Academic Minute Podcast

Joel Christensen, Brandeis University – Women, Witchcraft, and Greek Myth

Differences can lead to fear and persecution.

Joel Christensen, professor of classical studies and senior associate dean for faculty affairs at Brandeis University, examines women’s stories from ancient Greece to the recent past.

Joel Christensen (he/his) is Professor of Classical Studies at Brandeis University where he also serves as Senior Associate Dean for Faculty Affairs in the School of Arts and Sciences. He has recently published The Many-Minded Man: the Odyssey, Psychology, and the Therapy of Epic with Cornell University Press.

Women, Witchcraft, and Greek Myth

Witchcraft has a long history of scapegoating women. Fear about women’s power was central to ancient Greek misogyny in myth, focusing on gendered abilities. As early as the creation narrative in Hesiod’s “Theogony” – a poem hailing from between the eighth and fifth centuries B.C. – male gods like Cronus and Zeus were depicted with physical strength, while female figures were endowed with intelligence.

This gendered difference combined with views of bodies and aging. While women were seen to move through biological stages of life – childhood, adolescence via menstruation, childbearing and old age – men’s aging was connected to women, particularly in getting married and having children.

Suspicion about women centered on this perceived influence on life and death, but also included fear about difference. Mythical witches were from distant lands. Medea, famous for killing her children when her husband, Jason, proposes marrying someone, was from the east, a foreigner who did not adhere to the expectations for a woman’s behavior in Greece. Her powers initially increased male virility and life.

Medea learned magic from her aunt, Circe, who appears in Homer’s “Odyssey.” She lived alone, luring men with seductive food and drink to turn them into animals. Once her magic failed when faced with Odysseus’ antidote, Circe believed she had no choice but to submit to him.

These mythical examples overshadow the many lost traditions of women’s healing and song cultures. While ancient women were likely subject to suspicion and slander for witchcraft, there is no evidence that they faced the kind of widespread persecution of witches that swept Europe and the Americas a few centuries ago. The later 20th century, however, saw renewed interest in witchcraft, often in concert with movements empowering women. If fear about women’s power led to paranoia, exploring and embracing witchcraft has become part of reclaiming women’s histories.


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