the same transcendental pathways over the previous centuries. Despite the pseudo-scientific reputation that alchemy often receives in modern pop culture, it is a very real and very important part of the magickal traditions which are carried on today by all esoteric forms of worship categorized under the ‘New Age’ umbrella.
Alchemy is by no means a unified discipline. There is not codified set of facts which one would learn in order to become an alchemist. Alchemy was more a spiritual and educational pursuit than it was a strict science of any uniform kind.
True, alchemists gleaned their knowledge from studying the works of their predecessors and being mentored by them. True, also, that some universities included forms of alchemy amongst their curriculum. Brotherhoods of scholars interested in esoteric learning formed, and among their subjects was alchemy. But despite these forms of learning, none of these men and women were necessarily learning the same curriculum. Even with the advent of the printing press, not all the books on alchemy were disseminated by each alchemist, nor were all the branches of alchemy studied by every practitioner. Each alchemist had his own agenda: using alchemy variously to heal, to make gold, or to find youth. Alchemy was an intellectual movement that walked in different spheres of life, spanning the society of its times. By the Seventeenth century, it connected the fraudulent drunk on the streets with the scholars of the university; the highest echelons of late Renaissance society at the royal court with the witch on the pyre: all with a common philosophical idea which worked towards a variety of their purposes.
Indeed, alchemy operated much like the study of magick today perpetuates itself. Witches, wiccans, and pagans alike are deeply devoted to a pursuit of learning esoteric knowledge, but not everyone from each path chooses to learn the same thing. It is ultimately a personal quest, a search for knowledge in order to achieve a personal transformation.
Alchemy as a Science
Before we delve deeper into the more easily recognized esoteric accolades of this lost art: let us look at the more scientific side of alchemy, of alchemy as a system of trial and error which was propagated in the universities of the time and by some of its greatest academics. Alchemy was a precursor to the science which we recognize today as fact. And though science may seem the antithesis of magick, they are really just part and parcel of the same thing.
Initially, alchemical knowledge was collected informally and without passing through the conventional educational institutions which had sprung up in Europe since the Dark Ages. Paracelsus, sometimes considered the greatest alchemist of the Renaissance, never completed his university studies. He collected his alchemist’s secrets by travelling and observing folk remedies he combined with metallurgical practices. But with science’s new interest in the idea of a scientific method, which alchemy was already utilizing: alchemy became employed by some of the greatest minds of the time, at some of the greatest of the universities. In fact, the two great libraries, the Bodleian at Oxford and the Ashmolean at Cambridge respectively, were based off of the alchemical collections of Duke Humphrey and Elias Ashmole. Even the great Sir Isaac Newton is considered an alchemist for his research into ancient Egyptian hermeticists and through later connections made by alchemical groups like the Rosicrucians. But he also saw the science in alchemy and used some aspects of his laboratories at Cambridge University to study it. Sir Fancis Bacon is likewise called an alchemist for his association with esoteric societies, like the Rosicrucians and Freemasons and his literary endeavor The Masque of the Middle Temple and Lincoln’s Inn, which he wrote in honor of the marriage between Frederick V of the Rhineland Palatinate and Elizabeth, daughter of James I of England, who, incidentally were all also wrapped up in alchemical studies of very differing kinds. Bacon’s works set up the Baconian method that we today know vernacularly as the aforementioned ‘scientific method.’ Robert Boyle, the father of modern chemistry, began his education as an alchemist; though did not continue to teach alchemy once he himself became a professor.
Outside of England, particularly in the Northern and Central areas of mainland Europe, alchemy was also finding a niche among scholars. The Danish antiquarian Doctor Ole Worm was given papal permission to collect so-called oddities, which came to include various texts and items of a magickal nature, later inspiring H.P. Lovecraft to include him in his twentieth century work Necronomicron. Some were not so lucky in support for the new science, like Theodore Zwinger, ~a professor of medicine at the University of Basel was penalized by the University for inclusions in his teachings work done by Paracelsus. But unlike the University of Basel, others, like the Jagiellonian University in Krakow. championed alchemy and supported multiple alchemists on its faculty and taught alchemical methodology in its classes on chemistry and anatomy.
The leading doctors, the mathematicians and physicists of the day; all studied the ratios of alchemy and its history out of Egypt, Greece, and Rome. The scientific method alchemy had long been unintentionally advocating became recognized as the basis for all modern experimentation and creation. The study of alchemy in schools or independently by professors of these schools working outside their professional capacity helped shape the minds of generations of men and women, leading up to the modern science of today.
