This Part brings together a brief sample of the texts from the period of biblical and classical antiquity that contributed to the formation of witch beliefs in the Middle Ages and the early modern period. The subject of witchcraft and magic in the ancient world is a field in its own right, and this selection of documents can only represent some views of witchcraft that prevailed in those early cultures. The seven documents reproduced in this part have been selected either because they became important sources in their own right during the period of prosecution or because they describe beliefs or traditions that persisted in one way or another into the later period.
Two of the chapters in this Part fall clearly into the first category. Chapter 1
, the account of the witch of Endor in the Old Testament, is one of many biblical sources that were quoted frequently during later periods of European history, especially during the period of witch-hunting. The account of Saul’s consultation of a diviner from Endor to summon up the ghost of Samuel became the subject of many commentaries that sought to establish the extent to which the Devil was involved in this exercise of magical power. Chapter 7
, which was even more frequently cited during subsequent periods of European history, was written by the greatest Church Father, St Augustine, who described the powers of the Devil on earth, identified him as the source of all magic, and condemned the practice of magic as idolatry, paganism, and heresy.
Classical texts, even those that took a skeptical view of witchcraft, also contributed to the construction of an enduring image of the witch figure. Horace’s presentation of the character of Medea in one of his Epodes
), which draws on earlier representations of the same character in earlier classical literature, contributed to later representations of witchcraft by Roman and Renaissance dramatists. Further representations of the witch figure and
her powers appear in the literary work of the Latin writer Apuleius, whose fictional work The Golden Ass
described the powers of witches to change men into beasts and alter the appearance of their faces (Chapter 4
Three documents describe magical practices in the Greco-Roman world. The curses cast on Roman charioteers serve as examples of the type of maleficia
performed by witches during the period of prosecution (Chapter 3
). The alleged practice of love magic to prevent sexual union between two parties, which is described in Chapter 6
, also recurs frequently in the records of witchcraft trials in the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries. Finally the account of Apuleius’s own trial for witchcraft in the northern African regions of the Roman Empire contains a defense of the practice of magic that many Neoplatonic magicians later made in the Middle Ages and the fifteenth and sixteenth centuries (Chapter 2
- Bengt Ankarloo and Stuart Clark (eds.), Witchcraft and Magic in Europe: Ancient Greece, and Rome. London, 1999.
- Peter Brown, Augustine of Hippo: A Biography. Berkeley, CA, 2013.
- J. E. Lowe, Magic in Greek and Roman Literature. Oxford, 1929.
- Georg Luck, Arcana Mundi: Magic and the Occult in the Greek and Roman Worlds. Baltimore, MD and London, 1985.
- Jacob Rabinowitz, The Rotting Goddess: The Origin of the Witch in Classical Antiquity. New York, 1998.
- Jeffrey Burton Russell, The Devil: Perceptions of Evil from Antiquity to Primitive Christianity. Ithaca, NY and London, 1977.
Throughout the period of witch-hunting in the early modern period, demonologists and clerics cited texts from the Bible to endorse the actions they were taking against alleged witches. The two most common texts cited were the condemnation of witchcraft in Exodus 22:18, “Thou shalt not suffer a witch to live,” and the narrative of the witch of Endor in the first book of Samuel. Although frequently cited, the relevance of these biblical texts to contemporary witchcraft had been a subject of considerable controversy. The controversy centered on whether witchcraft as discussed in the Bible was the same crime as witchcraft in the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries. Demonologists writing in the skeptical tradition, such as Robert Filmer and Johann Weyer, argued that there was a difference between a Hebrew witch and the early modern European witch. The biblical passage regarding the witch of Endor was especially problematic. In this text Saul, faced with a Philistine enemy, consults with a medium from the town of Endor to help him summon up Samuel’s ghost and thus obtain guidance as to how to defeat his foe. Early modern commentators debated a number of issues regarding this text. The main question concerned the guilt of Saul for practising necromancy, which according to early modern demonological theory involved the use of demonic power, regardless of its intention. This discourse led to the further questions whether the apparition of Saul was real or the product of demonic illusion and whether the voice that Saul heard was that of Samuel or the Devil. These questions contributed in turn to a further debate concerning the reality of all dreams, visions, and apparitions. James VI of Scotland posed the further question in Daemonologie
(1597) whether Samuel was a witch, since in James’s view God would never have allowed the Devil to produce the specter unless the person who appeared in that form was in fact a witch (Chapter 29
). One of the speakers in James’s dialogue answered this last question by arguing that since Samuel was already dead, he could not be accused of witchcraft. The text of the witch of Endor is 1 Samuel 28:1–25.
Source: The Holy Bible Containing the Old Testament and the New (1611).
And it came to pass in those days, that the Philistines gathered their armies together for warfare, to fight with Israel. And Achish said unto David, Know thou assuredly, that thou shalt go out with me to battle, thou and thy men. And David said to Achish, Surely thou shalt know what thy servant can do. And Achish said to David, Therefore will I make thee keeper of mine head for ever.
