Witches in The Ancient World

Many people think that the witch is a creation of Christianity, or at any rate of the Bible. In this lecture, I’ll be exploring her pre-Christian antecedents in the classical worlds of Greece and Rome. I’ll be looking at this dark and terrifying and yet strangely seductive figure of Medea, and her descendants in the work of Lucan, whose hags scrabble for the body parts of dead soldiers left on the battlefield. We will also get to know the ambivalent goddess of the witches, Hecate, who also knows the realm of the dead.

This will enable us to take a deep and uncomfortable dive into the many magical papyri I surviving from the classical era, and the curses and curse tablets that also outlive those who wrote out their hatred and fear on those tablets. I will be looking at love magic in particular, even though very little of it measures up to modern standards of what love means, and most of it operates like date rape drugs. Finally, we will meet the strix, the scary witch bird said to disembowel infants in order to feed on their blood. At the end of the lecture, I will suggest some ways in which this body of material came to influence the witch hunts of the early modern period.


Diane Purkiss is Professor of English Literature at Keble College, Oxford. She was formerly Professor of English at Exeter University. She is the author of the highly acclaimed The Witch in History , and Troublesome Things: A History of Fairies and Fairy Stories

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

Mar 4th 2024 8:00 pm - 09:30 pm

£6 - £10 & By Donation

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