Category Archives: Salon


“… to reveal and discover conspiracies, and to govern the greater things of life; as to blast or succeed the enterprises of princes and people; to tell and foretell the success of such and such undertakings; and even to influence the undertakers…”

-from A Compleat System of Magick: or, The History of the Black Art by Daniel Defoe (1729)

The term “political magic” has a ring to it. Just muttering it conjures up images of cowled Illuminati convening in some manorial antechamber (in Davos no doubt). A similar trope in early modern times was the all-powerful archmage. This was the much-fabulated schoolman who could “nourish little spirits in glasses” (to use the words of German magician Heinrich Agrippa) and command them to assail his political rivals by sibilating something like “sic ’em” in Latinate gobbledygook. Fortunately, in day-to-day life, such figures were few and far between.

Frontispiece from The Black Box of Roome Opened (1641). Image via the Yale Beinecke Library.

Even so, in England, the right combination of astrology, priestcraft, and praestigium got some monarchs very hot under the collar. The Jesuits for example, were, by some assessments, nothing but a cabal of sweet-talking, sorcerous, politicians. On Englishman named Lewis Owen in his The unmasking of all popish monks, friers, and Jesuits (1628) called them a “company of cunning magicians” and “sorcerers”.

Like the globalists and Freemasons of today’s New World Order mythos, the Jesuits were thought to be the main provocateurs and financiers behind international conflicts. Relatedly, it was alleged that they had an unrivalled penchant for gathering and disseminating intelligence. One popular legend, for instance, tells of a certain French Jesuit named “Father Coton” who, with the aid of a magic looking-glass, could see the secret proceedings transacting in all the royal courts of Europe.

Frontispiece to Pyrotechnica Loyalana, Ignatian Fire-Works (1667). Image via the British Museum online collection.

Another sort of political magic can be categorised as astrological propaganda. In the times of autocratic royals, casting a horoscope of a sitting monarch was not just plain rude, it was also an affront to cosmic hierarchy. The logic went something like this: the king or queen ruled by divine authority; ergo anyone who sought to ascertain a ruler’s destiny without his or her consent was disrespecting God and humanising his anointed. Thus, when prognosticators like William Lilly and Nicholas Culpeper waxed prophetic about the doom of the Stuart monarchy, they necessarily furthered the propagandistic objectives of its republican detractors.

As persons of significance (some of Lilly’s writings sold 30,000 copies a year) Lilly and Culpeper were invaluable assets to the anti-royalist Interregnum regime. In a sense, their words were like wands. The nineteenth-century writer and Conservative MP Lord Edward Bulwer-Lytton had an excellent way of articulating this kind of influence. The following excerpt is taken from Richelieu; or The Conspiracy (1839), Bulwer-Lytton’s play on Cardinal Armand Richelieu. A determined statist and political strategist, Richelieu was arguably the most puissant propagandist of the seventeenth-century:

So far we have broached only a fraction of what could be described as political magic. Much more could be said apropos of its specific applications and historiography. Happily, a new work by historian Francis Young offers a more wide-ranging look at the relationship between criminal magic and politics in the days of Old England. In the interview below, Dr Young weighs in on everything from John Dee’s counter-magic to Protestant-Catholic culture wars.

The Custodian: What instruments did early modern English monarchs avail themselves of in order to counteract assassinative sorcery? Was there a special network of shadowy “operators” or fixers to which they had recourse?

Dr Francis Young: Several English kings had occult advisers, such as Edward IV (George Ripley) and Henry VII (Lewis of Caerleon). However, the first person we know of to work counter-magic on behalf of a monarch against treasonous magic was John Dee in 1578, who performed a ritual to protect Elizabeth I from effigy magic. There may have been others who worked similar rituals before that, but monarchs also relied on their belief in divine right (which implied divine protection) as well as the widespread belief (which went back to the Malleus maleficarum) that witches, once caught and subject to judicial proceedings, were prevented by God from harming those in authority. If kings had made regular use of counter-magic it might have undermined their pretensions to divine authority, because magic was ultimately a rather dubious activity; better to defeat magicians by non-magical means.

Dr John Dee. Image via Internet Archive.

C: Elsewhere you’ve suggested that John Dee occasionally assisted officials in court cases involving sorcery. What more can you say about Dee’s role?

F: Dee performed astrological calculations for Elizabeth on a number of occasions, including astrological medicine for her health. He also advised her and William Cecil on alchemy, and was accused of being the Earl of Leicester’s “conjurer”. Most importantly, however, Dee advised Elizabeth on imperial expansion, arguing that she had the right to lands previously conquered by King Arthur (which included the Americas). Dee saw himself as Merlin to Elizabeth’s Arthur, although it is less certain that Elizabeth saw herself in the Arthurian role.

C: You’ve already pointed out that after 1534 Catholics were especially singled out to be prosecuted for committing magical treason. What events or changes in public opinion do you think gave rise to this shift?

F: Religious conservatives (Catholics, essentially) were targeted after 1534 with accusations of magic because they opposed Henry VIII’s divorce from Katharine of Aragon, his break with Rome and the dissolution of the monasteries. Many of those targeted were friars, whom Henry perceived as being especially close to Rome and whose orders were dissolved in 1536.

The English Reformation resulted in a redefinition of what constituted “superstition”. Activities that had previously been considered perfectly acceptable (such as allowing children with whooping cough to drink consecrated wine from the chalice at mass) were condemned as superstitious and even magical. If someone continued with these practices it meant that he or she was resistant to religious change, and therefore the government was interested in people practising magic because it gave them a way to discover who was against the Reformation.

C: Similarly, why, in your opinion, were other “undesirables” in early modern England such as the Jesuits and Quakers sometimes derogated as sorcerers and conjurors?

