Potions and Poisons: Tracing the ‘Witch’ and Practice of Magic to the Graeco-Roman World

The Oracle, 1880, Camillo Miola (Biacca). Oil on canvas, 42 1/2 x 56 1/4 in. The J. Paul Getty Museum, 72.PA.32

Our idea of an old witch making evil potions can be traced back to a more benign Greek origin (later morphed by the Romans).

By Shelby Brown / 10.19.2015
Classical archaeologist and classicist
Education Specialist for Academic and Adult Audiences
J. Paul Getty Museum

In this nineteenth-century re-imagination of religious ritual, the priestess of Apollo sits on a tripod at Delphi, inhaling fumes (not shown) to allow her to communicate with the god. The connection between drugs and good forces was lost over time and transferred to witches.

Witches’ Tools: Potions, Wands, and Magic

In Greek myths, powerful herbs were depicted as rare and difficult to obtain. The term for herb, good or bad, was pharmakon (the root word for our modern “pharmacy”). The word is variously translated depending on context. Herbs were usually mixed into a drink or a mushy stew in bowls or large cauldrons. They were also soaked in water and the liquid sprinkled or made into an unguent to rub on the body.

Wands were occasionally used to transmit or activate an herbal liquid or potion. Even the gods, who could transform people or animals or manifest their will simply by wishing it, also used herbs and special tools such as wands and love arrows to achieve their desires. In the scene below on a 4th-century B.C. Greek ritual vessel from southern Italy, Hypnos, the personification of Sleep, helps Zeus (disguised as a swan) seduce Leda. Sleep holds a long, curving wand over the pair, probably a tool to drip sleep-water from Lethe, the underworld river of unmindfulness or oblivion.

Hypnos with a wand that enchants Leda. Detail of a Vessel with Leda and the Swan, about 330 B.C., attributed to Painter of Louvre MNB 1148. Greek, made in Apulia, South Italy. Terracotta; 35 1/2 in. high. The J. Paul Getty Museum, 86.AE.680

There was a great deal of crossover between religion and magic in antiquity. Practitioners needed to speak the correct words, make the right gestures, and offer the appropriate sacrifices and substances to gods and spirits of the upper and lower worlds. Ancient gods of the underworld were acknowledged and honored with their own specific rituals. Certain potent plants, whose roots extended down into darkness, were sometimes associated with the lower world.

Humans tried to make gods feel inclined and even obliged to help them, but they could not force divinities to act. Over time, however, powerful, selfish Greek herbalists—who used drugs and invocations entirely for personal motives—gained new powers. In Roman literature we find more clearly identifiable witches, who control underworld beings and natural forces.

Circe: The First Witch?

In Homer’s Odyssey, Circe, daughter of Helios the sun god, appears as the first witch (sort of) in classical literature. She was a beautiful and sensual minor goddess who worked the loom like a proper female. Although immortal, like mortals she had to obey orders from the more important gods. When hosting Odysseus’s hungry crew, she mixed drugs (pharmaka) into a mushy potion (sitos) of cheese, barley, honey, and wine, and then tapped the men with her wand (rabdos) to transform them into pigs and wolves (and other animals as well, in other stories). Her words were not reported.

In this scene on a drinking cup, Odysseus enters from the left, sword drawn. Circe holds her wand and the potion that has transformed the men. She was originally painted white to emphasize her sensual nude flesh, though only traces of white remain.

Detail of a drinking cup (kylix) depicting scenes from the Odyssey, 6th century B.C. Collection of the Museum of Fine Arts, Boston

Luckily, the god Hermes gave Odysseus the herbal antidote, called in Greek moly (The Odyssey Book X:305). This was a very rare plant with a black root and white flower. After Odysseus used the plant—exactly how is not specified—he was able to resist Circe and threaten her with his sword. Frightened yet impressed, she invited him to bed. First, however, the hero demanded an oath from her (horkon, a formal swearing by the gods) that she would do him no harm. Only then did he accept her seductive invitation.

In the Homeric epic, Circe has few of the negative qualities we associate with witches, and she remained true to her oath not to harm Odysseus. Aside from using a wand to activate her potions, her other supernatural knowledge involved finding the entrance to the underworld and calling dead spirits to come there; but the dead merely provided information they knew when alive.

Roman Circe

Ulysses at the Palace of Circe (detail), 1667, Wilhelm Schubert van Ehrenberg; animals by Carl Borromäus Andreas Ruthart. Oil on canvas, 35 x 47 7/8 in. The J. Paul Getty Museum, 71.PA.20

About 600 years later, the Roman poet Ovid was more specific about herbs and drugs. In his Metamorphoses, he uses words like gramenmedicamenherba, and venenum—the last meaning “poison” or “venom.”

Ovid describes Circe’s and Odysseus’s amorous encounter similarly to Homer, but tells how she reversed her spell on Odysseus’s men by moving her wand backwards and reciting her incantation in reverse.

