Refusal to Eat: Witches in Homer and the Hebrew Bible

By Joseph Manning

“[T]wo universal constants about witch beliefs cut across cultures: witches represent people’s deepest fears about themselves and society, and they represent a reversal of all that is considered normal behavior in a particular society.” James L. Brain, An Anthropological Perspective on the Witchcraze, “Magic, Witchcraft, and Religion: An Anthropological Study of the Supernatural,” 265 (eds. P. Moro, J. Myers, & A. Lehmann, 7th ed. 2008).

In Book 10 of the Odyssey, we find one of the first depictions in literature of a witch or sorceress as we commonly understand them. The beautiful, but evil, Circe is a master of magic. She uses magic potions, magic herbs, and a magic wand. Odysseus, with magic of his own, overcomes her and they become lovers.

This led me to wonder what similarities there might be between this character and any other evil, witch-like women in the ancient literature. My thoughts first turned to the evil Jezebel. Jezebel is portrayed very unfavorably by the biblical authors as powerful, manipulative, and a promoter of Baal worship. She was a foreigner married to Ahab, the ruler of the northern kingdom of Israel and the second in the line of the Omride kings. “Indeed, there never was anyone like Ahab, who committed himself to doing what was displeasing to Yahweh, at the instigation of his wife Jezebel.” 1 Kings 21:25.

While reading through Book 10 and 1 Kings, I noted an odd similarity in the narratives concerning these two women.

Starting with the Homeric narrative, we find Odysseus at a table inside the halls of the sorceress:

“Kirke regarded me, as there I sat

disconsolate, and never touched a crust.”

Circe offering drink to Odysseus, which he refuses.

Likewise, in the narrative in 1 Kings involving Jezebel, there comes a point in the story where her husband becomes upset and refuses to eat.

“Ahab went home dispirited and sullen. . . . He lay down on his bed and turned away his face, and he would not eat. His wife Jezebel came to him and asked him, ‘Why are you so dispirited that you won’t eat.'” 1 Kings 21.

Jezebel is hated so greatly a coup is staged, and she is flung from a window. We are told her corpse is eaten by dogs.

I thought it was a little strange that both narratives about powerful, evil women involve episodes of men associated with them pouting — and specifically refusing to eat. I resolved to look for another example of a witch, or an evil woman, and see if there were generally some signs of a man refusing to eat. And sure enough, the next place I looked, I found one.

In 1 Samuel we find the story about the Witch of Endor who I mentioned briefly in another post. The first king of Israel and Judah, Saul, finds his kingdom besieged. In dire straits he seeks any help he can get. He turns to “a woman in En-dor who consulted ghosts.” 1 Samuel 28:7. The woman summons a spirit who tells Saul that “Yawheh has torn the kingship out of [his] hands,” that the Israelite forces will be defeated, and by the next day, he — along with his sons — will be dead.

“At once Saul flung himself prone on the ground, terrified by [the] words. Besides, there was no strength in him, for he had not eaten anything all day and all night. The woman went up to Saul and, seeing how greatly disturbed he was, she said to him . . . ‘Let me set before you a bit of food. Eat, and then you will have the strength to go on your way.’ He refused, saying, ‘I will not eat.'” 1 Samuel 28 20-23.

Why do all of these narratives take time to include this thematic “refusal to eat?” Is there some meaning associated with this apparent trope? Why is there an apparent link between a story involving an evil woman and a man refusing to eat? Perhaps it is simply coincidence, but I found it worthy of at least some attention and felt it should be pointed out.

And while I’m unable to say what exactly is going on here in the literature, I can make a stab at it.

My initial take is perhaps eating is a euphemism for sex. See generally, A. Cohen, “Studies in Hebrew Lexicography,” The American Journal of Semitic Languages and Literatures , Vol. 40, No. 3, p. 160 (Apr., 1924). To support this proposition, we can cite Proverbs 30:20 as an example. Id. (“This is the way of an adulterous woman: She eats and wipes her mouth, And says, ‘I have done no wrong.'”)

Specifically, the refusal to eat or drink as a euphemism for refusing sex in folk-tale literature has been identified before — but in other contexts. See Mary C. Bill, “Refusal to Eat and Drink: A Metaphor for ‘Safe Sex’ in Tsonga Folktales,”African Languages and Cultures , Vol. 7, No. 1, p. 66 (1994) (“The key to understanding the message of these tales is to decode this action of refusing to eat or drink, as refusing sex, refusing to enter into or continue a sexual relationship.”)

That these stories all involve a powerful and evil woman certainly don’t detract from this reading. On that same note, the woman as witch is a nearly universal image — and this is important for any understanding of historical attitudes on sexuality. Brain, supra. But, despite my initial reaction, I remain hesitant to commit to interpreting this as a euphemism considering sometimes there is an explicit sexual reference right there in the text — as in the Odyssey.

“She swore at once, outright, as I demanded,

and after she had sworn, and bound herself,

I entered Kirke’s flawless bed of love.”

If eating is a euphemism, it doesn’t make much sense that the author isn’t shy enough to use it consistently. Maybe, we can explain this by saying that “refusing to eat” is a euphemism in the Hebrew Bible, but not in Homer? But if it is only a euphemism in the Bible, then shouldn’t we only see a “refusal to eat” used in the Bible? Instead, we do find Odysseus refusing to eat Circe’s food in Homer.

Because it raises more questions than it answers, I’m actually not inclined to view this as a euphemism. Unfortunately, though, I haven’t got any other interpretation to offer.

2 Comments

Filed under Classics, Hebrew Bible

2 responses to “Refusal to Eat: Witches in Homer and the Hebrew Bible

  1. Roger

    Interesting, but here’s slightly more mundane possibility.

    There is a hypothesis that a significant fraction of people (women or men) accused of withcraft were, in fact, guilty: but of poisoning, rather than supernatural pacts. Indeed there are plenty of records of trials in which the evidence is not “she floats, she must be a witch” but more along the lines of “I saw her pour this potion into Bill’s sheep-trough, and later all Bill’s sheep died, and when we went to her house we found all these horrible satanic ingredients stewing in a pot.”

    In Scandinavian folklore the connection is pretty explicit, with poisoners and witches being largely conflated.

    So, anyway, if witches are often poisoners, and you are not getting on well with him / her, it rather makes sense to refuse food!

  2. To further support your idea of witch as one who dabbles in poison, we can turn to Galatians 5:19-21 in the New Testament.

    “The acts of the flesh are obvious: sexual immorality, impurity and debauchery; idolatry and witchcraft. . .”

    The Greek word usually translated throughout the New Testament as sorcery or witchcraft is φαρμακεία or ‘pharmakeia‘ from where we get words like ‘pharmacy.’ The concept here is of one who mixes potions or murders by way of poison.

    Also, after having posted this, I found another probable example in the Epic of Gilgamesh. Gilgamesh refuses to eat Ishtar’s food (this is a goddess associated with the underworld) saying: “Why should I eat this rotten meat of yours?”

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