“…make these drugs of mine as potent as those of Circe…”
Fatal Women from Myth to Magic

  Zografou, Athanassia. 2023. “'…make these drugs of mine as potent as those of Circe…': Fatal Women from Myth to Magic.” In “Γέρα: Studies in honor of Professor Menelaos Christopoulos,” ed. Athina Papachrysostomou, Andreas P. Antonopoulos, Alexandros-Fotios Mitsis, Fay Papadimitriou, and Panagiota Taktikou, special issue, Classics@ 25. https://nrs.harvard.edu/URN-3:HLNC.ESSAY:103900196.

In Theocritus’ Second Idyll, entitled Φαρμακεύτρια, Simaetha, a woman living alone, possibly a courtesan, [1] neglected by her lover, performs a private ritual of a hybrid nature, that is, at the same time, ritual binding and spell of erotic attraction. [2] The ritual includes speech acts and various ritual actions, such as burning of incenses of various ingredients, melting of wax as well as the use of a special device called ἴυγξ. [3] Therefore, the term φάρμακα (lines 15, 161–162), which is directly related to the title and roughly synonymous with the words φίλτρα or θρόνα, “potions,” [4] could apply to all these elements. However, in a more specific sense, φάρμακα refer to the herbs possessed by Simaetha, which, according to the idyll, have been prescribed to her by an Assyrian and were kept in her chest (τοῖά οἱ ἐν κίστᾳ κακὰ φάρμακα φαμὶ φυλάσσειν, / Ἀσσυρίω, δέσποινα, παρὰ ξείνοιο μαθοῖσα [5] ).
A prominent role among the plants to be utilized is held by the laurel mentioned right at the beginning of the Idyll (line 1): Πᾷ μοι ταὶ δάφναι; … Πᾷ δὲ τὰ φίλτρα; (“where are my laurels and where are my potions?”). The mention of the laurel in this context recalls the mime of Sophron, which, as per ancient commentaries, served as inspiration for Theocritus. [6] Although laurel is the only one of the herbs specifically mentioned, [7] it would be too far-reaching to attribute this emphasis to a direct connection between the laurel and the name Delphis, as Gow points out. [8]
Before proceeding with the ritual, Simaetha addresses Hecate in an introductory prayer: [9]

χαῖρ᾽, Ἑκάτα δασπλῆτι, καὶ ἐς τέλος ἄμμιν ὀπάδει,
φάρμακα ταῦτ᾽ ἔρδοισα χερείονα μήτε τι Κίρκας
μήτε τι Μηδείας μήτε ξανθᾶς Περιμήδας.

hail, grim Hecate, and to the end attend me, and
make these drugs of mine as potent as those of Circe or Medea
or golden-haired Perimede. [10]

Theocritus Idyll 2.14‒16

Within the frame of this prayer, Simaetha activates, at the same time, three mythical examples of φαρμακίδες asking for becoming herself the ideal performer. [11]

  • First, there is Circe, who is known in Homer as πολυφάρμακος (“who knows many drugs”) and the daughter of the Sun, referred to as θεός δεινή (“a terrible goddess”), even before the concepts of magic and witchcraft had developed as distinct notions in ancient Greece. Circe later became the archetype of every φαρμακίς. [12] Her unique connection with the world of nature includes her renowned ability to transcend through the boundaries between different species. [13]
  • Medea, the niece of Circe in Hesiod, [14] is regularly portrayed in later sources as a witch with a solar aura, inheriting her talents from Circe. [15] In various mythical traditions, Medea is associated to Thessaly, which is known as the land of female specialists in φαρμακεία. [16]

From the Hellenistic period onwards, these two female figures are often mentioned together in the works of Greek and Latin writers; they are primarily recognized as authorities in ιζοτομία (“the gathering of roots for the purpose of witchcraft”) and φαρμακεία (“witchcraft by the use of drugs”). [17]

  • Perimede appears to be an independent figure, who recalls—via both her name and her description—“fair-haired Agamede,” daughter of Augeias, “the Bright,” the ruler of Elis in Peloponnese. In the Iliad she “knew all medicinal/magical herbs (φάρμακα) that the vast earth nurtures” (11.741). Her father’s name, Augeias, is derived from the noun αὐγή (“radiance”), which is also found in the Homeric formulaic expression ὑπ’ αὐγὰς ἠελίοιο (“under the sun’s rays”). [18] Agamede/Perimede, regardless of any potential original connection with Medea, is perceived as a distinct figure by the poets. Perimede is mentioned alongside Medea in an elegy by Propertius within the context of seeking an erotic antidote: “neither the herbs nor the night spells of the daughter from Cytaea (Colchis), nor the herbs that Perimede has handled, are effective against love” (Εlegiae 4.8).
Theocritus further emphasizes the affinity between these three figures, Circe, Medea, Perimede; in the sequence in which he mentions them, from the shortest to the longest name, they are intertwined to one another: Circe and Medea share a genealogical connection, while Medea and Perimede are linked both phonetically and etymologically through the verb μήδομαι (“plan,” “intend”). Additionally, these figures progressively lead from an exotic and distant world to a familiar one: from the mythical island of Aea to the far-off and barbarian Colchis and, from there, to the familiar Elis, the realm of Perimede/Agamede. Thus, this mythological chain serves as a bridge between the lovesick courtesan and the goddess Hecate (whose relationship between Circe and Medea is well documented in various ways), while bringing the miraculous events of myth closer to the present reality of the ritual.
Further down the text, another exemplum is interjected within Simaetha’s incantation, that of Ariadne:

ἐς τρὶς ἀποσπένδω καὶ τρὶς τάδε, πότνια, φωνῶ·
εἴτε γυνὰ τήνῳ παρακέκλιται εἴτε καὶ ἀνήρ,
τόσσον ἔχοι λάθας ὅσσον ποκὰ Θησέα φαντί
ἐν Δίᾳ λασθῆμεν ἐϋπλοκάμω Ἀριάδνας

Thrice do I make libation, Lady, and thrice cry thus;
whether it be woman that lies by him now, or whether man,
may he as clean forget them as once, men say,
Theseus forgot in Dia the fair-tressed Ariadne

