Folk Belief in The Ancient Mediterranean – Prof. Marguerite Johnson – 5 part Lecture Series

In this five-part series, Marguerite Johnson takes you on a journey over land, sea, sky, and into the ethereal world of folk belief in the ancient Mediterranean. Complete with illustrations and the words of the ancients themselves, we look at the strange creatures believed to inhabit land and sea, the terrifying demons that threatened to snatch your child, the werewolf and other shapeshifters, the ancient prototype of the fairytale, ‘Beauty and the Beast,’ and some old-fashioned tall tales.

Series image: Sebastian Münster from Olaus Magnus’ Carta marina (Basel c. 1544).

Lecture 1: Entities of land and sea – 8 Sep 2024

The ancient Greeks and Romans believed their world to be inhabited by all sorts of beings, creatures that chose to reveal themselves – or not. These are the entities of land and sea, non-human inhabitants, some of whom are referred to as ‘nature spirits.’ Some are sentient, while others are more akin to forces of nature. In this talk, we look at some examples, ranging from dryads and other assorted nymphs to the ketos (a huge sea-monster), and the folktales associated with them. We’ll also consider comparative creatures from other cultures, such as fairies and mermaids.

Interested in some background reading? Try – on fairies – Ronald Hutton’s ‘The Making of the Early Modern British Fairy Tradition,’ Historical Journal 57.4 (2014): 1157-75: Fairies4_1_.pdf (

You may also like: Crystal Rome and Debby Sneed’s ‘Sirens in Ancient Greece and the Near East,’ Department of Classics, University of Colorado Boulder (June 19, 2017): Sirens in Ancient Greece and the Near East | Department of Classics | University of Colorado Boulder

Image: Dryad. Creative Commons (Pxfuel).

Lecture 2: Female Demons – 6 Oct 2024

Throughout antiquity, from the Mediterranean to the Levant, the world was animated by terrifying female demons. We begin with Mesopotamian child-snatching demons, also known to harm mothers, and the magical devices to trap them. From West Asia, we travel to Greece to meet Lamia, and Empousa, demons who could assume the form of beautiful women to seduce men and feed on their bodies. From Greece, we encounter Mormo, a scary monster invoked by mothers and nurses to instil good behaviour in children. Included in our survey are some comparisons to similar figures in other times and places, including ogres and vampires.

Interested in some background reading? Try Marguerite Johnson’s ‘‘I gave birth but did not bring a child to life’: for millennia, women expressed their pain through a belief in demonic, female monsters,’ The Conversation (July 5, 2023): ‘I gave birth but did not bring a child to life’: for millenia, women expressed their pain through a belief in demonic, female monsters (– a book review of Sarah Clegg’s Woman’s Lore: 4,000 Years of Sirens, Serpents and Succubi.

You may also like: Erle Lichty’s ‘Demons and Population Control,’ Expedition Magazine 13.2 (1971): Expedition Magazine | Demons and Population Control (

Image: A seventeenth-century depiction of Lamia by Edward Topsell.

Lecture 3: Shapeshifters – 3 Nov 2024

Imagine being able to use witchcraft to change form. To the ancient Romans, witches were able to do this, assuming the form of birds to fly about at night to wreak havoc and evil. In this talk, we meet these fearsome witches, along with werewolves, who did not choose to transform but had transformation forced upon them. Fairy tales are also important to our investigation, and we look at stories such as ‘Beauty and the Beast,’ which may be tied to ancient beliefs in werewolves. As shapeshifters are present throughout time and space, we consider some from other cultures, ending with some modern-day monster-hunters who claim to have found evidence of ‘real life’ shapeshifters.