In other stories in Metamorphoses, Circe becomes a far darker figure. She calls upon underworld spirits and the forces of nature for her own devious purposes. When her offer of love is rejected by a youth, she vengefully turns him into a bird. When his friends threaten her in order to find out what happened to their companion, she invokes divinities of darkness, like Night, and of the underworld, like Hecate. In MetamorphosesXIV: 397-416, Ovid writes:

She sprinkled them with harmful drugs and poisonous juices, summoning Night and the gods of Night…and calling on Hecate with long wailing cries.

Marvelous to say, the trees tore from their roots, the earth rumbled, the surrounding woods turned white, and the grass she sprinkled was wet with drops of blood. And the stones seemed to emit harsh groans, and dogs to bark, and the ground to crawl with black snakes, and the ghostly shades of the dead to hover. The terrified band shuddered at these monstrosities.

These monstrosities are standard Roman portents, the sorts of inexplicable manifestations that signaled divine disfavor and required appeasement through religious ritual. Circe invokes and brings about what are usually warnings from major divinities—and her acts cannot be mitigated through proper religious channels. Whereas Homer depicted Circe as a dangerous but controllable female, ultimately loyal to Odysseus, Ovid casts her as a powerful, negative force acting outside social and religious norms. She has become a true “wicked witch.”

Circe’s power to transform men into beasts has fascinated writers and artists for millennia. As just one example, in this 17th-century Flemish painting on view at the Getty Museum, Circe and Odysseus stand surrounded by many more animals than Homer ever envisioned.

Medea (left) brings Jason’s father Aeson back to life with a potion that includes foam from a werewolf’s mouth. Medea Rejuvenating Aeson, late 1870s, after a model attributed to Louis-Simon Boizot. Bronze, ca. late 1870s. The J. Paul Getty Museum, 74.SB.6

In an earlier post about the Greek and Roman ancestors of modern witches, the focus was on Circe, an herbalist with ties to the underworld. Medea, like Circe, was related to the sun god Helios. She was a princess from Colchis, knowledgeable in herbs and plants, who evolved into a dark enchantress by Roman times. She is notorious for massacring her own sons in revenge for her husband Jason’s unfaithfulness. (This dreadful act may have been invented by Euripides, who produced his play Medea in 431 B.C.)

The best source for the backstory of Medea is book III of the Argonautica of Apollonius, written in the 3rd century B.C. Medea’s father guarded the Golden Fleece sought by the famous Jason and his Argonauts, and when Medea fell in love with Jason, she betrayed her family to help him. Apollonius calls Medea polypharmakon, which is translated creatively as “enchantress,” but means “skilled in many herbs” (III.27). In helping Jason in his quest for the Golden Fleece, Medea employed both protective and fatal pharmaka(herbs) stored in a special container (III: 802-3). One of her potent dried plants grew from the blood that once dripped from Prometheus’s body while he was chained to a cliff by Zeus and wounded daily by an eagle (III. 845).

Prometheus’s blood falls to the ground, nourishing a potent herb that Medea uses. Prometheus is being attacked by Zeus’s eagle as punishment for giving humans fire. Drinking cup, 530 B.C. Collection of the Vatican Museums. Via theoi.com

Medea gave Jason the herb grown from Prometheus’s blood to soak in water and rub on his body and weapons. This potion helped him avoid death from fire-breathing bulls and an army of men who magically sprang from the ground. Medea also provided Jason with a liquid sleeping drug to sprinkle on the dragon guarding the Golden Fleece.

As the pair escaped Colchis with the Fleece, Medea participated in killing her brother (or else killed him by herself, or even stabbed him and chopped him up), which distracted her father from pursuit. Back at Jason’s home city, Iolkos, she also tricked the daughters of Jason’s uncle Pelias, the usurper of the throne, into murdering their father. She boiled a cut-up ram in a cauldron with secret herbs and it hopped out, revived and young again. Believing they could similarly rejuvenate Pelias, the girls killed and boiled him, but since Medea did not give them the correct herbs for the broth, the old man’s death was permanent. Jason and Medea were therefore exiled to Corinth.

Medea (at left) brings a dismembered ram back to life with an herbal concoction. Attic black amphora, ca. 500 B.C. Etruscan. Collection of the Harvard University Art Museums

Writers and artists in the 5th century show us a Medea who is a powerful herbalist and murderess, a terrible enemy when wronged, but not yet the evil witch of modern fairy tales. She has secret knowledge and an indomitable will, but she does not control supernatural forces.

Euripides’s 5th-century B.C. version of Medea’s tale begins after she has learned of Jason’s betrayal of her and marriage to the daughter of the king of Corinth. When thinking through various ways to get revenge, including stabbing Jason and his new bride to death, Medea decided to use her knowledge of pharmaka (Euripides, Medea 385). First, to secure asylum for herself in Athens, she told Aegeus, king of Athens, that she could cure his inability to produce children by making him an herbal concoction. Then, to wreak revenge against the disloyal Jason, she smeared a poisoned potion on a gown and golden wreath and gave it as a wedding present to Jason’s new bride, causing her an agonizing death. (789, 1201).

