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ANAHITA  September 1997

ANAHITA September 1997

Subject:

Re: Witches as Characters vs. Witches in Real Life

From:

Max Dashu <[log in to unmask]>

Reply-To:

Women and Gender in the Ancient World <[log in to unmask]>

Date:

Sun, 21 Sep 1997 21:51:20 -0700

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text/plain

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My thanks to Melissa Schons for her thoughtful comments and her
recommendation of Lucks and Obbinks as sources. She writes,

>I'd like to point out that there is a distinction between the way witches
>are constructed as literary characters in both Greek and Roman traditions
>and the actual practice of magic in antiquity. For example, although
>practitioners of magic were predominantly male, the witch in literature is
>almost exclusively represented as female.

What evidence is there that there were more male magicians than female
witches? It is certain that men appear more in the written record (that is,
other than literature) and that women, especially common women, are almost
always below the historical water line. Magicians undoubtedly made more
money and were more likely to be patronized and discussed by the elite. But
how do we really know what was going on in the slums of Rome?

I've seen generic references to magas and pythonissae (in Lane and Scheid,
for example). Columella counseled masters to forbid their slaves to consult
sagae. Artemidorus of Daldis was looked down on for associating with female
"street diviners." Cumont called them "equivocal beggar women who plied
their miserable trades in the lowest quarter of the slums." While he
reproduces the contempt that Roman writers held witches in, they seem to
have had a sizeable constituency. A mural at Pompeii shows a male peasant
consulting a rather dignified witch in a straw hat holding court by the
roadside.

Roman law shows that repression of witches who dealt in contraceptives,
especially abortifacients, originating in the Twelve Tables, was ongoing
into imperial times. Often these witches were called venefica, but they
were also obstetrica, medica, etc. The charge of baby-killing, as in early
modern witch hunts, was at least partially related to female birth control.
(The irony is that fathers ordered exposure of babies--primarily
female--regularly and with the full force of law, but the witch-stereotype
targeted females as baby-killers.)  Prostitutes and procuresses were often
seen as witches, not only for contraception but for magical dealings in the
realm of sexual politics.

I agree that the literary witch was a demonized figure. What I read into
the classical depictions of her reversing the natural order is a polemic
against still-current female rites seen as subverting the man-made order.
The invocation of women's goddesses, especially Hecate, is still readily
visible in spite of the blood libel leveled against these witches (in
Horace and Lucan, for example). The charges about reversing the course of
rivers, etc., are repeated nearly verbatim in a way I find reminiscent of
later demonologists, doctrinal recitations of female evil, which includes
female sexuality.

The witch is an angry, resistant female whose powers threaten Roman
patriarchy, and so she is attacked systematically. Often she belongs to the
most despised classes of women. Julio Caro Baroja wrote that Horace's
unflattering portrayals of witches grew out of his antipathy to actual
Neopolitan witches named Gratidia and Folia. Horace also refers to old
women being stoned in the streets and chased by crowds. Such repression
must have created a need for circumspection and secrecy that makes the
strigae all the more difficult to discern from our distance.




Max Dashu

Suppressed Histories Archives   email: [log in to unmask]
PO Box 3511 Oakland CA 94609 USA
///SHA, now in its 27th year, focuses on International Women's Studies.///

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