Theocritus Idyll 2.43–46

This time, it pertains not to a mythical φαρμακίς, but to the daughter of Minos, who was abandoned by her lover, Theseus. It is this fate of abandonment that Simaetha seeks to inflict upon her rival; however, the story of Ariadne’s abandonment rather illuminates the emotions and experiences that the Theocritean heroine, Simaetha, undergoes herself. [19]

Theocritus skillfully transforms a private ritual into a poetic composition, harnessing the power of ritualistic language to convey a vivid narrative of intense passion. [20] In this context, not only is the exemplum of unhappy Ariadne ambiguous, but also the other invoked mythic paradigms similarly entail a certain ambiguity. Suffice it to recall that both Circe and Medea, although generally effective, ultimately fail in love. [21] Through this ambiguity, Theocritus merges two interchangeable aspects of magic; thus, magic can be seen either as an extremely potent and effective means or as a deceitful path, thereby offering a somewhat dubious approach to dealing with love. [22] At the end of the Idyll, it remains uncertain whether Simaetha will succeed in winning back Delphis. However, what is undeniable is the overwhelming passion that consumes her.

The power of the mythical past: exempla and historiolae

Zeno of Citium, from a rhetorical perspective, defines the exemplum as γενομένου πράγματος ἀπομνημόνευσις εἰς ὁμοίωσιν τοῦ νῦν ζητουμένου (“a reminder of an accomplished event that aligns with the speaker’s intended purpose”). [23] Mythical exempla, when inserted in rhetorical, poetic and/or ritual texts, are connected through the principle of analogy to the main subject. They evoke stories that have well-known outcomes. However, their incorporation in poetic works often produces an effect that surpasses what could be derived from a narrow analogy. [24] From the Hellenistic period onwards, the use of mythical exempla becomes not only more prevalent, but also more cumulative and enigmatic. This evolution occasionally results in catalogue-like compositions. Exempla involving severe punishments and sufferings form part of polemical compositions full of mythological curses, which seem to exploit the longstanding connection between invective and curse; in Ibis, Ovid, [25] following a scheme that occurs in all the Hellenistic curse-poetry fragments, directs to his enemy Ibis, as well as Ibis’ family, a long series of calamities known from myth. Each elegiac couplet mentions one or more instances: “May your sister burn with fire as Byblis and Canace / did and not prove true except in their sinning.” [26] In this poem, Ovid brings forth not only Althaea, the mother of Meleager, [27] but also Circe, Medea, and Ariadne, whom we have seen in Theocritus, and the incestuous Myrrha, daughter of Kinyras. These characters reappear throughout the rest of Ovid’s work, particularly in the five elegiac books of Tristia and the Metamorphoses in mythical stories, where love, revenge, and use of φαρμακεία are closely linked.
Returning to the Ιdyll of Theocritus, it has been demonstrated [28] that what we have here is a poetic rendition rather than a faithful depiction of an actual ritual; the painful experiences of the betrayed Simaetha are literarily intertwined with the effects she wants to bring about in her lover. Nevertheless, certain stylistic and thematic elements suggest familiarity with contemporary ritual practices, defixiones, incantations and complex ritual recipes. But what could we say about the exempla Simaetha draws on? Do they reflect some special use of myth in such rituals?
Embedded mythic narratives are not solely a literary trend. In fact, ancient Greek myths, while not typically regarded as performative speeches on their own, were often incorporated in rituals and, predominantly, hymns. This is not surprising, since everything related with interactions with the divine realm is unpredictable, whereas only the γεγενημένα (“things already done”) have a known conclusion and can, thus, foretell a favorable result for worshippers. The frequent narration, for instance, of a god’s birth within a hymn triggers, as it were, the epiphany of the god by structuring essential elements of the god-worshipper relationship in a narrative format, thereby emotionally involving participants, and generating expectations.
As far as magic is concerned, the main written source available to us for the classical and early Hellenistic period consist of concise texts inscribed on lead tablets, mostly defixiones—which occasionally reveal remnants of a lost oral tradition of perhaps more extensive texts—and exceptionally other texts. Within this material, allusion to the mythical realm primarily involve names and epithets of the gods, while historiolae or abbreviated mythical narratives, which are common in many ancient Mediterranean cultures, are exceedingly scarce. Historiolae are intended to reenact mythical events within a ritual context functioning in a manner similar to exempla. In fact, we have knowledge of only two cases of early historiolae in Greek. [29] The first is a well-known but still subject to controversial interpretation short story, in which a παῖς leads a goat, while Hecate is also mentioned; the story is part of a complex hexametrical text on a lead tablet of Selinous (fifth–fourth century BCE), known as the “Getty Hexameters”; it has been variously interpreted, as a paian, a civing incantation, or even a collection of incantations. [30] The second case pertains to a defixio in fragments, found in Aegina which likely originated from Athens. This tablet also dates back to the fifth or fourth century BC. [31] The text adheres to the similia similibus pattern; [32] several readable phrases and words refer to the episode of Prometheus’ punishment by Zeus. Moreover, by reconstructing the text it is possible to discern another exemplum, namely the binding of Hera by Hephaestus.
In the imperial period (14–476 CE) there is a shift in the frequency of historiolae or other mythical references in magical scrolls and related documents such as defixiones, lapidaries, iatromagical treatises, etc. Mythical references, sometimes presented through Homeric quotations, continue to be found in this material until the end of antiquity. As an example, there is a text inscribed on a clay fragment serving as an amulet of love, dating back to the second-third century CE. This text refers to the familiar love motif of Isis and Osiris. The mention of the human target’s name shows that this is an example of applied spell: ὡς ἡ Ἶσις τὸν Ὄσιριν ἐφ[ίλησεν, οὕτως φιλείτω ἡ Ματρῶνα τὸν] Θεόδ[ω]ρον ἐπὶ τὸν / ἅπαντα χρόνον [τ]ῆς ζωῆς [αὐτῆς, ἤδη ἤδη, τα]χὺ τ̣α̣χ̣[.ε]ύ, σήμερον (“as Isis loved Osiris, so let Matrona love Theodore all the time of her life, now, quickly, quickly, today”). [33] On a papyrus dating from fourth century CE we find once again the very popular Osiris-Isis love theme, presented in a similar formula, as part of a φυσικλείδιον, a prescription aiming at controlling a woman’s uterus and, consequently, her sexual life; in this case, the exemplum of Osiris-Isis love it is supplemented by the exemplum of Penelope’s devotion to Odysseus: φιλίτω με ἡ δεῖνα εἰς τὸν ἅπαντα αὐτῆς χρόνον, ὡς ἐφίλησεν ἡ Ἶσις / τὸν Ὄσιριν, καὶ μινάτω μοι ἁγνή, ὡς ἡ Πηλενόπη τῷ Ὀδυσσῖ (“may so-and-so love me, for all her life, as Isis loved Osiris and remain pure for me, as Penelope remained pure for Odysseus”). [34] This kind of layering, with briefly mentioned similar cases, evokes the poetic lists of exempla.
However, even during the period when mythological references were relatively common, the famous mythical enchantresses which are the focus of this study, are only occasionally found. In the following, I’ll try (i) to present a few known cases where the traditionally known female figures of mythical φαρμακίδες or other women, archetypal performers of magic in literature, are mentioned in ritual texts (ii) to investigate a new and different type of female heroines that provide mythical precedents in the Magical Papyri. [35]

