Living on the North Shore in Boston in the fall brings the gorgeous turning of the leaves and pumpkin patches. It is also a time for people to head to nearby Salem, Massachusetts, home of the 17th century infamous witch trials, and visit its popular museum.
Despite a troubled history, there are people today who consider themselves witches. Often, modern witches share their lore, craft and stories on TikTok and other social media platforms.
As a scholar who works on myth and poetry from ancient Greece – and as a native of New England – I have long been fascinated by the cultural conversations about witches. Witch trials in the Americas and Europe were in part about enforcing power structures and persecuting the weak. From ancient Greece through Puritan New England, witches functioned as easy targets for cultural anxieties about gender, power and mortality.
Ancient witches: gender and power
While modern witchcraft is inclusive of many different genders and identities, witches in ancient myth and literature were almost exclusively women. Their stories were in part about navigating gender roles and power in a patriarchal system.
Fear about women’s power was an essential part of ancient anxiety about witchcraft. This fear, moreover, relied on traditional expectations about the abilities innate to a person’s gender. As early as the creation narrative in Hesiod’s “Theogony” – a poem hailing from a poetic tradition between the eighth and fifth centuries B.C. – male gods like Cronus and Zeus were depicted with physical strength, while female figures were endowed with intelligence. In particular, women knew about the mysteries of childbirth and how to raise children.
In the basic framework of Greek myth, then, men were strong and women used intelligence and tricks to cope with their violence. This gendered difference in traits combined with ancient Greek views of bodies and aging. While women were seen to move through stages of life based on biology – childhood, adolescence via menstruation, childbearing and old age – the aging of men was connected to their relationship to women, particularly in getting married and having children.
Both Greek and Latin have a single word for man and husband – “aner” in Greek and “vir” in Latin. Socially and ritually, men were essentially seen as adolescents until they became husbands and fathers.
Female control over reproduction was symbolized as a kind of ability to control life and death. In ancient Greece, women were expected to bear all responsibilities during early child rearing. They also were the ones to exclusively take on special roles in mourning the dead. Suspicion, anxiety and fear about mortality were then put on to women in general.
This was true especially for women who did not fit into typical gendered roles like the virtuous bride, the good mother or the helpful old maid.
While ancient Greek does not have a word that directly translates as “witch,” it does have “pharmakis” (someone who gives out drugs or medicine), “aoidos” (singer, enchantress) and “graus” or “graia” (old woman). Of these names, graus is probably closest to later European stereotypes: the mysterious old woman who is not part of a traditional family structure.
Much like today, foreignness invited suspicion in the ancient world as well. Several of the characters who may qualify as mythical witches were women from distant lands. Medea, famous for killing her children when her husband, Jason, proposes marrying someone else in Euripides’ play, was a woman from the east, a foreigner who did not adhere to the expectations for a woman’s behavior in Greece.
She started her narrative as a princess who used concoctions and spells to help Jason. Her powers increased male virility and life.