Ancient Witches

Magic and witchcraft were integral parts of the lives of ancient Greeks and Romans. Real practitioners existed – usually men when it came to so-called ‘high’ magic or ‘learned’ magic – with women, we can assume, practising more informal folk magic, which has left a less permanent trace. However, the chief deity of magic and witchcraft was the goddess, Hecate and ancient literature is full of female practitioners, often exhibiting outlandish and unbelievable talents. This lecture discusses Hecate as the preeminent god of witches and the witches of Greek and Roman literature. From Homer’s Circe to Euripides’ Medea, to the terrifying necromancer, Erictho from Lucan’s Pharsalia, we consider how and why the ancients insisted on representing their literary practitioners as female, when evidence points to men as the main source of all things magical. We end by tracing the ancient origins of the wicked witch of the west back to the terrifying figures of the ancient imagination.


Marguerite Johnson is Professor of Classics and Ancient History at The University of Newcastle, Australia. Her research expertise is predominantly in ancient Mediterranean cultural studies, particularly in representations of gender, sexualities, and the body. She also researches Classical Reception Studies, and ancient magic. Marguerite has published on magic, particularly the portrayal of witches, in Greek and Latin literature and was dramaturg on professional productions of Theocritus’ Idyll 2 (‘The Sorceress’) in 2019 and Euripides’ Medea in 2021. She also researches and publishes on the Australian witch, Rosaleen Norton, with whom she has held a fascination since childhood. Marguerite delivers one of the few undergraduate courses on ancient occultism (AHIS2370: Magic and Witchcraft in Greece and Rome) and supervises several PhD students working on aspects of historical and literary magic.

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