I found Madeline Miller’s “Circe” an interesting read. Circe was a goddess, daughter of the Titan Helios and the Nymph Perse, and she was also a witch, capable of performing powerful magic using herb and plant extracts. In the book, a number of tales from Greek mythology are retold as observed and felt by Circe, with particular attention to the personalities of the different characters. This telling made an interesting bridge between my childhood days, when I was fascinated by the seemingly endless stories from Greek mythology my father would tell, and my present time. Why?
Something I realized only through reading Circe is that three strong powers existed for the ancient Greeks: the Titans, who once ruled the world; the Olympian Gods, who defeated the Titans but eventually reached a truce to live in peace; and “pharmakeia”, or witchcraft, something that only some of Titans’ offspring could practice and the Olympian Gods themselves were afraid of.
Pharmakeia required a combination of strong willpower and a deep knowledge of herbs and plants, when to harvest them, and how to appropriately combine them into potions, tinctures, dressings, etc., that could heal, transform, or kill. This herbal knowledge increased through practice and experimentation. We would now call it knowledge about medicinal plants. As a collector of microorganisms and an admirer of natural products, I am simply amazed by the impressive insights into Nature’s powers by the ancient Greeks. Had they known about microorganisms and molecules, probably pharmakeia would have ruled the world!