Persians and Thessalians: Lucan compares Thessalian women’s techniques to Magian ones (mid-first century CE)

Citation with stable link: Philip A. Harland, 'Persians and Thessalians: Lucan compares Thessalian women’s techniques to Magian ones (mid-first century CE),' Ethnic Relations and Migration in the Ancient World, last modified April 23, 2024,

Ancient authors: Lucan of Corduba, Civil War 6.413-588 (link; link to Latin).

Comments: Early evidence for Latin-speaking Roman authors directly reflecting knowledge of Greek ethnographic discussions about Persian Magians is somewhat limited (cf. Rives 2010). Greeks had been talking about Magians since the fifth century BCE, but Romans started late. There is Catullus’ poem which denigrates Persian Magians with the incest accusation, written in the early first century BCE (link); there are Cicero’s somewhat substantial though scattered references to debates about whether Persian Magians can be considered among wise “barbarians,” written in the mid-first century BCE (link); and, there is Pliny the Elder’s extensive outline of the supposed dissemination of Magian knowledge throughout the known world, written in the mid-first century CE (link). Later on around 158 CE, we have Apuleius’ somewhat extensive defence against the charge of Magian activity as well (link).

This scant trail of surviving material makes particularly notable Lucan’s incidental comparisons of the practices of Thessalian women with Persian Magian techniques in his poem about the civil war between Pompey and Caesar. (I have italicized some key passages so that key sections are easily identifiable). This poem was produced in the early 60s CE and so is roughly contemporary with Pliny the Elder. Lucan’s view of both Thessalian women’s practices and Persian Magian knowledge is clearly negative, and so (like Pliny) he would not place Magians in the wise “barbarians” category. What he is doing with Thessalians (although Greeks), however, is portraying them as semi-barbarians without expressly using such terms.

The passage below occurs just after Lucan has sketched out the characteristics of the land of Thessaly in northeastern Greece as Pompey and Caesar prepare for war in that region. Lucan evokes widespread notions that Thessaly’s women were reputed to be dangerous experts in making potions, in various forms of divination, and in using chants to harm others, which is why scholars tend to anachronistically label them Thessalian “witches.” This reputation was, in part, related to the idea that Thessaly was ideal for growing various herbs, and there is the legend that Medea from Kolchos (on the eastern coast of the Black Sea) got the ingredients for her potions precisely in Thessaly (see Fuhrer 2021). Lucan first compares the practices of Thessalian women generally to those of the Magians and then zeroes in on Erichtho (or Erictho), with the latter depicted as an even more extreme and dangerous practitioner of chants and potions, including her use of human body parts in such potions. Apuleius’ later fictional story about Lucius’ adventures are likewise placed in Thessaly at one point, where some women are looking for body parts for potions as well (link). So he, too, reflects this Thessalian reputation.

Works consulted: T. Fuhrer, “Thessalian Witches: An Ethnic Construct in Apuleius’ Metamorphoses,” in Identities, Ethnicities and Gender in Antiquity, ed. Jacqueline Fabre-Serris, Alison Keith, and Florence Klein (Berlin: De Gruyter, 2021), 219–34; J. Rives, “Magus and Its Cognates in Classical Latin,” in Magical Practice in the Latin West, ed. Francisco Marco Simón and Richard Gordon, RGRW 168 (Leiden: Brill, 2010), 51–77.


[Thessaly as the setting of the clash between Pompey and Caesar and the desire to know the outcome through divination]

(book 6, line 413) When upon this land the chieftains have pitched the camps destined
by the Fates, their minds, presaging the future warfare,
(415) engage all, and it is clear that the momentous hour of the great
crisis is drawing near. Because their fates are now close approaching,
degenerate minds tremble, and ponder on the worst.
A few, courage preferred, feel both hopes and fears
as to the event. But mingled with the timid multitude
(420) is Sextus [Pompey’s younger son], an offspring unworthy of Magnus for a parent,
who afterwards, roming as an exile on the Scyllaean waves,
a Sicilian pirate, polluted his triumphs on the deep,
who, fear spurring him on to know beforehand the events of fate,
both impatient of delay and faint-hearted about all things to come,
(425) consults not the tripods of Delos, not the Pythian caves,
nor does he choose to enquire what sounds Dodona, the nourisher
on the first fruits, sends out from the brass of Jove, who from the entrails
can reveal the fates, who can explain the birds, who can observe
the lightnings of heaven and search the stars with Assyrian care,
(430) or if there is any method, secret, but lawful. He had gained
a knowledge of the secrets of the ruthless Magians (Magi) detested
by the gods above, and the altars sad with dreadful sacrifices,
and the aid of the shades below and of Pluto; and to him, wretched man,
it seemed clear that the gods of heaven knew too little.

