Weird Sisters

MedusaWitches have long been associated with Halloween. Legends tell of them gathering on All Hallow’s Eve to celebrate with the devil and cast evil spells on innocent people or cause them other misfortunes. Their appearance was as hideous as their behaviour. Shakespeare famously paints for us a picture of the foul deeds of three witches:

“Fillet of a fenny snake,
In the cauldron boil and bake;
Eye of newt and toe of frog,
Wool of bat and tongue of dog,
Adder's fork and blind-worm's sting,
Lizard's leg and owlet's wing,
For a charm of powerful trouble,
Like a hell-broth boil and bubble.”

The Ancient Greeks and Romans had hellish women to equal these in their dreadfulness. Who can forget Medusa? One of the three Gorgons, she had hair of snakes and was so terrifying that one look from her could turn you to stone. Perseus eventually killed her, but needed the help of the gods and some special equipment including a cap of invisibility and winged sandals. Sounds a little like Batman and his utility belt! Hesiod describes his terrifying flight from her sisters after beheading her:

“And after him rushed the Gorgons, unapproachable and unspeakable, longing to seize him: as they trod upon the pale adamant, the shield rang sharp and clear with a loud clanging. Two serpents hung down at their girdles with heads curved forward: their tongues were flickering, and their teeth gnashing with fury, and their eyes glaring fiercely. And upon the awful heads of the Gorgons great Fear was quaking.”

Another group of women you wouldn’t want to come across on a dark night are the Furies, or Erinyes as the Greeks called them. They were born in unusual and violent circumstances. Uranus was fighting with his son, Cronus, who hacked off his genitals! You’d be surprised how often this sort of thing could happen! Drops of Uranus’ blood fell to the earth, Gaia, and it is from these that the Erinyes were born. Guess how many witch or Gorgon-like figures there were supposed to be? You guessed it. Three! Aeschylus writes about them in his play, Eumenides, and describes them like this:

“But these are wingless, black, and all their shape
The eye's abomination to behold.
Fell is the breath-let none draw nigh to it-
Exude the damned drops of poisonous ire:
And such their garb as none should dare to bring
To statues of the gods or homes of men.”

It is rumoured that the audience was so terrified by this depiction that women miscarried, fainted, or fled away in horror.