Althaea and Circe in defixiones

The earliest known case I am aware of involves the name of Althaea on a lead tablet discovered in Megara, located 20km west of Eleusis. The text is preserved in fragments written on a column on both sides of the small tablet (10 x 15 cm). Wünsch, who was the first to publish the text, dated the tablet to the first-second century CE. [36] The curse seems to be directed at a certain individual named παιδικὸς Παναίτιος “puerile Panaitios?,” but the inscription mentions more than one human target, and specific body/soul parts are numbered for ritual binding. No details are provided regarding the exact reason behind the placing of the tablet. Still, the reference to “punishment and retribution and revenge”—[κα- τα]γρά[φ]ομεν [εἰς] κολάσε[ις . . .] καὶ [ποι]νὴν καὶ [τι]μ[ωρ]ί[αν] ες —, suggests that it could be a defixio judicaria, in response to an injustice or a “prayer for justice” according to Versnel’s categorization. [37]
This is the only known instance of the name of Althaea appearing in such a context. On the one side of the tablet, she is listed among identifiable deities such as Kore, [38] Hecate—who seems to be the main figure of the defixio as a power controlling various cosmic realms—, Selene and Gaia. On the other side, Selene and Einodia (?) are named. The mention of Althaea alongside divine names suggests that she is here conceived as a deified figure, not known elsewhere. It is possible that the creator invented a deity ad hoc, drawing inspiration from the famous heroine who destroyed her son’s life either by means of a curse addressed to the forces of the underworld (as mentioned in Homer) or, more probably, by the burning of a torch miraculously connected with the boy’s own life.
The story of Althaea and Meleager, son of Oeneas, king of Calydon, is recounted in the Iliad by Phoenix, in an attempt to persuade Achilles to accept the requests of the embassy sent by Agamemnon and to abandon his anger. [39] In the Homeric version, Althaea, as she mourns her slain brother, strikes the ground, the “all nourishing earth,” contacting the gods of the underworld, Hades and Persephone; she asks them “to put the child to death”; then, “the Erinys who walks in darkness, the one with a ruthless heart, heard her from Erebus.” [40] The use of the Meleager’s paradigm, instead of convincing Achilles, casts the shadow of the ill-fated hero over him.
The story may have been told by Stesichorus, who possibly introduced the torch motif, but the first definite reference to the torch version is found in the tragedy Pleuronian Women by Phrynichus. [41] Now, in this version, the role of the torch is reminiscent of the ritual handling of objects in oaths and other rituals, similar to those performed by Simaetha. This portrayal of Althaea with a torch could indeed lend her a witch-like aspect. This popular version was also chosen by Ovid, likely influenced by a lost tragedy of Euripides. Ovid briefly mentions Althaea in his work, Ibis, as previously noted, while he tells the whole story in the Metamorphoses and the Fasti where he describes the murderous madness reflected on Althaea’s face. [42]
Apart from the great literary aura of the episode, [43] another possible influence on the inclusion of the name of Althaea in the defixio is the frequent depiction the death of Meleager in the decoration of Roman sarcophagus reliefs: from the beginning of the Antonine dynasty (96–192 CE) the episode is represented in approximately 200 instances. [44] In these depictions, Meleager is often depicted as deceased, with Atalanta mourning beside him. This image likely reflects the grief experienced by actual visitors to tombs during Roman mourning practices. Among the persons depicted we can find the murderous mother. In a sarcophagus, currently housed in Paris, for instance, the log associated with the hero’s life is seen thrown into the fire by a figure who can only be Althaea. [45]
Τhe name Althaea is derived from the verb ἀλθαίνω, “to heal,” and can be translated as “healer.” [46] Furthermore, the eponymous plant, ἀλθαία, which corresponds to the marshmallow, was praised by Hippocrates and Theophrastus for its effectiveness in various applications. Moreover, the ἀλθαία plant resembles a lot to the plant called μαλάχη [47] —currently corresponding to the mallow, Lat. malva; in Lucian’s True Ηistory, μαλάχη plays a role similar to that of the Homeric μῶλυ. [48] It is not easy to establish a direct connection between a murderous mother and a plant with emollient properties. However, what is undeniably interesting, is that Althaea, through her name, could be implicitly associated with healing, plants and the practice of rhizotomy.
Our next example is an extraordinary Latin tablet from the second half of the first century CE that mentions Circe among many other mythical figures: the lead tablet which bears folding marks, was discovered in Rome and published by Bevilacqua. [49] The text that runs on both sides is syntactically correct and generally carefully written. Its literary tone is absolutely unique and strongly reminiscent of the Ovidian catalogues of exempla. [50]
Of the eighteen deities mentioned on both sides of the tablet, most belong to the Underworld such as Proserpina dia, Canes Orcini, numina deum inferum, while many others are drawn from the mythical-literary tradition. [51] Not enough clues are provided to determine the exact motive for the deposition. However, the mention of Aurora/Eo, who is known as a female hunter of young lovers, suggests that it may be a defixio amatoria. In any case, the practitioner’s objective is to bring about the death of the victim in the most devastating manner possible, insanity, malaria-like fever, intense attack on the vital organs by various terrifying entities, dismemberment and crushing of the bones. Circe’s name appears several times on both sides of the tablet; in one instance it is associated with a reference to the “deadly potions with which Odysseus’ companions were transformed,” which explicitly refers to a specific episode from the Odyssey:

Geryones, Siredones, Circe, Solis filia,
quemadmodum Minerva una tunica […]e[…]abat eos
monstrinae Siredenae cantibus homines detinebant
Circe feralis medicamentis Ulixis socios […]a[….]