[Skills of Thessalian women, with comparison with Persian and Egyptian Magians]
The vain and direful
(435) frenzy the very locality promotes, and, adjoining to the camp,
the cities of the Thessalian women, whom no power over any prodigy that
has been invented can surpass, whose every skill is unbelievable.
Moreover, the Thessalian land produces on its crags both noxious
herbs, and rocks that are sensible to the Magians (Magoi) as they
(440) chant their deadly secrets. There spring up many things
destined to offer violence to the deities; and the Colchian stranger [Medea]
gathers in the Thessalian lands those herbs which she has not brought.
The impious songs (carmina) of the accursed populations turn the ears of the
inhabitants of heaven that are deaf to peoples (gentes) so numerous, to so many peoples.
(445) That voice alone goes out in the midst of the recesses of the heavens,
and bears the stringent words to the unwilling deities,
from which the care of the skies and of the floating heavens never
calls them away. When the accursed murmur has reached the stars,
then, although
Persian Babylon and mysterious Memphis
(450) should open all the shrines of the ancient Magians (Magoi), the Thessalian
oman to foreign altars draws away the gods of heaven.
Through the Thessalian woman’s song (carmen), a love not induced by
the Fates has entered into hardened hearts; and stern old men
have burned with illicit flames. And not only do noxious
(455) potions avail; or when they withdraw the pledges swelling with
its juices from the forehead of the mother about to show her affection.
The mind, polluted by no corruption of imbibed poison, perishes
by force of singing (excantata). Those whom no unison of the bed jointly
occupied binds together, and influence of alluring beauty,
(460) they attract by the Magian (magica) whirling of the twisted threads.
The courses of things are held and, slowed down by lengthened night,
the day stops short. The sky does not obey the laws of nature;
and on hearing the song (carmen) the headlong world is numbed;
Jupiter, too, urging them on, is astounded that the poles of heaven do not
(465) go on, impelled by the rapid axles. At another time, they fill all places
with showers, and, while the sun is hot, bring down the clouds;
the heavens thunder, too, Jupiter not knowing it. By those same words,
with hair hanging loose, have they scattered abroad far and wide
soaking clouds and showers. The winds ceasing, the sea
(470) has swelled; again, forbidden to be sensible of the storms,
the south wind provoking it, it has held its peace; and bearing along
the ship the sails have swelled against the wind. From the steep rock
has the torrent hung suspended; and the river has run not in the direction
in which it was descending. The summer has not raised the Nile;
(475) in a straight line the Maeander river has urged on his waters; and the Arar has
impelled headlong the delaying Rhone; their tops lowered, mountains
have levelled their ridges. Olympos has looked upwards to the clouds,
and with no sun the Scythian snows have thawed, while
the winter was freezing. Impelled by the stars, the shores protected,
(480) the songs of the Thessalian women have driven Tethys back.
The earth, too, has shaken the axle of her unmoved weight,
and, inclining with the effort, has oscillated in her mid regions.
The weight of a mass so vast smitten by their voice, has gaped open,
and has afforded a prospect through it of the surrounding heavens.
(485) Every animal powerful for death, and produced to do injury, both
fears the Thessalian skills and supplies them with its deadly qualities.
Them do the ravening tigers and the magnanimous wrath of the lions
fawn upon with gentle mouth; for them does the serpent
unfold his cold coils, and is extended in the frosty field.
(490) The knots of the vipers unite, their bodies cut asunder;
and the snake dies, breathed upon by human poison.
What failing is this of the gods of heaven in following after chants (cantus) and
herbs, and what this fear of disregarding them? Of what compact do the bonds
keep the deities bound like this? Is it obligatory, or does it please them
(495) to obey? For an unknown piety only do they [Thessalian women] deserve this,
or by secret threats do they prevail? Have they this power against
all the gods of heaven, or do these imperious songs sway only
a particular deity, who, whatever he himself is compelled,
can compel the world, to do? There, too, for the first time were the stars
(500) brought down from the headlong sky; and serene
Phoebe, beset by the dire influences of their words,
grew pale and burned with dusky and earthy fires,
not otherwise than if the earth hindered her from the reflection of
her brother, and interposed its shade between the celestial flames;
(505) and, arrested by chants (cantu), she endures labours so great,
until, more near, she sends her foam upon the herbs situated below.

