Seers, Sorceresses and Spooky Women


Happy Halloween! Here are a few historical women with ties to the supernatural…

Pamela Coleman Smith – Occult Illustrator


Nicknamed ‘Pixie’, Pamela Coleman Smith was a successful artist, illustrator and occultist.

Born in England to American parents, Smith spent her early years living between London, New York and Kingston Jamaica where her father worked.

The High Priestess

The High Priestess

She studied fine art at the renowned Pratt Institute in New York before beginning her career as a book illustrator.

In the early 1900s, Smith befriended Dracula author Bram Stoker, whose final book The Lair of the White Worm she would later illustrate. She also illustrated a number of books of Jamaican folklore and contributed work to the Suffrage Atelier.

Smith joined occultist society the Hermetic Order of the Golden Dawn in 1901, which later became the Independent and Rectified Rite of the Golden Dawn. The society studied the paranormal and practiced ritual magic. There she met poet Arthur Edward Waite, who commissioned her to illustrate a deck of tarot cards.

Innovative, beautiful and full of mystical symbolism, the Waite-Smith tarot deck became the most widely used deck in the world.

Mother Shipton – Yorkshire Prophetess


Ursula Southeil, also known as Mother Shipton, is one of England’s most famous soothsayers. She lived in Yorkshire in the 16th Century and claimed to have been born in a cave which is now a popular tourist attraction.

Mother Shipton's cave

Mother Shipton’s cave

Though she lived a simple life in a small village near York, Mother Shipton’s predictions were published and became famous throughout the country, even being mentioned by diarist Samuel Pepys.

Mother Shipton was supposedly hideously ugly, an archetypal crone with a crooked nose and wart-covered face. She is said to have predicted motor cars, royal marriages, iron ships and several wars and natural disasters.

Unfortunately, much of Mother Shipton’s life has been heavily embellished and her predictions faked over the years. Wise women or ‘cunning’ women were common in rural England at the time, so there may very well have been an Ursula Southeil who told fortunes from her cottage. Still, those predictions have been largely lost to history.

The majority of prophecies known today which are attributed to Mother Shipton are considered Victorian fakes, written hundreds of years after she really lived. These prophecies, usually written in rhyming couplets, are a testament to the publics fascination in the paranormal.

Some of the (probably fake) prophecies:

A Carriage without a horse shall go;
Disaster fill the world with woe…
In water iron then shall float,
As easy as a wooden boat.

Marie Laveau – Voodoo Queen


Marie Laveau was a hugely popular Voodoo practitioner in 19th Century New Orleans.

She was born a free woman, and both of her parents were biracial, one of whom was Creole. It is not known where she learnt Voodoo, which was being practiced widely in New Orleans at the time. Laveau had a daughter named after her who was also a Voodoo practitioner.

The Mausoleum of Marie Laveau

The Mausoleum of Marie Laveau

Marie Laveau II performed Voodoo rituals on St John’s Eve to crowds of up to twelve thousand spectators. Her mother supposedly kept a pet snake called Zombi (after an African god), performed spells and read fortunes for the people who visited her. She became known as the Voodoo Queen of New Orleans.

Laveau’s powers seemed to extend beyond the grave – after she died, the belief persisted that her grave could grant wishes if you drew an ‘X’ on the tomb, turned three times and left an offering.

Laveau’s ancestors still practice Voodoo today.

Baba Vanga – The Blind Seer


Baba Vanga was a Bulgarian clairvoyant and healer believed to have incredible supernatural powers.

Born prematurely and named Vangelia, an extraordinary story describes her being picked up by a tornado and thrown into a nearby field as a small child, which caused her blindness. There is no evidence to substantiate this tale, though Vanga was certainly blinded at some point.

It is not known when she began giving predictions, but her popularity increased during World War II, when many families hoped she would provide answers about their sons and husbands fighting overseas. She was so well known that in 1942 she was visited by the Bulgarian tzar, Boris III.

Vanga claimed that she could feel the presence of invisible creatures who passed on her prophecies, though she could not communicate with them. She was said to have predicted the breakup of the Soviet Union, Stalin’s death, the September 11 attacks and the Chernobyl disaster.

She also prescribed herbal remedies for healing and rejected mainstream medicine.

Vanga died of breast cancer in 1996, having supposedly predicted the date herself. According to her wishes, her house is now a museum. It is believed that approximately 80% of Baba Vanga’s predictions came true.


Pamela Coleman Smith on Wikipedia

The Smith-Waite Tarot deck

The Hemetic Order of the Golden Dawn

Mother Shipton on Wikipedia

Mysterious Britain – Mother Shipton

Mother Shipton Investigatedveau on Wikipedia

Marie Laveau on Wikipedia

Louisiana Voodoo

Marie Laveau Obituary

Baba Vanga on Wikipedia

Rupite Journal; For a Revered Mystic, a Shrine Now of Her OwnStephen Kinzer

Image credits:

Pamela Colman Smith circa 1912” by Unknown photographer

Licensed under Public Domain via Commons

RWS Tarot 02 High Priestess” by Pamela Coleman Smith – a 1909 card scanned by Holly Voley for the public domain, and retrieved from (see note on that page regarding source of images). Via Wikipedia

Mother Shipton” by Unknown

Licensed under Public Domain via Commons

MotherShipton’sCave” by chris 論 – Own work.