Geryons, Sirines, Circe, daughter of the Sun
as Minerva deceived them (i.e. the suitors) with just one one tunic
as the fearful Sirens enchanted the people with songs
and as the sinister Circe (transformed?) Ulysses’ comrades with magic potions

side B, lines 26–29

This unique inscription clearly highlights the functional relationship between the rhetorical/literary use of cumulative exempla and the rare but possible incorporation of mythical predators into ritual texts.

Circe and Medea in Hippiatrica and Cesti

Apart from these rare cases of defixiones, after the second-third century CE, we can also find traces of Circe and Medea in ritual recipes documented in collections of agricultural or veterinary medicine. They are sometimes mentioned together in the Ἱππιατρικά, a Byzantine collection of ancient Greek texts dedicated to the care and treatment of the horse, which were probably compiled in the fifth or sixth century CE by an unknown editor. The inclusion of mythical figures in a practical manual is characteristic of the interesting overlap between mythology and practical knowledge in ancient and Byzantine cultures.
To begin with, I mention a remedy which, according to McCabe, comes from Apsyrtus (third-fourth century CE). [52] As Zellmann points out, it is a historiola remedy used in the case of a blocked throat caused by ingestion of an object getting stuck therein—πρὸς καταπότιον ὄφελος. As with other recipes of the collection, it seems to have been originally intended for human use. Here is the most extensive version in the Paris manuscript.

πρὸς καταπότιον ὄφελος
Θεσσαλὴ Θεσσαλὴ ἐκ Θεσσαλίας ἐλθοῦσα πρώτη καὶ εὑροῦσα βοτάνας καὶ τὰ ἰσχυρώματα, Θεσσαλή οὖσα λέγω καὶ ἐλεύσομαι ὡς Λέοντος ἔχουσα ἐπῳδὴν καὶ θεοῦ Ὀρφέως καὶ Δημοκρίτου καὶ Κίρκης, εἶτε ὀστέον κατέπιες ἢ ξύλον ἢ ὄστρακον εἶτε λίθον ἢ ἄλλο τι, ἀνενέγκαι αὐτὸ ἔξω. ερωκα κευλα κευλαπηδα ασδυρβερκαλι θερμιβιρου ειπορταβποντε | νερβουμουκου εξει οξει φιη. πτύσον ἢ κατάπιε
For an object that got stuck in the throat
Thessalian, Thessalian, the first who came from Thessaly and discovered herbs and their powers. As Thessalian I speak and come with an incantation from Leo (the wise?), the god Orpheus, Democritus and Circe, able to squeeze out whatever you have swallowed, whether it be a bone, a piece of wood or clay, a stone, or something else. ERŌKA KEYLLAPĒDA ASDYRVERKALI THERMIVIROU EIPORTAVPONTE NERVOUMOUKOU ECSEI OCSEI PHIĒ. Spit it out or swallow it.
Bibliothèque national de France cod. gr. 2244, f. 116r–v

Here, a fictional Thessalian woman speaks in direct speech. The reputation of the Thessalian φαρμακίδες was already widespread in classical times; however, this anonymous Thessalian (and thus any practitioner who borrows her words) also bases the validity of her wisdom on named authorities, such as Leo the Wise (probably), [53] Orpheus, [54] Democritus; the last-mentioned authority is Circe. After a self-praising introduction, she continues with magical words framed with imperatives addressed to the object stuck in throat.

In another passage of the Hippiatrica, Circe and Medea are mentioned together in a healing historiola used to treat inflammation. The source is Hierocles (fourth-fifth century CE) who probably draws equally from the treatises of Apsyrtus.

Ἀφλέγμαντον. Κίρκη καὶ Μήδεια ἐκαθέζοντο πρὸς ἀνατολὰς ἡλίου, ἐζήτουν τὸ ἀφλέγμαντον εἴτε ἀπὸ λίθου εἴτε ἀπὸ ξύλου εἴτε ἀπὸ κυνοδήκτου. τὸ γὰρ ἕλκος ἀνήλιόν ἐστιν.
Anti-inflammatory. Circe and Medea were sitting before the sunrise and seeking the anti-inflammatory, whether from stone or from wood or from one bitten by a dog. For the wound is sunless. [55]
Corpus Hippiatricorum Graecorum 2.156.1

Echoes of historiolae involving Circe and Medea can also be detected in other writers of the genre. Columella, for example (early first century CE), after providing a recipe for dealing with caterpillars harmful to plants—i.e. to lead a menstruating woman, barefoot, around plants—compares its effectiveness with Medea’s chants: “once Iolkos saw the sleeping dragon fall from the horn of Phrixos with magical chants.” [56] As Ager points out, the mention of Medea can even hint at a real incantation, using analogies with a mythical episode in the manner of a historiola. [57] Whether through their mythical actions that remain ingrained in people’s minds or the literary aura accompanying them, Medea and Circe function, in this specific context as both mythical examples of effectiveness and as emblems of antiquity and erudition.

The reference to Circe in the unique papyrus extract from the Cesti of Julius Africanus (160–232 CE)—a collection of various recipes and instructions primarily on matters of hippiatric and military tactics—is particularly noteworthy. Even more than the previously mentioned writers, Africanus displays his Greek education. Thus, in the passage in question he boasts of completing the Odyssey’s nekyia by composing a kind of Homeric cento; he based it on extracts from the Odyssey 11 and added to them Homer-sounding verses as well as a hexametrical incantation in the style of the magical scrolls. [58]

[τοιάδ]ε μὲν παρὰ βόθρον ἐγὼ ἤεισα παραστάς·
[εὖ γὰρ] ἐμεμνήμην Κίρκης ὑποθημοσυνά[ων ]
[ἣ τόσα φάρμακα οἶδεν ὅσ[α] τρέφει εὐρεία χθών

“[And thes]e words, standing beside the pit, I sang;
[for well] I remembered Circe’s stern admonitions,
who knows [as man]y potions as the broad earth grows” [59]

Cesti GCS, F10, 37–40 [60]

Circe is introduced because of her role in the famous episode of Odyssean necromancy, a mythical model for necromantic rites that were very popular during Severan times; [61] however, she is also presented as an authority on φαρμακεία through verses that imitate the Homeric style.

