This doesn’t have anything to do with pokemon, but I was wondering if you might have any thoughts with your Archaeology background: In a lot of stuff written about Greco-Roman mythology I’ve read, Hectate is called a goddess of witchcraft and Circe a witch, and there’s probably other examples I don’t know of. However, I’m not really sure what being a witch would mean outside of the context of Christianity or modern pop-culture. Was this just something that was added in by much later writers?
Well, what is a witch, exactly? Ugly old woman, warty nose, pointy hat, flies around on broomsticks, brews potions in cauldrons, turns people into newts, weighs the same as a duck, that sort of thing? Circe, Hecate and Medea aren’t witches in that sense, no; they predate that stereotype of what a “witch” is by a good couple of millennia. Homer actually calls Circe a θεὸς – a goddess – but a goddess who looks and sounds like a human, and she is the sister of the mortal king Aeëtes (ruler of Colchis and father of Medea) and the mortal queen Pasiphaë (wife of Minos and mother of the Minotaur). What she does to humans and animals is κατέθελξεν – she “bewitches” or “enchants” them, subdues them by magic. A lot of her power seems to come from her mastery of φάρμακα – herbs, drugs, potions – but she also wields a magical ῥάβδος, some kind of wand or staff. “Witch” seems like at least a plausible way of describing what she is, but so does “sorceress,” “wizard,” or perhaps even a magical sort of “apothecary.” The reason “witch” is such a prevalent translation – and in my opinion a pretty good one – is because it gets at what Circe represents to the ancient Greek consciousness: a dangerous woman. If you’re a man in a male-dominated society like ancient Greece – or like the Mediaeval and Early Modern societies that practised witch trials – the idea of a woman being stronger, smarter, or more skilled than you is frightening. Your whole society works around the assumption that men are stronger, smarter and more skilled than women, so a man who admits that a woman is better than him, in any of these respects, is inviting a challenge to his masculinity – to a fundamental aspect of his identity. Which makes it important that you find excuses, at all costs. Those stronger, smarter, more skilled women? They must have cheated. They must have used magic. They must be witches. Circe’s otherworldly powers symbolise the way she inverts the normal order of Greek society by, as a woman, subduing men. Notice also that, in the Odyssey, the restoration of order involves Odysseus having sex with her once she has been defeated (yeah, that bit might have been left out of some of the PG versions, but if you read a full, unexpurgated translation, you’ll see it in there), because sex in Greek culture is about power. Compare to that the range of sexual crimes that Mediaeval witches were accused of – having sex with demons, cursing people with sterility, or (and I swear I am not making this up) making men’s penises disappear. So what’s a witch? A powerful woman that men are scared of. And as long as that’s an idea that has some cultural resonance, Circe is going to keep being a compelling character. To me, that’s a good thing. The world could use a few more witches.