Wicked Witches of Latin Literature

AnnMarie Patterson |

Some Halloween Reading For the Unfaint of Heart

 Mosaic of an Old Woman. Catalan Museum of Archeology, Barcelona.
Mosaic of an Old Woman. Catalan Museum of Archeology, Barcelona.


Eggs touched with the blood of a frog, the feather of a nocturnal owl, poisonous herbs, and bones stolen from the mouth of a hungry dog. These are just a few of the potion ingredients that the poet Horace lists in his witches’ brew. The concept is instantly familiar: “double double toil and trouble,” “a hair from my head, add a dash of pox and a dead man’s toe…” these witchy potion-making scenes comprise a fair amount of our Halloween fiction. In fact, several witches from antiquity provide the basis for some of our favorite Halloween characters. It’s easy to see how Horace’s witches – Canidia, Sagana, and Veia – bear a striking resemblance to the Weird Sisters of Macbeth, or the more recent Sanderson Sisters of Hocus Pocus.

Latin literature is packed with spooky episodes featuring gore, ghosts, and demonic attacks, but because of the continuity, the witch passages are my favorite October reading. Simultaneously terrifying and inspiring, the witches of antiquity prove to be some of the greatest female characters in ancient fiction. Some are beautiful enchantresses, some are haggish practitioners of underworld magic, all of them are incredible. If you are looking to enjoy some magical, mystical, and bone-chilling Latin this October, here is a selection of witches and some of their great moments in Latin literature.

1. Seneca’s Medea

One of antiquity’s earliest witches, Medea is a classic. She shows up in so many different authors’ works and I’m always struck by how sympathetic she seems, even when she’s up to dark deeds. One of her most terrifying moments comes in the opening scene of Seneca’s Medea, in which she summons the powers of hell to get back at her ex-husband, Jason, who’s left her for a princess.

Di coniugales, tuque genialis tori,
Lucina, custos, quaeque domituram freta
Tiphyn novam frenare docuisti ratem,
et tu, profundi saeve dominator maris,
clarumque Titan dividens orbi diem,
tacitisque praebens conscium sacris iubar
Hecate triformis – quosque iuravit mihi
deos Iason, quosque Medeae magis
fas est precari: noctis aeternae chaos,
aversa superis regna manesque impios
dominumque regni tristis et dominam fide
meliore raptam, voce non fausta precor.
nunc, nunc adeste, sceleris ultrices deae,
crinem solutis squalidae serpentibus,
atram cruentis manibus amplexae facem;
adeste, thalamis horridae quondam meis
quales stetistis: coniugi letum novae
letumque socero et regiae stirpi date.
“Conjugal gods, and you, guard of the marriage bed, Lucina, and you who taught Tiphys to use a new boat to tame the ocean straights, and you savage ruler of the deep sea, and the Titan dividing up the bright light of the world, and Hecate extending your knowledgeable light to silent rites. Gods to whom Jason swore for me, to whom now it is more right for Medea to pray. Chaos of eternal night, kingdoms turned away from the living, impious shades, master of this sad realm, mistress snatched by a more faithful spouse, I pray to you now with an inauspicious voice. Now, be present, goddess avengers of crimes, filthy with loose hair of snakes, holding a black flame with bloody hands. Be present! Like you were when you stood horrible at my marriage bed. Give death to his new wife, to his father-in-law, and to his whole regal line.” — Medea, 1–18

First Medea names the divinities on which Jason swore when he married her. Minerva who taught him to sail, Neptune who holds the seas, and the patrons of marriage. Then she invokes more traditional deities for witches. Not naming anyone specifically besides Hecate as the goddess of witchcraft Medea calls on Pluto, Proserpina, spirits of the dead, and the avenging furies. This is a classic scene for ancient witches. The underworld deities regularly act as patrons and catalysts for their evil deeds, especially Hecate. In the case of avenging furies, they can even make these deeds seem justified. When Medea opens by marking Jason’s betrayal, I feel for her a little bit, even though she’s sending death to his new in-laws.

2. Ovid’s Circe

No list of witches would be complete without Circe. She’s found new fame since Madeline Miller’s best-selling book released in 2018, but she’s as old as Homer’s Odyssey. An excellent example of Circe’s witchcraft shows up in Latin thanks to Ovid’s Metamorphoses. As the unsuccessful member of a love triangle, Circe uses her magic to a grotesque end as she transforms her romantic rival, Scylla, into the six-headed monster we know her as now.

