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  • Witch-Crafting in Roman Literature and ArtNew Thoughts on an Old Image
  • Elizabeth Ann Pollard

Historians intrigued by the relationship between representations and realia of Greco-Roman women and witchcraft are faced with a question that is surprisingly difficult to answer: are witches depicted in Greco-Roman art and if so how would we recognize them? Well known are the depictions on ceramics and in statuary of epic characters like Medea and Circe, those prototypical, iconic, semidivine manipulators of magical power. These famed witches are certainly a beginning for such a study. But what about the potential for artistic depictions of what might be called the "common witch;" depictions not connected with a specific literary figure but that would convey the complex concerns of inappropriate power-grabbing, sexuality, role reversal, and suspicion of old age that were central to the fear and accusation of witchcraft that might be performed by more "common" women in antiquity.

It would not seem unreasonable to expect such a depiction. During the Western European late medieval and early modern periods, accusations of witchcraft were accompanied by clear artistic representations of famous literary, as well as more generic, witches. Among the visual motifs of female witchcraft in the early modern period were the witch's kitchen, witches affecting the weather, flying up the chimney, departing for and flying to the [End Page 119] sabbath, and finally witches at the sabbath with the devil or his minions.1 While scholars have debated the extent to which these complex artistic representations inspired and were inspired by contemporary descriptions of what a witch could do, most agree that these depictions of witches are consistent with contemporary fears.2 If the art of the early modern period depicts witches at their artes, might we not also expect depictions of witches in Greco-Roman art? What would be the visual clues that would enable us to recognize them? How can what is known about the complex and suggestive interplay between literary and visual images of witches in the early modern period teach us how to look for witches in Greco-Roman art?

This article argues that Greco-Roman literary descriptions of witches inform us of what we should look for and that some of the candidates in the art that fit that description include the statue type formerly identified as "old destitute" and drunken old women, as well as mosaics and terra cottas depicting the old bawd/nurse in Greco-Roman comedy. While there may not be a perfect correspondence between witches in Greco-Roman literature and art (beyond the famed Circe and Medea), there does appear to be a complex, even potentially dialogic, interplay between literary and artistic craftings of more mundane, drunken, old, witchy women. Whether this new way of looking at these statues, mosaics, and terra cottas is conclusive or not, it provides a useful exercise for thinking about the issues of whether or not, and why or why not, female witches would be represented in Greco-Roman art, how differing audiences may have viewed them, and what exactly might be the link between literary and artistic depictions. [End Page 120]

Early Modern Artistic Depictions of Witchcraft

A brief look at early modern scholarship investigating similar issues offers perspective to historians of Greco-Roman witchcraft looking for possible images of classical witches. Scholars of early modern witchcraft have often recognized the connections between the artistic representations of witches and the contemporary imagination of what witches could do, although the exact nature of that connection is debated, especially given that these images appear in wide-ranging formats, including fairly straightforward illustrations in witch-hunting manuals and classical texts, more elaborate paintings, and finally mass-market broadsheets. While the earliest printed editions of some late fifteenth-century witch-hunting manuals, such as Kramer and Sprenger's Malleus maleficarum, were not illustrated, some of the first visual representations of witches at their craft do appear in illustrations of later editions of the Malleus and in Ulrich Molitor's De laniis et phitonicis mulieribus.3 Although these illustrations did little more than render visually what was going on in the text, artists such as Hans Baldung Grien and Albrecht Dürer...

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Additional Information

ISSN
1940-5111
Print ISSN
1556-8547
Pages
pp. 119-155
Launched on MUSE
2008-10-25
Open Access
No
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