Now Samuel was dead, and all Israel had lamented him, and buried him in Ramah, even in his own city. And Saul had put away those that had familiar spirits, and the wizards, out of the land. And the Philistines gathered themselves together, and came and pitched in Shunem: and Saul gathered all Israel together, and they pitched in Gilboa. And when Saul saw the host of the Philistines, he was afraid, and his heart greatly trembled. And when Saul inquired of the Lord, the Lord answered him not, neither by dreams nor by Urim, nor by prophets. Then said Saul unto his servants, Seek me a woman that hath a familiar spirit, that I may go to her, and inquire of her. And his servants said to him, Behold, there is a woman that hath a familiar spirit at Endor.
And Saul disguised himself, and put on other raiment, and he went, and two men with him, and they came to the woman by night: and he said, I pray thee, divine unto me by the familiar spirit, and bring me him up, whom I shall name unto thee. And the woman said unto him, Behold, thou knowest what Saul hath done, how he hath cut off those that have familiar spirits, and the wizards, out of the land: wherefore then layest thou a snare for my life, to cause me to die? And Saul sware to her by the Lord, saying, As the Lord liveth, there shall no punishment happen to thee for this thing. Then said the woman, Whom shall I bring up unto thee? And he said, Bring me up Samuel. And when the woman saw Samuel, she cried with a loud voice: and the woman spake to Saul, saying, Why hast thou deceived me? for thou art Saul. And the king said unto her, Be not afraid: for what sawest thou? And the woman said unto Saul, I saw gods ascending out of the earth. And he said unto her, What form is he of? And she said, An old man cometh up; and he is covered with a mantle. And Saul perceived that it was Samuel, and he stooped with his face to the ground, and bowed himself.
And Samuel said to Saul, Why hast thou disquieted me, to bring me up? And Saul answered, I am sore distressed; for the Philistines make war against me, and God is departed from me, and answereth me no more, neither by prophets, nor by dreams: therefore I have called thee, that thou mayest make known unto me what I shall do. Then said Samuel, Wherefore then dost thou ask of me, seeing the Lord is departed from thee, and is become thine enemy? And the Lord hath done to him, as he spake by me: for the Lord hath rent the kingdom out of thine hand, and given it to thy neighbour, even to David: Because thou obeyedst not the voice of the Lord, nor executedst his fierce wrath upon Amalek, therefore hath the Lord done this thing unto thee this day. Moreover the Lord will also deliver Israel with thee into the hand of the Philistines: and tomorrow shalt thou and thy sons be with me: the Lord also shall deliver the host of Israel into the hand of the Philistines.
Then Saul fell straightway all along on the earth, and was sore afraid, because of the words of Samuel: and there was no strength in him; for he had eaten no bread all the day, nor all the night. And the woman came unto Saul, and saw that he was sore troubled, and said unto him, Behold, thine handmaid hath obeyed thy voice, and I have put my life in my hand, and have hearkened unto thy words which thou spakest unto me. Now therefore, I pray thee, hearken thou also unto the voice of thine handmaid, and let me set a morsel of bread before thee; and eat, that thou mayest have strength, when thou goest on thy way. But he refused, and said, I will not eat. But his servants, together with the woman, compelled him; and he hearkened unto their voice. So he arose from the earth, and sat upon the bed. And the woman had a fat calf in the house; and she hasted, and killed it, and took flour, and kneaded it, and did bake unleavened bread thereof: And she brought it before Saul, and before his servants; and they did eat. Then they rose up, and went away that night.
Lucius Apuleius of Madaura, a Latin writer and Platonist philosopher of the second century CE, had a deep interest in the occult sciences. In the northern African town of Odea he married a wealthy widow, Aemilia Pudentilla, who was a number of years his senior. Shortly after the marriage some of his wife’s relatives accused him of having used sorcery to win her affections and thus acquire her property. The crime of sorcery in Roman law was punishable by death. His trial took place before Claudius Maximus, the proconsul in Sabratha. Apuleius presented a brilliant defense, not only of himself but of the practice of magic, which he compared to the work of priests and which he identified with philosophical inquiry. Apuleius also made the judge aware of the prejudices that inspired the accusations against him, especially those that dealt with his recent arrival in Odea and his marriage. Similar circumstances lay at the root of accusations of witchcraft in later periods of European history. In his defense Apuleius anticipated many of the arguments by which learned magicians in the medieval and early modern periods, many of whom were learned in the Platonic tradition, justified the practice of their craft.
Source: Luck, Georg. Arcana Mundi: Magic and the Occult in the Greek and Roman Worlds: A Collection of Ancient Texts. pp. 110–113. © 1985 The Johns Hopkins University Press. Reprinted with permission of Johns Hopkins University Press.