Magical papyri: from mythical witches to female botanical powers

In the later complex manuals of the Magical Papyri which feature strong multicultural elements, the importance of herbs is undeniable. The Great Magical Papyrus of Paris provides us with three recipes for picking plants. [62] The ιζοτόμος [63] addresses plants in the second person placing them on the same level as the gods. For example, in a recipe specifically recommended as Egyptian, the address to the plant, at the moment of uprooting, is as follows: “Cronos sowed you, Hera conceived you, Amun preserved you, Isis gave birth to you, Zeus fed you with rain, you grew up thanks to the Sun and dew. You are the dew of all the gods, you are the heart of Hermes, you are the seed of the gods from whom you descend, you are the eye of the Sun, the light of the Moon…” [64] Perfumes are thus born from the care of the gods and also correspond to parts and secretions of the body of the gods, a common concept in Egyptian mythology. [65]
On the other hand, mythical women, experts in the knowledge and ritual use of herbs are systematically absent from the magical scrolls. This rule extends to the Thessalian female disciples of Circe and Medea. The only exception that aligns with the stereotypical image of the Thessalian is the “Filinna papyrus,” which may date to the first century BCE, part of an anthology of hexameter spells; this early case points to a tradition that diverges significantly from the later extensive recipes. [66]
Two female figures, Daphne and Myrrha/Zmyrna, instead of being exceptions to this rule, introduce a different mythical pattern associated to herbal practices in the magical formularies of the third-fourth century CE.

Daphne and Myrrha

A long and complex revelation recipe dating, according to Chronopoulou, to the second or third century CE [67] includes addresses to Apollo with solar characteristics, as well as to the god Sun under various names and aspects; it also includes addresses to Daphne/laurel, both as a plant and as a divine power: Δάφνη μαντο[c]ύνηc ἱερὸν φυτὸν Ἀπόλλωνοc, / Δάφνη παρθεν̣[ι]κή, Δάφνη Φοίβοιο ἑταίρη (GEMF 30, 2).
Although laurel is ubiquitous in rituals, Daphne as a maiden does not appear in any other Magical Papyri. The way in which she is presented in this recipe, although reminiscent of the nymph who was once pursued by Apollo, is unique. She does not appear as the desperate Ovidian heroine, [68] but rather as a powerful being, Apollo’s beloved companion who ensures his prophetic power. Researchers have attempted to associate this Daphne with the Sibyls of Apollo who bore the same name, such as the daughter of Tiresias, known as Herophile (Pausanias) or Daphne (Diodorus of Sicily). [69]
The exaltation of Daphne/laurel in the hymnic sections of the recipe is consistent with the crucial role of laurel in the prescribed ritual: among other requirements, the practitioner must wear, (as an idealized Apollonian priest), a laurel wreath (of seven branches) and carry a bundle of laurel branches (of five branches); on the leaves of which he must also have written magical names. Therefore, the dual nature of Daphne provides the performer with an exceptional ritual medium.
Myrrha/Zmyrna as a personalized power is mentioned at least two times in the ritual recipes of the Magical Papyri. Her story dates to Panyasis of Halicarnassus (fifth century BCE), after which it resurfaces in the Hellenistic period. In Ovid’s Metamorphoses, Myrrha’s desire for her father, Kinyras, is part of the cycle of stories sung by Orpheus himself, who also mentions her son Adonis. [70] Myrrha succumbs to sexual passion for her father, is driven into exile, and is ultimately transformed into the aromatic tree from which Adonis is born. The tears of the heroine are transformed into aromatic resin. [71]
Myrrha is presented in a love recipe, in the Great Magical Papyrus of Paris (P. Bibl. Nat. Suppl. gr. N° 574), with a dual nature: as both a plant/plant product, [72] which according to the heading ἀγωγὴ ἐπὶ ζμύρνης ἐπιθυομένης (“spell of erotic attraction with incense of myrrh”), is to be burnt “on red-hot coals” [73] and as a powerful divine being placed within a polytheistic universe dominated by solar powers. There is no mythical narrative proper about Myrrha in the recipe. However, the reference to Arabia and Babylon while recalling the importation of myrrh from afar, [74] is consistent with the various, always exotic origins of the transformed princess (as attested in different versions of the myth). The expression ἀναγκάζουσα φιλεῖν τοὺς μὴ προσποιουμένους τὸν Ἔρωτα could also evoke a forbidden, even incestuous love. Lastly, another allusion is probably contained in the name Adonai which is included in a lengthy invocation along with other divine names; this name it recalls Adonis, the famous son of Smyrna/Myrrh and lover of Aphrodite. [75]
Furthermore, the name of the heroine is accompanied by complements, adjectives and participles (πικρά, χαλεπή…), which can be applied to both the plant and the heroine of the same name. Above all, the adjective πικρά (“bitter”) is connected with the etymology of the word smyrna: murru in the Akkadian—the root mrr meaning precisely “bitter.” According to Dioscorides, Theophrastus, and Pliny, the penetrating and warm odor of myrrh is accompanied by a bitter and acrid taste; these properties are reflected in the designations χαλεπή, φρύγουσα, σαρκοφάγος and φλογική found in the text. [76]
Other erotic recipes within the Magical Papyri highlight the special role of Myrrha/Zmyrna in the mythological circle of Isis. In one case, she is presented as an ally of the gods: “Zmyrna, Zmyrna, the servant of the gods.” Specifically, she is portayed as the helper of the Sun against his main enemy, Seth-Typhon, “the one who set fire to the godless Typhon, the ally of Horus, the protector of Anubis, the guide of Isis.” [77] The practitioner, allying himself with Zmyrna, follows in the footsteps of very powerful gods who had recourse to the services of the personified aromatic substance. [78]
As demonstrated by other examples, in Magical Papyri, mythical elements of different cultural origins can be woven together, either explicitly or implicitly, in a ritual framework of extraordinary effectiveness, by experts wishing to attract clients from different cultural backgrounds. Given this context it is highly unlikely that the redactor(s) of the Great Magical Papyrus of Paris did not have the famous myth of Myrrha’s transformation in mind.


