To any confused students:

With my Professor Morgan's recent retirement, there may be some slightly confusing references to her in the lesson. I solely serve as the temporary steward for this course as I am well versed in many of its topics. In the meantime, you may see some of the references disappear in order to diminish the amount of work the new professor will need to do. 


If interested and qualified, see the application for the position here:


Lesson 3) Greco-Roman Witches and Wizards

Welcome back, students! I’m glad to see that you are all suitably dressed for this rather chilly weather. Fall is beautiful, but requires rather more scarves than one expects! No time for togas today, so let’s jump right into our lesson.

During the ages of the Greco-Romans there were countless witches and wizards. Some of them lead normal lives, while many of them were extraordinary in the discoveries they made, the knowledge they passed on to others, and the feats that they accomplished - or tried to accomplish as the case may be.

Today we will discuss three of the most interesting and influential Greco-Romans from ancient times, as well as have a look at the priestesses and priests, which represented a different system of magical use - specifically forms of divination - during this time.


We shall begin our exploration of significant witches and wizards so far back in history that we do not know exactly when. Orpheus’ life and accomplishments have been turned by Muggles into myth, and so much of the data on his lifetime has been lost, including when exactly he lived. We can generally assume that it was some time very early on in the Greek civilization, but it may have been even earlier.

Orpheus was born in the area of Pimpleia, although he spent most of his formative years living with his magical family somewhere around Parnassus. Sometime in his teen years, he decided he wanted to know more about magic than his family could teach him, and so he set out to travel the known-world to learn from other witches and wizards. We know that he spent a significant amount of his time in ancient Egypt where he studied divination.

Orpheus and Eurydice, Jean-Louis Ducis, 1826.

Orpheus is best known in the magical world for his incredible skills as a seer and charms master, as well as his work in the sub-field of astrology and zoology. What is most fascinating about his magical skills was his ability to weave spells with his voice - specifically by singing.  Music was a huge influence on Orpheus’ life, to the point that he carried his lyre with him everywhere. Some magianthropologists actually speculate that his lyre acted similarly to a wand to focus his magic. It may even have had a magical core inside of it - we simply do not know! However he learned and focussed his charms skills, they were quite impressive. He could calm wild animals and enchant his way through almost every situation.

Sadly, Orpheus’ life was not filled with only joyous music. His wife, Eurydice, died tragically after fleeing from what was believed to be a satyr who wanted to possess her. In the Muggle mythology of the story, Orpheus journeyed to the underworld to beg for her to return to him, and his music aided him in that pursuit. Unfortunately, his hasty nature broke the one rule he had to follow, and, tragically, Eurydice was returned to the underworld again.

In reality, Orpheus did not journey to the underworld, but started dabbling in the forbidden art of necromancy. Even with the slim chance of reuniting with his beloved wife as a motivator, Orpheus found the practice too distasteful and gave it up.

Single once more, Orpheus found himself desired by many women who had heard his incredible music and seen his many talents. He had no interest in these women, but did not realize the intensity of their desire for him. In one of the most bizarre deaths we will mention today (but not the most incredible - we will save that for Empedocles), the women threw themselves at Orpheus only to find him struggling against their advances. In what was one of the earliest recordings of mob-mentality, the women went mad and literally tore Orpheus to shreds. Not a pleasant ending for a man who brought much beauty to the world.


You have already studied Pythagoras (also known as Pythias the Rational) in History of Magic, so we will just briefly review his life and accomplishments to the magical world today.


Pythagoras, bust.

You should recall from History of Magic last year that Pythagoras lived circa 570 BC and studied many core aspects of magic, such as arithmancy, herbology, and divination, as well as non-magical topics such as ethics. He even spent some time amongst the ancient Egyptians studying the practices and beliefs of Heka. He was also a Parselmouth - one of the very few confirmed in this period.

Pythagoras was also quite famous for his apparent ability to apparate around the globe - an incredible feat for the time. He was also famous for his discovery of what we now call the Pythagorean Theorem, which he stumbled upon as part of his work in arithmancy.

Another interesting part of Pythagoras’ life was his development of a school in Croton, Italy during the latter part of his life. This school was, at least from the outside, devoted to law and philosophy - two things that were dear to Pythagoras. Current magical scholars now believe that Pythagoras may have actually started a small, specialized magical school that taught magical law and philosophy, as well as continued his work in arithmancy and possibly divination. The school no longer exists today, and as such it is impossible to verify the facts. If the school was indeed magical in nature, it would be one of the very earliest magical schools on record!


The first thing you should know about the great philosopher Empedocles is that he had a very strong desire to right wrongs and stand up for justice and equality. A few other things you should know are that he was a bit full of himself and had quite a temper.

Empedocles, 17th century engraving

Empedocles lived from 490 to 430 BC in and around Agrigentum, Sicily where he was born. He excelled magically in the fields of divination and herbology. In fact, he was quite will known for both curing and stopping the spread of diseases in the area he lived. In today’s terms, we would also most likely consider Empedocles to be an auror of some skill as he was well known for his intolerance and destruction of evil - whether a magical or Muggle threat to the way he believed justice should be served.

You may know a bit about Empedocles’ work in the area of divination, for it was he who developed the Theory of the Four Classical Elements, also known as the Cosmic Circle. That is, fire, earth, water, and air, and how everything in creation was made from these four elements. Further, the theory also demonstrated how life revolves around the struggle between love and strife.

