I am of the rather strong opinion that modern witchcraft has no place in Hellenismos--especially when that witchcraft is defined as acts which allow humanity influence over their lives and those of others, outside of the realm of the Gods. I call anything else 'praying', and if you need tools for that, than I take no issue besides the fact that it's non-Traditional--save for when it is. As a blogger with that opinion, I sometimes get asked 'but what about all the witchcraft in the classics?', and it's a good question. I shall attempt to explain today why I feel the two are not the same, and how these displays of magical abilities are actually proving my point for me. Before I do so, though, I want to stress that I take no issue with witchcraft itself; I practiced it for years--abide sporadically--and think it's a beautiful, powerful, thing. This post is about witchcraft in Hellenismos, nothing else.

The most famous witch in Hellenic mythology is undoubtedly Kirkê (Κιρκη)--better known by her Roman name, Circe. She is the woman whom Odysseus comes upon on the island Aiaia, who turns his men into pigs, and keeps Odysseus with her--and in her bed, no less--for a year before she helps him get back to his quest to return home. The account of Kirkê is one of the founding myths for the modern witch stereotypes: she is the evil temptress, free with her sexuality, and freeer with the magic that women possess by nature. She seduces Odysseus while beguiling his men, transforming them into docile animals--de-humanizing them, and stripping them of their masculinity. In the end, Odysseus overcomes her, and leaves, outside of her grasp forever. At least, that is the modern interpretation of her character.

Kirkê, in the time of Hómēros was not evil at all, yet she was dangerous. Like all men of his time, Hómēros understood very little of women, knowing mostly that they did strange things to the minds and body's of men when men laid their eyes upon them. Remember; ancient Hellas was a place where adult men and adult women rarely happened upon each other in a setting where they were allowed to interact. For men, women were almost an entitrely different species.

Kirkê, when looked at through the lens of ancient Hellenic society, is Odysseus' superior by far. It may seem a bit off-topic to go into this, but I must to make my point. Kirkê is the daughter of the Sun God Helios--which makes her a Goddess in her own right, but a more accurate term would be 'Nymph', putting her in control of nature. Her pedigree--by default--means that Odysseus can never master her, as Odysseus may be the favorite of the Gods, but he is not divine himself. Looking into the account in book ten of the Odysseia, there are a variety of ways in which Odysseus is established as respecting and enjoying Kirkê's influence in his life, and even more ways in which it is established Kirkê is his superior:
  • Kirkê is of divine blood, while Odysseus is human
  • Odysseus needs moly, a herb which acts as a potion, provided by Hermes in warning, to counter the effects of Kirkê's potion
  • Kirkê is established as an expert in her craft, while Odysseus is unskilled enough to need the help of the Gods
  • Kirkê is shown as a good woman--and a good wife--by stressing her expertise in crafts
  • When Kirkê lifts her rod to Odysseus, he takes it as a thread, bringing out his sword to meet her--in short, he finds her powerful and worthy enough to percieve her as a threat
  • The two come to an agreement and an oath which they can both live with, with the purpose of establishing thrust between them
  • Kirkê is shown as keeping her oath--something very honorable in ancient Hellenic mythology and society
  • Odysseus is shown enjoying the time he has spent with Kirkê, as equals
  • Kirkê keeps her word, and lets Odysseus and his men go without harm; she even gives him good advice
  • When she transforms his men back, they are younger and more powerful than before
So, what of her magic? Kirkê is a Goddess whose powers manifest through herbs; what she does to men is not much different as many other--more powerful--Gods do unto humans as well with just a thought; Hellenic mythology is full of humans who get turned into animals (or plants) for their protection, or for the protection of the God in question. It's important to note that in the Odysseia, Kirkê's 'victims' are happy and domesticated; they are friendly and curious to visitors and Kirkê alike.

Kirkê's superiority to Odysseus matters, because it takes her away from her being a 'temptress' and inherently evil. Being allowed to spend a year with her is an honor to Odysseus in the same way sexual advances of a (male) God upon a mortal was considered an honor--or at least a privilege of the deity in question. In fact; Kirkê's status over Odysseus takes her away from being a witch in the modern sense; she is a Goddess, and as someone lower in standing, Odysseus' wishes are something she can take into advisement but only needs to agree upon out of a sense of honor, not because her magical hold over him has broken. She never controls Odysseus--the moly establishes that--and they work out an agreement where they are on roughly equal footing, with Kirkê forever having the upper hand, but bound by her personal honor and oath to Odysseus. Her magic--her divinity--is made a moot point between them.

If we look at Kalypsô (Καλυψω), another Nymph-Goddess in the Odysseia, we can see the similarities between her and Kirkê, but also the obvious differences. Like with Kirkê, Odysseus makes Kalipsô swear an oath for his safety, but their truce is shaky one; Kalypsô is not a better witch, though, she is a worse woman. It is not her magic that Odysseus mistrusts, but her. Kalipsô is over-emotional and willing to push the boundaries of her oath whenever she can. Kirkê, on the other hand, is emotionally stable, and does not burden Odysseus with her sadness at his leaving. She helps him along, makes him and his men better, and offers advice and prayers to the Gods. Kalipsô only cares about keeping Odysseus with her, and she keeps him for a much longer period of time. She also curses the Gods for her faith in life. She is a trickster, and Odysseus does not trust her--but again, this is not to do with her witchcraft, but her person. By ancient Hellenic standards, Kalipsô is an undesirable woman due to her emotions and trickery, but it is separated from her powers, both in her character, as in the way she is viewed by Odysseus.

There are also male characters in the Odysseia who possess 'magic'. Aeolus (Αἴολος) is the son of Hippotes, who was the son of Mimas, who was the son of the first Aeolus, who, in turn, was the son of Hellen, the daughter of Deukalion and Pyrrha. He was the Keeper of the Winds in Hellenic mythology, and in the Odysseia, he is first welcoming to Odysseus and offers him the power of the winds. When he squanders it, however, Aeolus refuses any further help and nearly de-humanizes Odysseus by focusing on his humanity in a highly negative way--something Kirkê never needed to do, because her status was already well established--and so was his. Aeolus is technically human, but his power is established as divine, not magical by today's standards; in later works, he is even made into a minor God so the link between his powers and divinity is more obvious.Again, his personality is not tied to his power; Aeolus is a petty man, not because of his magic, but despite of it.

Proteus (Πρωτεύς) in the Odysseia is already a God, but Herodotos traces his line back to the kings of ancient Egypt. In the Odysseia, Proteus has the power to transform himself into frightening shapes--a trait he shares with many Gods who can and will change their shape at will--and thus his powers are not magical either, but divine.

In conclusion, the Odysseia gives plenty of reasons why the words 'witch' and 'witchcraft' are dangerous for modern interpretation. These powers--and those that use them--are established as divine, taking these powers fully outside of the realm of humanity. Yes, there was 'magic' and 'witchcraft' in ancient Hellas and its mythology, but not in the way we know it now; this was divine magic; a manifestation of a trait major Gods manifest with a thought. These lesser deities require a medium to manifest their powers--especially in the case of Kirkê and Kalipsô--but their powers are still the powers of a God. This is exactly why I feel we, as Hellenists, should pray to the Gods for any aid we might require, and blessings we would wish upon our lives; to practice magic ourselves would be to equate ourselves with the (minor) Gods, and Hellenismos is clear upon the status of humans: we are human, not divine. To practice magic, is to practice hubris, and that is decidedly dangerous in a Hellenistic context.