The reference to mythical exempla in Theocritus’ second Idyll does not appear to align with a consistent pattern of actual spells, at least according to the sources available to us. However, the exceptional cases we have explored in this study demonstrate not only that there can be a reciprocal relationship between magic and literature, but also that texts, depending on their specific traditions and intended audiences, can shape their own mythical paradigms incorporating literary trends that serve their purposes.
The ritual handbooks from the second to the fifth century CE often adopt a rhetorical strategy, claiming to be either the works of priests, philosophers, and mythical poets (Pnouthis, Manethon, Democritus, Pythagoras, Moses, etc.) or extracts from sacred temple books or copies of secret ritual instructions inscribed on stelae. [79] However, it is interesting to note, that they do not refer to female mythical authorities such as Circe and Medea, who are renowned as the preeminent masters of Thessalian φαρμακίδες. This may be due to the desire of their creators to differentiate their own school of multicultural, written, and elaborate ritual practices from an older lore of local herbalists.
Daphne and Myrrha/Zmyrna are both famous in the literature of metamorphoses, which has remained popular since Hellenistic times. The Magical Papyri do not explicitly mention their respective episodes of transformation into plants; yet, in the case of Daphne the text seems to presuppose it, while in the case of Myrrh it alludes to it. Although these mythical figures are not φαρμακίδες, their transformational adventure made them into a highly manageable medium for the practitioners. They are compelling examples οf powerful figures which are at the same time φάρμακα themselves.