Alchemy & The Witch Hunts
Despite this flourishing of alchemy among academia, it was a subject best approached with care. By the sixteenth century, some elements of alchemy’s esoteric studies had unfortunately come to be associated with the dark arts of witch craft and sorcery. The logic of the Burning Times decreed that how else would these men and women know the secrets of the universe unless the devil himself had whispered them into alchemist’s ears? Alchemists devised erudite languages and metaphors to transcribe their secrets in, ones they hoped that would not create alarm among their witch hunting neighbors. But they were not always successful and some alchemists were branded witches and sorcerers for their naïve scholarly endeavors. And many were persecuted alongside the wisewomen, innocents, and political victims who fell prey to the Witch Trials or Burning Times of the 16th and 17th centuries. Bookmakers who published grimores of alchemy were particularly susceptible and often had to move towns to avoid an uprising against their shops.
The mighty Catholic Church was particularly skeptical of the new alchemical sciences that were springing up. For they threatened previously held notions of God and man and their relationship to the universe, which in turn threatened the church’s power. And if alchemists weren’t careful to make provisions for the Church’s scrutiny, they faced severe consequences. Sir Isaac Newton cleverly combined church sanctioned theology with his science, for instance, to explain his theory of gravity, Newton wrote, “Gravity explains the motions of the planets, but it cannot explain who set the planets in motion. God governs all things and knows all that is or can be done.” He justified his science in the eyes of the church, but others were not so clever or else refused to concede. The scholar Giordano Bruno was sentenced to burn at the stake for refusing to recant his alchemy-based theories regarding ideas about the transmutation of the soul and the transubstantiation of the Catholic Mass. He was charged with the practices of divination and witchcraft, both of which had technically been outlawed under church law since the ratification of church doctrine at the Council of Nicea in the 4th century in continuation of earlier Roman laws. However, until the Burning Times, few cases were executed under such charges.
While many of the alchemists charged for witchcraft during the Burning Times may never have actually practiced direct magickal acts (only studied magickal/scientific topics), others most likely did engage in acts some might call Dark Arts. Giordano Bruno and his one-time mentor the British royal advisor John Dee may have darker and more occult areas of alchemy. Often these pursuits focused on communication between the spirits and bordered on necromancy. Dee was at one point kicked out of Prague by Pope Sixtus V for committing acts of black magic in the city.
Along with these Dark Arts and the politically motivated Church persecution, alchemy earned an even worse reputation from the slew of fraudulent schemers who pretended to be alchemists to con people out of money and goods. These faux-alchemists would practice simple chemical tricks, rigged to make it appear they could produce gold out of charcoal or other such feats to trick wealthy and gullible lords out of money. This was such a widespread stigma of the day that Dante Aligheri immortalized it in his social commentary of the day, The Divine Comedy, by placing the alchemists on the tenth level of Hell in his Inferno.
Alchemy in Power
Despite the stigma attached to alchemy, there are many historical instances of European princes, kings, and queens participating and encouraging alchemy from both ends of the spectrum (i.e. as a science and as magic). Many rulers had alchemists as their advisors or as their doctors. Johann Friedrich Helvetius was the personal physician to William of Orange of the Netherlands, Johann Joachim Becher to Leopold I of Austria, Ole Worm to the skeptic Holy Roman Emperor Christian IV, and his predecessor Rudolph II went through a whole series of doctors with an alchemy sideline. Rudolph also utilized alchemists as his advisors, most notably, that king among alchemists, Michael Maier. Maier also spent some time at the court of James I of England. Queen Elizabeth II depended on her spy John Dee. And according to the social commentary inherent in the theatre of the day, James I of England (VI of Scotland) kept three alchemist witches as military advisors. These ‘advisors’ and James’ interest in the occult were included in Shakespeare’s Macbeth and Holinshead histories.
Some rulers went beyond their advice and medical attention and are suspected by historians of studying alchemy themselves. The Holy Roman Emperor Maximilian I personally ransacked a Benedictine archive in Rome looking for an ancient treatise on alchemy believed to be hidden within. Queen Barbara, the wife of Sigismund Vasa III of Poland is accused by history of being not only an alchemist, but a witch. James I of England and Rudolf II of Hungary delved deep into the arcane as rulers and alchemists. James I of England wrote his own Daemonologie in 1597, a witch-hunter’s guide written by a man perhaps too close to his subject to be perfectly free of the taint of magick. He was careful to lightly persecute others in his realm suspected of witchcraft and the like to avoid church persecution himself (though as leader of the aforementioned church, it was easy to get away with). The Holy Roman Emperor Rudolph II set up a veritable playland for alchemists and other scientists of the day, which included an observatory, various labs, and libraries of grimoires. He himself was said to participate in alchemical experiments and work closely within the commune of scholars he had collected. His personal goal was to find the Philosopher’s Stone, a stone which, once created, would continue to spill forth an elixir of youth and the ability to turn things into gold.
