In ancient Greece and Rome not all aspiring witches made the grade. But all was not lost to those intent on following the chthonic way of life. Anyone who failed proficiency in witchcraft could always qualify as that sister of witches – the scary bogeywoman, just as malevolent and equally repulsive. Some of Greece’s pre-eminent philosophers believed that ‘of all wild things, the child is most unmanageable…the most unruly animal there is. That’s why he has to be curbed by a great many bridles’. One of these bridles, apparently endorsed by flustered wet nurses, was the introduction of the bogeywoman into the impressionable imaginations of children in their charge. Bogeywomen often appeared as big bad wolves – precursors of the one which terrified little Red Riding Hood. They ate naughty boys and girls alive and were never without a child freshly devoured in their stomach. In ancient Greece the queen of bogeywomen was Mormo – a horrifying donkey with the legs of a woman – variously a queen of the Lystraegones who had lost her own children and now vengefully murdered others’, or a child-eating Corninthian . Another was Empusa who appeared either as a cow, a donkey or beautiful woman; Empusa could be a beautiful, cannibalistic child-eater. Yet another was Gello, evil female spirit and child snatcher. The Roman’s equalled Mormio with Lamia – a sexy Libyan woman whose children by Zeus were murdered by Hera; like Mormo she too was a cannibal and exacted revenge by murdering other women’s babies , eating them alive. Lamia and Empusa were sometimes described as as phasma – ghosts, or nightmares.
For the Roman there was a deity who looked after every single aspect of life and death: bogey-women and witches and their deterrence were no exception. Cunina looks after the baby in the cradle, protecting it from malevolent forces and magic; Candelifera is the nursery light: this is kept burning to deter the spirits of darkness that would threaten the infant in the crucial first week of birth, and to banish the bogey-women. Carna builds healthy muscles, defending the internal organs from witches.
Roman experts tried to explain bogey-women away and recommended they be avoided at all costs, them along with other irrational fears such as dreams, the terrors of magic, miracles and night-time ghosts. Easier said than done if you had spent most of your childhood scared half to death by a monster intent on gobbling you up.
ADAPTED FROM THE AUTHOR’S WOMEN IN ANCIENT ROME
© 2015 Paul Chrystal