[Erichtho as an even more extreme expert in these practices using human body parts]
These rites of criminality, these crimes of this awful descent group (gens),
the wild Erictho has condemned as being of piety too extreme,
and has applied the polluted skill to new ceremonies.
(510) For to her it is not permitted to place her deadly head within
a roof or a home in the city; and she haunts the deserted piles,
and, the shades expelled, takes possession of the tombs,
pleasing to the gods of Erebus. To hear the counsels of the dead,
to know the Stygian abodes and the secrets of the concealed Pluto,
(515) not the gods above, not a life on earth, forbids. Leanness has possession
of the features of the hag, foul with filthiness, and, unknown
to a clear sky, her dreadful appearance, laden with uncombed locks,
is beset with Stygian paleness. If showers and black clouds
obscure the stars, then does the Thessalian woman stalk forth
(520) from the spoiled piles, and try to arrest the lightnings of the night.
The seeds she treads on of the fruitful corn she burns up,
and by her breathing makes air noxious that was not deadly before.
She neither prays to the gods of heaven, nor with suppliant prayer
calls the deity to her aid, nor does she know of the propitiating
(525) entrails; upon the altars she delights to place funereal flames,
and frankincense which she has carried off from the lighted pile.
Her voice now first heard as she demands, the gods of heaven
accede to all the wickedness, and dread to hear a second address.
Souls that live, and still rule their respective limbs, she buries
(530) in the tomb; and death reluctantly creeps on upon those who owe
lengthened years to the Fates; the funeral procession turning back,
the dead bodies she rescues from the tomb; corpses fly from death.
The smoking ashes of the young and the burning bones she
snatches from the midst of the piles, and the very torch which
(535) the parents have held; the fragments, too, of the funereal bier
that fly about in the black smoke, and the flowing robes does she
collect amid the ashes, and the embers that smell of the limbs.
But when corpses are kept within stone, from which the moisture within
is taken away, and, the corruption withdrawn, the marrow has grown
(540) hard; then does she greedily devour all the limbs,
and bury her hands in the eyes, and delight to scoop out
the dried-up balls, and gnaw the pallid nails of the
shrunken hand; with her mouth she tears asunder the halter
and the murderous knots; the bodies as they hang she gnaws,
(545) and scrapes the crosses; the entrails, too, smitten by the showers she
rends asunder, and the parched marrow, the sun’s heat admitted.
Iron fastened into the hands, and the black corruption of the filthy matter
that distils upon the limbs, and the slime that has collected,
she bears off, and hangs to the bodies, as the sinews hold fast her bite.
(550) Whatever carcass, too, is lying upon the bare ground,
before the beasts and the birds of the air does she sit; nor does she wish
to separate the joints with iron and with her hands, and about to tear
the limbs from their parched jaws, she awaits the bites of the wolves.
Nor do her hands refrain from murder, if she requires the
(555) life-blood, which is the first to spring from the divided throat.
Nor does she shun slaughter, if her rites demand living gore,
and her funereal tables demand the quivering entrails.
So, through the wounds of the womb, not the way in which nature invites,
is the embryo torn out, about to be placed upon the glowing altars.
(560) And as often as she has need of grim and stalwart shades, she herself
makes the shades; every kind of death among humankind is in her employ.
She from the youthful body tears the down of the cheek;
she with her left hand from the dying stripling cuts off the hair.
Full often, too, at her kinsman’s pile has the dire Thessalian woman
(565) brooded over the dear limbs, and imprinting kisses,
has both cut off the head, and torn away the cheeks pressed with her teeth,
and biting off the end of the tongue as it cleaves to the dried throat,
has poured forth murmurs into the cold lips, and has
dispatched accursed secrets to the Stygian shades.

[Erichtho compared with Magians]
(570) When the rumours of the spot brought her to the notice of Pompey,
amid the depths of the night of the sky, at the time when Titan
is bringing the midday beneath our earth, along the deserted fields
he takes his way. The faithful and usual attendants upon his crimes,
wandering amid the ruined tombs and graves,
(575) beheld her from far away, sitting upon a lofty crag,
where mount Haemus, sloping down, extends the Pharsalian ridges.
She was trying out words unknown to Magians (Magoi) and the
gods of
Magian knowledge (magice), and was trying songs for unusual purposes.
For, fearing in case the shifting warfare [of Pompey and Caesar] might move to another region,
(580) and the Emathian land be deprived of such vast slaughter,
the poisoner (venifica) has forbidden Philippi, polluted with chants
and sprinkled with dreadful potions, to transfer the combats,
about to claim so many deaths as her own, and to enjoy the blood
of the world; she hopes to maim the corpses of slaughtered
(585) monarchs, and to turn to herself the ashes of the Hesperian
descent group, and the bones of nobles, and to obtain shades so mighty.
This is her pursuit, and her sole study, what she is to tear away from the
corpse of Magnus when exposed, what limbs of Caesar she is to brood over. . .
[omitted Pompey’s consultation of Erichtho about the outcome of the impending war].


Source of translation: H.T. Riley, The Pharsalia (London: G. Bell, 1889), adapted by Harland (particularly removing reference to “witches” where none exist and being careful about translating references to chants and songs).

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