We cannot really know today just how much the alchemists and the philosophy of alchemy had on the rulers of this time period, or of how much their appreciation of what this arcane subject influenced their judgments and rulings over their respective countries. Nor can we really know what was known by the public at the time regarding the alchemy activities related above, or if they would have even wanted to know. All of these leaders made allowances for church dogma in order to avoid persecution. But were they actually religious beyond this façade? It is difficult for the historian to know or even to judge correctly. Regardless, we can at least state that alchemy must have had at least some influence over them.
The history of alchemy is representative of a myriad of magickal movements and motivations. It is symbolic of both the persecution of magick and the championship of it. It represents both the veracity of knowledge gained and of the deception man is capable of using such knowledge for. It embodies the advancement of the human mind and the human race, of our wonder for the mysterious, and our quest to discover and control the laws of nature and the gods. The use of alchemy, pseudo-science that it may be considered now, encouraged the growth of other sciences still seen as legitimate. It inspired advancements in other fields, seeing the growth of library science in the modern age, and was the muse for multiple works of widely regarded literature. It was a profound step on man and woman-kind’s journey towards enlightenment. And it and its alchemists should not be forgotten. For we today are their descendents. The research scientists in labs, the doctors, pharmacists and nurses in their hospitals, the astronomers looking up at the night sky, the chefs in their kitchen, the students at their books: in our desire to learn something more, we are all alchemists.
Want to learn more about historical magickal movements and the witches behind them? Keep your eyes peeled for History of Witches in the Western World, a new class from the College of the Sacred Mists on the Witches of Antiquity. Coming later this year!
Cobb, C. & Goldwhite, H. 1995. Creations of Fire: Chemistry’s Lively History from Alchemy to the Atomic Age. New York: Plenum Press.
Fernando, D. 1998. Alchemy: An Illustrated A-Z. New York: Sterling Publishing Co., Inc.
Moran, B.T. 2005. Distilling Knowledge: Alchemy, Chemistry, and the Scientific Revolution. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press.
Rice University. The Galileo Project.
Note: Image at top is William Fettes Douglas’ The Alchemist (1853).
In the modern era, when one thinks ‘witch’ one is far more likely to conjure up images of Samantha Stevens, Sabrina Spellman, or the Halliwell sisters before ever settling an ancient and mysterious figure like the Greek witch Erichtho. And yet, over the course of the last two millennia, several famous authors have done just that: gone back and pulled her up from the depths of history and re-crafted her to fit into their contemporary culture.
Although it is not uncommon for mythological figures to crop up in the pop culture of multiple time periods, it is always rather mystifying and intriguing when a particularly obscure figure of the folkloric past manages cameos in a multitude of classics throughout the ages. Such is the case of Erichtho. She initially appears only in Lucan’s Pharsalia at the beginning of Imperial Rome, only to resurface more than a thousand years later as a guest star in Dante’s Divine Comedy, an inspiration for Shakespeare’s witches in Macbeth, and again a few centuries later in Goethe’s Faust.
But there are many “minor” sorceresses of the classical world: what was soo special about Erichtho that she was singled out and summoned up again and again by the writer’s pen ~ never as a main character; always as a suitably evocative and darkly magickal presence representative of the prevailing beliefs regarding witchcraft in each author’s contemporary society. It is almost as if the witch herself moved through time – immortal- to act as the muse for four of the western world’s arguably greatest writers. Given the current society’s flair for literary blending, It is surprising that she is not a figure of more prominence given her mysterious and villainous re-appearances in these latter two classics which have gone on to become the cornerstones of literature; and that she is not featured more often in further fictional works as an immortal witch travelling through time akin to Anne Rice’s vampires and the likes of Count Saint Germaine. And if this is not so (as sadly it is most likely just my imagination running rampant on the idea), then what was so endearing about this witch to bring her back time and time again?
But I’m getting ahead of myself. Let’s start at the beginning.
