Sunday, 30 October 2016

"Abhorred Erichtho" - Witchcraft and Necromancy from Rome to the Renaissance

In my Halloween blog-post last year, I introduced the ancient Roman witches, Canidia and Sagana, and suggested that they might well have had counterparts in Roman London. Roman literature, however, presents us with an even more terrifying witch, in the person of Erichtho, first referred to, it would seem, by Ovid, in his Heroides. Ovid places her in Thessaly, a rural province of Greece which seems to have been infamous for witchcraft long before his own time in the First Century BC.

The witch, Erichtho, by John Hamilton Mortimer (1740-79). Licensed under CCA.

Erichtho plays a much more prominent role in the work of a later poet, Marcus Annaeus Lucanus (Lucan), the nephew of the philosopher, statesman and dramatist, Seneca. Lucan's epic poem, Pharsalis, deals with the Roman Civil Wars of the First Century BC. In the poem, Sextus Pompeius, the disreputable son of the revered statesman and soldier, Pompey the Great, consults the witch on the eve of his father's defeat at the hands of Julius Caesar. She searches a battlefield for the corpse of a recently slain soldier, which she reanimates, to help her predict the future.

Denarius of Sextus Pompeius, depicting the lighthouse of Messina, and the monster, Scylla, believed to live in the straits. Photo: Classical Numismatic Group (; licensed under CCA.
The Straits of Messina, between Italy and Sicily, where Sextus Pompeius had his naval base. The tidal flows are thought to have given rise to the legends of Scylla and Charybdis. Photo: NASA (image is in the Public Domain). 

"Sextus, unworthy son of worthy sire,
Who soon upon the waves that Scylla guards,
Sicilian pirate, exile from his home,
Stained by his deeds of shame the fights he won
Could bear delay no more; his feeble soul,
Sick of uncertain fate, by fear compelled,
Forecast the future: yet consulted not
The shrine of Delos, nor the Pythian caves ...
Abhorred Erichtho, fiercest of the race,
Spurned for their piety, and yet viler art
Practiced in novel form ...
She burned the fruitful growth, and with her breath
Poisoned the air else pure ...
 ... At length the witch
Picks out her victim with pierced throat agape
Fit for her purpose. Gripped by pitiless hook
O'er rocks she drags him to the mountain cave
Accursed by her fell rites that shall restore
The dead man's life ...

 ... Then the blood
Grew warm and liquid, and with softening touch
Cherished the stiffened wounds and filled the veins,
Till throbbed once more the slow returning pulse
And every fibre trembled, as with death
Life was commingled. Then, not limb by limb,
With toil and strain, but rising at a bound
Leaped from the earth erect the living man."

Erichtho reanimating the corpse. British Museum (image is in the Public Domain).

Erichtho is mentioned by Dante, in his Inferno, from which it is reasonably clear that he has read Lucan, as well as Ovid, but it was with the rise of printing in the Fifteenth and Sixteenth Centuries that the works of these classical authors found a wider readership, both in the original Latin, and in translation. Erichtho, together with Canidia and Sagana, is a lineal ancestress of the "weird sisters" of Shakespeare's Macbeth. The circulation of these texts is accompanied by a renewed interest in necromancy and witchcraft: the Oxford English Dictionary first records the word "necromancy" in 1456, and "Halloween" in 1556.

Lucan's Pharsalis, a Latin edition of 1592 (image is in the Public Domain).
Lucan's Pharsalis, frontispiece to a French edition of 1657 (image is in the Public Domain).

Shakespeare's contemporary, John Marston, includes Erichtho herself as a character in his play, Sophonisba, or The Wonder of Women, and transforms her into a sexual predator, luring young men to her bed under cover of darkness, so that they are unaware that they are copulating with a monstrous hag. Although rarely performed today Sophonisba, which premiered at Blackfriars in 1606, was as much a commercial success in its day as many plays by Shakespeare or Ben Jonson.

The image of the witch as both hag and sexual predator, a seducer of men of previously good character, became far more familiar from this time: there were many more witch trials (mostly of women) between 1580 and 1650 than there had been throughout the supposedly "superstitious" Middle Ages. In a Christian world, however, these latter day "witches" had acquired a dimension that the Classical Erichtho, Canidia and Sagana never had: as agents of the Devil in a war for Christian souls.

Witches, by Hans Baldung, 1508 (image is in the Public Domain).

Mark Patton's novels, Undreamed Shores, An Accidental King, and Omphalos, are published by Crooked Cat Publications, and can be purchased from Amazon. He is currently working on The Cheapside Tales, a London-based trilogy of historical novels.

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