From Greek myth to medieval witches: infertile women as monstrous and evil

From Greek myth to medieval witches: infertile women as monstrous and evil

McGuire, Linda


In 1484, Pope Innocent VIII issued a papal bull declaring “witches” as heretics. Shortly after the idea of a witch became gender-related to women and the stereotype of a witch that of an elderly and dangerous woman. The exact origin of this stereotype is not known. Yet it led to the deaths of thousands of women during the late Middle Ages; it is believed that more than 80% of executed witches were women.

Various theories exist that try to explain how women became an enemy of society at this time along with more “traditional” enemies such as Jews and Protestants. Some think that the witch image derived from the many representations of savage women known from folklore. Others trace it back to attitudes towards women, like Aristotle’s view of women as imperfect humans.

This paper is going to suggest another possible source: female monsters from Greek mythology, such as the Keres, the Lamia, Scylla, the Harpies and Medusa. While drawing from different myths they share common characteristics as women who were infertile, physically monstrous and totally destructive. This paper will examine several key aspects of these monstersen and what they signified to the Greeks to see how they might have influenced the later witch stereotype.

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