F: One reason why Jesuits were particularly targeted, to a greater extent than other Catholics, was that they led the major campaigns of exorcism in the 1580s. However, there is little evidence after the 1530s of people being accused of magical practices *because* they were Catholics. The Quakers were targeted with accusations of witchcraft in the 1650s because the way they behaved in meetings (“quaking”) was interpreted by some as demonic possession. People also struggled to explain the Quakers’ radical rejection of traditional Christianity and interpreted it as motivated by the devil. When people joined the Quakers and adopted radical beliefs this was sometimes interpreted as the result of bewitchment.

C: Can you tell us a bit more about how English Protestants reacted to and politicised Catholic exorcism rituals?

F: The politicisation of Catholic exorcism by Protestants came quite late in the day; the authorities were initially more concerned about Protestant exorcists. Catholic exorcists were attacked in 1602 as part of a campaign against Protestant exorcism, but as Protestant exorcists disappeared, the Catholics became more prominent in offering this service and were regularly attacked as “conjurers” (indeed, “conjurer” is just another word for exorcist). However, the main Protestant polemic against exorcism labelled it as fraud rather than magic. This was the general trend in Protestant attacks against Catholics – they began by accusing the Catholics of magic, but then moved towards accusations of fraud. One reason for this was that calling Catholics sorcerers risked making Catholicism *more* rather than less attractive because magic was exactly what many people wanted…

C: Were witches ordinarily prosecuted for treasonous magic or did their actions fall under another jurisdiction?

F: There are virtually no cases in England of people accused of witchcraft also being accused of treason (I know of a single case from 1589). One reason for this was that the old Statute of Treason (1352) already covered magical treason, so the Witchcraft Acts (1563 and 1604) didn’t need to deal with these crimes. In fact, treasonous magic was the only kind of magic that was illegal before 1542. There was also no tradition in England of witches committing treason; witches only operated at a local level (in contrast to Scotland, where groups of witches regularly tried to kill the king).

The English tradition was of desperate people turning to learned ritual magic (a phenomenon distinct from witchcraft) in order to overthrow or manipulate the monarch. Generally speaking, in England a witch was thought to be an evil kind of person, whereas anyone with sufficient learning might attempt magic.

C: Which people would you say gained the most profit (financially and in terms of fame) from broadcasting propaganda about magical crimes?

F: Cases of magical treason were sometimes publicised by ministers of the crown (or, in the case of Richard III, by the monarch himself) and sometimes by magicians themselves in order to discredit fellow practitioners (this kept happening to John Dee). They sometimes also appeared in the pamphlet press as popular conspiracy theories (such as the alleged occult poisoning of James I and VI). In a lot of instances, the alleged plots were not publicised widely, perhaps out of fear that the monarch might appear weak. I suspect that the people with the most to gain were unscrupulous magical practitioners who, by making accusations against colleagues, deflected attention from themselves and eliminated rivals.

C: Where can we next hear you speak? Any upcoming events you’d like to mention?

F: I’ll be speaking to the London Fortean Society at Conway Hall on Tuesday 6 February about “Magic as Treason”. 


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“They hang people for poisoning your body, but no law can touch them when they inject poison in your mind.”

-from Witchcraft: its Power in the World Today by William Seabrook (1941).


Sorcery, it’s been argued, is both a composite art and an acquired taste. In all ages, the prototypical sorcerer or witch has been stigmatised as a wilful vector and dispenser of maleficia, a being who cavorts with devilkins and metes out justice through diablerie. Relying neither on hierophants nor magistrates, these mages specialised in what were often illicit or extralegal activities and acquired infamy for their apparent mastery over or collusion with supramundane forces.

Black magician. Image via Internet Archive.

The lair from which these magi devised such diverse projects as world domination rituals and speed-learning manuals (i.e. the Ars Notoria), was in most cases a solitary antrum, separate (but never too far out of reach) from the secular world. Dramatists and chroniclers, for obvious reasons, tended to picture them as labouring in the most romantic of conditions, such as a cloistered laboratory or secluded cottage. These highly evocative settings were the perfect office spaces for magicians to assemble with their multifaceted team of human apprentices, pocket-imps, Ariel-like sylphs, and perhaps a gnome or two. It wasn’t all work either. Sometimes outings were organised—events like dinner dates with fairies and cost-free transcontinental flights (via broomstick) to the Brocken or the Holy See.

Wizard-doctor Faust making a decision without consulting his lawyers. Image via Internet Archive.

In looking past these time-honoured stereotypes (some of which have become ubiquitous tropes in modern fantasy literature) however, one could speak of a grittier, more mundane sorcery, a set of actions utilised both by avowed magical practitioners and by ordinary people. Forms of it do, of course, appear in the literary record, but for the most part the dark arts as a subject of non-fiction has remained a taboo topic, treated sparingly or not at all. These arts consist of a matrix of coercive and violent techniques, hardly dissimilar from the stratagems employed by contemporary paramilitary operatives, racketeers, and agents provocateurs.

Inquisitors administering the “water cure”. Image via Internet Archive.

Whether sorcerers or merely “sorcerous”, these people, in accordance with the directives of a sovereign, minister, or capo, were engaged to contaminate the consciousness of a microcosm—an individual’s spirit (i.e. the fragile harmony of mind and body). Ergo, their modus operandi was generally by influencing the imagination (either remotely via propaganda or intimately through suggestion, intimidation, and gaslighting), or by injuring the body (with torture or poisoning). These arts, if astutely applied, gave the operator a great deal of control over his victim’s thinking processes and perception of reality. Such practices, most of which weaponised hysteria and superstition, factored into the cryptic but pervasive policies of early modern inquisitors, spies, and assassins. To this day, they continue to be used as sub rosa instruments of governance.

Further inquisitorial torture. Image via Internet Archive.

The present tale is an account of the purported sufferings of a travelling engineer and inventor named William Wheeler. Wheeler lived and worked in seventeenth-century Holland and England, and apparently became the victim of a sorcerous conspiracy aimed at relieving him of his intellectual property avant la lettre, his various trade secrets and mechanical schematics. According to the narrative ( which was ghostwritten by English propagandist Henry Parker), Wheeler, who in 1639 had been awarded several contracts to develop a number of hydraulic contraptions, fell afoul of his upper-class patrons sometime after his patents were renewed in 1641.

