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  • Writer's pictureEdio

Medea as a working witch




Sarah Illes Johnson may be a familiar guide for devotes of Hecate from her earliest book “Hekate Soteria”, which was a foundation for many of us working to find Her history, and perhaps give historical context to our own “unvalidated religious experience”.

Scholarly reviews of what has come to us from the existing Greek and Roman literature can give us insight into Her stories and how other devotees have seen Her, allowing us to follow Her journey through history to our present. Because so much of this literature has been lost and what remains to us has been told and retold, sometimes changing over time, It’s good to have someone with Dr Johnson’s level of mastery to introduce us to this material.      

Sarah Johnson’s other works may be of some interest as well, specifically her books, Hekate and the Restless Dead and her book on ancient greek divination. Her most recent book of Greek Mythology is more for a popular audience but it’s a good read that pulls together many of the stories about the Greek pantheon and their humans. It’s out on Princeton University press. (Ask your library to order a copy for the youngsters).

She’s worked on Medea quite a bit as well and a quicker read about Medea as a working witch can be found in her recent blog post over on Linkedin.

A brief “fair use” bit excerpted from this Medea post follows here, ( brief, because you know, copyright lawyers): She writes:

“…Medea, who not only gives Jason the knowledge and the magical salve that will allow him to survive the challenges that her father sets, but who also leads Jason to the tree where the Golden Fleece hangs. Then, according to the best-known version of the story, by the Greek author Apollonius of Rhodes, Medea herself conquers the dragon that coils around that tree, guarding the Fleece. To do so, she chants a spell that conjures sleep and uses a juniper sprig to shake a potion that she has created onto the dragon’s eyes. Jason leaps forward to snatch the Fleece from the tree only after the dragon has crumpled to the ground, insensible….

In the years between the two books, I had learned more about Medea and about the craft that she practiced. Nowadays, she is frequently referred to as a witch, a term that often implies either an inborn ability to practice magic or an ability that is bestowed by some supernatural power with whom the aspiring witch has made a deal".

"There is no ancient Greek equivalent of the word ‘witch,’ however, in that sense of the word. The Greeks talked about magicians, who were understood to have acquired their craft through long study and apprenticeship to experts…

All of the real practitioners of magic whom we know about from historical Greece were men, but in myths, a few women are represented as practicing magic as well, Medea and her aunt Circe being the best-known examples. In her novel Circe, Madeline Miller portrays Circe as dedicating a great deal of time and effort to learning the properties of natural substances and how to use them—a portrait that is already hinted at in ancient texts. In the Odyssey, for instance, Circe is described as using pharmaka, a noun that embraces plants and all manner of other natural substances that can be used in spells, as long as the practitioner knows what they’re doing. The Roman poet Ovid describes Circe as ‘knowing well the potency of every leaf, what ingredients to mix together and how much of each.’ The Greek historian Diodorus Siculus credits Circe with discovering the natures and powers of many hitherto unknown plants—although he also notes that she learned a great deal from Hecate, whom Diodorus idiosyncratically makes Circe’s mother. Diodorus makes Medea the daughter of Hecate, as well, and thus the sister of Circe, and he claims that Medea learned ‘all the powers that pharmaka possess’ from her mother and sister. In Gods and Mortals, I developed this and other ancient references to Medea’s studious acquisition of her knowledge into a picture of Medea as a dedicated scholar of magic….

We have all but lost sight of this learned Medea, nowadays. Maria Callas, Diana Rigg, Fiona Shaw and others have given us brilliant portrayals of the cheated wife and tortured infanticide, but the woman who labored to acquire a knowledge of where the hidden powers of the cosmos were lodged and how to put them to use has seldom been celebrated, or even contemplated. We need to return to Medea, again.”

Sara Illes Johnson is, as far as I can tell, not a witch or devotee herself, but perhaps she holds a different set of keys that can unlock useful ways of knowing that skillful weavers here can add to the warp and weft of their personal practice.

B.B., Y’all!


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Rated 5 out of 5 stars.

I've read both Hekate Soteira and the Restless Dead, and the latter was very inspiring for my work for the restless dead which I've picked up again after moving house. Indeed it sometimes is a slog to read, but so worth it! And all the work and effort she has put into those books to complete them, it are little library's of knowledge...

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This is fascinating. Every now and then, Medea comes to my attention, and every time, I feel like I ought to look more into Her and Circe and get to know Them a lil bit more than I currently do. Perhaps this is another sign to dive into that work again.

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Edio
Edio
Feb 26
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Glad you found in interesting. She's certainly one of our more powerful ancestors, and she's represented as murdering a king and then her own kids! Her PR hasn't been the best, but I put this up to her being a powerful ( and maybe ruthless) woman whose story threatened the existing power structures of the time. I like that she's shown as hard working devotee of Herself, learning about the power of plants and other forms of sympathetic magick.

BB on your journey as a working witch!

Ed

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Sandra Maria
Sandra Maria
Feb 23
Rated 5 out of 5 stars.

This is such an interessting topic. I really would love to know more about Medea and Circe, their studies, their practice and their relationship with Hekate.

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Edio
Edio
Feb 26
Replying to

Glad you found it interesting. Dr. Johnston's book may be inspiring for you. Its price is steep (68$), but your library may be able to borrow a copy for you. SHe's good writer but bits of it are a slog. She writes about all the different ways Medea has been seen over time- often contradictory, always changing- much like H. herself. She was certainly a devotee, maybe an actual or adopted daughter. For myself, I see her as a magickal herbalist and an ancestor to modern practice.

BB for your own practice as a working witch!

Ed

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