Been there, done that…
Pliny the Elder, in his Natural History wrote “there is no one who is not afraid of spells”.
In the past few weeks we’ve considered the concept that through the ages the Church viewed witchcraft as a heretical belief, in which those who had rebelled against God had made a pact with his adversary and had to be punished with death. Today some fanatical members of various religious institutions still call Witchcraft the religion of wickedness claiming that the very same evils of yore and worse even threaten God-fearing Society from the world of Shadows. But can we say that crime is related to religion? And what about prejudice? Is religious persecution strictly a “fact” between Christianity and the various Pagan Spiritual Paths?
In 1584 Reginald Scot wrote “that fewer or none (nowadaise) with patience indure the hand and correction of God. For if any adversite, greef, sicknesse, losse of children, corne, cattell or libertie happen unto them; by and by they exclaime uppon witches.”
As far back as we go, scapegoating, malicious false accusations and the attribution of general misfortunes to witchcraft became part of political campaigns throughout history and have been used in every possible manner of agendas to further personal interests at the cost of others or to justify the continued persecution of.
Yet, Scot, and expert on demonology, also remarked that if witches had as much power as was claimed they would have exterminated the human race long ago. Now there’s some bright thinking for you! This very same observation applies with equal emphasis today, when we have to decide whether an Occult Related Crimes Unit is needed in our country or not. We do not deny that there are crimes happening out there, murders, traffic of body parts, rape, cruelty to animals, illegal gang activity, etc. What we are saying is that this very problem, hitherto ignored and treated as irrelevant by our authorities, is being used by some to further their own fanatical agendas instead of addressing the veritous problems of superstition and ignorance; this can only guarantee the continuation of these superstitions and the perpetuation of these crimes instead of bringing them to a halt.
In my opinion, religion and magic are closely interwoven; probably inseparable in our day and age. I understand that such a statement would be viewed as false by a Christian, a Muslim, a Jew, by SAPS, and even by an Hellenic Reconstructionist. According to Robert Parker, “magic differs from religion as weeds differ from flowers”; magic was often seen as consisting of practices that range from silly superstition to the wicked and dangerous. Magic is often differentiated from religion in that it is manipulative rather than supplicatory of the deities; this is not a hard and fast rule, though, and with many ritual acts it is difficult to tell whether they are coercive or supplicatory. “
The Classical World
There must have been without a doubt practicing witches amongst the Ancient Greeks. Being the Goddess of the hearth and home, Hecate was without a doubt worshiped by some witches. Hecate was probably the closest thing to a personal Goddess to these witches. Circe, Medea, Olympias (Mother to Alexander the Great) were all said to be a sorceresses and witches. We must also, however, not forget that Hecate was associated with protection from a lot of things amongst which was witchcraft and witches.
Was Magic part of Ancient Greek Religion? No, according to some modern-day Reconstructionists of the Hellenic Faith, Ancient Greek Religion was not a magical tradition or religion. On the contrary performing magic was seen as an unethical and unjust practice, whose only aim was seeking wealth, or the control of the natural through manipulation of the “supernatural”. The mystical, divinatory and shamanistic side of healing, according them were mislabeled as magic by outsiders who did not understand the difference between the spiritual practices, spellcraft and sorcery; acts that were viewed as impious and directly related to hubris. Many will argue the contrary, because magic obviously existed within every culture at the time, but magic, de per se, had no part within the religion and was greatly distrusted and rejected by the vast majority of Hellenic society.
My Opinion on Spells and Prayer
Allow me to elucidate my opinion. Through Magic one acquires the power to influence people and events around us. Through the use of Nature’s forces, as well as our ability to commune with these and in obtaining their cooperation, the use litanies, incantations and diverse techniques like trance working, but mainly through Will Power, we attempt to manipulate and exercise our influence over our environment. Whilst the excuse is afforded and accorded, the crimes will continue.
In modern-day religion, particularly those of charismatic persuasion, the calling on of a higher power, through petition or prayer, is without a doubt akin to the use incantations utilized in requesting help in times of trouble and to influence in a certain direction certain events in people’s lives and even people’s choices. Praying for people, who have not given consent for invasive intervention, is quite common today. Aside vague subtleties, prayer and working magic are one and the same thing in my opinion. Folk intercede through prayer or spells, but they intercede.