Indignata dea est et laedere quatenus ipsum
non poterat, (nec vellet amans), irascitur illi,
quae sibi praelata est; Venerisque offensa repulsa,
protinus horrendis infamia pabula sucis
conterit et tritis Hecateia carmina miscet
caerulaque induitur velamina perque ferarum
agmen adulantum media procedit ab aula
oppositumque petens contra Zancleia saxa
Region ingreditur ferventes aestibus undas,
in quibus ut solida ponit vestigia terra
summaque decurrit pedibus super aequora siccis.
parvus erat gurges, curvos sinuatus in arcus,
grata quies Scyllae: quo se referebat ab aestu
et maris et caeli, medio cum plurimus orbe
sol erat et minimas a vertice fecerat umbras
hunc dea praevitiat portentificisque venenis
inquinat; hic pressos latices radice nocentis
spargit et obscurum verborum ambage novorum
ter noviens carmen magico demurmurat ore.
Scylla venit mediaque tenus descenderat alvo,
cum sua foedari latrantibus inguina monstris
adspicit ac primo credens non corporis illas
esse sui partes, refugitque abigitque timetque
ora proterva canum, sed quos fugit, attrahit una
et corpus quaerens femorum crurumque pedumque
Cerbereos rictus pro partibus invenit illis:
statque canum rabie subiectaque terga ferarum
inguinibus truncis uteroque exstante coercet.
“The goddess was enraged, but she was not able to harm him (nor, loving him, did she wish to do so) However, she was angry at her, the girl who was preferred over Circe herself. Offended by the refusal of love, Circe immediately mashes together infamous herbs with wretched, well-worn, juices and mixes in the chants of Hecate. She puts on a blue cloak and heads out from her halls, through the middle of a line of fawning beasts, seeking Rhegium, sitting across from the Zancelian rocks. She proceeds into the waves feverous with heat, on which she set her footsteps as if on solid ground. She runs above the high seas with dry feet. There was a little whirlpool, bending into a curved arc, a quiet place dear to Scylla. Scylla would take herself here, away from the heat of sea and sky, when the sun was at its highest in the middle of the sky and made the smallest shadows from its height. The goddess defiled this place and contaminated it with powerful poisons. Here she sprinkles waters pressed with a harmful root, dark with riddles of new words, renewing the song three times, she sings with her magical mouth. ​Scylla arrives, in the midst of the trap, she descends as deep as her stomach. When she sees her lower half become disfigured with barking monsters, at first not believing that these are parts of her body, she flees, and fears, and drives back the violent mouths of the dogs. But those whom she flees, she drags along with her, and seeking her body, her thighs, her legs, her feet, she finds jaws like Cerberus’ in place of these parts.” — Metamorphoses 14.40–67

We see here another common witch scene: the defiling of a locus amoenus. Many antique witches take hold of a once sacred or beautiful mythical space and convert it into the site for necromancy, enchantment, or in Circe’s case, monstrous transformation. We also notice that Circe is using her magic to take out a romantic rival. This is another near-constant trope with ancient witches. Be they scorned like Medea, rejected like Circe, or passed over entirely as we will see with Horace’s witches, the motivation for their misdeeds regularly seems to involve romance gone wrong.

3. Horace’s Canidia ​

​Now we return to Horace and Canidia. Slightly less popular than Medea or Circe, Candida is one of Horace’s recurring witches. She shows up grave robbing, poisoning, and summoning the dead in various Epodes and Satires. Candida looks a little more like our modern idea of a witch and she acts like one too. Epode 5 features a particularly creepy Candida. Pulling from the Sanderson sisters’ playbook, she works with two other witches to kidnap a young boy and harvests his entrails to make a love potion.

Canidia, brevibus implicata viperis
crinis et incomptum caput,
iubet sepulcris caprificos erutas,
iubet cupressos funebris
et uncta turpis ova ranae sanguine
plumamque nocturnae strigis
herbasque, quas Iolcos atque Hiberia
mittit venenorum ferax,
et ossa ab ore rapta ieiunae canis
flammis aduri Colchicis
at expedita Sagana per totam domum
spargens Avernalis aquas
horret capillis ut marinus asperis
echinus aut currens aper.
abacta nulla Veia conscientia
ligonibus duris humum
exhauriebat ingemens laboribus,
quo posset infossus puer
longo die bis terque mutatae dapis
inemori spectaculo.
“​Canidia, short hair twisted with snakes on her unkempt head, orders fig trees uprooted from graves. She orders funerary Cyprus trees, eggs anointed with the blood of a fowl frog, a feather from a nocturnal owl, herbs, which Iolochos and Hiberia – places ferociously full of poison – sprout forth, and bones snatched from the mouth of a hungry dog. She orders all this to be burned in Cholchian flames. And Sagana, at the ready, sprinkles waters from Avernus all through the house. Her hair spikes up like a sharp sea urchin or a running boar. Veia, held back by no conscience and groaning in her labor, digs a hole into the ground with hard metal. Here a buried boy can die in sight of meals changed out two or three times a day.” — Epodes 5.15–34

I find this to be the scariest passage and also the one which most closely resembles the witch stories I grew up with. Unlike beautiful Circe or sympathetic Medea, Canidia isn’t likable. She’s pure evil. Horace conveys this by making use of another witchy trope: that witches target children. This has become a recognizable basis for so much creepy fiction; the Wicked witches in Oz, Maleficent cursing a baby, and the candy witch from Hansel and Gretel to name a few. They go after society’s vulnerable, and they are presented to us while we are children, leaving us fascinated or spooked for the rest of our lives. If you’re looking for more witch Latin this October, these sorts of passages abound. Not only are there the unabridged passages from which I’ve snipped my selections, but there are also so many others: I’d recommend Virgil’s Allecto, Lucan’s Erichtho, and Statius’ Tisiphone for more reading.


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AnnMarie Patterson

AnnMarie Patterson is a Ph.D. student in Classics at the University of Southern California focusing on epic poetry and Roman art. She loves active Latin, Roman architecture, and Italian food.


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