Excerpt from Mr Wheeler’s Case (1644). Image via Google Books.

In Wheeler’s mind, his main antagonists were Frederick Henry, Prince of Orange, Sir William Boswell, ambassador to the Hague, and Sir Robert Honywood. Wheeler felt that his expertise in waterworks, profitability, and fact that he “found offices of friendship from many” made him a target for sabotage. At first, he was forced to undergo what one might expect any independent competitor to experience in a mob-run construction business. Initially, Wheeler and a friend were beaten to a pulp by a gang of twenty ruffians, two of which were servants of the Prince of Orange. On another occasion, Sir Robert Honywood whose “business” was to make Wheeler unpopular at court, commanded two Irish halberdiers to assault him. Not long after that, Wheeler had to dash into a moat to avoid another attack on his person by ten men led by the Prince of Orange’s fisherman. Wheeler thought that they were the same criminals who had earlier stolen his machinery and broken them to pieces in the street.

A tormented man reclining on a cot. Image via Internet Archive.

Unfortunately, for Wheeler, who afterwards took refuge in the house of his manservant Robinson—the worst was yet to come. Following an encounter with what could have been papist intriguers (Wheeler calls them “members of the Queen of Englands Trayne”) who attempted to get him to change his religion and fight against Parliament, Wheeler was drugged and thrown into a secret prison:

I found cause to suspect that the cups wherin I had drunk in their company had been secretly mixed with some veneficall or magicall ingredients, for I found my self strangely driven into fits of Lunacie, and not onely distempered, but also tortured both in body, and mind…but suspecting no plot or treachery…was led into a Dulhouse or Bedlam. As soon as I had entred the chamber Robinson and the other stept suddenly out, and the doore was lockt, and bolted upon me, and I was there left alone inclosed to be treated as a man utterly mad, and raving. The place was solitary, and far from resort of people, and as I had no hopes of any help but by calling out aloud, so my loud calling or hollowing was interpreted as the symptome of my distraction.”

While imprisoned, Wheeler allegedly was psychologically manipulated and physically molested by his own servants as well as by William Boswell’s men. They beat him savagely with “clubs and staves” until he agreed to drink their mind-altering potions. These potions apparently turned Wheeler into a kind of zombie:

After I had drunk their compositions I was possest after an unheard of manner, but these reasons make me think that what I did and suffered in my fits were not the effects of meer phrenzie, but some diabolicall art, and sorcerie: for first, My senses remained so with me, that I my self sensibly condoled my own condition: and held my self as a slave under those commands, which I would fain have disobeyed, but could not. Secondly, I was never subject to the like ravings before that time, or since. Thirdly, my yard did begin to be drawn up into my belly, my hands, limbes, and whole body was contracted, or benummed, or some way tortured, till I did act, and speak according to the commands which were upon me: the force thereof broke out of my flesh, brought my nails from my fingers, and almost my eyes out of my head…”

He was also subjected to a curious hallucination of a dancing cat, which haunted him until he carried out certain duties:

Throughout Wheeler’s nightmarish imprisonment, during which he was sometimes “forced to eat” his own excrement, his jailers tried unsuccessfully to steal and duplicate his plans. Bizarrely, he was released after nine months, but by that time he had been effectively ruined with significant debts and loss of business. Thus, his testament, which was published in 1644 after Wheeler had returned to England, is a plea for reparations. He was apparently still in business in the 1650s, as evidenced by his letters and a text published in 1651 which lists his skillset.

In fine, Wheeler’s ordeal appears to have involved all the brutal and gory elements of the kind of dark sorcery mentioned above. Nevertheless, it would prove difficult to corroborate his allegations. Wheeler’s case, like the cases of countless individuals and conspiracy theorists who have tried to outdo the so-called elite “powers that be” seems destined to remain little more than a fable. At the very least, it is a reminder that competitors in business may very well have sorcerous intentions.

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“The soul of some people is such that they can stop the rain and command the winds and the storms.” from De magia by Giordano Bruno (written circa 1588).

“But the men marvelled, saying, ‘What manner of man is this that even the winds and sea obey him!'” -Matthew 8:27.

From the earliest ages, magicians were thought to be the go-to “professionals” for effective—albeit somewhat antinomian—meddling in the forces of nature. They were seen as surgeons of the mind and body so to speak, rainmakers (in the old and new sense of the word) who employed secret techniques to obtain demonstrable results. In short, their business was interference, and the annals of history are chock-full of anecdotal testaments to their apparently wondrous powers.

Weather-making witches in Johann Geiler Kaisersberg’s Die Emeis oder Quadragesimale (1516). Image via Google Books.

One of these powers was the ability to craftily perform weather-magic. Evidences of the magical domination of meteorological forces by wise men and women constitute some of the most well-known stories of Antiquity. The lightning rites of Roman king Numa Pompilius, the death-dealing thaumaturgy of Biblical prophets Moses and Elijah, the tempest-raising arts of Julian the Chaldean theurgist; these are but a taste of the weather-magic lore which has come down to us from the ancients. In the Middle Ages, due to the supremacy of Christian propaganda, weather-magic took on a more malignant quality, but its masters were no less astonishing.

The Destruction of Pharaoh’s Host in the Red Sea by Philip de Loutherbourg. After an engraving by T.H. Milton in Finden’s Bible. Image via Internet Archive.

There were the cloud-busting Tempestarii of Magonia (affably called “Hail-Men” by Charles Godfrey Leland in his book Etruscan Roman Remains in the Popular Tradition), the dragon-riding Solomonari of Romania, and, of course, the crop-destroying witch-folk of every locality. In the popular imagination, these groups represented a very real threat to society, mainly because pre-Modern economies were based principally on agriculture. This meant that livelihood was intricately bound up with the day-to-day variations of the climate. Even so, the rise and spread of industrialism and mercantilism did not extinguish these beliefs. The New World, like the Old World, fostered its own magicians and its own tales of miraculous phenomena.