Witchcraft in the Classical Period
Apuleius of Madaura (a Platonist born c. 125 CE), in his “The Golden Ass” gives a lot of information on contemporary beliefs and magical practices. Lucius was accused of practising magic (a common accusation against philosophers at the time), which was outlawed under Roman Law. His hero, Lucius, dabbles in magic and is mistakenly transformed into an ass, to regain it only later through the miraculous intervention of the Goddess Isis. These changes, although explained as external, are allegories of internal changes the initiant underwent before initiation.
The banning of anything remotely viewed as harmful acts of magic was established early in Roman history. The Decemviral Code as well as the Laws of the Twelve Tablets, forbade acts of magic done to negatively affect your neighbour’s crop, in 33BCE all astrologers and magicians were expelled from Rome, in 11BCE Augustus ordered all magical books to be burned, all of the above were reinstated through edicts during the rule of Vespasian, Domitian and Constantine the Emperor. The latter distinguished between helpful and negative magic; helpful magic was not punishable and would be considered as being parts and parcel of the State’s religion.
Imperial Rome swarmed with occultist and diviners, who despite the Lex Cornelia, openly traded in poisons used to assassinate Romans from every walk of life. It is known too, that despite banishing seers, magi, astrologers, wizards and necromancers from the Empire, Augustus, Tiberius and Septimus Severus frequently consulted these wise men. The Sybil of Cumae got her full price for the remaining three books from the Emperor and these were housed as sacred texts and protected by the Decemviri in a temple on the Capitoline Hill.
Fear & Superstition
As we can see the fear and superstitions around witchcraft have always existed; even before the advent of Christianity. Well before the persecutions at the hand of the Church, the Romans exiled and burned their witches as well as their grimoires in a desperate attempt to control religion, the influence of powerful female figures and the various political factions and influences within the State. Laws, regulations and penal codes were employed in the Pagan world as they are still being used today to promote personal, political and religious agendas.
People all over the world have always feared the unknown as well as that which cannot be fully understood or controlled. People feel violated by having their power overridden, not to mention, losing control to someone who through “supernatural powers” can then force one into actions outside one’s natural and rightful control. Fear and indignation drove Romans to the persecution of female witches in particular.
The Romans, to a greater extent than the Greeks condemned the fear generated by magic. Seneca, the philosopher and playwright (c. 5 BCE – 65CE), and his nephew, Lucan (39-65 CE) selected some of the most gruesome of the mythical magical imagery and superstitions built around Medea, Deineira, Circe and even Athena to make this very clear. Medea’s hatred was the crucial fuel of her magic so that its effects would be of cosmic proportions. In Book 6 of the Pharsalia, Lucan portrays the horrors and the powers of witchcraft. Whilst describing how Pompey marched through Thessaly to meet in battle with Julius Caesar and his men, one of his sons consulted Erichtho the famous witch. Lucan’s description of Erichtho demonstrates his loathing and disgust towards the woman whose power was so great that she could command even the lesser gods.
These descriptions are no doubt exaggerations but they also demonstrate to the reader, that the concept of magic the writer wished to convey was a negative one. The roots of these preconceived ideas had its roots steeped in ignorance and fear that witches did not only control the forces of nature, but that they could even manipulate the Gods themselves.
In The Natural History Pliny the Elder deals with geography, anthropology, cosmology, zoology, botany, pharmacology, mineralogy, metallurgy, etc. He deems that the powers of certain herbs and roots were revealed to men by the gods, for the welfare on humanity in their attempt to bring humans ever closer to their own divine status. He explains magic of cosmic sympathetic nature, yet says that magicians exaggerate and spread lies about the results attained by their acts of magic. He says magic is ineffective and infamous, but that it nevertheless contains “shadows of truth”, particularly of the “arts of making poisons”. Yet, Pliny states, “there is no one who is not afraid of spells” (including himself). Pliny does not commend or condemn the amulets and charms that people made, bought and wore as preventive measures, but simply said that “it is better to err on the side of caution, just in case magic really worked”. Pliny did make mention of certain priests of foreign religions, like the Celtic Druids of the Celts in Britain and Gaul whose magic successfully touched the areas of healing, ritual and astrology.
Plutarch defined “‘superstition” as “fear of the Gods/God and mentioned that the fear of the gods lead to the need to resort to magical rites and taboos (and no doubt prayer and supplication), the consultation of professional sorcerers and witches, the use of charms and spells, and the speaking in unintelligible languages in prayers addressed to the gods (speaking in tongues?). Plutarch did however, take dreams and portents seriously, reserving superstition for those who had excessive or exclusive faith in phenomena which was alien to him. It becomes clear to me that it was all a matter of discrimination. Plutarch believed some could harm others through casting the evil eye and that daemons served as messengers between gods and men. He believed such a daemon was what inspired the Delphic Oracle and not Apollo himself. He classified some daemons as good, and some as bad. To sum it up in a nutshell, what superstition is therefore is whatever is not compatible with one’s own philosophical doctrine and terms of reference.
