Classics and Religious Studies


Date of this Version



Published in Helios 28:1 (2001), pp. 43-56. Published by Texas Tech University Press;


The connection between poetry and enchantment in Greek literature is by now a familiar subject. The poet enchants (θέλει) his audience as a magician chants a spell or administers a drug, causing pleasure and the forgetfulness of pain in the listener. As with most other poetic topoi, this one goes back to Homer, to figures like Circe, the Sirens, and even Helen. In this paper, I will argue that two witches from Hellenistic poems should be regarded as poet-figures: Simaetha in Theocritus' Idyll 2, and Medea in Apollonius' Argonautica. Theocritus and Apollonius use the performing female voice of the witch to suggest a kind of performance context and an authenticity for their work. By simultaneously focalizing and objectifying the young, nubile witch as she performs her spells, the Hellenistic poets enchant and seduce the reader. Both Simaetha and Medea use magic to achieve their ends, and both seem to have enchanted their readers, yet neither one is typically read as a poet-figure. The reason for this is bound up with the way in which both poets portray these witches: as young, inexperienced, nubile girls, potentially powerful but also vulnerable. Their gender, youth, and inexperience tend to lead critics to view them as the objects of men's charming language (Delphis, Jason) rather than as the agents of magical, poetic charms themselves. Critics also seem led, over and over, to psychological interpretations of the witches' characters rather than to structural or symbolic analyses of the way the witches stand in for the poet in their respective poems.

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