Girls are wicked: gender and magic

How would you react if you walked into the classroom one day to find your new teacher was Professor Dumbledore, Gandalf the Grey, or Merlin the Wizard? Would you fear their magical powers? Would you worry they might turn you into a newt if you failed a test? Of course not. You would know that their powers, though vast, are benign and that they actually helped their pupils – Harry, Frodo, and Arthur – find their way in the world. Ancient Greeks and Romans also told tales of famous wizards, but these men were known for more than their magical powers.

Orpheus, for example, was a legendary singer who charmed Cerberus (the three-headed dog who guards the entrance to the underworld) so he could get his girlfriend back from the dead. Empedocles was a philosopher who argued that the four elements (water, air, earth, and fire) were the essence of all life. And you might have heard of Pythagoras, who created a famous mathematical theorem concerning the sides of a triangle (a2 + b2 = c2). These men seem to have little to do with magic, but though we might call them singers, philosophers, and mathematicians, the Greeks and Romans also knew them as magicians. It was believed that these men could halt the sun and the moon in their course, make rivers flow upstream, transform themselves into animals, appear in two places at once (this is called to “bi-locate”), and bring back the dead. Some of these magicians were seen as a danger to their fellow citizens. Pythagoras, for example, once locked himself underground for forty days, and when he came out, was able to summarize everything that had taken place in the city during his imprisonment. People were amazed and thought he must be divine, but one of our sources (Hermippus of Smyrna) suggests that he cheated: the cheeky mathematician actually got his mum to slip him notes informing him of what was happening in the city! It didn’t do him any good in the end (clear evidence that cheating doesn’t pay off!) because he was exiled. The example of Pythagoras shows that men seemingly performing magic could sometimes be seen as charlatans. On the whole, however, magicians were seen as wise men and wonder workers benefiting the society in which they lived. The ancient Greek and Roman idea of men practising magic thus seems to have been quite similar to our modern idea of wizards…


but let’s turn our attention to witches. You might like to have Harry Potter’s Professor McGonagall as your teacher, but can you think of many more good witches? A quick glance at ancient and modern fairytales reveals an abundance of old and usually ugly hags with a fondness of poisoned apples (Snow White), red shoes (Wizard of Oz), Turkish delights (The Lion, the Witch, and the Wardrobe), and happy-ever-after potions (Shrek). These witches are entirely evil: they usually pose a danger to girls or heroes trying to find their path through life, and have to be overcome in order for the girl or hero to achieve their goal. In Greek and Roman literature, we find lots of similar figures. Women from the Greek region of Thessaly, for example, were known for their ability to bring down the moon from the sky. (They couldn’t really pull down the moon from the sky, by the way; what they did was get the reflection of the moon in a vessel of some kind, and then use the liquid – which they believed was infused with some kind of moon energy – in their rituals.) The Roman poet Horace (who lived during the reign of Augustus) told of a woman called Canidia. Together with her cronies, she scoured graveyards looking for bones, and even buried a young boy alive so they might use his dried-up liver in a love potion once he had died. A slightly later poet, Lucan, told of a horrible woman called Erictho, who actually lived in a graveyard and brought a soldier who had died in battle back to life so he could predict the future. Petronius talked of two witches who killed a man by stabbing his throat, but brought him back to life by inserting a magical sponge into the wound. All these witches conform to the modern idea of witches as frightening, hideous, old hags bent on destruction. I have deliberately left out the two most famous witches from Greek and Roman mythology, Circe and Medea. Though they had similar powers to other witches, they were young and stunningly beautiful.


In one of the earliest Greek texts, Homer’s Odyssey, Circe was a goddess who lived on an island in a fairytale world with only her maids for company. When the Greek hero, Odysseus, landed on her island on his journey home from Troy, Circe used a potion and a wand to turn his men into swine. (You might think that this means the Greeks knew the saying that ‘men are pigs’, but swine were actually known for their strength and courage, so when a hero was compared to a swine, it was usually a compliment.) Odysseus avoided being turned into an animal because he bumped into the god Hermes on his way to Circe’s palace. Hermes gave the hero a herb which would protect him against Circe’s magical potion, and also told him he should not reject the goddess if she should ask him to go to bed with her. Odysseus followed Hermes’ sound advice and stayed with Circe for a year. Though she helped him on his way at the end of that year, most ancient authors after Homer left that bit out, thus turning her into an entirely wicked witch.