Erichtho in The Pharsalia, Book VI, Lines 496-987
In her intial appearance, Erichtho is cast in the role as the ultimate wicked witch, a role she is destined to repeat from thenceforth on. She appears for the first time in Lucan’s epic poem describing the Civil war between Julius Caesar and the Roman Senate under the Pompey the Great; which culminated in the Battle of Pharsalus in Greece on August 9, 48 BCE.The son of Pompey the Great, Sextus Pompeius, having heard rumors of the local super-witch Erichtho, defies convention and rather than going to a reputable oracle or priest, consults her and her scandalous spirits on the eve of battle to find out who will die on the battlefield the next day. Lucan casts Erichtho as a witch who lives on the fringes of Thessalian society, having taken up residence in an abandoned tomb not far from the battlefield and who conducts her rituals in a sacred cave in the foothills just above Pharsalus. Thessaly, in much of ancient literature, is already given a rather haunted reputation. Located at the base of Mount Olympus and consisting of some seriously rocky terrain and scraggly forests; it was where the Titans fought the Olympic gods for supremacy, where Jason, Peleus, and Achilles were born, where the Argonauts set sail from, and where Medea travelled by dragonback to collect certain diabolical herbs from. It was also home to one of the earliest Neolithic Greek societies, which may account both for its prominence and centrality in so many of the famous Greek myths, as well as for its diverse and often chthonic local legends.
Beyond a strong knowledge of herbcraft, Erictho’s primary skill is that of necromancy. She calls up the spirits of the dead and can either ask them to do her bidding or else use them to inquire as to the actions of the Fates, thereby knowing the future. She also has the ability to make it possible so that no one will be able to raise a given spirit from the dead to use them for their purposes. She works using the body of the deceased, which in Lucan’s tale, she gets from among the Roman dead on the fringes on the battlefield. She cleans the body, ritually anoints it, and in a cave sacred to her magick performs a ritual which summons the spirit of the dead back into the body for questioning. Lucan does not seem to be sure of himself as to the source of her power, as throughout the text he variously states that she invokes the gods for aid in her magick, that she doesn’t invoke the gods and therefore has some other power beyond them, and that she provokes the gods and they’re so scared of her for unknown reasons that they do her bidding. He even indicates that she can summon a god or goddess in physical form if need be, which would have been a highly controversial idea at the time if done outside of a temple atmosphere (contrary to what the TV shows Hercules: The Legendary Journey and Xena: Warrior Princess would have fans believe). Most magickal practices in the ancient world revolved around the idea of beseeching the gods and performing a ritual and/or sacrifice to entice the god/goddess to come to the aid of the supplicant/the community, so the idea that she calls on the gods but does not need them but something else is an interesting prospect given this context.
One of my particular favorite facets of the story is its use of the serpent. When Sextus and his gang of morbid men first come upon Erichtho at home in her tomb, she is nude. But for the summoning ceremony she puts on a kind of ritual outfit.
flamed on her garb as by a fury worn;
Bare was her visage, and upon her brow
Dread vipers hissed, beneath her streaming locks
In sable coils entwined. “ (L. 772-776)
She also later uses a live snake in the summoning ritual itself, as a scourge to beat the dead body as she begins her chant to bring it back to life (L. 861). The symbolism of the snake, especially in the ancient Mediterranean, is a fascinating icon of life, death, and rebirth. It lives, but it burrows underground, essentially living in the Underworld. And it sheds its skin: symbolically it gets a new life while discarding the impure old one. It is no wonder that ancient man (and modern man for that matter too) were so fascinated with this creature.
Fact or Fiction?
The Pharsalia was written just over century after the battle in 61-65 AD, and Lucan would have been able to draw on the considerable resources of contemporary Roman records to flesh out his tale into a historical epic, one that was so well considered as a historical source, that for the remainder of the Roman Empire and beyond it was one of the core pieces of literature retained by the church and schools. Lucan was in a unique position for much of his career and its associated research: he was a close friend of the Emperor Nero, which allowed him to move quickly through the ranks of the poets and access to the same archives Plutarch would later accidentally preserve when he wrote his great histories of classical figures. However, Lucan would later fall from the Emperor’s grace and for much of the time he was writing the Pharsalia, he was a vocal political dissident against imperial rule and his once friend.