Interested in some background reading? Try Clare Mully’s ‘Women Who Fly,’ History Today 68.6 (June 2018): Women Who Fly | History Today– a book review of Serenity Young’s Women Who Fly– and April Holloway’s ‘Bizarre Discovery of Werewolf-Like Skull in a Chained Box in Bulgaria,’ Ancient Origins (October 30, 2014): Bizarre Discovery of Werewolf-Like Skull in a Chained Box in Bulgaria | Ancient Origins (

You may also like: Tanika Koosmen’s articles: ‘The Origins of the Ancient Werewolf,’ The Conversation (October 29, 2018): The ancient origins of werewolves (; ‘Why Werewolves Eat People: Cannibalism in the Werewolf Narrative,’ Folklore Thursday (January 18, 2018): Why Werewolves Eat People: Cannibalism in the Werewolf Narrative – #FolkloreThursday

Image: Dolon. Detail from an Attic red-figure lekythos, c. 460 BCE.

Lecture 4: Beauties and beasts – 8 Dec 2024

Once upon a time there was a princess called Psyche who was so beautiful that she aroused the envy of the goddess, Venus. As the story goes, Venus sent her son, Cupid to shoot Psyche with an arrow so that she would fall in love with the first hideous thing she saw. However, the clumsy youth scratches himself with his own weapon and falls madly in love with the maiden. So begins a tale as old as time and a prototype for many fairytales thereafter. In this talk we consider the tale of Cupid and Psyche and explore how folktale and fairytale influence generations of tellers, looking at the connections between this ancient tale and ‘Beauty and the Beast.’ It also includes fascinating details about beauty in the ancient world and the many examples of the folklore surrounding it, as well as ancient motifs such as wicked stepmothers and stepsisters, deception, making and breaking taboos, marrying monsters, and animal bridegrooms that continue to inform folktales and fairytales to the present day.

Interested in some background reading? Try Terri Windling’s ‘Retelling Beauty & the Beast,’ Myth & Moor (July 11, 2019): Myth & Moor: Retelling Beauty & the Beast ( and Simon Hughes’ ‘Was it Really East of the Sun and West of the Moon?’ Folklore Thursday (January 20, 2020): Was it Really East of the Sun and West of the Moon? – #FolkloreThursday

You may also like: Stephen Harrison’s ‘Love and the soul: the timeless tale of Cupid and Psyche,’ Antigone: an open forum for classics and Marina Warner’s book, From the Beast to the Blonde: on fairytales and their tellers

Image: August Riedel, ‘Cupid and Psyche’ (1872).

Lecture 5: Tall tales – 5 Jan 2025

From ancient tales of evil rulers, battlefield apparitions and hauntings, kidnapped children, to madcap stories of octopi in Roman sewers, this talk incudes modern comparisons – from weapons of mass destruction and Saddam Hussein’s human-shredder – to the black swine of Hampstead sewers. It considers the social and cultural power of such urban legends, how these stories enforce rules about the best way to behave, as well as their role in imbuing prejudices around those deemed to be a threat to society.

Interested in some background reading? Some books on old and new tall tales (and urban legends), include: Scott Wood’s London Urban Legends: The Corpse on the Tube and Other Stories; Jan Harold Brunvand’s Too good to be true: the colossal book of urban legends; Adrienne Mayor’s Flying Snakes and Griffin Claws and Other Classical Myths, Historical Oddities, and Scientific Curiosities

Image: Octopus vase from Palaikastro, c. 1500 BCE. Archaeological Museum of Heraklion.


Marguerite Johnson is a cultural historian of the ancient Mediterranean, specialising in sexuality and gender, particularly in the poetry of Sappho, Catullus, and Ovid, as well as magical traditions in Greece, Rome, and the Near East. She also researches Classical Reception Studies, with a regular focus on Australia. In addition to ancient world studies, Marguerite is interested in sexual histories in modernity as well as magic in the west more broadly, especially the practices and art of Australian witch, Rosaleen Norton. She is Honorary Professor of Classics and Ancient History at The University of Queensland, and a Fellow of the Australian Academy of the Humanities.

don’t worry if you miss it – we will send you a recording valid for two weeks the next day

Sep 8th 2024 - 8.00pm - 9:30 pm
Oct 6th 2024 - 8.00 pm - 9:30 pm
Nov 3rd 2024 - 8.00 pm - 9:30 pm
Dec 8th 2024 - 8.00 pm - 9:30 pm
Jan 5th 2025 - 8.00 pm - 9:30 pm

one ticket for all five lectures at £40 / £32

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