Potions Mistresses

Cauldrons steam and poisons drip throughout Greek mythology. Creating everything from love philters to agony ointments, witches padfoot in and out of the old tales, leaving a whiff of belladonna and sulphur in their wake.

Pharmakos is the ancient Greek word for witch, healer, or poisoner, depending on context. While not inherently a derogatory term, we rarely find it being used to describe a kindly person with only positive intentions.

Circe (or Kirke if you’re feeling especially donnish) rivals her niece Medea for potion mastery. A goddess in her own right, daughter of Helios and the ocean nymph Perse, she’s an introvert who chooses to live on the tiny isle of Aeaea in the middle of nowhere, minding her own business.

Maybe she’s ducking the repercussions from transforming a romantic rival into one of the most loathed and feared monsters of all mythology, the Scylla. Circe fancies a minor sea god named Glaukus, but he is in love with the sea nymph, Scylla. Unaware of Circe’s feelings for him, he asks her to give the girl a love potion to make her fall for him. Circe agrees, smiling, then gathers a (sadly unrecorded) collection of noxious herbs and throws them into Scylla’s bathing pool. After marinating in this lethal bath bomb, Scylla develops twelve clawed feet, six heads, each with rows of sharp teeth, the deep, terrifying bark of a dog, and a taste for human flesh.

Homer tells us that lions and wolves protect Circe’s palace, fed drugs by Circe to keep them tractable. The tactic seemingly backfires when they allow Odysseus’s men to reach their mistress’s opulent home. After Circe lures them in with her beautiful singing voice and a hot meal, she stirs her “wicked drugs” into a brew of barley, cheese, wine, and honey (which may sound singularly nasty to us, but was apparently the last word in Martha Stewart hospitality in ancient Greece.) A tap with her magic wand and they’re all pigs, herded into a sty and fed on acorns.

Odysseus would make a brilliant pig, but he’s spared the fate of his men by the god Hermes, who gives him a potent anti-sorcery herb called moly. It’s a pity we never find out if he eats it, steeps it in wine, or just carries it, but it does the trick. Circe is shocked when her magic fails. Odysseus threatens her into submission, sleeps with her (the standard Greek hero method of re-socializing recalcitrant women), then cajoles her into reversing the pig spell. Holding her wand high, she flings open the door to the sty. The pigs line up in ranks, gazing at her respectfully. She anoints them with “some new magic oil”* and they become men again, only more appealing than before. Maybe a little swine time improves upon their basic natures.

The exploits of Helen of Troy have become synonymous with the events of the Iliad. She’s most famous for her fatal beauty, unable to escape the consequences of the desire of powerful men to own her. But we get glimpses of her personal power in the Odyssey.

Odysseus’s petulant son, Telemachus, visits Helen and her restored husband, Menelaus, hoping to get word of his father. During the welcome feast, the party becomes maudlin and weepy as the wine flows copiously and they commiserate on the woes brought upon them by Helen’s perfidy. She counters the mood by drugging the wine with hearts-ease, and presumably a few more secret and powerful drugs. So potent is her concoction that Homer tells us the guests would smile and laugh even if their children were slaughtered before their eyes.

Doe-eyed, deep-breasted Helen is pretty terrifying.

The last potion-wielder we’ll look at is Deianira, wife of mighty Herakles. Her husband employs the services of a centaur, Nessos, to get his new wife safely across a dangerous river. Apparently Herakles, more brawn than brain, is unaware of the proclivities of centaurs. Aroused by the scent of a nubile woman, Nessos attempts to rape Deianira as soon as they land on the shore. Her screams bring Herakles to the scene before she can be violated. He shoots Nessos with an arrow tipped with poison distilled from the blood of the Lernaean Hydra. As Nessos dies, he whispers to Deianira that his blood will serve her as a love philter if ever her husband’s interest in her wanes. Taking the word of her attempted rapist as truth, she soaks a cloth in the tainted blood and keeps it for years.

After fathering many children upon Deianira, and many many more on a slew of other women as he travels the world, Herakles sends word to his wife that he’s on his way home with a beautiful young princess in tow. Exasperated, Deianira makes him a new white shirt soaked in a tincture made from the centaur blood. Surprise! Nessos lied. Instead of turning newly-faithful eyes upon his wife, Herakles is consumed by agony. The shirt not only burns him like acid, but adheres to his skin so that as he tries to rip it off, it tears great gouges from his flesh. Unable to bear the pain, he self-immolates on a pyre. I’d love to tell you that Deianira goes on to find a better, more reliable fellow, but, sadly, she hangs herself in remorse.

One really can’t call Deianira a witch, not in the same way Circe and Helen are. Deianara resorts to a potion this once, in desperation, and it backfires badly on her. The accomplished sorceresses derive much more success and pleasure from their craft. Perhaps Deianira’s is a cautionary tale to eschew dabbling in the dark arts. But cautionary tales are for wimps. If you’re going to be a pharmakos, go all in. Brew that tea. Ferment that poison. Infuse that tincture. Get that cauldron smoking.

* From the Robert Fagles translation of The Odyssey.