Simaetha And Her Tradition

One of the most famous and distinctive descriptions of magical practice in ancient literature is the monologue composed as an Idyll by the Hellenistic poet Theocritus for Simaetha as she performs erotic magic to recover her supposedly errant lover Delphis. It is reproduced here together with a text from which it may be derived (88) and a text derived from it (90).

Sophron at Page 1942, no. 73


88 Women claiming to drive out the goddess? "Put [plural] the table down as it is. Take a salt lump in the hand and put bay leaves around your ears. Now, go to the hearth and sit down there. You [singular] there! Give me the double-edged blade. Bring the dog over here. Where is the bitumen?" "Here."

"Hold the torch and the incense. Come [plural] now, let all the doors be open! You watch from where you are, and extinguish the firebrand, as it is. Give me silence now, while I box for the women here. Lady, you have come to receive your meal and your blameless gifts."

The MAIN SPEAKER IN THIS FRAGMENT from a mime manages a rite and gives general orders to plural people (initiates?) and more direct orders to a singular assistant. The language used tells us that the people include men, but there is evidently among them a group of women. There is no direct indication of the sex of the main speaker or the assistant, but there are several reasons for thinking them both female. First, the tone and style of the piece strongly resembles Theocritus's Simaetha poem (89). Second, the main speaker seems to identify herself with the group of women for whom she will "box." Third, it is possible that this fragment is to be identified with the mime of Sophron, of which Athenaeus preserves the title Women Who Claim That They Drive out the Goddess (Deipnosophistae 480b). In the surviving passage it appears that the goddess is summoned rather than expelled, but, as with ghosts, the summoning-up may be a prelude to the driving-out; see 30. Theophrastus's Superstitious Man (Characters 16) "obsessively purifies the house all the time, claiming it to have been put under a spell [epagoge] by Hecate."

Sophron's Women Who Claim was probably a major influence both on Theocritus's Simaetha poem and on Virgil's closely related Amaryllis poem, 90. Sophron's poem included the line "Where is my pitch? What are you looking at, Thestylis?" (F5 Kock), remodeled by Theocritus in the first line of his Simaetha poem, and the line "a dog barking loudly before the house" (F6 Kock), remodeled by Virgil at the end of his Amaryllis poem.

The salt and the bay leaves are apotropaic. The table at the hearth may be the focus of the rite, as opposed to a separate altar; the hearth is evidently within an (initially) closed chamber. The curious phrase repeated twice, "as it is," may have a magical-formulaic role. The goddess addressed as "Lady" is likely to be Hecate (for whom see 275, with commentary), in view of the magical context and the sacrifice of the dog with the double-edged blade.

Theocritus Idyll 2, The Witch [Pharmakeutria]

89 Simaetha's erotic magic to recover the errant Delphis Where did I put my bay leaves?

Fetch them, Thestylis. Where are my love potions [philtra]? Garland the bowl with crimson sheep's wool, so that I may bind [katadesomai] my dear man, who is unkind to me. The miserable man has not even visited me for eleven days, nor does he know whether I am alive or dead. Nor has he knocked at my door, the hateful one. Eros and Aphrodite have gone off, taking his flighty mind with them. I'll go to Timagetus's wrestling gym tomorrow to see him, and I'll reproach him for his treatment of me. But now I will bind him with sacrifices. Moon, shine brightly. For I shall sing gently to you, goddess, and to chthonic Hecate, at whom even the dogs tremble as she comes across the tombs of the dead and the black blood. Welcome, frightful Hecate, and accompany me to the completion of my task. Render these drugs no less powerful that those of Circe, Medea, or blonde Perimede.

Wryneck [iunx], draw this man to my house. First, barley-grains disintegrate in the fire. But sprinkle them on, Thestylis. Poor woman, have you lost your mind? Sprinkle them, and while you do it say this: "I sprinkle the bones of Delphis."