Circe’s niece, Medea, was princess of Colchis (modern Georgia at the Black Sea). When the sexy Greek hero, Jason, arrived in Colchis demanding the Golden Fleece of a ram because it was important to his family (but that’s another story…), Medea’s father got rather annoyed and set Jason impossible tasks: he was to yoke a pair of bronze fire-breathing bulls, plough a field with them, sow dragon’s teeth on that field, and fight the warriors that would spring from the teeth. Mission impossible? The young princess, Medea, fell head over heels in love with the mysterious stranger, and luckily for him, she possessed great magical powers. She offered the hero a potion to give him superhuman strength to deal with the bulls. Against the earth-born warriors, she suggested he throw a stone in their midst, so they would all think one of the others had thrown the stone and would fight and kill each other. When Jason had accomplished the tasks, Medea eloped with the hero and became his wife – but not before she had chopped up her baby brother to stop her father from coming after them. Once back in Greece, Medea killed Jason’s uncle and when Jason decided to remarry, she killed their two children and Jason’s new bride as well as the bride’s father. She then tried to poison the Athenian hero Theseus but failed and fled back to Colchis. Don’t worry: Medea’s murderous story had a happy-ever-after in the end. When she died, she married the hero Achilles in the underworld.


Though Circe and Medea both helped Greek heroes, they were generally represented as entirely evil characters. Both of them, as well as the other witches from Greek and Roman literature, were known to have great magical powers which could subvert the natural course of the universe. The Roman poet Ovid, for example, represented Medea as follows:


She strives to draw down the reluctant moon from its course

and hide the horses of the sun in darkness;

she checks the waters and stops the winding rivers;

she moves forests and living rocks from their spot.


Hang on – you might say – these are the same things that wizards were known to do! But (on the whole) men practising magic were represented as helping their community, while women with the same powers were seen as dangerous and tremendously scary. We also know of far more women than men who were known for practising magic. This seems a peculiar but clear difference between men and women. In order to explain this difference, I need to clarify one thing which I have glossed over so far – though you might have guessed already. Most of the figures we have discussed never actually existed: they were figments of people’s imagination. All these figures were literary creations, and this literature was written by men. When we look at actual spells from Greek and Roman antiquity (rather than fictional accounts of magic), it actually appears that men used magic at least as much as women!


So why did male authors generally represent wizards as positive and witches as destructive? In order to understand this, we need to understand men. Ancient Greek and Roman men thought of themselves as the norm, i.e. everything normal. What was different from them was frightening. And who are more different from men than women?! When a girl was still in her father’s household, or was married to someone, she was firmly controlled by a man and was therefore considered quite harmless. But other women were not that controlled by men: old women, for example, whose husbands had died; or unmarried girls of marriable age; or foreign women. Greek and Roman men thought of these women as potentially dangerous, because they were not controlled by men and were therefore seen as a danger to the safety of the state. Men writing literature would often represent these women as witches, not because these women did anything wrong, but because men were scared of them. Suggesting these women had frightening powers validated men’s fear of them.


I can hear some of you protesting that not all men are like that, and of course I’ve been generalizing. As we’ve seen, some male magicians like Pythagoras were also portrayed negatively. Moreover, though lots of male authors depicted witches as frightening, others used the image of the witch precisely to point out that this image did not correspond to reality. By using this stereotypical image of the witch, these authors criticized men rather than women. Not all men were thus the same, and obviously boys today wouldn’t dream of accusing girls of being witches. But a similar principle is still at work in different ways. People who are different from the norm are often still seen as frightening and dangerous. By looking at the way in which fear led ancient Greek and Roman men to create the stereotypical image of the witch, we might gain insight into modern images of people who are considered “different”. And once we understand how these images are created, it might also be possible to change them.