In the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries, a number of prodigies concering African sorcery were reported in the West Indies. Of course, a vast majority of the accounts are coloured with racialist suppositions about the prevalence of “diabolism” and “fanaticism” in Afro-Caribbean culture. Fuelled by superstition and classism, this kind of stereotyping was, according to various scholars (such as Lara Putnam), comparable to the hysteric stories of blood libel which were used to marginalise and persecute Jews for centuries. Within this context however, a few legends about African magic did emerge which were more mythological in nature, resembling the sort of narratives one would find in The Golden Legend or perhaps The Odyssey. 

Detail of portrait of Jean-Baptiste Labat from the 1742 edition of his Nouveau voyage aux isles de l’Amérique. Image via Internet Archive.

One of the sources for this lore was Jean-Baptiste Labat, a Dominican missionary, naturalist, and diarist who settled in Martinique in the late seventeenth century. Labat was hardly an unbiased writer by today’s standards. He, like his fellow slave-owning peers was unapologetically self-righteous, and had no reservations about inflicting corporeal punishment on those who engaged in what he believed to be “heathenish” practices. Nevertheless, his fastidious and credulous nature in recording his experiences, makes him a most intriguing figure, and without a doubt, one of the first propagators, as it were, of a Caribbean mythos of the “fantastic”.

The Fort of St Peter of Martinique, circa 1776. Image via Wikimedia Commons.

For example, in his multiple-volume work Nouveau voyage aux isles de l’Amérique (1722), Labat relates a curious example of a seemingly supernatural case of rainmaking. During a severe drought, Labat recruits a friend’s servant (a young boy from Africa’s Gold Coast) to assist him in saving his garden. The confident pluviculturist rustles up three oranges and lays them on the ground. After prostrating himself before them, he takes three small branches from the tree and lays them against the oranges while repeating a spell.

He concludes the ceremony by taking one of the branches in his hand and pointing it—like a wand—at a nearby cloud. Instantly, the cloud bursts and rain falls exclusively in Labat’s garden. When pressed for answers to the origin of his magic, the boy (whom Labat later names “Amable au Bapteme”) claims that he was taught by other captives on the transatlantic voyage from Guinea to Martinique.

Black Sorcerer by Jean-Baptiste Debret (c. 1830). Image via the National Library of Brazil.

In another story, Labat relates the testimony of the inventor, navigator, and aristocrat Jean-Baptiste, Count of Gennes. In 1696, one of the count’s ships in his commanding squadron fell under the enchantment of a woman while en route to the Caribbean from the Senegalese slave port at Fort Gorée . Labat states that the woman was “adept in the diabolical sciences” and that she effectively kept the ship in a kind of limbo, preventing it from staying on course. It’s unclear whether this was through a confounding charm on the ship itself, the crew, or the ocean, but in any case, Labat writes that the sorceress was whipped relentlessly for her meddling, mainly by the ship’s surgeon.

View of Fort Gorée in Jean-Baptiste Labat’s Voyage du chevalier Des Marchais en Guinée, isles voisines, et a Cayénne (1731). Image via Internet Archive.

After calmly enduring the ordeal, the woman curses the doctor, and declares that she will eat his heart. Unsurprisingly, he perishes not long after her imprecation. An autopsy later reveals the enervated state of his entrails. The captain then sets up a parley with the woman and eventually agrees to release her and her inner circle. But the sorceress, ostensibly for the fun of it, offers one more spectacle. She tells the captain that she will devour the core of his melon without touching it. The captain agrees to the request and locks up his melon d’eau in a safe. Later, he finds that the only thing that remains of the melon are the rinds. As soon as he returns the woman and her assistants to their home, the ship is released from its invisible enchainment and resets its course for the West Indies.

This amazing story clearly baffled Labat who appears to have taken it literally. Apocryphal or not, the tale has a tricksy, Anansi-like quality to it. Conceivably, if the story is true, the woman’s magic could be attributed to clever legerdemain, suggestion, and perhaps (as demonstrated by the surgeon’s rapid demise) some veneficia. But even if poisoning were not involved, the enchantress did, after all, eat the hearts of the crew in the sense that she stirred up and maintained a localised, collective hysteria. All her actions allowed her to gain empire over their minds. Hence, the words of the famous ex-priest and occultist Eliphas Levi (quoted by Arthur Edward Waite in Levi’s Transcendental Magic):

“To invoke blindest passions, which are also illimitable in their scope, and bring them into slavish subjection, is to create omnipotence.”

In the nineteenth century, another European author named Hesketh Bell took up Labat’s “mantle” of sorts, and furnished the Caribbean mythos with further magical or psychical narratives. Like Labat’s works, Bell’s infamous Obeah: Witchcraft in the West Indies is full of prejudicial hyperbole. Much of the text is devoted to rumours of the supposed diablerie and criminality of Obeah practitioners. A few times however, Bell touches on weather-magic tales. One of these tales (which appears in issue #6 of Godfrey’s Almanack) involves a cataclysmic storm which was unleashed in 1780 by the spirit of a Jamaican bandit-chief named Plato shortly after his death. Plato, like the sea-sorceress in Labat’s tale also seems to have had knowledge of the so-called “evil eye” and perhaps other subtle arts. At his sentencing, he threatens his executioner with death, and soon the poor man deteriorates under the influence of his vampiric tormentor.

Plato the Robber. Image via Internet Archive.

Bell also describes the local legend of a girl from St Lucia who had the power to involuntarily bring rain wherever she went. The catch though, was that the rain could only appear indoors. Although Bell, treating the tale as a kind of joke, does not look for an explanation, one author (writing in volume 13 of The Theosophist) theorises that the girl’s condition was caused by a supervising medium or a long-lost connection to Atlanteans.

View in Jamaica. Image via Internet Archive.