Wryneck, draw this man to my house. Delphis has caused me pain. I burn this bay leaf against Delphis. And as this bay leaf is set alight, crackles loudly in the flames, and quickly blazes up, leaving no ash for us to see, so may Delphis too shrivel his flesh in the flames.

Wryneck, draw this man to my house. Now I will sacrifice the bran. You, Artemis, could move even the adamant in Hades and anything else difficult to shift. Thestylis, the dogs howl in the city. The goddess is at the crossroads. Sound the bronze as quickly as possible.

Wryneck, draw this man to my house. See, the sea is silent, silent the breezes. But the pain within my breast is not silent. I am ablaze over him who has made me a wretched, wicked, despicable nonvirgin, instead of a wife.

Wryneck, draw this man to my house. As I melt this wax doll with the help of the goddess, so may Delphis of Myndos at once be melted by love. And as by the power of Aphrodite this bronze bull-roarer [rhombos] whirls round, so may he whirl round at my door.

Wryneck, draw this man to my house. Three times I libate, and three times, lady, I make this utterance. Whether a woman lies beside him or a man, may he forget the person as utterly as they say Theseus once forgot fair-tressed Ariadne on Dia.

Wryneck, draw this man to my house. Hippomanes is a plant from Arcadia. All the swift mares and the foals rave on the hills for it. May I see Delphis in this condition, and may he come to this house like a madman from his shining wrestling gym.

Wryneck, draw this man to my house. Delphis lost this bit of cloth from his cloak. I pluck it apart and cast it into the fierce fire. Oh, grievous Eros, why have you drunk all the black blood from my skin, sticking to me like some leech of the marsh?

Wryneck, draw this man to my house. I will powder a lizard and take him an evil drink tomorrow. Thestylis, take now these herbs and knead them above his threshold while it is still night, and say the while, in a mutter, "I knead the bones of Delphis."

Wryneck, draw this man to my house. I am alone now. From what point shall I bewail my love? From what point am I to begin? Who inflicted this suffering on me? When our Anaxo, daughter of Eubulus, went to the grove of Artemis as a basket-carrier, many wild animals went in procession around the goddess at that time, including a lioness.

Observe the origin of my love, lady Moon. And Theumaridas's Thracian nurse, of blessed memory, lived close to my door. She begged and pleaded with me to watch the procession. I, doomed as I was, went with her trailing a tunic of linen and wearing Clearista's dress.

Observe the origin of my love, lady Moon. When I was halfway down the road, at Lycon's house, I saw Delphis and Eudamip-pus on their way together. The down on their chins was more golden than he-lichryse, and their breasts gleamed much more than you do, Moon, since they had just come from the beautiful efforts of the gym.

Observe the origin of my love, lady Moon.

As I saw, so I went crazy, so the heart of this poor woman was stricken with fire, and my beauty began to melt. I no longer paid attention to the festival, nor do I know how I got back home again, but a feverish illness shook my frame, and I lay on my bed for ten days and ten nights.

Observe the origin of my love, lady Moon. My skin often came to resemble yellow fustic, and my hair was coming out of my head. My bones and skin alone were left. To whose did I not go? Was there any old woman, adept at incantations, whose house I neglected? But the problem was a serious one, and time was running out fast.

Observe the origin of my love, lady Moon. I confessed the truth of the matter to my slave-girl in the following words: "Come, Thestylis, find me a way to combat this difficult sickness. The Myndian completely occupies my poor heart. But go and watch out for him at Timagetus's wrestling gym. For that is his haunt, and he likes to sit there."

Observe the origin of my love, lady Moon. "Whenever you learn that he is on his own, nod to him subtly and tell him 'Simaetha asks for you,' and escort him here." That is what I said. She went on her way and brought the glossy-skinned Delphis to my house. As soon as I realized he was stepping over my threshold with light foot . . .

Observe the origin of my love, lady Moon. ... my whole body grew colder than snow. Sweat rose on my brow like damp dew. I could not say anything, not even as much as children burbling in their sleep say to their dear mother, but my beautiful skin grew rigid all over, like a doll.