In 1984 the lost autobiographical memoirs of Emperor Augustus (mentioned by Suetonius) were found in the Macedonian Monastery of St. Cyril Methodius, then under reconstruction. Its authenticity was indisputably and categorically ratified by the Master of Michaelhouse College in Cambridge. Allan Macy and scholars of 13 American Universities translated the 2 autobiographical books.
I have re-written it in third person, to respect copyright laws attempting not to alter the mood created by the one who penned these pages…
In these memoirs Emperor Augustus recounts how though he’d been born so near the Temple of Diana and that he’d unfortunately never visited it. As a priest and as a student of the classics, he re-read the sixth book of Virgil’s Aeneid and pondered on the Sybil’s words that the way down to Averno is not hard, for black Pluto’s gates are open day and night. To enter the Underworld one had to pluck the Golden Bough from Juno’s sacred tree, and take it as a votive offering to Proserpine, Queen of the Underworld.
Avernus was on the shores of Lake Nemi (in Aricia) and the sacred tree stood in Diana’s sanctuary there.
Prompted by these thoughts Augustus decided to visit Diana’s grove in Aricia, some distance from Rome.
This visit took place on a pale Autumn day, some two months after Diana’s Festival (13 August) when the groves had been lit by the brilliant flickering of torches carried by the pilgrims and devotees of the Goddess.
Augustus entourage reached to top of the hills surrounding Lake Nemi. The meteoric and volcanic lake, seen from the top of the hill, was like a huge black mirror which took into itself every light in the sky. Hordes of deformed mendicants begged for alms and impeded the Emperor’s pace, notorious Manii of this place. Emperor Augustus was affected by their miasma, disgusted by their misery and grossly deformed features.
Next, the Emperor’s party wove its way amongst the trees moving away from the Lake. In silence they descended the hillside by a rough and rustic winding track. There was no bird-song and not even a slight breeze blew. All was spectrally quiet and Augustus found even the panting and deep breathing of his litter-bearers offensive.
The group was surrounded by oak and chestnut trees. The dark, somber scenery interrupted only by white hart bounding across their path and a wild boar crashing through the undergrowth.
Finally nearing the level of the Lake and standing before the rustic temple, their ears were met by the terrible sound of wailing.
Maco, Augustus’ body guard, on Augustus’ orders entered the Temple and summoned those inside to come out into the open. Maco returned with three women folk, wearing slashed black robes. “Two crones” and a pre-pubescent girl who spoke in an antique dialect which the Emperor could not understand. So Augustus got one of the bearers to translate. The man told the Emperor that the three women were “witches”.
The women explained that they worshiped the spirit of the dead and gave vent to wild laughter and added that the Lake was the gateway to the abode of the dead and that Diana the Huntress was served by a Dead Priest. The priest was a runaway slave and that as someone who had killed/murdered; he had entered the realm of the dead and now served the Gods and Goddesses there.
Augustus bid his men to give the women money as he found it prudent to do so.
The path wound its way round the fringes of the odorous Lake and everybody was plagued by fear of that place. The track then widened into a still uncannily clearing which was covered by little white malodourant flowers.
They crossed the meadow following an avenue of trees as the grove opened up before their processions. A round temple stood in one corner and in it burned the perpetual flamed tendered in honour by priestesses of Diana in her vestal capacity.
The sun became a red orb in the sky and dropped through the trees, lighting every leaf with its incandescent rays.
Augustus disembarked from his litter and was shown where the sacred oak stood alone, whose branches shone like coppery gold. A grim grey-haired figure emerged from the shadows. Lean but big-boned. He wore a yellow shift.
The man carried a naked sword in his left hand. He noticed the Emperor’s entourage, halted and then backed up against the tree. Augustus advance towards him hold out his hands to show that he was not armed, but the man barked out his warning nonetheless. The Emperor told him that he came in a peace but the man retorted in a mixture of fear and anger at their defiance.
“They call me Augustus. I am no runaway slave, but one come to do honour to Diana, and talk to her priest.” Pg 352
Augustus was warned to stand back as the tree was a sacred tree. Whosoever bore its golden bough, commanded entry into the Netherworld.
