Who Are the Most Famous Sorceresses of Greek Mythology?

In Greek mythology, powerful sorceresses were often depicted as malevolent figures, but not every mythological witch had ill intentions.

Dec 6, 2023By Elizabeth Padian, MA English, BA English

 

Witchcraft and sorcery, sometimes also referred to as “pharmakeia,” relates to magic, working with herbs, potions, and the ancient healing arts. Although the gods and goddesses of Ancient Greece all had unique powers and magical abilities of their own, there are a few figures that stand out as the most famous sorceresses in Greek mythology.

 

Circe

circe offering the cup to ulysses
The Greek sorceress Circe Offering the Cup to Ulysses, by John William Waterhouse, 1891. Source: Gallery Oldham, Oldham, United Kingdom

 

Circe is perhaps the most renowned witch in Greek Mythology, weaving in and out of multiple ancient and modern stories. She is a captivating and enigmatic figure, daughter of the sun god, Helios, and famous for her mastery of magic. After turning a romantic rival into the sea monster, Scylla, Circe is banished to the mythical, isolated island of Aeaea.

 

Her most famous depiction is in Homer’s The Odyssey, where she encounters Odysseus and his crew after they arrive on Aeaea. Using one of her potions, she transforms his entire crew into swine. Although her beguiling and bewitching nature initially paints her as a villainess figure, she is not merely a malevolent sorceress. Ultimately, Circe helps Odysseus and his crew, graciously hosting them during their year-long stay and offering guidance for the rest of their journey when they finally depart. 

 

Hecate

Three-headed sculpture of Hecate. Source: Antalya Archaeological Museum, Turkey
Three-headed sculpture of Hecate. Source: Antalya Archaeological Museum, Turkey

 

Hecate is the goddess of witchcraft, which makes her one of the most famous divine figures of magic in Greek Mythology. She is considered the patroness of sorcery, necromancy, and mystical arts, directly connecting her to all of the other sorceresses on this list. As a chthonic god, she is also closely associated with passage to the Underworld, spirits, and ghosts.

Get the latest articles delivered to your inbox

Sign up to our Free Weekly Newsletter

 

Ancient practitioners invoked her for guidance during rituals, protection of the home, and wisdom in life, especially during difficult transitions and decisions. Hecate is often depicted as triple-bodied, representing phases of the moon and the cycle of womanhood: Maiden, Mother, and Crone. As such, she has become one of the most revered deities in both ancient pagan and neopagan religious traditions.

 

Medea

evelyn de morgan medea
Medea, by Evelyn de Morgan, 1889. Source: The Williamson Art Gallery & Museum

 

The Greek sorceress Medea is renowned for her cunning nature and mastery of magic. Aside from her role as a skilled sorceress, she is also famously a tragic heroine in Argonautica, an epic poem written by Apollonius Rhodius, and Medea, a Greek tragedy written by Euripides. She is the daughter of King Aeetes, niece to Circe, and a princess of Colchis, an ancient kingdom renowned for its gold and home to the famed Golden Fleece. Medea’s story revolves around her passionate love affair with Jason, the hero who embarks on a quest for the Golden Fleece. Medea betrays her father and uses her magic to aid Jason and the Argonauts

 

After the quest, they marry and have children. However, their fairytale love takes a disastrous turn when Jason abandons Medea to marry the Princess of Corinth. Overcome with grief and rage at his betrayal, Medea sends the princess a poisoned dress, resulting in the gruesome deaths of both the princess and her father, King Creon. However, her final act of revenge against Jason is to murder their children, solidifying her legacy in Greek mythology as one of the most tragic and ruthless witches.

 

Pasiphae

lemaire poussin daedalus pasiphae painting
Daedalus and Pasiphae, Lemaire-Poussin, 17th century. Source: AKG-Images

 

Pasiphae is the sister of Circe, Queen of the Kingdom of Crete, and wife to King Minos. She is also famously known as the mother of the Minotaur, a monstrous creature that is half-man, half-bull. This unnatural offspring is the result of a curse from Poseidon, which encouraged Pasiphae’s fascination and unnatural desires for his majestic white bull. At first, she tries to care for the young creature, but it soon grows too violent and uncontrollable. King Minos then enlists the help of his inventor, Daedalus, to create the Labyrinth as a way to safely house the Minotaur.

 

Her connection to magic is less prominent in mythology than her sister, Circe, and niece, Medea. However, the female line in her family were all gifted with magic, and Pasiphae was considered especially gifted with herbs and potions. One legend suggests that she used these skills to cast a spell on King Minos so that whenever he was unfaithful, his mistresses would die.

 

Although every divine figure and deity held incredible powers and abilities, these women are the most renowned for their witchcraft and magical prowess, showcasing both the beneficial and the malevolent side of sorcery in Greek mythology.

Author Image

By Elizabeth PadianMA English, BA EnglishElizabeth holds a BA and an MA in English, with concentrations in Film and History. She is the host of a history podcast and an avid fantasy reader based in the USA. Some of her main interests include mythology, ancient studies, and literature. She also enjoys going on adventures with her dachshund and traveling, especially to anywhere with a castle.