Observe the origin of my love, lady Moon. He glanced at me, this unloving man, and then fixed his eyes on the ground. He sat down on my couch and, sitting there, said his piece: "Indeed, Simaetha, your invitation to your house preceded my arrival at it by the same short interval by which I beat the graceful Philinus in a race the other day" . . .

Observe the origin of my love, lady Moon. . . . "For I would have come, yes I would, by sweet Eros, as soon as it was night, with two or three friends. I would have brought with me in my clothes some apples of Dionysus. On my head I would have had white poplar, the sacred shoot of Heracles, wound all round a purple band" . . .

Observe the origin of my love, lady Moon. . . . "And, if you had welcomed me in, that would have been lovely (for in fact I am known for being nimble and beautiful among all the bachelors), and I would have been able to sleep, if only I had kissed your beautiful mouth. But if you had rejected me and sent me off, and your door had been shut with a bar, then by all means axes and torches would have been brought against you" . . .

Observe the origin of my love, lady Moon. . . . "But as it is, I think, I owe thanks first to the Cyprian goddess, and after the Cyprian to you in the second place, who have rescued me half burnt from the fire, woman, by inviting me to your house like this. Eros often lights a more intense fire than Hephaestus of Lipara" . . .

Observe the origin of my love, lady Moon. . . . "With his evil madnesses Eros frightens a virgin from her bedroom and a bride into leaving her husband's bed, still warm." This is what he said. And I, all too easy to persuade, took him by the hand and laid him down on my soft bed. In no time skin was warmed on skin, and our faces were hotter than before, and we whispered sweetly. So as not to draw out too long a story, dear Moon, the greatest act was done, and we both met our desire. He found no fault with me until yesterday, nor did I with him. But the mother of Philista, our flute-player, and of Melixo came to me today, when the horses were running to the heaven conveying rosy Dawn from Ocean. Among the many things she said, she told me that Delphis was in love. Whether it is desire for a woman or a man that grips him, she said she did not know for sure, but this much she did know: he kept toasting Eros with unmixed wine and in the end he ran off, and he said he would cover the person's house with garlands. This is what the visitor told me, and she is truthful. For before he would visit me three and four times a day, and he would often leave his Dorian oil-flask at my house. But I have not even set eyes on him now for eleven days. Has he not found some other source of pleasure, and has he not forgotten me? But now I shall bind him with love-potions [philtra]. If he continues to cause me pain, by the Fates, he will knock at the gate of Hades. I keep drugs [pharmaka], I tell you, of such evil power in a box. I learned of them from an Assyrian stranger, mistress. Goodbye, lady, turn your horses toward Ocean. I will continue to endure my desire just as I have been doing. Goodbye, Moon of the shining throne, goodbye, you other stars, attendants of quiet Night's chariot.

Theocritus WORKED AT the COURT OF Ptolemy II Philadelphus in Alexandria, although the use of the names Delphis and Philinus suggest that the setting of this Idyll is Cos.

The highly literary nature of this touching portrait of a girl's insecurity is self-evident. It almost certainly does not set out to "document" a particular, complete, and unified magical rite as practiced. Rather, it appears to weave together a series of different love-magic practices that would seldom have been employed all together. The plethora of magical methods used and Simaetha's apparent confidence in the issuing of instructions to her slave-girl Thestylis give the impression that she is as accomplished witch, but she sees herself as no more than an amateur and consults greater professionals. Before the beginning of the affair with Delphis she had herself turned to old women with knowledge of incantations in order to rid herself of her love for him, although evidently without success. She had also acquired some of her drugs from an "Assyrian" stranger, no doubt equivalent to a Babylonian Chaldaean; compare 49-50. The transfer of magical expertise between genders is relatively rare in Graeco-Roman literature, but the Assyrian here finds his counterpart in the Egyptian Moeris in Virgil's adaptation of this poem, 90; see also 85.