Augustus asked if he was a Gaul, but the man denied it, telling the Emperor that in the many years he’d served the Goddess, three times he had been challenged as King of the Forest (Rex Nemorensis) and the scars he bore were a demonstration of his long reign. He had vanquished his assailants and sent the contenders for the title of Rex Nemorensis ahead, to prepare his way for him.
Augustus questioned him and he accepted the gifts and the man shook his head. The priestesses of the Temple prepared food for him, which he snatched when they weren’t looking. They kept him well fed.
“When I asked him how he slept a cunning look crossed his have and again he shook his head, as if I was seeking information which would destroy him” pg.353.
Augustus asked him why he’d taken such a cruel and dangerous job, “where every instant he must fear for his life and in which he could find no comfort” pg. 353 and the King of the Forest replied that he served the Goddess and did as she commanded. “She is a jealous Goddess” and would punish him had he declined her calling.
Augustus asked him what had motivated his acceptance of this calling and what he hoped to get for it? The Rex Nemorensis pointed towards the rising moon which created the mirage of a staircase on the surface of the water and which led into the Lake.
The epiphany: The Slave-King wished to step right into Her; he meditated upon that moonlit stairway to the very essence of Goddess, in my opinion a magical act of focus and intent.
Amongst many things the above passage demonstrates that the Witch Cult was already in existence in Ancient Rome, that it was feared and that it was intricately connected with the worship of Diana which went back, all the way to the arrival of Aeneas and the race that stemmed from Numa Pompillus, right at the dawning of the Italian Republic.
I think that any woman capable of defeating a man physically or through the use of mystical powers besides earning their respect, terrified Roman and Greek men.
Although male witches were not uncommon, it was women with ideas above their station who were seen as the real problem in these ancient societies. The stereotype of the ugly old crone dressed in rags was created to instil disgust, fear and dislike in the minds and hearts of the people. Before long, many a poor old woman with an aquiline nose was being stoned to death by the mobs, or being dragged to their houses that were torched. People were made to believe that old crones (strigae/strix) allegedly used babies’ fat and bone marrow to concoct their wicked potions, that they could make a man impotent, that they could shape-shift, affect the elements and the weather, move the stars and the moon through their “encantesimi”. They were reported even to raise the dead, a terrible inconvenience in a political climate where murder was the order of the day. Was this perhaps one of the sources of false perception and information which passed down through the centuries and which is still very prevalent in our day?
The early Italian peninsula was steeped in the ‘everyday magic’ of the street witches, the soothsayers and their love potions and healing spells. Herbalists, female physicians, midwives and wise women were all categorised as witches. The Decemviral code and later the Lex Cordelia laid down penalties including execution for conjuring, divination and other types of sorcery.
Roman witchcraft did not involve Satan or the Devil, but their religio-political agenda used their self-created horrors, prejudice and persecution of witches and prophets, as an opportunity for dealing with all the other unwanted religions (the imported worship of Bacchus and Isis for example) claiming that these religions used harmful magic to affect everybody negatively and that both should therefore be stopped. Roman tolerance had reached its limits and in this manner the elite patrician class attempted to suppress popular religion and replaced with the Culto Statale.
Fear of Being Overthrown
The threat that one could use magic to overthrow the Emperor in Imperial Rome was taken seriously. Nero persecuted intellectual men and magicians for this very reason. People of lower social extraction would be sent to die in the arena, but the affluent and politically powerful would be exiled. After writing his L’Ars Amatoria, Ovidius Naso was exiled to the farthest corner of the Empire (to Tomis in Romania) where he pined for Rome to the day of his death. Book One of The Art of Love was written to instruct men how to find a woman, how to keep her and Book 3 to give women the advice on how to win and keep a man’s love. “I have just armed the Greeks against the Amazons; now, Penthesilea, it remains for me to arm thee against the Greeks…”
“In connection with the revelation that the theatre is a good place to meet girls, for instance, Ovid, the classically educated trickster, refers to the story of the rape of the Sabine women. It has been argued that this passage represents a radical attempt to redefine relationships between men and women in Roman society, advocating a move away from paradigms of force and possession, towards concepts of mutual fulfillment ” Quote from Wikipedia
So, was Ovid exiled because he advocated a change in the Roman Psyche? On this matter Pliny the Elder wrote that Ovid’s exile was due to “Carmen et error” (a poem and a mistake). What mistake? Attending some circles in opposition to the Emperor and having discovered the incest of Augustus with his daughter Julia (who was sent in the opposite direction to Spain).
