In today’s cultural understandings, witches are seen as old hags, typically with warts on their noses. From Shakespeare’s depiction of Macbeth‘s three witches circling a caldron, to the purported broomsticked witches of the Salem Witch Trials, western conceptions of witches have involved women. However, according to this week’s lecture, our modern ideas of witches are different from those of the ancient Italian love poets Kerill O’Neill covered in his presentation “Human/Nature in Antiquity.”
According to O’Neill, the Ancient Greek poets who wrote about magic and witchcraft often portrayed the “spell-casters” as men, using magic to attract potential romantic partners. The connotations of attaching love to the sometimes nefarious practice of witchcraft extended throughout romantic poetry of the time period, with love being described as a disease, an illness, and other less than pleasant metaphors. Although these connotations don’t mesh well with modern ideas of love as romantically wonderful, they fit with the sometimes gruesome content of the love spells. The spells involved the spell-caster stealing hair or body fluids from the subject, or even creating “voodoo doll” representations of the subject that were ritually stabbed with nails and pieces of metal. The violence of these spells, combined with the popular notion that witches had the ability to control nature, animals, and even the dead, helped to generate fear and respect for them.