Blaming the Witch: Some Reflections upon Unexpected Death
The epitaphs that Fritz Graf has collected that refer to an unexpected death as caused by witchcraft provide a welcome supplement to the evidence scholars of ancient religions generally rely on to understand the ideas of magical harming and untimely death, the curse tablets and the literary depictions. It is worth noting, however, that, in the evidence Graf has compiled, the relatives of the deceased tend to indicate their uncertainty about the cause, naming multiple possibilities rather than piling up the levels of alterity into a single ‘witch’ figure to take the blame. Blaming the witch is more common in Greek literature than Greek epitaphs; in real life, cases of unexpected death create uncertainty about whom or what to blame. This uncertainty over the multiple possibilities is, in itself, a fascinating aspect of the evidence that helps us better understand the ancient ideas of magical harming and untimely death.
The place of the witch, of the horrific scare-figure who piles up levels of alterity – female, foreign, and superhumanly powerful – is more in the imaginary of the Greco-Roman world than in its reality. While a variety of individuals may have engaged in practices that they or others might have labeled ‘magic’, including curse tablets and pharmaka intended to bring harm upon others, the kinds of witches we meet in literature, from Medea to Erichtho, do not, from the evidence of the epitaphs or from contemporary historical accounts, seem to have been regularly identified as the figures responsible for particular misfortunes, such as the untimely death of a young wife or the promising young heir to his father’s estate. Rather than fastening the blame on a specific individual and identifying her as the witch or engaging in widespread witchhunts, those afflicted with misfortunes seem more likely to express their uncertainty over the precise cause – it might have been a witch, but then again it might have been something else.
Thus, we see that, within the range of possible causes, either the specification of one – a witch or a poison – or the emphasis on the uncertainty itself can serve as a strategy for dealing with the social situation. This corpus of epitaphs can help illuminate the complex social situations that surrounded the phenomenon of untimely death in Greek and Roman societies, giving us insight into the structures of the society and the ways people negotiated within them. At the same time, these epitaphs, with their range of attributed causes for death, can help us understand the multiple ways in which magical forms of harming were thought to work in the ancient world, particularly with the insight that one mode need not exclude others in an explanation. These epitaphs supplement the literary accounts and the evidence of the curse tablets, providing new light on this murky, yet fascinating, aspect of the ancient world.