I will now deal with an actual charge of magic. He [the accuser] has spared no effort to light the flame of hatred against me, but he has falsely raised everyone’s expectations by some old wives’ tales he told. I ask you, Maximus [the judge]: have you ever seen a fire started from stubble, crackling sharply, shining far and wide, getting bigger fast, but without real fuel, with only a feeble blaze, leaving nothing behind? This is their accusation, kindled with abuse, built up with mere words, lacking proof, and, once you have given your verdict, leaving no trace of slander behind.
Aemilianus’ slander was focused on one point: that I am a sorcerer. So let me ask his most learned advocates: What is a sorcerer? I have read in many books that magus is the same thing in Persian as priest in our language. What crime is there in being a priest and in having accurate knowledge, a science, a technique of traditional ritual, sacred rites and traditional law, if magic consists of what Plato interprets as the “cult of the gods” when he talks of the disciplines taught to the crown prince in Persia? I remember the very words of that divine man [Plato]. Let me recall them to you, Maximus: “When the young prince has reached the age of fourteen, he is handed over to the royal tutors. There are four of them, chosen as the most outstanding among the Persian elders. One is the wisest, one the most just, one the most restrained, one the bravest. One of them teaches [the crown prince] the ‘magic’ of Zoroaster, the son of Ormazd, which is the worship of the gods. He also teaches [him] the art of being king.” Listen to this, you who rashly slander magic! It is an art acceptable to the immortal gods, an art which includes the knowledge of how to worship them and pay them homage. It is a religious tradition dealing with things divine, and it has been distinguished ever since it was founded by Zoroaster and Ormazd, the high priests of divinities. In fact, it is considered one of the chief elements of royal instruction, and in Persia no one is allowed lightly to be a “magus” any more than they would let him be king.
Plato also writes, in a different context, about a certain Zalmoxis, a Thracian, but an expert in the same art, that “there is a certain mental therapy in incantations, and that incantations consist of beautiful words.” If this is so, why should I not be permitted to learn the “beautiful words” of Zalmoxis or the priestly traditions of Zoroaster? But if my accusers after the common fashion think of a “magus” primarily as a person who by verbal communications with the immortal gods and through the incredible power of his incantations can perform any miracles he wants, why are they not afraid to accuse a man who, as they admit themselves, has such powers? For there is no protection against such a mysterious, such a divine, power as there is against other things. If you summon a murderer before a judge, you come with a bodyguard; if you charge a poisoner, you take special precautions with your food; if you accuse a thief, you watch your possessions. But if you demand the death penalty for a magus, as they define him, what escort, what special precautions, what guards, can protect you against an unexpected, inevitable catastrophe? None, of course, and so this is not the kind of charge a man who believes in the truth of this sort of thing would make.
But it is a fairly common misunderstanding by which the uneducated accuse philosophers. Some of them think that those who investigate the simple causes and elements of matter are antireligious, and that they deny the very existence of gods, as for instance, Anaxagoras, Leuacippus, Democitus, Epicurus, and other leading scientists. Others, commonly called “magi,” spend great care in the exploration of the workings of providence in the world and worship the gods with great devotion, as if they actually knew how to make the things happen that they know do happen. This was the case with Epimenides, Orpheus, Pythagoras, and Ostanes. Similarly, later on, the “Purifications” of Empedocles, the “Daemon” of Socrates, the “Good” of Plato, came under suspicion. I congratulate myself to be associated with so many great men.
I am afraid, however, that the court may take seriously the silly, childish, and naïve arguments brought forward by my accusers in order to substantiate their charges – for the simple reason that they have been made. My accuser asks: “Why have you tried to get specific kinds of fish?” Why should a scientist not be allowed to do for the sake of knowledge what a gourmand is allowed to do for the sake of his gluttony? He asks: “What made a free woman marry you after having been a widow for fourteen years?” Well, is it not more remarkable that she remained a widow for such a long time? “Why did she, before she married you, express certain opinions in a letter?” Well, is it reasonable to demand of someone the reasons for someone else’s opinions? “She is older than you, but did not reject a younger man.” But this alone is proof enough that no magic was needed; a woman wished to marry a man, a widow a bachelor, a mature lady a man her junior. And there are more charges just like that: “Apuleius has in his house an object which he secretly worships.” Well, would it not be a worse offense to have nothing to worship? “A boy fell to the ground in Apuleius’ presence.” What if a young man, what if an old man, had fallen when I was there, perhaps stricken by illness, perhaps simply because the ground was slippery? Do you think you can prove your accusation of magic by such arguments, the fall of a little boy, my getting married to my wife, the purchase of fish?
[Apuleius deals with the subject of fish and argues that he was motivated only by scientific interest; then he turns to the incident of the boy who suddenly fell down in his presence.]
My accusers claim that I bewitched a boy by an incantation with no witness pres...