What are we to make of this legendarium? Undoubtedly, as has been the case with other magical tales from around the world, they are just the tip of the iceberg. Bell and Labat were outsiders who happened to record a fraction of what were most likely deep-rooted traditions of  wonderworking. Even today, certain families of rainmakers across the African continent maintain their craft and keep their “trade secrets” under close guard. Elements of these traditions were transmitted across the ocean during the Atlantic Slave Trade alongside various West African mystical systems. Oral storytelling and cultural exchange clearly played a significant role in their proliferation, and, we can be sure, will continue to play a part in their survival. To meddle, to amalgamate, to syncretise, to transform—this is the history of magic.

Want more stories? Check out our spin-off project, Godfrey’s Almanack.


“They say that there is a shrine also of the heroine Iphigenia…Hesiod, in his Catalogue of Women, says that Iphigenia did not die, but by the will of Artemis became Hecate.”

-from Pausanias’s Description of Greece, vol. 1, trans. with a commentary by James George Frazer (1898).

 To the Ancient Greeks, heroes and heroines were exalted beings—a genus—as it were, of humans magnified to the umpteenth power. Their ranks included some of the most well-known figures in classical mythology; Heracles, Theseus, Alcmene, Ariadne—the list went on and on. All members of this superlative “club” endured great travail, but only a select few could boast of divine parentage. These were the mythic godlings of epic and tragicomedic writers like Homer and Euripides. Those who lacked ichor-blooded progenitors had to forge their own path alongside their immortal counterparts.They were persecuted, abused, and debased before the world. They struggled against all the elemental forces the Moirai cast at them and either surmounted their foes or perished in the process. Among this group of fate-treading mortals were the local heroines venerated by devotees in polities and city-states across the Greek Isles.

Iphigenia. Art by Max Nonnenbruch. Photogravure via Internet Archive.

The story of these multifaceted women and their corresponding religious cults is the subject of Greek Heroine Cults, a fascinating study by Professor Jennifer Larson. We caught up with Professor Larson to gain a better understanding of heroine worship in Ancient Greece and its place in everyday societal relationships.

The Custodian: What qualified someone as a heroine? Did heroine “origin stories” generally follow a specific narrative pattern?

Professor Jennifer Larson: From early in the Iron Age, the Greeks worshiped certain dead people in a sporadic way, without having a name (so far as we know) for this religious category, or a fixed mode of offering. We know that these powerful dead included warrior-chieftains, city founders, and recently-deceased ancestors, but there may also have been cults for legendary people and harmful dead who were similar to ghosts. By the sixth century, some of these practices coalesced into a “cult of heroes”, which involved the worship of the men and women who figured in the traditional tales of each Greek region and city (“cult” in this sense is a technical term for organised worship, with no negative connotations). Such a man was called herōs, and a woman hērōinē or hērōissa. Odysseus, Agamemnon, Menelaus, and Oedipus all had cults. Although cult heroines were less common, they include many of the heroines familiar from Greek myths, like Penelope, Ariadne, Alcmene (the mother of Heracles), and Iphigenia (the daughter of Agamemnon).

Most cult heroines, however, figured in local myths rather than the grand epic tales. An example is Antinoë, a woman who was guided by a snake to establish the site for the Arcadian city of Mantinea. In the second century CE, the traveller Pausanias wrote about seeing her tomb in the city, a round stone which the people called the Public Hearth. Still other heroines never had names at all, but were simply known as “the heroine on the plain”, or “the heroines near the property of Kalliphanes”.

Penelope, wife of Odysseus and (in Arcadian tradition) the mother of Pan. Art by Patten Wilson. Photogravure via Internet Archive.

There were no systematic selection criteria for heroines (or heroes); the cults sprang up spontaneously as a kind of folklore, although many of them were adopted as public cults, meaning that the town or polis undertook to fund the annual offerings. Still, certain narrative patterns are regularly associated with heroine cults. A very common one is the story of a girl who is impregnated by a god, and persecuted (often by her own relatives) as a result of her pregnancy. She usually has to abandon the baby, who is then adopted by someone else. The great Swiss scholar Walter Burkert called this storyline “the girl’s tragedy”. Sometimes the girl dies, like Alope, the mother of the Attic hero Hippothoön, who was killed by her own father. Koronis, the mother of Asclepius, and Kallisto, the mother of the Arcadian hero Arcas, were both shot with arrows by Artemis. In other cases, the heroic son grows up and is reunited with his mother. The twin sons of Antiope by Zeus were the Theban heroes Amphion and Zethus. When these twins reached adulthood, they rescued their mother from persecution by a rival named Dirce (who had her own cult). The cults of these heroines were usually associated in one way or another with those of their sons—in the festival calendar, or spatially, by means of neighbouring tombs.

Ariadne. Image via Internet Archive.

Another common storyline was that of the sacrificial virgin. This was a popular tale type in Attica, the territory of Athens. The narrative usually begins with an oracle saying that a maiden must be sacrificed in order to win a war or end a plague. Sometimes the virgin is a willing sacrifice, and sometimes not. The daughters of an early Athenian king, Erechtheus, were voluntarily sacrificed in order to gain victory in the war against Eleusis. The same story is told about one of king Cecrops’ daughters, Aglauros, and the young men of Athens took their citizenship oaths at her sanctuary on the Acropolis, demonstrating similar loyalty.

Iphigenia, the daughter of Agamemnon, was sacrificed against her will in order to appease the anger of Artemis and restore the winds needed to carry the Greek armies to Troy. She was worshiped in a sanctuary of Artemis at Brauron, in Attica, and elsewhere. (No such human sacrifices are known from the historical record, although there is limited evidence for ritual killings in the archaeological records of the Bronze Age through the tenth century.)

Mercury Changes Aglauros to Stone, from the Story of Mercury and Herse. Tapestry design attributed to Giovanni Battista Lodi da Cremona. Image via The Metropolitan Museum of Art.

A third story pattern is the wrongful death of the heroine. According to legend, some Spartans once raped and murdered a group of sisters who lived in Leuktra near Thebes, then threw their bodies into a well. Their father Skedasos, unable to hold the Spartans to account, killed himself at their tomb. Years later, the Thebans were preparing for battle with Sparta. The Theban commander, Pelopidas, had a dream in which he was directed to sacrifice a white colt to the girls. As a result, he defeated the Spartans and avenged the “Leuktrides”, as they were called. It is easy to see how a story like this could arise after the fact, to explain why the supposedly invincible Spartans suffered such a crushing loss.

