Roman Witches

Hideous women performing strange and perverse nocturnal acts, summoning the power of the demons who dwell between the earth and the underworld, between life and death. Witches haven’t changed much in 2000 years and we have no trouble recognizing the witches of Roman literature.

Canidia and Sagana– Horace wrote two poems about these witches, one slightly humorous and the other quite sinister.

In Satire 1.8, Canidia and Sagana are dressed in black, have pale skin, long nails and wild hair. They shriek and cackle. They come to a graveyard at night when there is a full moon and pick herbs, tear apart a lamb and pour blood on graves to conjure up spirits. They bury a wolf’s beard and the fang of a spotted snake and burn a wax doll. But everything turns slightly farcical when the Priapus statue, who is narrating the poem, farts. The startled witches run away, one losing her false teeth and the other her wig.

In Epode 5, the two witches are uglier still. Canidia has locks entwined with twisting vipers and Sagana’s hair stands on end like the bristles of a charging boar. They are about to kill a boy in order to make a love potion. Canidia wants to ensnare Varus and needs a powerful potion using the liver and marrow of a boy.

As well as these, the witches need many other bizarre items for their potion: barren wild-fig wood that sprouts from gravestone cracks; cypress from a dead man’s door; screech owl’s eggs besmeared with gore of poison-toad; herbs produced in Iolchos and Hiberia abundant in the weeds of bane; and bones snatched from the jaws of starving dogs.

Erichto– In the Pharsalia, Lucan created Erichto to be the most hideous of all witches, who frightens the very gods themselves. Erichto shuns other witches for being too tame. Not only does she desecrate dead bodies, she creates her own. Lucan lists her crimes against humanity: she steals the bloom off the face of a child; she cuts the hair of a dead adolescent; she snatches babies from their mothers’ wombs; and she bends over a dead body to kiss it, opening the mouth with her teeth, biting the tongue, then sending a hissed message of terror down the throat to the shades of Styx.

Dido– When Dido, in Virgil’s Aeniad, is abandoned by Aeneas, she enlists the help of a priestess who can control the desires of others and the forces of nature. The priestess chants spells to stop the flow of rivers, to make stars move backward and trees walk down mountains. Dido herself puts a curse on Aeneas and all his descendants by calling on both gods and demons, including Juno, Hecate and the avenging Furies, to do her bidding.

Simaetha– Simaetha in Virgil’s Eclogue 8, drones incantations to bring her lover, Daphnis, back home to her. She carries out rituals around a fire, twisting three strands of three threads around his image and carrying it three times around an altar. She puts clay and wax figures of Daphnis into a fire, sprinkling barley meal and laurel twigs, so Daphnis will return to her again.

Pamphile – In Apuleius’ The Golden Ass,Lucius is curious about magic and travels to Thessaly in Greece, famed for its witches. He stays at the home of Pamphile, a woman reported to be a witch and skilled in all forms of necromancy. She can plunge the light of heaven into darkness simply by breathing on twigs or pebbles. Lucius drinks one of her potions and turns into an ass.

Happy Halloween!


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  1. Pingback: The History of Witchcraft: Ancient Times – the grimoire

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