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[ back ] 1. Dickie 1994:122 and 2001:96–97, cf. Faraone 2021:1n1.
[ back ] 2. See Faraone 2020:650, whose conclusion I generally adhere to.
[ back ] 3. For all the ritual gestures described in the poem, see Gow 1952:2.36–37.
[ back ] 4. Theocritus Idyll 2.10 (ἐκ θυέων καταδήσομαι); cf. lines 1 and 159 φίλτροις καταδήσομαι, and line 59 τὺ τὰ θρόνα ταῦθ᾽ ὑπόμαξον. Cf. Gow 1952:2.36.
[ back ] 5. Theocritus Idyll 2.161–162, cf. line 15 φάρμακα … ἔρδοισα.
[ back ] 6. Sophron fr. 2.4 PCG καὶ δάφναν πὰρ τὸ ὦας.
[ back ] 7. Theocritus Idyll 2.23–24 ἐγὼ δ’ ἐπὶ Δέλφιδι δάφναν / αἴθω.
[ back ] 8. Gow 1952:2.36. Α plant ἱππομανές is mentioned in line 49 (ἱππομανές φυτόν ἐστι παρ᾽ Ἀρκάσι). Simaetha likens its effect on the horses to the situation to which she aims to bring Delphis (τῷ δ᾽ ἔπι πᾶσαι / καὶ πῶλοι μαίνονται ἀν᾽ ὤρεα καὶ θοαὶ ἵπποι), cf. Gow 1952:2.45.
[ back ] 9. Gow 1952:2.39 for parallels in magical incantations: PGM IV.1650 and 2938: σύ δε, Κυπρογένεια / θεά, τέλει τελέαν έπαοιδήν.
[ back ] 10. Translation of all passages of Theocritus Idyll 2 by Gow 1952:2.17‒29.
[ back ] 11. For Circe, Medea, and Perimede, cf. also Gow 1952:2.39.
[ back ] 12. Circe is designated as πολυφάρμακος in Homer Odyssey 10.276; the same epithet is used in Apollonius Rhodius’ Argonautica for Medea (3.27). See Ducourthial 2003:114–119; Carastro 2006:141–159; Collins 2008:28–29 for φάρμακα and φαρμακεία (existing long before μαγεία).
[ back ] 13. Cf. Virgil Eclogues 8.69–72 adapting the verses of Theocritus.
[ back ] 14. Hesiod Theogony 992–994. Elsewhere she appears as the sister or daughter of Hecate; cf. Diodorus Siculus 4.45.3–5. See Zografou 2010:27; Dickie 2001:129–131.
[ back ] 15. For Hecate as Medea’s teacher in magic, see, among other sources, Apollonius Rhodius Argonautica 3.478 and 529–530.
[ back ] 16. According to the ancient Scholia on Aristophanes Clouds 741a, Medea upon leaving Athens threw all her magic potions over Thessaly.
[ back ] 17. Graf 1997:33–34, 37–39. In Tibullus Elegiae 2.4.55–56, for example, Circe’s and Medea’s magic potions are mentioned together with the herbs of the Thessalian plain and the hippomanes: quidquid habet Circe, quidquid Medea veneni, / quicquid et herbarum Thessala terra gerit. See Bettini and Franco 2010:239, 348n96. It is impossible to outline here even roughly the history of the reception of the archaic heroines by Greek and Latin writers; see, indicatively, Segal 1968 and 2002; Clauss and Johnston 1997; Bettini and Franco 2010; Hawes 2017; For Thessaly’s reputation see, among others, Phillips 2002:378–386; Edmonds 2019:19–28.
[ back ] 18. Odyssey 2.181, 11.498 and 619; 15.349. In Theocritus Idyll 25 Augeias appears to be the son of the Sun.
[ back ] 19. In Ovid Epistulae 10, and, even more clearly in Catullus Carmina 64.50–266 (Epithalamium of Peleus and Thetis), Ariadne, after her abandonment, invokes divine justice and asks for revenge against her disloyal lover. From the Augustan period (40 BCE – 14 CE) onwards, love, curses, and spells are themes that often coexist.
[ back ] 20. While scholars specializing in Hellenistic literature as well as religious historians emphasize the affinities with genuine ritual texts (Gow 1952:2.36–37; Petrovic 2004), others insist on the literary treatment of the subject (Lambert 2002; Hordern 2002:2). See the discussion in Graf 2004:210–221, and the recent presentation of the debate by Johnson and Kimball 2021:163–169.
[ back ] 21. See, among others, Segal 2002:2; Bettini and Franco 2010:252, 254 and passim.
[ back ] 22. Edmonds 2019:10 for “both positive and negative labels of ‘abnormality’ in case of magic. I generally share the view of the Edmonds about magic not as a “thing, but a way of talking about things,” a discourse (pp. 7–8 and passim).
[ back ] 23. Zeno Citieus (334–262 BCE), SVF fr. 84.2. The rhetors, of course, make use mainly of historical examples.
[ back ] 24. The recourse to mythical exempla in poetry either for the exhortation or the consolation of inner auditors, is well studied in Homer, see Willcock 1964; Nagy 1992. For a more general study concerning Greek and Latin poetry, see Canter 1933.
[ back ] 25. Ovid’s Ibis, the only surviving example of curse-poetry created in the wake of an earlier work by Callimachus, includes a long catalogue (251–638) of mythological (and historical) torments which Ibis should suffer; see Gordon 1992:24–32. For other remains of this kind of poetry, see Watson 1991:223–229.
[ back ] 26. Ovid Ibis 355–356.
[ back ] 27. In the case of Meleager (Ibis 599–560), only Althaea is explicitly named: “As the son of Althaea was burned in flames from a distance, so may your pyre be kindled by the flame of a branch.”
[ back ] 28. Graf 2004:210–221.
[ back ] 29. See also Franek and Urbanová 2019:180–181.
[ back ] 30. Jordan and Kotansky 2011: col. I, 8–21 (ed. pr.). Cf. Faraone, Obbink 2013, Antonetti 2018:5–8 and passim.
[ back ] 31. IG IV2 2, 1012 (Curbera), cf. Papachristodoulou 2010 (ed. pr.), SEG 58, 313. The tablet was reused and contains two different texts, see Curbera 2015:107–108, Chiarini 2021:122.
[ back ] 32. For historiolae and, more specifically, for the “clausal historiolae” of this type see further bibliography in Zografou 2023:153–156, 163n61.
[ back ] 33. SM 51 (O.Köln 409) = TheDefix 111. Cf. Franek and Urbanová 2019:181.
[ back ] 34. PGM XXXVI, 283–294 (POsl. I, 1), fourth century CE.
[ back ] 35. I am not referring here to female deities who are usually the object of invocations, but to mythical figures without known cult. However, in magical scrolls, the distinction between deities and other figures invoked is not always clear.
[ back ] 36. TheDefix 225; DTA, XIII–XIV, Wünsch 1907:4–7, DT 41; cf. Gager 1992:183–184; Bevilacqua 2010:89–93. Typical vocabulary of binding is used in this curse which betrays Hebrew influence (Versnel 1990:95n25). There is mention of Hebrew oaths—that probably coincide with the sacred names perhaps in the form voces magicae—[κ] ελευόμενοι ὑπ [ὸ] τῶν ἱερῶν ὀνομ- [ά] των αβραικων τ ὁρκισμάτων.
[ back ] 37. Versnel 1990:65; Matthews and Salvo 2018:141–159.
[ back ] 38. If we should not read Althaea Kore.
[ back ] 39. Homer Iliad 9.529–599.
[ back ] 40. Homer Iliad 9.568–572.
[ back ] 41. Pausanias (10.31), describing the famous painting of Polygnotus, juxtaposes the Homeric version to that of the poems Megalai Ehoiai and Minyas (where it is Apollo who is responsible for the death of Meleagros), while he links the version of the burning firebrand—which the Moirai gave to Althaea, assuring her that her son would only die when the firebrand was consumed in its entirety—with Phrynichus; Pausanias adds: “however, Phrynichus … only touches on the subject in passing, as on an event already famous throughout Greece.” Among scholars, only Bremmer and March 1987:27–46 consider the firebrand version to be post-Homeric. See Aldeen 2000:237–238 for more details.
[ back ] 42. Ovid, Ibis, Metamorphoses 8, 262–546; Fasti 5, 305–306.