C: How did the varying classes of Greeks view their semi-divine compatriots? For example, did aristocrats hope to one day achieve apotheosis–or were they convinced that such a possibility was restricted to the “Age of Heroes”?

J: The Greeks distinguished ritually between cult honours paid to the denizens of the earth and underworld (the dead, heroes/heroines, and underworld gods), and cult honours paid to deities (such as the Olympian gods) who were thought to reside in the upper world and heaven. The distinctions were sometimes subtle, but (to generalise) underworld beings tended to receive more libations, especially of blood from sacrificial animals, and the meat from animal sacrifices was less often consumed by the participants in the ritual for underworld beings (instead, all or part of the meat would be burned).

These procedures were derived from somber funerary ritual, and can be contrasted with the joyous feasting characteristic of sacrifices for the “upper” gods. From early times, founders and warrior chieftains might expect to be honoured this way after their deaths, and there were sporadic instances of what we might call “ancestor cult”. As the Greek polis system developed, cults were established for local heroes, who then could act as “ancestors” for the community as a whole. Still, we find historical tyrants aspiring to this type of recognition during the Classical period, and athletes being worshiped after their deaths. They were not regarded as gods, however, but as dead men who happened to retain the ability to act in the world.

Athena attacking a giant. Image via Internet Archive.

True apotheosis, and the apellation of theos (god), was reserved for only a tiny number of people. The most notable example is Heracles, the son of Zeus and a mortal woman, Alcmene. During the late seventh century, a new story about Heracles began to circulate: at the end of his life, Athena escorted him to heaven in a chariot, where he was accepted among the gods of Olympus and married Hera’s daughter Hebe (“Youth”). Around the same time, worship of Heracles as a full-blown god, with temples, statues, sacrifices and festivals, began to spread. Still, although Heracles was unquestionably a theos, there remained certain doubts about his status and questions about the proper mode of worship (Pindar calls him hērōs theos, “hero-god”). When Odysseus visits the underworld in the Odyssey (11.601-4), he sees the dead hero— or does he?

“And afterward I perceived mighty Heracles, his phantom, that is: for he himself, in the company of immortal gods, takes pleasure in the feast and has as his wife slender-ankled Hebe, the daughter of Great Zeus and gold-sandaled Hera.”

The Greek historian Herodotus claimed that some cities had dual cults of Herakles, one for sacrifice “as to a god”, and the other “as to a hero”. He attributed this oddity to the existence of two figures named Heracles, one an ancient Phoenician god, and the other a Greek hero.

Heracles and Ceryones. Image via Internet Archive.

Among women, the most famous case of “apotheosis” is the beautiful Helen, the daughter of Zeus and the cause of the Trojan War, although there is no equivalent story of her entry to Olympus. According to the Odyssey (4.561-9) the hero Menelaus would never die, but instead would live forever in a special place called Elysium, because Helen was his wife and he was therefore the son-in-law of Zeus. Helen was regarded as a goddess by many Greeks, particularly at Sparta, where she and Menelaus were worshiped in a sanctuary of their own. Still another example of female apotheosis is mentioned in the Odyssey (5.333-5), where Odysseus is rescued from drowning by “Ino Leucothea, who of old was a mortal of human speech, but now in the depths of the sea has acquired honour from the gods”. Ino had been a daughter of Cadmus, the founder of Thebes, but leapt into the sea in a fit of madness. There, instead of dying, she was transformed into a sea deity known as “the White Goddess”. Many cults were devoted to her throughout the Greek world, and in this respect she resembles Heracles.

Ino Leucothea rescuing Odysseus. Art by Friedrich Preller. Photogravure via Internet Archive.

In general, then, most people could not expect to be heroised, much less treated as gods, but there were exceptions for people regarded as especially blessed, skilled, or beautiful, those who seemed to measure up to the great men and women of the “Age of Heroes”. For the average person, ancient mystery cults (addressed below) also offered a tantalising hope of immortality. Another special case was the deification of dead and living kings and queens, starting with Alexander the Great, and continuing with his successors in the Hellenistic kingdoms.

C: Would it be fair to draw a comparison between the ritual worship of heroines and heroes at sanctuaries and the veneration of Christian saints in cathedrals?

J: This is a much-debated question. Superficially, there are many similarities between the veneration of Christian saints and the cults of heroes and heroines. First is their local character, and the folkloric elements emphasising the hero or saint’s protection for those living nearby. In both cases we find special attention to the tomb and relics. Most hero cults were attached to a “tomb”, marked by a mound or a stone monument; these might be remains from the Bronze Age, or other local landmarks. In several instances, the Greeks cherished what they believed were the relics of heroes, such as the ivory “shoulder” of the hero Pelops, displayed at Olympia, or the huge bones of the exiled Theseus, recovered from the island of Scyros and ceremoniously conveyed home to Athens (these were probably fossil bones).

Possession of such relics conferred the hero’s protection, and quarrels over ownership were not unusual. At least three cities claimed to possess the tomb of Heracles’ mother Alcmene, who was buried with her second husband, Aleus. In 379, the Spartans invaded Boeotia and opened the “tomb of Alcmene” in Haliartos, intending to remove her remains to Sparta. It is unclear whether they found bones, but the other contents of the tomb were a bronze bracelet, two pots filled with what seemed to be hardened earth, and a bronze tablet with unknown writing. Disasters and portents followed the violation of the tomb, and the heroised pair had to be propitiated.

There are significant theological differences, however, between Christian saints and heroes. Because Christianity is nominally monotheistic, saints are to be “venerated” rather than worshiped. Saints are also envisioned as mediator figures between humans and God, which was not the case with heroes and heroines. Finally, saints achieve this status because of their moral virtues and/or martyrdom. While narratives of the manner of death were important in the legends of both saints and heroes, the Greeks did not heroise people on the basis of moral excellence, but for a variety of other reasons, such as legendary status, power, talent, beauty, or uncanny manifestations after death.