Simaetha uses both erotic-attraction magic to bring Delphis back and erotic-separation magic to make him forget any potential rival. As to attraction magic, Simaetha combines two projects, according to the typology of Faraone (1999a}: that of philia magic, magic used by a woman to retain the affection of her existing partner; and that of eros magic, the magic of sexual seduction. Faraone holds that eros magic was normally practiced by men against women; Simaetha's use of it here accordingly indicates that she is "structurally male" and so a courtesan. The last claim is reductive, sits ill with Simaetha's remarks about her lost virginity and desired marriage, and, if true, deprives the poem of much of its poignancy.

As to separation magic (in the stanza beginning "three times I libate"), note the exhaustive-dichotomies phrase familiar from the curse tablets,

"whether man or woman"; see 124, 169, 185-6, 197. The adduced paradigm of Theseus's forgetting of Ariadne functions as a historiola, a paradigmatic mini-narrative corresponding to the situation at hand, with the desired denouement; compare 260-1.

Some or all of the magic employed is explicitly conceived of as binding magic (katadesomai); compare 168-84, 197-213. The incantatory repetition characteristic of curse tablets and the Greek magical papyri is here represented in repeated refrains.

Much of the magic is of a simple, sympathetic nature. Delphis is to be consumed with a fiery passion for Simaetha just as the barley, the bay leaf, the bran, the wax, and the cloak fragment are burned or melted. This burning and melting is precisely the effect of the love Delphis himself had claimed to experience for Simaetha (stanza beginning "But as it is . . .") and of Simaetha's own love for Delphis (stanza beginning "as I saw . . ."). We may be confident that the wax was molded into the form of a voodoo doll (see 236, 238-9, 243, 245-6). The fragment of Delphis's clothing acts as a lock of his hair would have done, as his ousia, his "stuff" or "essence." The burning of the cloth is not merely sympathetic in effect but also pars pro toto or "part for whole" magic, the notion being that the operation effected on part of Delphis is magically transferred to his whole. The kneading of the herbs to the accompanying statement that the bones of Delphis are being kneaded is also an act of sympathetic magic. The beloved's threshold is a significant place for the deposition of magical material against them: see 90, 103, 204.

It is in the context of this poem above all that the debate over the meanings of the terms iunx and rhombos rages; see 224-9 for discussion. Difficulties surround hippomanes too, a commonplace of literary erotic magic, but conceptualized both as a plant, as here, and as a gland: see 230-2.

Delphis is also to be attacked separately with a love potion on the next day. This will contain powdered lizards, these creatures being ever-popular magical ingredients (see 247). This is evidently a dangerous substance, and it is not therefore surprising that Simaetha also claims the power to kill with drugs, as we learn toward the end. The proximity between love-potions and poisons is again evident (compare 76-81).

There is a hint of love-magic on Delphis's part too. The apples he would have brought with him on his revel-rout would have enabled him to perform "apple-spells" on Simaetha. One pelted one's beloved with soft fruit; her acceptance of the fruit, knowing or otherwise, secured her love; compare 213.It was precisely "apples of Dionysus" that enabled Hippomenes to win the love of Atalanta (Philetas F18 Powell).

The bay leaf is apotropaic (see 88), as is wool and the color crimson, as well as the sounding of the bronze, which deters the ghosts and demons that fear bronze and iron, at the goddess's approach; compare 144. The presence of the bowl may indicate that lecanomancy is involved; see 163-4.

It is a commonplace of literary portraits of witches to compare them with the great mythical archetypes of Circe and Medea. Perimede is in fact a variant form of Medea's name, although the names are used in conjunction here apparently to differentiate two figures. This may be a knowing joke on Theo-critus's part. For Hecate, here identified, as often, with Selene, the Moon, and with Artemis, see 275, with commentary.

90 Amaryllis's (?) erotic magic to recover the errant Daphnis Bring out the water, and deck these altar-offerings with a soft

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  • philip christie
    Where was simaetha from?
    8 years ago

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