Saturday, 31 October 2015

The Witches of Ancient Rome and London

Since the time of the Renaissance, ancient Rome has frequently been presented as a supremely rational society, informed by philosophy and logic, and governed by the rule of law. One does not have to dig too deeply, however, to discover that many Romans were deeply superstitious, living in fear of ghosts, werewolves and witches. Halloween was not a Roman festival - ghosts, in particular, were more in evidence at Lemuralia (in May) - but witches might be encountered at any time of the year, and they were generally to be found in and around cemeteries.

Roman mosaic from Pompeii. Photo: Marie-Lan Nguyen (licensed under CCA).

Throughout the Roman world, it was forbidden to bury human remains within a town or a city, and cemeteries were consequently clustered around the roads leading into and out of them. People generally avoided travelling at night because of the perfectly rational fear of robbers, but also because of the fear of unquiet spirits haunting the tombs along the roads. To a witch, however, these spirits, and the human remains to which they were connected, were a resource which could be put to use for good or ill.

Tombs on the Appian Way, leading south from Rome. Photo: Geoff Wong (licensed under CCA).

The writer, Horace, in his Satires, refers to witches on the Esquiline Hill (originally located beyond the limits of Rome, and therefore used as a burial ground):

"Now one may live on the Esquiline, since it is made a healthy place [human remains had been systematically and carefully removed], and walk upon an open terrace, where lately the melancholy wanderers beheld the ground frightful with white bones, though neither the thieves or the wild beasts accustomed to infest this place occasioned me such care and trouble as did those hags that turn people's minds  by their incantations and drugs. These I could not by any means destroy nor hinder, but that they would gather bones and noxious herbs as soon as the fleeting moon had shown her beauteous face."

"I myself saw Canidia, with her sable garment tucked up, walk with bare feet and dishevelled hair, yelling together with the elder Sagana. Paleness had rendered both of them horrible to behold. They began to claw up the earth with their nails, and to tear a black ewe-lamb to pieces with their teeth. The blood was poured into a ditch, that thence they might charm out the shades of the dead, the ghosts that were to give them answers."

Canidia and Sagana, in Horace's account, go much further, torturing a boy to death by burying him upto his neck in a pit, and starving him, with food placed just beyond his reach, so that "his parched marrow and dried liver might be a charm for love, when once the pupils of his eyes had wasted away, fixed on the forbidden food."

Women consulting a witch, Villa del Cicerone, Pompeii. Photo: Wolfgang Rieger (image is in the Public Domain.

Accounts such as Horace's were widely translated and printed during the 16th Century, and would have been available for sale at the many book-stalls in the church-yard of Saint Paul's in London, so, when we read that Canidia, "having interwoven her hair and uncombed head with little vipers ... orders funeral cypresses and eggs besmeared with the gore of a loathsome toad, and feathers of the nocturnal screech-owl ... to be burned in Colchian flames," we can have little doubt that she and Sagana are the direct ancestors of the "weird sisters" in Shakespeare's Macbeth.

The witch, Pamphile, transforming herself into an owl, spied upon by Lucius, from a 1537 edition of The Golden Ass, by Apuleius (Nicolo di Aristotile - image is in the Public Domain).

There is archaeological, as well as literary, evidence for Roman witchcraft and magic. Throughout the Roman Empire, lead "curse tablets," or defixiones, are found cast into streams, rivers and wells, invoking spirits either to harm a person identified by the person writing the curse, or to cause someone to fall in love with that person.

Lead defixio (curse tablet), from Telegraph Street, London (British Museum, image is in the Public Domain). The text reads: "I curse Tretia Maria, and her life and mind and memory; and liver and lungs mixed up together; and her words, thoughts and memory; thus may she be unable to speak what things are concealed, nor be able ..."

Around the Walbrook Stream, which divided Roman London into its western and eastern halves, several discoveries have been made over the last hundred and fifty years, of human skulls buried in pits. Under Roman law, they should not be there, since the pits are located within the city boundaries. It was once thought that these were victims of Boudicca's rebellion in 60/61 AD, but the most recent research shows them to be a century later in date. Evidence of violent deaths has led scholars to the conclusion that these were the remains either of executed criminals, or of gladiators killed in the arena. This may well be the case, but the skulls still ought not to have been buried within the city. The area in which they were found seems to have been an industrial quarter with foul-smelling tanneries, a place likely to have been shunned by toga-clad magistrates, but just the sort of environment in which a British Canidia or Sagana might have been able to operate.

Mark Patton's novels, Undreamed Shores, An Accidental King, and Omphalos, are published by Crooked Cat Publications, and can be purchased from Amazon.


  1. I had no idea the Romans believed in witches. I always thought that was a Celtic premise.

  2. Oh, yes, they were indeed superstitious! Who needs Halloween when you're scared the whole year through? They wouldn't do ANYTHING without checking out the auspices first. Reading Suetonius' Twelve Caesars you keep getting detailed descriptions of dreadful omens which preceded the death or defeat of one of his subjects and the author, a very good and intelligent man, takes them completely seriously.

    I remember that werewolf story in the Satyricon!:-) I used it in my YA werewolf novel Wolfborn. Couldn't resist.

  3. Thanks, Sue! They also took astrology very seriously. Most modern astrology descends, one way or another, from the Roman writer, Manilius, whose Latin manual of astrology remained in circulation throughout the Middle Ages.

  4. Also worth mentioning a 2nd-century CE pit excavated in Clare Street, in the '50s I think, which contained the skeleton of a heron, over eighty frogs and toads and several shrews and voles, on top of which were deposited two complete flagons. Hard to imagine what this could have been if not witchcraft...

    1. Thanks for this, I somehow missed this in my research, but will look it up - I have just the witch in mind to bring it to life!

    2. This is where things become really uncanny - Saint Clare Street is in the eastern cemetery of Roman London - a stone's throw from the (real) tomb in which my (fictional) witch is already squatting!

  5. Curious, I checked to see what the Bible has to say about witchcraft, and I found 100 Bible Verses through Open Bible. Does this mean that witchcraft and magic are real? For instance: Ezekiel 13:20
    “Therefore thus says the Lord God: Behold, I am against your magic bands with which you hunt the souls like birds, and I will tear them from your arms, and I will let the souls whom you hunt go free, the souls like birds."

    Sounds like they are real to me if they have that kind of power.

    1. It certainly implies that the writer of Ezekiel (a Jew in exile in Mesopotamia in the 6th Century BC) believed them to be real. He may have had in mind rituals or divinatory practices employed by his Babylonian captors.