[ back ] 43. The episode, in its most concise form, remains popular until the end of antiquity, as shows, among other testimonies, a school exercise on a papyrus fragment (P. Mich. 4953): a mythographic alphabetical poem where each of the three complete hexameters of the model to be copied deals with a different mythological event, see Daniel 1982:44.
[ back ] 44. Newby 2011:301, and Zanker 2012:359–369.
[ back ] 45. Sarcophagus of death of Meleager (Louvre, Ma 539), 180 CE, see Zanker 2012:64–65, 364–369 (no 23).
[ back ] 46. Cf. EM s.vv. Ἀλθαίνω and Ἄλθετο (Gaisford) cf. Hesychius s. vv. ἀλθεύς and ἀλθαίνει (Latte). See Scarborough 1991:147.
[ back ] 47. Mαλάχη, “mallow,” is possibly related to the Semitic mallūah and the Georgian malokhi associated by ancient writers with the μαλάσσω (μαλακός, μαλακότης) because of the emollient virtues of the plant.
[ back ] 48. Indeed, the narrator of the True History recounts how he prayed to this plant as if to a personified power: “So I pulled out my mallow and prayed to it fervently to get us out of this mess” (2.46.11–12).
[ back ] 49. Bevilacqua 2009:47–70, 2010:77–99 and 2012. See also Gordon 2019:179–181, and Chiarini 2021:136–141.
[ back ] 50. Cf. Gordon 2019:180 who sees un undoubtful influence from Ovid’s Ibis and the next note.
[ back ] 51. As notes Chiarini 2021:140, “Leser, die mit dem Pantheon der in den devotiones maleficae üblicherweise auftauchenden Gottheiten vertraut sind, werden über die Anzahl der Gestalten, die eher aus der mythisch-epischen als aus der kultisch-religiösen Tradition der Antike stammen, erstaunt sein”; see also in p. 141, “Autor dieses Fluches eingehende Kenntnisse der mythischen Erzählungen des griechischen und lateinischen Epos, indem er bestimmte Figuren gemäß ihrer Charakterisierung den Dichtern Homer, Vergil und Ovid entlehnt…”. Strange, among the powers mentioned in the tablet, is a personified rod, Virga.
[ back ] 52. The incantation comes from an unpublished synopsis of Hippiatrica, delivered in two versions: the Oxford version, Oxford, Bodleian Library cod. Barocci 216, f. 5r and that of Paris, BnF cod. gr. 2244, f. 116r–v. See Zellmann-Rohrer 2016:20–21n97, cf. McCabe 2007:289.
[ back ] 53. To Leo the Wise (Leo VI, 886–912 CE) were attributed, among other mostly liturgical works, Byzantine texts on divination, including a popular bibliomantic method using the gospels.
[ back ] 54. The association of mythical witches, such as Circe, with Orpheus was persistent in literature. In the Orphic Argonautica, for example, Medea is a disciple of Orpheus.
[ back ] 55. Cf. Heim 1892:496 (no. 106), and McCabe 2007:238 whose translation I follow for this recipe.
[ back ] 56. The recipe is given in two versions: Columella De re rustica 10.3.58 (in verse) and 11.3.64 (in prose) where there is no mention of Medea. Cf. Ager 2010:257.
[ back ] 57. Aelian De natura animalium 1.54 (ἀλλὰ καὶ τούτου θηρίον μιαρώτερον καὶ ἀφυλακτότερον γυνὴ φαρμακίς, οἵαν ἀκούομεν καὶ τὴν Μήδειαν καὶ τὴν Κίρκην: τὰ μὲν γὰρ τῶν ἀσπίδων φάρμακα δήγματος ἔργα ἐστί, τὰ δὲ ἐκείνων ἀναιρεῖ καὶ ἐκ μόνης τῆς ἁφῆς, φασίν) and 2.14 (ἐπεὶ τοίνυν ταῦθ᾽ οὕτως ἔχει, φαίη τις ἂν καὶ τὴν φύσιν μὴ καθέψουσαν μηδὲ ἐπιχρίουσαν φαρμάκοις, ὥσπερ οὖν ἢ Μήδειάν τινα ἢ Κίρκην, καὶ ἐκείνην φαρμακίδα εἶναι).
[ back ] 58. POxy 412 = Cesti GCS, F10 (p. 26, cf. 221–224), cf. Zografou 2020. The passage in question has been preserved for us in a fragment cut from a scroll that must have been a copy of the 18th Kestοs about half a century after it was composed (the dating based on the evidence found on the back, the testament of Hermogenes, allows us to place it in the reign of Emperor M. C. Tacitus, 275–276)
[ back ] 59. The last line, as we have seen, occurs in Iliad 11 where it refers to Agamede: πρεσβυτάτην δὲ θύγατρ’ εἶχε ξανθὴν Ἀγαμήδην, / ἣ τόσα φάρμακα ᾔδη ὅσα τρέφει εὐρεῖα χθών (11.740–741).
[ back ] 60. Translation by Adler.
[ back ] 61. Zografou 2020:255–256.
[ back ] 62. Pour les recettes de βοτανήαρσις, PGM IV, 286–295, 2967–3006, 3172–3208, cf. Zografou 2013:40–41.
[ back ] 63. Rhizotomoi , collectors of roots and herbs who often supplied them to other specialists, could by either women or men (as in Theocritus Idyll 2.161–162), see Scarborouh 1991, Gordon 1999.
[ back ] 64. PGM IV, 2973–2981.
[ back ] 65. Zografou 2013:47–48.
[ back ] 66. For the varying levels/environments of different ritual practices, see Gordon 1999:182–191 discussed by Blanco Cesteros 2017:109–110. Women seem prominent at the lowest levels of ritual agency of this kind, although men are not excluded. For the divergence between literature and real male/female agency see, among others, Faraone 1998:43n9; Stanley Spaeth 2017:41–70; Blanco Cesteros 2017.
[ back ] 67. GEMF 30 (Papyrus de Londres P Lond. I 47 = PGM VI + B. Papyrus de Berlin, P. Berol. 5026 = PGM II), for the purpose of divine revelations mainly through dreams or lychnomancy. Cf. Chronopoulou 2019:328–329. See also Zografou 2023:158–171.
[ back ] 68. Metamorphoses 1.452–567.
[ back ] 69. See Pausanias 10.12.1–5 and Diodorus Siculus 4.66.5–6. Pausanias mentions elsewhere Daphnis, a nymph of Parnassus appointed as promantis by Gaia (10.5.5).
[ back ] 70. Metamorphoses 10.298–518. It is quite possible that Ovid was inspired by an epic poem by the Roman Gaius Elvius Cinna, emphasizing, above all else, that which evokes terror.
[ back ] 71. Metamorphoses 10.501–502, “These tears are precious, and the sap that drips from the bark has the name of the heroine from whom it came which will never be forgotten.”
[ back ] 72. As gum-resin it is frequently present in recipes for the preparation of incenses and unguents and is also a common ingredient of “magical” inks, see Zografou 2013:64–65.
[ back ] 73. PGM IV 1496–1595. The request of the operator is formulated during this combustion according to the scheme similia similibus acting on the basis of a persuasive analogy: ὡς ἐγώ σε κατακάω … οὕτω ἧς φιλῶ, τῆς δεῖνα, κατάκαυσον τὸν ἐγκέφαλον … “as I burn you … so you have burnt the brain of NN, the one I love…” (PGM IV 1540–1541).
[ back ] 74. Herodotus 3.106–107, states that myrrh is produced exclusively in Arabia. In Egypt, again, myrrh was associated with a paradise country known as Punt, a country located either in Arabia or South Africa.
[ back ] 75. Βoth the name Adonis and Adonai have their roots in the Semitic ἄδων, “Lord.”
[ back ] 76. Myrrh(a) as both a personified power and scent enhanced by fire, penetrates the victim to the heart and entrails: “Enter not into her through her eyes, nor through her ribs, nor through her nails, nor through her navel, nor through her hands, but through her soul, and abide in her heart, burn her bowels…” (PGM IV 1524–1530). For other known properties and applications of myrrh probably implied in our recipe, see Ζografou 2013:61–65.
[ back ] 77. PGM XXXVI 335–340 (fourth century CE). What is implied here is the mythical conception of Horus after Isis’ love affair with Osiris. Cf. SM 72 (pages 121‒122).
[ back ] 78. Cf. GEMF 4 (PGM CXXII, SM II 72) of late first century BCE – early first CE. It contains six spells. The fourth one (pp. 31–35) refers to an Egyptian myth of Isis using an aromatic balm, probably based on myrrh, which as a cosmetic and miraculous ointment refers mainly to the love affair between Isis and Osiris.
[ back ] 79. Dieleman 2005:261–276.