It was always a good opening remark for a witch.
It concentrated people's minds on
what other things might be on this house.”
Terry Pratchett, Witches abroad
Magic and witchcraft were part and parcel of ancient Greek life: magicians and witches sold spells to cure all ailments, control rivals and lovers, and provide personal access to the divine. Society at large was both terrified of and enchanted by – yet also suspicious of – these powers, and certain types of magic were indeed punishable by law. The doublet of witches represented as the prototypes of other witches – both real and fictitious – were Circe and Medea. They appear in literature as early as the seventh century BC.
In book 12 of the Odyssey, Odysseus (the heroic protagonist) narrates how he and his men came across the goddess Circe on an island. She lived there alone with female companions, and wild animals (wolves and lions) walked the land as tame pets. When some of Odysseus’ men arrived at her palace, Circe kindly invited them in, but then gave them a brew which turned them into swine (you can say all you want about men being swine – in the Iliad, being compared to a wild boar was a compliment for a hero, as the animal was associated with battle prowess).
Odysseus had to go in search of his men – luckily he came across the god Hermes on his way, who 1) gave him a herb to stop him from transforming into an animal and 2) warned him he should have sex with the goddess (great advice for any hero!). Having withstood Circe’s potion, Odysseus threatened her with his mighty sword. This made her recognize him as the hero she had been waiting for. She transformed his men back into their former selves and Odysseus and his companions took a gap year on Circe’s island. At the end, Circe gave them sound advice about their further journey: don’t fight the monster Scylla, don’t eat the sun god’s cattle… Do you think they took that? In fact, Circe helped Odysseus more than any other being Odysseus met on his journey.
Later (in a poem called the Telegony), Circe’s son, in search of his father, accidentally killed him with a poisonous spear. He took Penelope and Telemachus to Circe’s island. Then (wait for it) Circe’s son married Penelope and Circe married Telemachus, and Circe immortalised them all.
Medea’s story is a long and complicated one, so I’ll keep things simple. While she was depicted as a goddess in Hesiod’s Theogony, she later became represented as mortal. The two most famous texts that mention her are Apollonius’ Argonautica (third century BC), which narrates the earlier part of her story, and Euripides’ Medea (431 BC) which tells the later part.
Fleeing to Athens, possibly on a chariot drawn by flying serpents, she then tried to kill (with poison, what else?) Athens’ finest hero Theseus, but was discovered at the last minute. Finally, she returned home to find her uncle had usurped the throne. She naturally killed him and put her father back on the throne. Until she died, when she married Achilles in the Elysian Fields (or at least so say some Archaic sources). #happyeverafter
The Welsh written tradition is much younger than the ancient Greek tradition. In Medieval and early modern Wales, witches also abounded, however: similarly to ancient Greece, these women offered cures for common ailments (though perhaps of a more rural type than survive from ancient Greece), and curses were also common. In legend, Ceridwen and Morgan le Fay are the prototypal witches.
Ceridwen first appears in Gerald of Wales’ Topographia Hibernica (Topography of Ireland, 1187). As her son was the ugliest man on earth (Did she just decide this?), Ceridwen decided to create a potion that would grant him wisdom, to make up for his lack of looks. The potion had to boil in a cauldron for a year and a day, and the process was very precise: only the first three drops would convey wisdom; the others were poisonous.
Morgan le Fay is best known from her role in Arthurian legend, as king Arthur’s half-sister who brought him to Afalon after he was fatally wounded at the battle of Camlann. In earlier stories, she was merely a helpful fairy (hence Fay). In the later tradition, however, she became a vindictive and sexually aggressive opponent of Merlin, instrumental in Arthur’s death, even if she still bore him to Afalon. Geoffrey of Monmouth made her a shape-shifter in his Vita Merlini, and Chrétien de Troyes, while he noticed her rivalry with Guinevere, focused on her positive function as a healer. Hartmann von Aue’s Erec, however, depicted her as a wielder of dark magic who had the power to raise the dead, turn people into animals, command dragons, and was companion to the devil.
Morgan might have been modelled upon the goddess-witch Modron. She played a role in Welsh Triad (a selection of Medieval manuscripts) 70 in which a ford was avoided by locals because they always heard dogs barking at night and were terrified of an unseen horror. The hero Urien checked it out, and found a woman washing clothes in the ford. He had his wicked way with her (Eh? What was the logic behind that move?) and she blessed him, telling him that she had been cursed to wash by this ford until she would become pregnant by a Christian. She told him to come see her again in a year’s time, when she’ll present him with their child. Happy ending! Exactly how Morgana might have been modelled upon Modrod is unclear, but there are similarities in name and Modrod is also associated with Afalach, which resembles Afalon.