Regardless, Lucan’s access to records means that his poem included a high level of fact among the fiction. This leaves the slight possibility that Sextus Pompeius or some other figure in the army may have indeed consulted a local Thessalian witch for the outcome of the battle. It was not an uncommon practice for the military to consult a soothsayer, reputable or no, before a fight. Even so, it is still likely that Lucan’s portrayal of their meeting is more on the fictional end of the spectrum and probably a composite of friends experiences with similar country witches of his own and the previous two generations, the mythology of the Thessalian region, and general superstition. However, it is rather interesting to note that there are in fact a series of somewhat sacred caves located not far from Pharsalis, or modern Farsala as it is now known. Surveyed in 1920, the caves feature a series of ancient Greek inscriptions dedicating them to Chiron and the Nymphs of the wood: all of whom have at times been associated with darker magicks and esoteric knowledge of nature and life and death.
Erichtho’s use of a dead body in her ritual and of her dwelling place within a tomb are of particular note in this context. Both of these elements of ritual would have been distinctly taboo and considered bad form when Lucan wrote his text, similar to as they are today. They were not, however, always taboo. Ancestor worship was a powerful factor leading up to the Greek and Roman civilizations, and while the body was no longer as important a facet in their death rituals as it once had been; the physical dead body was initially held in high esteem as a vessel of power and of the spirit. Take for instance ancient Egyptian beliefs that the body must be preserved in order for part of the spirit to return to it or even earlier Near Eastern beliefs regarding the need to have one’s deceased relatives buried underneath ones house to have their favor. Or the ritual of feasting with the dead, not just by leaving them an empty seat at the dinner table, but by having a feast in their tomb, situated among the macabre decaying bodies of their ancestors. Necromancy may seem like a thing straight out of B-horror movies to the modern world, but in the ancient world it was no laughing matter. If someone was rumored to be bringing up the spirits of the dead to help forsee the future, it would have been considered a powerful act of magick indeed. With the progression of mankind, science, and particularly medicine, death became a less mysterious, more understandable thing, and the body became more and more untouchable and its presence less tolerated among the living, for whatever purpose.
With regards to Erichtho living within a tomb, while other cultures, as I’ve just pointed out, had few qualms about interacting with the bodies of the dead, the Romans in particular were very superstitious about such things, and especially tombs. The Roman landscape in ancient Italy was dotted with Etruscan tombs which the Romans simply left alone out of fear of the ancient spirits and potentially political persecution by families claiming a genealogical connection to this or that tomb. Roman tombs likewise were sacrosanct. There was such strong element of superstition in the region that it was not until the Renaissance that most of these ancient tombs began to be vandalized (verses Egypt, for instance, where often tombs were robbed within months of the burial).
So while whether or not there was an actual historical Erichtho is debatable, it seems very likely, that at the least, she is based on a composite of the darker witches known to haunt the fringes of society during the late Roman Republic and the early Roman Empire. And that the circumstances of her presence in and her actions in the Pharsalia are understandable given the context of the then contemporary society which created her.
Erichtho’s Later Cameos
Flash forward to over a millennia later to the early fourteenth century and Medieval Italy: Erichtho’s second appearance in the literary canon. Since her first appearance, the Pharsalia had gone on to wide acclaim, and even following the fall of the Roman Empire, it remained one of the mainstays of classical history and of the Latin language. It is probably in his capacity as an informal student of Latin literature that Dante came across the dark and wild Erichtho.His classical masterpiece, the Divine Comedy is the story of a young man, likewise named Dante, who travels through Hell and Heaven to find his dead love Beatrice. In its first book, The Inferno, Dante is guided by the shade of the Roman epic poet Virgil, and as they travel through Hell, they encounter several figures from Roman and Medieval Italian history, including Lucan himself. Virgil admits that this was not the only time he was summoned as such, and that the witch Erichtho had once called him up to bring her another spirit from a deeper level of hell (Book IX, L 22-33); presumably that of one of the conspirators against Julius Caesar, as in Lucan she is particularly excited at the possibility of having the body of either Caesar, Pompey, or one of the other generals (some of the aforementioned co-conspirators) to use in her magicks.
Jump ahead again to almost three hundred years later to the turn of the 17th century and Shakespeare’s Macbeth and his weird sisters. Their famous “double double toil and trouble” chant and subsequent listing of all their nefarious ingredients is based off of Erichtho’s magickal workings in the Pharsalia, lines 788-820:
Then copious poisons from the moon distils
Mixed with all monstrous things which Nature’s pangs
Bring to untimely birth; the froth from dogs
Stricken with madness, foaming at the stream;
A lynx’s entrails: and the knot that grows
Upon the fell hyaena; flesh of stags
Fed upon serpents; and the sucking fish
Which holds the vessel back though eastern winds
Make bend the canvas; dragon’s eyes; and stones
That sound beneath the brooding eagle’s wings.