Jason’s betrothed is shown the poisoned golden wreath made by Medea to murder her. Creusa Receiving the Burning Jewelry from Medea (detail), about 1415, unknown illuminator. Tempera colors, gold leaf, gold paint, and ink on parchment, 16 9/16 x 11 5/8 in. The J. Paul Getty Museum, Ms. 63, fol. 9

As the final blow to Jason, she infamously murdered their two sons. She chose to avoid poison and stabbed them with a sword, so the second child had to watch the first one start to die. Vase paintings emphasize the bloody bodies of the children.

Although Medea escapes on a flying chariot at the end of the play, this is a loan from her divine grandfather, Helios, and not the product of her own magic. She is still within the realm of human, although terrible, behavior.

Medea in Ovid

In Ovid’s Metamorphoses (VII.1-179), written about 500 years after Euripedes’s version, the poet clearly associates Medea’s herbs with incantations (songs: carmina, cantus) and secret arts (secretae artes). He characterizes her drugs as “bewitched,” activated by her incantations (incantata herba). She uses potent herbs (pollentes herbae), but they are enhanced by her sung or chanted words (like a witch’s spell). Medea has access to the grasses near the underworld river Lethe, and she teaches Jason the technique for sprinkling a soporific watery drug on the dragon guarding the Golden Fleece. She also teaches him to recite three times the powerful words that bring sleep, calm the seas, and stop the flow of rivers. Such powers more normally belong to the gods.

In Ovid’s telling, Medea now also includes inanimate objects and animal products in her potions, along with herbs. To rejuvenate Jason’s father Aeson (in the same way she rejuvenated the ram that tricked the daughters of Pelias), she makes a hot, bubbling potion with stones and sand from far distant places, the wings and other parts of an owl, the head of a crow that lived for nine lifetimes, and the entrails or foam from the mouth of a werewolf! (VII.234-293).

Is Love an Excuse?

Medea escapes as Jason watches impotently near his dead sons, draped dead across an altar (an allusion to a variant of the story, or perhaps to the sacrilegious act). Mixing Vessel with Medea Departing in a Chariot (detail), about 400 B.C., attributed to the Policoro Painter. Terracotta, 19 7/8 x 19 5/8 in. The Cleveland Museum of Art, Cleveland, Ohio, Leonard C. Hanna Jr. Fund, 1991.1. Photo: Tim Evanson on Flickr, CC BY-SA 2.0

Circe, once attracted to Odysseus by his manliness and smarts in resisting her potion, was in the end not a bad girlfriend. Medea, according to some stories, was compelled by Aphrodite to love Jason obsessively, which explains why she betrayed her family and helped him obtain the Golden Fleece. However, she went far beyond helping Jason, turning into a murderess who used potions and the sword for personal gain and revenge.

It is no wonder that the Medea of today is known as a sorceress and child-killer. Ovid’s descriptions of her behavior, her reliance on underworld forces outside conventional religious rites, her bubbling potions and outlandish ingredients, and her association with the “dark side” of herbs all show her to be a new kind of polypharmakon. Transformed from herbalist to selfish manipulator and poisoner, Medea, like Circe, became another truly wicked witch.

Further Reading

Ankarloo, Bengt, and Stuart Clark. 1999. Witchcraft and Magic in Europe: Ancient Greece and Rome. Philadelphia: University of Pennsylvania.

Apollonius, Argonautica

Berti, Irene, and Filippo Carla. 2015. “Magic and the Supernatural from the Ancient World: An Introduction.” In Ancient Magic and the Supernatural in the Visual and Performing Artsed. Irene Berti and Filippo Carla, 1–18. New York: Bloomsbury Academic.

Collins, Derek. 2008. Magic in the Ancient Greek World. Malden, MA: Blackwell.

Davidson, James. 2001. Magic and Magicians in the Greco-­Roman World. New York: Routledge.

Euripides, Medea

Ogden, Daniel. 2002. Magic, Witchcraft and Ghosts in the Greek and Roman Worlds: A Sourcebook. Oxford: Oxford University Press.

Ovid, Metamorphoses, book VII

Perseus Digital Library, useful for comparing English and ancient texts.

Rocca, Giovanna, and Montserrat Reig. 2015. “Witch, Sorceress, Enchantress: Magic and Women from the Ancient World to the Present.” In Ancient Magic and the Supernatural in the Visual and Performing Arts, ed. Irene Berti and Filippo Carla, 67–78. New York: Bloomsbury Academic.

Scarborough, John. 1991. “The Pharmacology of Sacred Plants, Herbs, and Roots.” In Magika Hiera, ed. Christopher A. Faraone and Dirk Obbrink, 138–174. New York: Oxford University Press.

Stratton, Kimberly B., and Dayna S. Kalleres. 2014. Daughters of Hecate: Women and Magic in the Ancient World. Oxford: Oxford University.

Originally published by The Iris under a Creative Commons Attribution 4.0 International license.