Translating "witch"

Ika blake at
Mon Feb 23 07:00:48 EST 2004

Grr. Just wrote a long reply to this and lost it, so this will be a bit
more sparse.

Minnow wrote re "maleficus":

> Gulp.  I just looked in a dictionary of classical latin, and that word
> isn't there meaning "witch".  That throws the *whole* thing, because in
> 400-or-so AD when Jerome was around, he would have been using the
> classical
> meaning, surely.  Which seems not to be specifically "witch" at all, but
> more generally  "evil-doer" (malefactor, I suppose).

Don't gulp, minnow! According to Lewis & Short, who are Allways Right,
"maleficus" (which, yes, has the same root as malefactor) has the
following meanings:

mãlĕfĭcus (in MSS. also mãlĭfĭ-cus ), a, um, adj.
[malefacio] , evil-doing, nefarious, vicious, wicked, criminal.

[snip sources for 'criminal']

B. In partic., magical: artes, Vulg. 2 Par. 33, 6 .--As substt.
1. mãlĕfĭcus , i, m., a magician, enchanter: de maleficis et
mathematicis, Cod. Just. 9, 18, 5 : magi qui malefici vulgi consuetudine
nuncupantur, ib. 9, 18, 7 ; Schol. Juv. 6, 594.--
2. mãlĕfĭcum , i, n., a charm, means of enchantment: semusti
cineres aliaque malefica, quis creditur anima numinibus inferis sacrari,
Tac. A. 2, 69 fin. --

Now a lot of those sources seem to be lateish (Vulg., Cod. Just.) but I
don't think you can get much more classical than Tacitus, who is
definitely using the word in the context of magic.

> The latin words this classical dictionary offers for "witch" are "saga"
> and
> "venefica"; "saga" is translated back as "prophetess" or "soothsayer" in
> the L->E bit, "venefica" is translated back as "sorceress", "witch" and
> "poisoner", which may possibly explain your having heard that poisoner was
> what the word ought to be.

Certainly in Latin magic and poisoning are very closely associated, which
could have left all sorts of traces on the tradition: venefica is
literally "poisoner: (venenum [='venom'] + facio), but medicine and magic
weren't as sharply dissociated at the time as they are now, so
making-bad-substances was both magic and poisoning.

Incidentally, Lewis & Short (and Liddell & Scott, for Greek) are online here:

The Perseus site in general is invaluable, and has the Vulgate on it. It
says "ed. Saint Jerome", which was the one you were asking after, but I
don't have a clue what the implications of all that are, because my
Latin/Roman history stops (like Philip K Dick's) in 70 CE. Anyway, the
Vulgate is here:

Love, Ika

"There are some bad people on the rise" - Moz

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