Nor Araby’s viper, nor the ocean snake
Who in the Red Sea waters guards the shell,
Are wanting; nor the slough on Libyan sands
By horned reptile cast; nor ashes fail
Snatched from an altar where the Phoenix died.
And viler poisons many, which herself
Has made, she adds, whereto no name is given:
Pestiferous leaves pregnant with magic chants
And blades of grass which in their primal growth
Her cursed mouth had slimed. Last came her voice
More potent than all herbs to charm the gods
Who rule in Lethe. Dissonant murmurs first
And sounds discordant from the tongues of men
She utters, scarce articulate: the bay
Of wolves, and barking as of dogs, were mixed
With that fell chant; the screech of nightly owl
Raising her hoarse complaint; the howl of beast
And sibilant hiss of snake — all these were there;
And more — the waft of waters on the rock,
The sound of forests and the thunder peal.
But her most substantial role since her debut would be in the early 1800s in Johann Wolfgang von Goethe’s Faust. Faust tells the story of the title character, a young scholar, who makes an arrangement with a devil known as Mephistopheles, and with whom with he has a series of adventures. Erichtho appears in Part Two of the play, which was published later and separately from the more famous Part One which details Faust’s failed romance. In Part Two, as Faust and Mephistopheles travel through various Hellenic scenarios, they encounter Erichtho, trapped on the battlefield at Pharsalus. She laments that she is doomed by history to repeat the night over and over again thus maintaining her evil reputation, one she feels she does not wholly deserve. She has a fabulous monologue (imagine it being recited with full early theatricality on a German stage, better yet, picture Lea Michelle from Glee up there lamenting), which starts off with the wonderful declaration:
“To this night’s awful festival, as oft before,
I stride in view, Erichtho, I the gloomy one,
Not so atrocious as the tiresome poet-crew
Calumniate me to excess… They never end
In praise and censure…..”
A Witch for All Ages
Erichtho’s journey through time is also the journey of the representation of “the witch” throughout time. In each of Erichtho’s appearances, she personifies the version of the witch or sorceress popular with the author’s contemporary society.
In Lucan, she is a Thessalian sorceress. She continues what Medea started and embodies the new version of us vs. them, the civilized world vs. the fringes of society, the new science and new morals vs. the old, darker, more superstitious ways.
By the Time of Dante’s Divine Comedy, opinions on witchcraft and magick had changed considerably for the worse. And though Erichtho is still cast in an antique role alongside the similarly ancient Virgil, she is intrinsically linked with the sending of people to Hell and the evil summoning of spirits; the latter of which is, certainly by the thirteenth century, is irrefutably considered a demonic act.
And by the writing of Faust by van Goethe in the 18th century, the continental witch craze of the Renaissance and Reformation was beginning to wane as the Enlightenment firmly took hold of Europe, and the figure of the witch, once evil through and through was being reconsidered. Learned society became split into two skeptical groups: some scoffed at the very idea of the witch and found the few remaining pockets of magickal accusations and witch trials laughable, and others, like Goethe, decided there was something more behind the figure of the wicked witch, something which was not entirely evil and was more a misunderstanding of her power than anything else.
It is perhaps then Erichtho’s adaptability which draws society to her again and again. As an obscure composite character of figures outside society, she is malleable. Each generation can see her as they wish and take from her what they require. Lucan needed a naughty sorceress to do forbidden magick for a weasel-y general, Dante needed a witch powerful enough to command the gates of Hell, and Goethe found in her the misunderstood witch who could symbolize the plight of the past several generations of victims of the European witch trials. In my own reading of the text, with a contemporary bias that witches are more Glinda style good than anything else, I can’t help but look through Lucan’s text and see his own bias against magick and against things he and the rest of his world did not yet understand. It is perhaps, for the best, that every few hundred years Erichtho is dusted off and reinvented. Like Elphaba in Wicked, it is always worth a second, or third, or fourth look before judging a witch.
Magic in Greek & Latin Literature J.E. Lowe 2003
Magic & Magicians in the Greco-Roman World by Matthew Dickie 2003
Witchcraft and Magic in Europe: Ancient Greece & Rome by Bengt Ankarloo & Stuart Clark 1999
Recent Surveys & Excvacations, 1920. American Journal of Archaeology, Vol. XXIV.
Please note: Links to primary sources are included in the text.