Artemis. Image via Internet Archive.

C: Were heroines usually pledged or allied to a specific goddess such as Hekate?

J: Most heroines were not tied to a particular goddess, but there are several cases of heroines with special connections to Artemis and/or Hekate, both virgin goddesses. Originally these two deities were separate, but by the late Classical period, Hekate was sometimes described as the underworld aspect of Artemis. Artemis killed many young women in myth, while in real life, the deaths of unmarried girls and of women who died in childbirth were attributed to her. Perhaps the idea was that through her death and heroisation, a woman remained forever young and virgin like the goddess herself. A fragment of Hesiodic poetry states that Agamemnon’s daughter Iphigenia “became Hekate by the will of Artemis”, while another story says that Artemis brought Iphigenia to the White Isle, an Elysium-like place in the Black Sea. Artemis, meanwhile, took the surname Iphigenia. Another legend tells of Aspalis, a girl of Pthia in Thessaly, who hanged herself to escape being raped by a tyrant. Her body disappeared and was replaced by a statue, which stood in Artemis’ temple.

Selene or Luna, goddess of the moon. Image via Internet Archive.

Three-formed Hecate. Image via Internet Archive

C: Were nymphs and sirens sometimes considered to be heroines?

J: Generally speaking, heroines were dead women with a human genealogy and ties to man-made monuments, while nymphs were minor goddesses who inhabited the wild spaces and personified features of the landscape, such as springs, trees, and mountains. In practice, however, there was overlap between the two categories. Many heroines were connected with springs or wells. The heroine Dirke had a tomb at Thebes, but there was also a spring called Dirke. The same is true of Leukonoë, a heroine of Arkadia. Both heroines and nymphs were worshiped in anonymous groups, probably reflecting the cultural institution of group dances (“choruses”) of maidens.

A calendar of sacrifices from the Attic town of Thorikos mentions four distinct groups of this type: the Heroines of Thorikos; the Heroines of Hyperpedios; the Pylochian Heroines, and the Heroines of the Koroneians. Three of the four groups receive offerings together with a local hero who seems to represent a feature of the landscape. The sirens are a special case. According to legend, they were hybrid bird/women creatures who lured sailors to their deaths with their irresistible song, but after Odysseus heard their song and lived to tell the tale, they killed themselves. The perception that they were mortal seems to have made possible siren “tombs” and corresponding cults. A siren named Parthenope was worshiped by Greek colonists at Naples, and they held a gymnastic contest in her honour.

Pegasus with Nymphs. Image via Internet Archive.

C: Was there any overlap between heroine rites, mystery traditions, and divinatory practices?

J: Beginning with the Eleusinian Mysteries in the eighth or seventh century, the Greeks explored the possibility that with the aid of special rituals, they might gain access to a more “blessed” afterlife than the common run of mortals, who shared a dismal fate in Hades. Such cults were called “mysteries” because initiates were sworn to secrecy. During the sixth century, a new mystery cult devoted to Dionysus/Bacchus emerged, with a revisionist theology making the god the son of Persephone, queen of the dead (rather than the son of Semele, as Homer and Hesiod taught). Initiates were buried with tiny inscribed gold tablets, which functioned like passports and guides to the “blessed” regions of the underworld. Some of these groups promised that their adherents would rule in Hades “with the other heroes” or even “become a god instead of a mortal.” From excavation of the burials, the content of the tablets, and other evidence, we know that these mysteries were quite popular with women. So in a sense, these cults offered ordinary men and women a chance to share the “blessed” status of heroes and heroines, a privilege which had previously been reserved for various elites.

Persephone Enthroned. Image via Internet Archive.

C: Can you tell us a bit more about your current research and forthcoming publications?

J: Greek Heroine Cults was my first book, published in 1995. I followed it up with Greek Nymphs: Myth, Cult, Lore (2001), which explored another neglected aspect of Greek worship, paying particular attention to the emotional and erotic components cults of of the nymphs. Since then I have published other books and articles on ancient Greek religion, most recently Understanding Greek Religion: A Cognitive Approach (2016). In this work, I applied insights from an emergent discipline, the cognitive science of religion, to better understand phenomena like ritual reciprocity with the gods, divination, purity rites, sympathetic magic, and afterlife beliefs.

In my current research, I am continuing to explore the relationship between cognition and religion, particularly the way human cognitive structures help to shape religious beliefs and practices. For example, most humans share certain intuitive, implicit beliefs about what constitutes a “miracle”, and their expectations have an impact on which stories get reported and transmitted. A god’s healing of a stomach ailment is only mildly, if at all, “miraculous” enough to give rise to a legend, while restoration of an amputated limb seems to be a very extreme sort of miracle, rarely reported in healing cults. The most oft-reported kind of healing miracle exists in between these extremes, in cures which seem to heal irreversible conditions, while not wildly violating our expectations of natural law. For example, the miracle healings attributed to the Greek god Asclepios include many cures of paralysis, blindness, infertility, and (most amusingly) baldness, but only a few cures of the “unimpressive” or “extreme” types. If I am correct about the impact of shared intuition on the perception of miracles, patterns similar to this should be detectable in other healing cults across cultures.

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  “As an expert in military discipline…This valorous woman, with sword in hand, commanded troops of soldiers like a captain…”

 -from Gynevera de le clare donne by Giovanni Sabadino degli Arienti, eds. C. Ricci and A. Bacchi della Lega (1888).

“From her earliest years she hunted wild beasts in the woods, and almost like another Diana, she led many companions along the way, coursing through the countryside…”

-from Della officina historica libri quattro: nella quale si spiegano essempi antichi e moderni by Giovanni Felice Astolfi (1622).