As I am not a divination or theology professor, let’s have a quick peak at an image that explains it better for us:

Empedocles' Cosmic Cycle

Basically, Empedocles’ theory states that without conflict, in this case between love and strife, life could not exist.


By the end of his life, Empedocles seemed to be going a bit mad by magical standards as he began to believe that his theory of love and strife and its connection to the elements would allow him to control the weather. Let’s just say that this didn’t go well. His repeated failures drove Empedocles more and more insane, until he decided that his work could not be completed in his current lifetime.


As his theories strongly supported the concept of reincarnation, Empedocles decided to end his own life in the hopes that a future reincarnation of his soul would continue and complete his work. We will never know exactly why he chose the manner of his death. Perhaps it was the element of fire that most frustrated him in his work, or fire that would help ensure his reincarnation. Perhaps it was just a fit of rage. Whatever the motivation, however, Empedocles climbed to the summit of Mount Etna and cast himself into the fiery volcano below.

Priestesses and Priests

One rather unique feature of Greco-Roman times were the priests and priestesses at various places of significance - monuments and natural formations that were tied to the the various gods and goddesses of the Greco-Roman pantheon. It was in these places that magic and religion were honoured at the same time by both Muggles and wizards alike.

Most frequently, these places of worship and guidance - or cults, as they are called, but more on that in Mythology if you are taking it this year - were led by a priestess and her entourage. Occasionally some locations were led by priests as well. The priestesses in these places were held in higher regard than any other women in the entire empire. The reign of each individual priestess served as a dating mechanism not only for the cult, but also for any major events that occurred during that time in the surrounding area.

As the priestess’s name was used to calculate dates, her name itself was known throughout the land, and she was spoken of often by the people. This familiarity of even mentioning of the name of a priestess was unheard of for any other woman of significance. Indeed, in many areas of the Greek empire, it was taboo to speak the name of a woman of high rank aloud in public, and in some cases at all. The priestesses were so revered by the populous that they alone were allowed to be spoken of.

Some of the most famous cults and priestesses were Athena Polias at Athens, Demeter and Kore at Eleusis, Hera at Argos, Apollo at Delphi, and Pythia at Delphi. It will not surprise you to learn that the vast majority of these priests and priestesses were actually witches and wizards of great skill and power.

Let’s look at two of the most prominent cults of priestesses in ancient Greece and contrast the way they were managed by the witches and wizards who belonged to them.

Athena Polias at Athens

The cult of Polias at Athens existed from approximately the 5th century BCE until the end of the 2nd century AD. To become Athena Polias was to hold one of the most distinguished offices in the world of ancient Greece, and it was the Eteoboutad clan who, hereditarily, held the position of priestess.

In your understanding of Greco-Roman culture, you might believe that all priestesses were virgins, and quite helpless. While true in some cases, the Athena Polias was the exact opposite. The position itself was granted to a member of the Eteoboutad clan for life. However, the chosen priestess could be married and have children. In fact, she was expected to bear children in the hopes that the next generation of priestesses would arrive as the Eteoboutad clan was actually a rather small and uncommon clan at the time.

The Athena Polias held a position of great influence over the populace. In addition to ensuring that specific festivals, sacrifices, and celebrations took place at the correct time and in the correct manner, the Athena Polias was the official interpreter of any signs given by the goddess Athena. Interpretation of the signs took many forms, however the priestesses were, of course, magically trained diviners who used several different practices to interpret the will of the goddess.

Pythia at Delphi

Pythia at Delphi stands in quite a contrast to Athena Polias. Also known as the Oracle at Delphi, this particular cult was established somewhere around 590 BCE, although current magiarchaeological field work is now considering the possibility that it may have been established, albeit very rudimentarily, up to 500 years even before that.

The Pythia at Delphi - or rather Pythias, as there could be more than one at a time - were not descended from a particular family as was the case with Athena Polias. The Pythias were chosen from families that were poor and relatively unknown. Once chosen, the Pythias were expected to remain celibate for the rest of their lives.

Another difference between the two cults was the manner in which they deciphered the will of the gods. While Athena Polias used divinatory practices to read signs, the Pythias received their wisdom and prophecies directly from the gods. This practice suggests that the priestesses were actually chosen because they were seers. In fact, I suspect that someone such as our dear former Divination professor Sybill Trelawney would have been a likely candidate to lead a cult such as this one had she been born at the right place and the right time.

Many people consulted the Oracle at Delphi and so the Pythias were kept quite busy, and on a specific schedule. They were only able to give prophecies on the seventh day after the new moon (you will have to check with your divination professor as to why!), after undergoing a strict purification ritual.

And so we have reached the end of our lesson for today. You will have a slightly longer quiz today, but no essays to complete.

Our next lesson will conclude our exploration of the ancient Greco-Roman world as we discuss some peculiar aspects of magic use such as curse tablets, the use of magic in battle, and the formation of magical duelling arenas.



Cartledge, Paul. Editor. Cambridge Illustrated History of Ancient Greece. Cambridge University Press, U.K.

Connelly, Joan Breton. Portrait of a Priestess: Women and Ritual in Ancient Greece. 2007. Princeton University Press.

Our studies of magic use in ancient civilizations continues this year with our examination of several European groups, including the ancient Romans, Greeks, Celts, Norse, and more! It will be a year filled with curious enigmas and amusing occurrences.
Course Prerequisites:
  • ANST-401

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