Lucan’s Witch

Erictho by John Hamilton Mortimer

Lucan’s Witch

By Erin Schott


Author’s Statement

From Morgan le Fay to Hermione Granger, witches captivate the imagination. Their motives and magical prowess enthrall the little child in all of us who yearns to cast a spell. And since there is no time of year when the witch receives more attention than Halloween, I thought this would be an appropriate moment to reflect upon the genesis of the contemporary witch by translating a passage of Lucan’s Bellum Civile. This “genesis” of the contemporary witch lies in Lucan’s Erictho, a frightening Thessalian sorceress whom Sextus Pompey has asked to reveal his father’s fate. Erictho has just told Sextus Pompey that she will use her dark arts to reanimate a corpse, which will then tell the fate of Pompey Magnus. In the passage I have translated below, Erictho creates a potion with horrifying ingredients, and then, mimicking various animal and nature sounds, casts a spell to revive her chosen corpse. I selected this passage because it displays Erictho at work; it shows the horrors of her craft and supports W. R. Johnson’s contention that Erictho is “the first recognizably modern witch in European literature.”1 Granted, Circe and Medea may be Erictho’s classical predecessors, but they perform magic for rational purposes: self-defense and love. Meanwhile, Erictho performs her craft because the end of all her work is, as Johnson puts it, “evil for evil’s sake.”2 In other words, she is an irrational creature who enjoys manipulating the laws of the universe and using her power to create horrors. By placing her in Book 6 of his epic, Lucan probably intends Erictho to be a perversion of Vergil’s Cumaean Sibyl, and if so, he has achieved his mission; Erictho is one of the most terrifying characters in classical literature, as I hope to have demonstrated in my translation below.


Latin Text: Bellum Civile, VI, 654–694.

discolor et uario furialis cultus amictu

induitur, uoltusque aperitur crine remoto,                  655

et coma uipereis substringitur horrida sertis.

ut pauidos iuuenis comites ipsumque trementem

conspicit exanimi defixum lumina uoltu,

‘ponite’ ait ‘trepida conceptos mente timores:

iam noua, iam uera reddetur uita figura,                  660

ut quamuis pauidi possint audire loquentem.

si uero Stygiosque lacus ripamque sonantem

ignibus ostendam, si me praebente uideri

Eumenides possint uillosaque colla colubris

Cerberus excutiens et uincti terga gigantes,                  665

quis timor, ignaui, metuentis cernere manes?’

pectora tum primum feruenti sanguine supplet

uolneribus laxata nouis taboque medullas

abluit et uirus large lunare ministrat.

huc quidquid fetu genuit natura sinistro                  670

miscetur: non spuma canum quibus unda timori est,

uiscera non lyncis, non durae nodus hyaenae

defuit et cerui pastae serpente medullae,

non puppem retinens Euro tendente rudentis

in mediis echenais aquis oculique draconum                675

quaeque sonant feta tepefacta sub alite saxa,

non Arabum uolucer serpens innataque rubris

aequoribus custos pretiosae uipera conchae

aut uiuentis adhuc Libyci membrana cerastae

aut cinis Eoa positi phoenicis in ara.                  680

quo postquam uiles et habentis nomina pestis

contulit, infando saturatas carmine frondis

et, quibus os dirum nascentibus inspuit, herbas

addidit et quidquid mundo dedit ipsa ueneni.

tum uox Lethaeos cunctis pollentior herbis                  685

excantare deos confundit murmura primum

dissona et humanae multum discordia linguae.

latratus habet illa canum gemitusque luporum,

quod trepidus bubo, quod strix nocturna queruntur,

quod strident ululantque ferae, quod sibilat anguis;      690

exprimit et planctus inlisae cautibus undae

siluarumque sonum fractaeque tonitrua nubis:

tot rerum uox una fuit. mox cetera cantu

explicat Haemonio penetratque in Tartara lingua.



She donned a dress fit for a Fury, discolored with

various cloth, and her face was revealed: the horrid

hair pulled back and tied with bound vipers.

When she saw the youth’s comrades shuddering and he

himself trembling, the eyes downcast on his terrified face,

she said, “Put the conceived fears from your nervous mind.

Soon life will return anew; soon it will return in its true form

so that even the fearful can hear the dead one speak.

If I may truly reveal the Stygian lakes and the bank

hissing with flames, if I may see the Furies in person

and Cerberus shaking out his hair, shaggy with snakes,

and the giants chained by their backs, why do you fear, cowards,

to discern the shades who themselves fear me?”

First, she filled the corpse’s chest, punctured by new wounds, with

boiling blood. She cleaned the marrow from the gore

and administered a plentiful slime from the moon.

To this, she mixed in whatever nature bore by means of

evil production. The foam of rabid dogs and the innards

of lynxes were not absent, nor were the bump of a

harsh hyena and the marrows of a stag fed upon by a serpent.

Present too was the echeneis, which restrains ships

in the middle of the sea as the southeast wind holds

their rigging, and the eyes of a dragon, and even the

warmed up rocks that ring out beneath a birthing eagle.3

The flying serpent of Arabia was not missing,

nor was the snake native to the Red Sea, the

guardian of a precious conch. There was also the

slough of a Libyan viper yet alive and the ashes of a

phoenix placed on an Eastern altar. Afterward,

Erictho gathered cheap, named diseases and leaves

steeped in an unspeakable spell, which she had spit

upon while they grew. To this mixture, she added

herbs and whatever poison she herself had given to the cosmos.

And then her voice, more powerful than all the herbs

to enchant the Lethean gods, poured out dissonant

murmurs and many sounds discordant to a human tongue.

She had the barking of dogs and the growl of wolves,

the complaints of the fearful horn owl and the nocturnal screech owl,

the shrieks and howls of beasts, the hissing of a snake.

She expressed the lament of a wave crushed on the rough,

The rustling of forests, the thunder of a broken cloud;

All of these her voice was at once. Then she unfurled the

rest in a Haemonian chant, and her tongue penetrated into Tartarus.


Erin Schott is a senior at the University of Pennsylvania majoring in Classical Studies and English. She is also the Editor-in-Chief of Discentes.



1. R. Johnson, “Erictho and Her Universe,” in Momentary Monsters : Lucan and His Heroes (Ithaca: Cornell University Press, 2019), 19.

2. Ibid, 20.

3. I have translated the phrase “warmed up rocks” quite literally from the original Latin tepefacta saxa. I made this decision due to the ambiguity and scholarly debate as to what these rocks are. Spherical objects warmed up beneath an eagle could refer to eggs. However, some scholars have argued, perhaps more convincingly, that these rocks are instead what the Romans referred to as eaglestone, which was thought to be present in eagles’ nests. Eaglestones would explode and make a loud noise when warmed. See H. T. Riley, The Pharsalia of Lucan.


Works Cited 

Johnson, W. R. “Erictho and Her Universe.” In Momentary Monsters: Lucan and His Heroes, 1–34. Ithaca: Cornell University Press, 2019.

Riley, H. T. The Pharsalia of Lucan. London: George Bell & Sons, 1909.