The conquest of Constantinople in 1453 by Mehmed II sent shockwaves across Western Europe. While Christendom struggled to come to terms with the Ottoman victory, scores of Byzantine intellectuals scrambled and fled south to the courts of Italian elites, such as the Medici. Meanwhile, forces loyal to the Church expected the Venetians (then the custodians of one of the oldest regimes on the Italian peninsula) to defend their interests in the Aegean and check the expansion of the Ottoman navy. For commercial reasons, the Ottomans and Venetians managed to enjoy a short-lived peace. However, war eventually broke out in the 1460s.

Venice in the fifteenth century. Image via Internet Archive.

During this period, The Venetian Republic commissioned a married couple to defend Negropont (modern-day Chalkis) a Greek city of considerable strategic importance. One of these officers was Captain Pier-Brunero Sanvitale, a seasoned soldier and scion of the Sanvitali, a noble family from Parma. The other was a battle-hardened woman named Bona Longobarda (or Bona de Vultulina). Each was a decorated warlord, but Bona, unlike her highborn husband, had none of the advantages of a formal education.

Excerpt from De memorabilibus et claris mulieribus (1521). Edited by Johannes Ravisius.

Bona Longobarda. Image via Internet Archive.

Born in Valtellina (then part of the Duchy of Milan) to a peasant family, Bona was entirely self-made, an autodidact when it came to the art of war. Like Joan of Arc and countless other commandresses, she became something of a living legend in her own lifetime, and her accomplishments did not go unnoticed. Thus, when Venetian senators charged her with the protection of one of the republic’s most important maritime cities, they were making a decision based on Bona’s undisputed track record of military prowess. At the time, she had all the necessary skills down pat: castle-sieging experience, horsemanship, diplomacy, and hand-to-hand armoured combat. These she had acquired after spending a number of years in the company of condottieri, the for-hire martial enforcers or men-at-arms employed by Italian lordlings and despots.

Image of Bona from De Claris Mulieribus (1497) by Jacobus Philippus Bergomensis. Image via Internet Archive.

Excerpt from Gynevera de le clare donne by Giovanni Sabadino degli Arienti (written circa 1490; first published in 1888).

Bona was first discovered by her future husband Pier-Brunero while he was stationed near her home in Morbegno in the 1430s. According to Jacobus Bergomensis and Giovanni Sabadino degli Arienti, Bona originally worked as a herdswoman who routinely walked around the woods and countryside with her mules and hunting dogs. At some point during Brunero’s tour of duty, so the story goes, Brunero and Bona struck up a relationship of some kind and became paramours. Brunero, attracted to Bona’s masculinity, vivacity, and confidence, took her under his wing and she, disguised as a soldier, accompanied him on his other military campaigns for Francesco Sforza.

Excerpt from the Dictionnaire Royal, françois et anglois by Abel Boyer (1702).

Brunero’s peers were rapscallions and freebooters, true adventurers in the original sense of the word (i.e. men who hazard all in the pursuit of some risky enterprise). From these armed picaroons who possessed both the guile of Mercury and the bellicosity of Mars, Bona learned the business and politics of conflict in the Italian city-states. Mercenary artifice differed greatly from the stratagems openly espoused by imperial rulers. Bribery, intimidation, sabotage; these were the kind of strong-arm tactics that Bona likely picked up from her fellow soldiers and employed in battle.

Francesco Sforza and his wife, Signora Bianca Visconti. Image via Internet Archive.

Bona put her skills of persuasion to use in 1443, when Alfonso I, King of Naples jailed her partner in Valencia for intrigue. In actuality, Brunero’s former employer Francesco Sforza had orchestrated Brunero’s imprisonment by sending letters that questioned his allegiances. Bona spent the following years soliciting letters from European potentates to persuade Alfonso to secure Brunero’s release. Finally, in 1453, Alfonso pardoned his prisoner and Bona arrived in Valencia to meet him. In his Commentaria rerum gestarum a Jacobo Picinino, Porcellio de’ Pandoni, one of Alfonso’s court humanists praised her as an “incredible woman” who had “traversed the ocean many times to secure her lover’s freedom”. Like some kind of earthbound Diana, Bona appeared in full Amazonian dress, equipped with a helmet, bow, arrows, and calf-length boots.

Title page of Commentaria Rerum gestarum 1452-53, by Porcellio de’ Pandoni (edited by Ludovico Antonio Muratori in 1751).

Excerpt from Commentaria Rerum gestarum.

After the prison reunion, Brunero and Bona made their relationship official by getting married, and Bona helped her husband to gain a lucrative contract (20,000 ducats to be exact) with the Venetian Republic. Under the command of their new patron, Brunero and Bona laid siege to a Sforza fortress in Brescia. Bona swiftly became the rallying spirit of the Venetian troops and attacked the walls with matchless bravura. Apparently her ferocity and courage impressed the Venetian doge Pasquale Malipiero, who then sent Bona and her husband east to fight the Turks.

At Negropont, Bona and Brunoro fought in what would be the most important conflict of their shared military career. Tragically but not unexpectedly (as both warriors were over the age of fifty) Brunero was slain in battle and Bona fell victim to disease. She died in Modon (modern-day Methoni) in 1468 while en route to see her children in Venice. Negropont was eventually captured by the Ottomans in 1470. The defeat signalled the beginning of Venice’s waning influence as the dominant sea power in the Greek isles.

Map of Greece with Negropont highlighted. Image via Internet Archive.

Like all folk heroes, Bona’s demise failed to tarnish her larger-than-life reputation. Renaissance moralists gushed about her virtues and ethics, and historians—hundreds of years after her death—continued to extol her exceptional valour and intrepidity. But her life was not the typical rags-to-riches moral tale. Given the nature of her profession as a woman-at-arms , Bona encountered adversity at every turn. She excelled because she was an adventurer at heart, one who could dominate fortune and adapt to the rolling tides of fate. Uprooted from the peasantry, Bona ascended to the world of geopolitics and became one of the many military leaders chosen to engage the seemingly indomitable Ottoman navy. In every way she exemplified the old Latin adage: “Fortune favours the bold.”

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