When I started research on magic in mythology, I did not realize the phrase would be so broad. Magic can explain many events in myths all over the world. We need to be more specific when learning about magic.
Are we thinking about women in the forest who collect healing herbs? Are we perhaps referring to revelations we found in tea leaves?
I changed my phrasing to witches in mythology. This is still a vague term, but most mythologies separate gods from witches. Greek mythology was the haziest for this article; however, I found these examples too intriguing to leave out.
Each culture has a different definition of witch. Some witches are dark and frightening figures; others are revered by their people. Collecting five stories for this post has been a welcome challenge.
Hecate, Goddess of Witchcraft
Hecate is one of the most controversial figures of Greek mythology. Because worship of her predates the writings we use for reference–for example, Homer–her origin is disputed. Nonetheless, she remains in their tales as a goddess of witchcraft.
She was also the goddess of boundaries—which in the physical world could mean entrances, borders, and crossroads. Spiritually, she stood at the boundary between life and death. Having this power, Hecate could cross into the Underworld and walk it freely.
When Persephone was taken by Hades, Hecate aided Demeter in the search for her daughter. Since Persephone had eaten the pomegranate seeds, she could not escape the Underworld forever.
Unable to release her from the spell of the pomegranate seeds, Hecate became Persephone’s guide to the Underworld whenever she returned to Hades.
Another figure of Greek mythology, Circe was a minor goddess. Some stories call her the daughter of Hecate and Aeetes, a king in Greek mythology. She is well known for her knowledge of potions and herbs.
She is mentioned in Homer’s Odyssey when Odysseus visits her island, Aeaea, on the way back from the Trojan war. Circe turns most of Odysseus’ crew into swine. Her ability to change people into animals surfaces again in the fate of Picus. He was an Italian king whom she turned into a woodpecker for resisting her advances.
She becomes enemies with the nymph Scylla, whom I wrote about here. When the sea-god Glaucus preferred Scylla to her, she poisoned the water where Scylla lived, turning the beautiful nymph into a sea monster.
The Morrigan is not a witch in the traditional sense. Her ability to shapeshift into a crow is an attribute of witchcraft, and I thought she would fit in this list. She is one of the most famous figures of Irish mythology, linked with war, life and death.
She is one of three war goddesses featured in Irish mythology; the other two are Macha and Neman. The Morrigan is described as being able to predict the names of those who will die in battle. She would use this knowledge to influence wars.
The Morrigan would do this by flying over a battle in the form of a crow. Seeing this crow would strike such fear into soldiers that they would die of fright or fight for their lives.
Völva the Viking Witch
In Norse folklore, the Völva is what we would call a Seeress. The magic they practiced was known as Seidr, a word which literally means “to bind.” Men could also practice Seidr, but it was less common.
The Völva would have been the spiritual leader and healer in a Nordic society. She wore colorful dresses and carried a beautiful staff to help her carry out Seidr.
One of the Völva’s most important roles was communication with the deceased. She would perform rituals in which she would sing songs to attract spirits. The Völva would sit in a very high chair while singing. She might also be lifted into the air, allowing her to see into another realm.
Japanese Animal Familiars
In Japan, some people were believed to keep spirit animals as familiars. If you had an animal familiar, you were considered a witch. This was usually a family affair, and such families were called tsukimono-zukai.
Animal familiars could bring a family wealth and power, but there was a downside. Having an animal familiar made neighbors superstitious. It was difficult to keep friends, and if you were a woman, marriage was nearly impossible.
If a family wanted to be rid of the tsukimono, this could be attempted through exorcism by a Shinto priest. These rituals did not always work. To learn more about the fascinating myth of tsukimono, read this excellent article.
I am eager to do more research on witchcraft and ‘spooky’ myths as Halloween nears. It’s my favorite time of the year–not only does the weather turn crisp and lovely, but the air is full of mystery!