The Witches of Thessaly
Book 6 of Pharsalia, Lucan’s epic account of the civil war between Pompey and Caesar, is set in Thessaly on the eve of the battle of Pharsalus in 48 BCE. Pharsalus is a major Thessalian city, possibly associated with Phthia in the Homeric catalogue and home to the Thessalian hero, Achilles. In Lucan’s epic Erictho is a Thessalian witch, whom Pompey’s son consults for prophecy and she is therefore a pivotal character dominating the events of Book 6. Erictho is foul and repugnant and the descriptions of her magical rituals are gruesome and monstrous. From the text it is clear that by the 1st Century CE the depiction of the Thessalian sorceress had crystallised into an abhorrent image. Another Roman text, which prominently features Thessalian witches is Apuleius’ The Golden Ass. In the novel the hero Lucius travels to Thessaly ‘on particular business’. This business proves to be his obsession with witchcraft. And Thessaly is the perfect place to appease his curiosity since it is ‘renowned the whole world over as the cradle of magic arts and spells’. Apuleius was one of many Roman writers fascinated by the witches of Thessaly. While the depiction of the witch altered dramatically throughout antiquity, the setting of Thessaly remained constant. The classical Greeks and later Roman writers favoured Thessaly as the location of sorcery, magical ritual and witchcraft.
Thessaly’s reputation as a renowned centre of witchcraft has continued to survive since antiquity. The recent publication of The Oxford Companion to Classical Civilisation states: ‘Thessaly boasted an old tradition of witchcraft, the Thessalian witches being notorious for their specialty of “drawing down the moon”’. However this is the only reference made to Thessalian witches in the book and no further explanation or amplification of the alleged practice of witchcraft is made. Similarly, a recent publication on witchcraft and magic in ancient Greece and Rome examines the history of magical beliefs in the Mediterranean world. From centuries of magic in Babylonia, Assyria and Persia the authors conclude that ‘various practices reached Greece and Italy in the pre-historical period, perhaps via Thessaly, a region traditionally associated with witchcraft’. Again the authors attest to Thessaly’s reputation, yet present no evidence as to why this region has become associated with a tradition of magic. Since the classical period Thessaly’s trademark for witchcraft and magic has been assumed, yet never amplified or questioned. References to Thessalian witchcraft occur on a regular basis without any examination. Hence the association of witches and Thessaly has become so commonplace that Thessaly is synonymous with witchcraft.