Similarities and differences
I’m not claiming that the Welsh witches were modeled upon their ancient Greek sisters. The Welsh literary tradition has always been ambiguous towards Classics (see Swansea Emeritus Professor of Latin Ceri Davies’ wonderful 1995 monograph on Welsh Literature and the Classical Tradition), and more often than not rejected Classical models for what it considered its native traditions. At other times, however, it did look to the Classical world for inspiration, and so – while it is not necessary that any resemblances are deliberate – it is not impossible either.
The first thing to notice is that all of these women are originally goddesses, and only in later traditions are referred to as mortal women – in fact they always hover quite uneasily between divine and mortal status, as indeed they do with good and evil actions. All can help the hero on his way, but are potentially dangerous and destructive.
[I came across the website ‘godchecker’, which has as its entry for Ceridwen the following:
You are warned!]
All of them can be found in a liminal space, far away from the normal world, and often near water. Circe lives on an island in a fairytale world not normally visited by mortals, Medea first lives on the eastern shore of the Black Sea and then travels around most of the Mediterranean and Black Sea area, Ceridwen lives at the shore of lake Bala, a huge lake in the middle of Snowdonia in North Wales, and Modron was a washer woman at a ford. In antiquity (even in Roman Britain), water was often seen as a connection point between the mortal world and the underworld (wells, springs, streams, and lakes), and it is therefore not surprising that witches should spring up there.
Their magic isn’t generally concerned with curing common ailments or getting a lover (though Circe does use it in the Roman tradition), but aimed at grander schemes of transformation, whether rejuvenation, immortalisation, or physical transformation, either of themselves or others. Hartmann’s Morgan le Fay commands dragons like Medea, and wild animals like Circe. And Ceridwen shares with Circe the ability to transform into animals (though herself rather than others).
Children and men
Their relationship with children is awkward, to say the least. Circe marries the child of her lover, Medea kills her children, Ceridwen failed to make one child wise and then threw another in the sea, and Morgana’s (possible) son Mordred fatally wounded Arthur.
Sexual promiscuity and rapacity are another similarity. Circe doesn’t just sleep with Odysseus: in later stories, she has other lovers (notoriously Picus and Glaucus – have a look at Virgil’s Aeneid 7 and Ovid’s Metamorphoses 13), but never successfully. Medea falls for Jason, and is also known for her affairs with Sisyphus (the one who keeps rolling the rock up the hill in the underworld), Aegeus (king of Athens), and Achilles (in the underworld). In comparison, the Celtic witches are actually quite chaste: while Morgan was, in later traditions at least, represented as desiring Arthur as well as Merlin, Ceridwen was married and no other men are mentioned. Connected with this sexual licentiousness is jealousy: Circe transformed Glaucus’ beloved Scylla into a monster, Medea killed Jason’s new wife, and Morgan – at least in some traditions – was envious of Guinevere.
Finally, it’s interesting to note that both couplets were only loosely connected in stories. Circe is Medea’s aunt, and yet they only meet once, when Medea and Jason have just killed Medea’s brother and need to be cleansed (that’s book 4 of the Argonautica). Ceridwen and Morgan le Fay are both connected with the Arthurian legend – Ceridwen perhaps most strenuously, through her son Taliesin – though no one ever connected the two figures. It seems that there is only room for one witch in these stories…
When the hurlyburly’s done…
The arch-witches of Greek and Welsh myth had a lot in common: they had an uneasy status and lived in a place removed from normal society, you couldn’t quite trust them to be on your side, they had transformational powers and were generally not very nice to children, and in love they were certainly fervent but never very successful. Some of these powers are still connected with more modern folktale witches: gingerbread houses in deep dark woods, transformational powers, giving apples to innocent children, and brewing love potions... Circe and Ceridwen even had cauldrons! None of our ancient witches, however, wore a pointy hat or used a broomstick. They weren’t ugly either. And warts were completely out of the picture. So why not dress up as a mythological witch for Halloween for a change?
Written by Evelien Bracke
As an after-thought…
Of course the four figures cannot be equated. Their stories are quite different, even if they share some essential characteristics. In fact, you could trace other figures from Greek mythology in the Welsh stories.
The dogs barking near Modron might remind one of Hecate, the goddess of witches in Greek myth whose tell-tale sign of presence were barking dogs.
Ceridwen’s failed transformation of her son resembles the failed immortalisations by Greek goddesses (Thesis failed to immortalise Achilles, Demeter was stopped from immortalising Demophoon, Eos managed to immortalise her lover Tithonus but he withered away because she had failed to ask for eternal youth – in fact Circe seems to be one of the only ones who did succeed).
Ceridwen’s name might be derived from the Welsh cerdd, ‘skill’, which makes her similar to Medea and Metis, the ‘clever/skilled one’. It might also be derived from cyrrid, ‘crooked’. Does Ceridwen’s action of swallowing and then regurgitating her child remind you of a Greek god with crooked cunning? It’s Cronus, the evil Titan god who swallowed his children and was deposed by Zeus.
I know these are all highly tentative connections (and I have only pointed out the most obvious ones), but it’s interesting seeing similar themes pop up in different contexts.