Thessalian Witches

By Owain Williams

Witches appear with a surprising regularity in ancient Greco-Roman literature. Circe and Medusa are the archetypical witches from mythology. Both reside in peripheral areas to the ancient world, Circe on the mythical island of Aiaia (Odyssey 10.135), Medea in Colchis, in the Caucasus (Euripides, Medea 1–2; Herodotus, 7.62; Pindar, Pythian 4.11–12). It has been noted that Circe’s name might suggest that she too comes from the Caucasus (see Mayor, Colarusso, and Saunders, 2014, p. 451; see also Diodorus, 4.45), which, given that Medea is Circe’s niece (Hesiod, Theogony 956–962; in Diodorus’ account they are sisters, 4.45.6), is certainly plausible. Circe polypharmakos (Odyssey 10.276, ‘knowing many drugs’) is best known for transforming Odysseus’ men into animals. Medea is likewise known for her poisons/potions (pharmaka can be both harmful and helpful), which she originally is said to use for good ends (Diodorus, 4.46.1), but ultimately uses them to poison Creusa (Euripides, Medea 784–788). By the first century BC, in Rome, Circe was so associated with magic that witches could be called ‘Circean’ (see Ovid, Amores 3.7.89).

By the fifth century, however, we see the start of a long-lasting tradition that associates witches (and magic generally) with a particular region of ancient Greece – Thessaly. The earliest record we have of this association is in Aristophanes’ Clouds, in which the characters Strepsiades talks about having a Thessalian witch ‘draw down the moon’ so that he need not pay interest on his debts (746–757). As Edmonds notes, “Aristophanes’s joke about Thessalian witches drawing down the moon shows that he expected his audience to understand the reference, to know stories about Thessaly, about the strange women there, and about their strange powers” (2019, p. 49). Clearly, by the fifth century BC, Thessaly had garnered a reputation for magic and witchcraft. 

Circe turns Odysseus' men into animals (Lucas - Flickr)

This reputation would continue into the Roman world. Plautus’ Amphitryo, for example, mentions a male Thessalian sorcerer (1043–4). The theatrical works of Plautus and other Republican playwrights often adapted Greek dramas for a Roman audience. Unfortunately, we do not know the exact play that the Amphitryo is based on, but it certainly might have been one avenue through which this Thessalian reputation entered the Roman imagination. 

By the Roman imperial period, Thessaly’s reputation was still going strong. “Thessalian incantations” appear in Horace’s Epodes (5). Martial references a “Thessalian wheel to draw earthward the moon” (9.29), which he elsewhere calls a “Colchian wheel” (12.57), connecting the historical region of Thessaly with the region most associated with witches in myth. In book 6 of his Pharsalia (otherwise known as On the Civil Wars), an epic poem recounting the civil war between Julius Caesar and Pompey, Lucan includes a passage describing the magic of Thessalians, dwelling upon the figure of Erichtho, whose “tread blights the seeds of the fertile cornfield, and her breath poisons air that before was harmless” (521–522) and is capable of raising an army of the dead: 

Had she tried to raise up the whole army on the plain and make them fight again, the laws of Erebus would have yielded to her, and a multitude, brought up from Stygian Avernus by the power of the fiend, would have taken the field (633–636).

The most prominent appearance of Thessalian witches in Greco-Roman literature, however, is Apuleius’ Metamorphoses (or The Golden Ass). Apuleius’ story begins in Thessaly and very quickly we meet two Thessalian witches, Panthia and Meroe (1.12). 


Witches were very much meant to be figures that represented marginalisation. Firstly, they were typically women, people who were not fully enfranchised in the Greco-Roman world, residing on the political periphery. Secondly, they usually came from peripheral areas, such as Colchis, the fringe of the ancient Greek world, making them Barbarians (in the sense of ‘foreigners’). A witch, however, did not need to satisfy these two basic elements, particularly the second. Indeed, Thessaly, by the Roman period, was no longer a peripheral area. It had, of course, once been, such as in Aristophanes’ day, but even then, it was hardly Colchis! Clearly, by the Roman period, Thessaly’s reputation for witchcraft had become firmly entrenched. 





A. Mayor, J. Colarusso, and D. Saunders, ‘Making sense of nonsense inscriptions associated with Amazons and Scythians on Athenian vases’, Hesperia 83 (2014), 447–493.


Radcliffe G. Edmonds III, Drawing Down the Moon: Magic in the Greco-Roman World (Oxford, 2019).

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