I believe that “The Art of Love” was not a mere pretext to conceal the real reasons for sending Ovid away. The Emperor feared Ovid’s alliance with Roman women (Roman women could influence their husbands, sons and slaves) as well as with his “opposition”, Fabio Maximus, for the restoration of the rightful heir of the Empire.
Everything Makes Politics
It is my humble opinion that the Agenda behind the resurrected OCRU of the SAPS is motivated by an agenda that aims at the erosion of religious freedoms of certain minority spiritualities (as attempted during the Roman Empire) to remove whatever is not compatible with their philosophical doctrine and terms of religious reference.
Every crime committed in this country is worthy of expert police investigation. People from all religious backgrounds commit crimes but crimes for the mainstream religions are never labelled as Christian Murder, Jewish Fraud or Muslim gang activity. In articles written so far by the media, in particular Christian media, the religious bias towards the minority religions is evident. They are attempting to use the proverbial “bad apple”, or citizen with a criminal mind, to prove that those they group under the Occult Umbrella are evil and that being of the devil, they have a propensity for crime. As Francisco Fumarola wrote : “If someone commits murder and claims that God told them to do it, Christianity is not blamed and the person is believed insane.” Why then is the word Occult being bandied left, right and centre, every time a gruesome murder takes place?
The Media should be keeping us informed of crimes committed and of the successes reaped by our Police Force in their bid to keep the activities of the criminal element in our Society to a controlled and acceptable minimum. However, the more the press is permitted to publish religiously biased titles and sensationalize facts (which should be secret evidence not disclosed not to jeopardize the investigation), the more they hint at the involvement of certain religious minorities in crimes committed, the more the public at large, Pagans included will be convinced that these crimes are more deserving of special attention than other crimes with the same dynamics and psychology but which are not being publicized ad nauseam. The general reasoning is that if crimes of certain nature are being committed, there should be a legal body (ORCU) ready to deal with the nature of these crimes. In my books murder is murder. The violation of the Human Tissues Act, is the violation of the same Act. No matter who does it! The fact that all the evidence is made public, stinks to high heaven to me. It is a deliberate attempt to create a climate of panic and to generate religious intolerance, not to mention the perpetuation of the carte-blanche to “kill the witch”.
Do we not realise the ramifications of such cul-de-sac thinking? The witch hysteria will continue, the unreasoned fears will still move people to falsely accuse others and mob-killings of the innocent will continue to happen on mere suspicion or as a perfect excuse to profit in some way in secret. Martin Del Rio, in his Disquisitionum Magicarum Sex, in 1599, prescribed the death penalty to witches and sorcerers, even if the accused had not killed anyone, harmed anything and were not necromancers or witches. History has a tendency to repeat itself. Rome, the Burning Times, the Salem Trials, the current Witch-craze on African Continent. Will we let thousands of innocent people to be condemned to death on simple hear-say? Without a shred of evidence?
I have nothing against factual newspaper articles, nothing against expertise and the expert solution of an investigation into crime. I object to the use of the name Occult in the name of a police task force, for that implies that those who are “automatically grouped” by religiously-biased thinking, under that label, automatically become suspects and are automatically labelled as evil and as the potentially criminal minds of our society.
Just as we can’t say that Religious Persecution is a strictly a Christian phenomenon so it cannot be said that crime is any way related to religion!
We’ve been there, done that and got the T-shirt!
Pliny the Elder, Natural History
Dashu, M., Roman Persecution, The Suppressed Histories Archives, 2000.
The writings of Plutarch
Ogden, D., Magic, Witchcraft and Ghosts in the Greek and Roman Worlds
The Theogony of Hesiod.Transl.H.E.White (1914)
Homer. and E. V. Rieu, The Odyssey (Harmondsworth: Penguin Books,, 1945
Ovid, Metamorphoses “The Golden Ass” of Lucius Apuleius (1971 Project Guttenberg)
Lethbridge, TC.1962. Witches: Investigating an Ancient Religion. Routledge & Kegan Paul. London
Ovid the Art of Love translated by John Calder (1957)
Virgil. The Aeneid. IV
Augustus by Allan Macy 1984
Seneca, Heracles on Mount Oeta
Rhodius Apollonius and Peter Green, The Argonautika (Berkeley: University of California Press, 1997).
Hellanismos.us forums F&Q