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Magic, witches and curse tablets: Classics professor connects antiquity to today

  • Barbette Spaeth with witch dolls on shelf behind her
    Ancient to modern day:  Barbette Spaeth, professor of classical studies at William & Mary, teaches and researches in the areas of ancient religion and magic. Her courses compare magic and witchcraft in antiquity to today.  Photo by Jennifer L. Williams
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People living 2,000 years ago had beliefs and practices that were quite similar to — as well as quite different from — those inhabiting Earth today, Barbette Spaeth constantly reminds her students. She convinces them by presenting magic, witches and related tools of the trade.

Spaeth, professor of classical studies at William & Mary, teaches and researches in the areas of ancient religion and magic. Her classes are quite popular and draw a cross-section of students across all disciplines and systems of values and beliefs. Teaching her last year before retirement, Spaeth expanded her seminar course this fall to accept more students.

“What I’m always trying to do in my teaching is make the ancient world both unfamiliar to students and familiar to them,” Spaeth said. “Unfamiliar in that we talk about the differences and familiar in that we talk about the similarities.”

With Halloween at hand, W&M News asked Spaeth to tell us more.

What’s covered in your current course Magic and the Supernatural in the Ancient World?

I want the students to think about a number of questions about magic in antiquity and then think about how that relates to the modern western world.

We have this general question that we go over all semester, which is what is the relationship of magic to religion and science? Certain aspects of magic seem more like science — things like alchemy from which chemistry is derived or astrology, which is connected to astronomy and so on.

There are some, you might call them the technical disciplines of magic, that seem sort of scientific to us. And then there are the ones that seem more religious like supernatural healing for example. That’s something that some religious groups still practice today — healing from God or the gods, however you want to think about it — and that was very popular in antiquity.

I want them to think about do people still practice magic today? How do we think about magic in relationship to religion and science today?

And then we look at who practiced magic in antiquity and why. There are magicians and witches and all kinds of different people who did it.

We spend a lot of time talking about witches because that’s what I personally have worked on quite a bit. And here I try to get them to see the difference between Greek portrayals of witches and Roman portrayals of witches. These are literary portrayals. Students work through different texts to see the characteristics. Then, I try to point out to them that there are basically two kinds of witches, which we still have today.

You’ve got the beautiful, seductive witch like the Greek Circe who seduces men, uses love charms and so on. Then you have the old, ugly, haggard witch like the Roman Erichtho who is out to kill people and eat human flesh or whatever, and that is the more Roman type of witch. Then, we talk about why these differences might exist in the two cultures.

We talk about specific tools that are used today such as wands and top hats, and what specific tools were used in antiquity. We also talk about supernatural powers and creatures. There were werewolves, for example, in antiquity, and a kind of creature that seems sort of like a vampire. We talk about modern ideas of supernatural creatures and ancient ones — where they overlap, where they don’t.

And we discuss how you contacted the supernatural and about how magic was related to mystery cults in antiquity; that is, cults that involve secrecy and special rituals to manifest the supernatural to their believers.

I try to connect those things, the things from antiquity with the things today throughout the entire course, and then we close with a look at how the state tries to control magic, how that happened in antiquity and whether it happens today. The Greeks weren’t so much interested in that issue. The Romans had a lot of laws about magic, particularly black magic.

How does that connect with next semester’s course The Witch in the Western World?

That course is a COLL 100, and so oral presentations are the whole point of that.

This course starts in antiquity, so there’s this part that is all about classical antiquity — the same material about magicians and witches and tools and all of that. But at the end of that section the students all have to write a curse or a prophylactic spell, which is intended to protect you against a curse, and recite it in class.

They have a lot of fun with this. They sometimes fall into the character of someone in antiquity, or sometimes they invent something for themselves. I’ll be interested to see next semester if we maybe get students who write a curse against COVID-19, for example.

In the second part of the class, we jump to early modern Europe, and we look at the witch craze, which peaks in the 1400s to 1500s, and then in the 1600s you see it here in the United States with the Salem witch trials. I take the students to Colonial Williamsburg and they see “Cry Witch,” the play that they do there, and we talk about how such trials worked in class. I get them to participate in a reconstruction of one of the Salem trials so that they can see how it would feel to be accused of witchcraft. We all play different roles in that.

In that part of the course, students look at how are witches portrayed in art of the early modern European period and how does that reflect ideas about witches. They each pick a work of art that they investigate in detail, and then they give a presentation about that.

The final part is all about modern witchcraft. I talk about Wicca, Satanism and a number of others including the new Druidism for example. After the end of that section, they produce a presentation on some aspect of witches that they have investigated on their own, so they pick a topic that they’re really interested in.

Can you explain a little about your research on witchcraft?

I’ve published two articles, and I’m in the process of working on another one that deals in the topic of magic. And I’ve given a number of papers at both scholarly and Neopagan conferences on the topic.

The first article that I wrote on this was on what’s called the night hag — this witch figure that appears in the middle of the night and attacks people, usually rendering them speechless and doing horrible things to them at night.

I called it “The Terror that Comes in the Night,” because it’s connected to actually a medical condition that people will have where they’ll wake up and imagine these kinds of things happening. They’ll sort of wake up and feel like they can’t breathe and they imagine they are being attacked by something supernatural. A book on that psychological phenomenon is called “The Terror that Comes in the Night,” so I thought this title would be really appropriate. So there I looked at Roman stories that talk about witches who strike in the night, and considered the question why do people tell these stories? What do they mean?

The second article is an analytic study of the differences between Greek and Roman witches. It’s called “From Goddess to Hag: The Greek and the Roman Witch in Classical Literature.” That one appeared in a general study of witches in the ancient world called “The Daughters of Hecate: Women and Magic in the Ancient World.”

You’ve got two different types of witches; they come from two different cultures largely. Why? And how do you explain that whole issue? In what ways are the witches similar, and in what ways are they different? I spend a lot of time in that one working out those issues and then speculating as to why the differences might occur.

Can you describe your current work on a paper about a curse tablet, which in antiquity commonly was written on a thin sheet of lead and read aloud before being strategically placed?

A curse tablet is an actual example of magic. This one comes from a building in or near a sanctuary of the goddesses Demeter and Persephone in ancient Corinth in the Roman period.

The curse is a woman attacking another woman by wishing her to have constant menstruation so that she can never conceive a child, and also wishing fertility for herself so that she can conceive a child. So she’s punishing this other woman by taking away her fertility, and she is also asking the gods to give her fertility in the curse.

It’s a category of curse tablet that’s called a prayer for justice, where if you feel you’ve been unjustly attacked by somebody, you can retaliate in this way. I consider what might have caused this kind of curse. Who might have attacked the woman and why?

What I ultimately suggest is I think this may be two women competing for the same man. In antiquity, the most important characteristic of a woman was that she could bear children, and so taking away fertility is a major way to attack another woman and make her unappealing to a man.