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Inspirational Reads

Friday Morning Latin Lesson, Vol. LXXXVI

October 8, 2010

I love this time of year. October could be my second favorite month, right behind December (with March coming in third...for obvious hoopy-ball reasons). The colors of the leaves, the hint of winter's chill on the morning's breath, the smells of the world preparing for its slumber...these are all things I absolutely love.

And, of course, October has the first of the end-of-the-year holidays on the calendar; that being Halloween. The Romans did not really celebrate Halloween; that was more of an Irish thing. However, there are connections between some of the Roman beliefs and what we tie in with the holiday in modern times.

For instance, the Romans were also afraid of witches. Pliny the Elder--remember, he who died during the eruption of Vesuvius at Pompeii--wrote "there is no one who is not afraid of spells." With Roman society being a patriarchal establishment, one of the things that the ruling class men feared the most were common women with strong ideas.

As the Romans prized beauty--for both men and women--the easiest way to besmirch the good nature of these women was to make them out to be ugly. Thus, the image of a witch as the hook-nosed crone began to form back in the days of the Roman Empire, though the idea of women casting hexes or spells on creatures or people probably dates back to the very dawn of human imagination.

Since Rome was a powerful military state, it only made sense that those looking to unsettle the base of power would look to strike at society through a non-military method. In other words, the most viable way to take apart the Roman government and hierarchy was to attack it magically. Supposedly, these women had magical powers in the same vein as the witches in modern folklore: potion making, summoning the dead, affecting the elements, changing the weather, influencing the movement of the stars and planets and moon through the night sky. It was even said that they could transmogrify into other forms, most commonly screech owls.

The practice of burning witches at the stake was dreamed up during Roman times, and then spread across Europe and into America in the succeeding centuries. Nero, mad, fiddling Emperor after Cl-Cl-Claudius, was famous for burning his enemies--and he had many--at the stake or, better yet, crucifying them, all under the guise of being magic-users. Witches--especially men thought to be practicing the dark arts--were also thrown into the arenas where they would have to fight wild animals...not quite as gladiators, but they still were pitted against the animals as a bit of political and public sport.

The image of an ugly crone being a witch may have developed during Roman times, but the more classical images we imagine as being tied to witches and witchcraft were more of a northern European image. Roman witches didn't ride on brooms nor did they keep black cats. While they were ugly, the green skin, predilection toward black clothing, the pointy hat, and the hermitic image of a witch was not common in Rome.

Witchcraft was not tied in with the Devil, either (it would be 300 years before those ideas began to really sink into Rome's psyche); instead, because of religious practices deemed "inappropriate" by the state, the worship of both Isis and Bacchus were connected with witchcraft. Therefore, through a few well-timed immolations, the Roman state was able to suppress the worship of gods that the government saw as unfit.

So, if you find yourself suddenly worried about a possible rival and she just happens to be female, you can always try this:

Ea striga est!

Pronounced: "Aye-ah stree-gah est!"

Magical translation in the hovertext.

Such bold claims will, of course, need to be verified, so you better have a back-up ready before you go pointing any fingers and lighting any pyres:

Me mutavit in salamandram...sed convalui...

Pronounced: "May moo-tah-weet in sah-lah-man-drahm...sed cone-wah-louie..."

Slimy translation in the hovertext.

Neopaganism has adopted an ancient Greek goddess as a sort of new patron goddess. The goddess Hecate--who might actually be older than Greece itself--has suddenly been thrust back into the limelight (which she disdained, by the way) as she serves as sort of a focal point of modern witchcraft. Hecate (pronounced "Heck-uh-tee" or "Heck-et"...the latter being introduced by Shakespeare in order to get her name to rhyme properly in verse) was an ancient goddess connected with the moon and night time. She commonly was found at crossroads, and it was Hecate that bishops and cardinals in the middle ages wanted to wipe out by spreading the malicious rumors that crossroads were evil places. She was, in the past, connected with dogs barking in the night, that their barking heralded her arrival. It was also said that she was accompanied in the night by two ghostly dog forms wherever she went.

Her favorite haunts, as I already mentioned, were crossroads, but she especially enjoyed it when three roads came together, and this was where she could most easily be found or contacted. Because of this, she was sometimes referred to in Greek lore as "Trioditis", which means (roughly) "three pathways."

When she made the jump to Roman mythology, she lost the name Hecate but kept the identity of being found at a convergence of three roads. Her name in Latin? Trivia.


DEZMOND said...

oh that blue witch is my absolute favourite animated character of all times!!! She and her pet tarantula Paulie :)

MJenks said...

I've always liked her, too. The hairpins left hanging in the air when she goes zooming off always made me at least smile.

Mirror mirror on the wall...who's the ugliest of them all?

Eric said...

Nice seasonal post here. Even in present day Italy (especially in the South), they have La Befana a good witch akin to Santa Claus. The name probably originates from “l’ipifania”, or 'Epiphany' festival. Catholicism coopted everything back in the day...

Frank Irwin said...

When Pliny the Elder said, "there is no one who is not afraid of spells," by "spells," of course, he meant PMS.

DEZMOND said...

hairpins??? OMG, I thought those were fleas :)

Wynn said...

I've given you a blog award and the rules said I have to tell you. So now I'm telling you!

Anonymous said...

Glad I found this on google .