Licensed under CC BY 3.0 via Commons

MarieLaveau (Frank Schneider)” by Frank Schneider, based on a (now lost?) painting by George Catlin. – Louisiana State Museum, New Orleans.

Licensed under Public Domain via Commons

MarieLaveauMausoleum” by Flipper9 at English Wikipedia – Author: Patrick S Carroll Transferred from en.wikipedia to Commons.

Licensed under Public Domain via Commons

Vanga” by originally bg:User:Пакко – bg:Image:Vanga.jpg.

Licensed under CC BY-SA 3.0 via Commons


Hyspicratea – fl.63 BCE – Pontus



King Mithridates VI had already had five wives before he met his match in Hypsicratea. He was a hugely ambitious man who spent much of his life at war with Rome – which was no deterrent to this warrior woman.


Mithridates VI

Historical sources describe her as loving her husband so much that she dressed as a soldier and learned to fight alongside him in order to be useful to the king during his exile.

Hysicratea’s origins are uncertain – she is described as a concubine and a Caucasian (from Caucasus – an area is now on the peripheries of Turkey, Iran and Russia). We do not know when she was born or when she died – but what we do know is that she was tough.

Plutarch writes that she displayed “manly spirit and extravagant daring”, and that the king often called her Hypsicrates (the male form of Hypsicratea).

Valerius Maximus writes that she made herself ugly by cutting her hair short, but praises her loyalty:

“The Queen Hypsicratea… loved her husband Mithradates, with all the stops of affection let out, and for his sake she thought it a pleasure to change the outstanding splendor of her beauty for a masculine style. For she cut her hair and habituated herself to horse and arms, so that she might more easily participate in his tools and danger… Her extraordinary fidelity was for Mithradates his greatest solace and most pleasant comfort in those bitter and difficult conditions, for he considered that he was wandering with house and home because his wife was in exile along with him.”

In battle, Hypsicratea is described as fighting in hand to hand combat, using an ax, lance and sword. She was also adept with a bow and arrow.

After Mithridates death, we do not know what happened to Hysicratea. She may have died in battle with her husband, or she may have been captured as a slave.

Etching of Hypsicratea from 'Promptuarii Iconum Insigniorum'

Etching of Hypsicratea from ‘Promptuarii Iconum Insigniorum’

One of the more interesting theories is that she kept her male name and is the same Hypsicrates who became personal historian to Julius Caesar.

Strabo wrote that Hypsicrates accompanied Julius Caesar on his campaigns as an expert on “military fortifications of the Bosporan Kingdom” and the Caucasian Amazons – stranger things have happened!


From Amazon to Pharaoh – Following a Trail from Hypsicratea to Cleopatra VII Borys Freiburg and Hewitt Freiburg

On Wikipedia:

Image credits:

Mithridates VI Louvre” by Sting.

Licensed under CC BY-SA 2.5 via Commons

Hypsicratea” Published by Guillaume Rouille (1518?-1589) – “Promptuarii Iconum Insigniorum”.

Licensed under Public Domain via Wikimedia Commons

Salome Alexandra – 141 – 67 BCE – Judea

Kingdom of Judea

She defied the odds to become the most powerful woman in Judea’s history.


Salome Alexandra (or Alexandra of Jerusalem) was one of the only women to rule over ancient Kingdom of Judea and was the last to die as the ruler of an independent Judea.

The Talmud describes Alexandra’s reign as a golden age of peace and prosperity, and she orchestrated a number of religious reforms that shaped the Judaism of today.

Salome Alexandra married King Alexander Jannaeus in a political match when she was twenty-nine and he in his mid-teens. It was not a good match.

Alexander Jannaeus was, by many accounts, one of the cruellest and most bloodthirsty kings in Judean history. Determined to expand his Kingdom, the young monarch instigated a reckless campaign of relentless warfare on neighbouring states, resulting in devastating losses.

His brutality was not exclusive to those outside of his Kingdom – during his reign Jannaeus killed more than 50,000 of his own people. When he finally died in 76 BCE, Alexander Jannaeus was hated far and wide. Perhaps his only good decision was to name his wife, Salome Alexandra, as his successor, rather than one of their sons.

It is suggested that while Alexander was away on his military campaigns, Salome Alexandra must have acted as regent for Judea. This may be the reason that her husband thought she would be a suitable ruler. The queen’s reputation was the opposite to Jannaeus’. She was seen as kind, measured and supportive of her people who willingly accepted her as a ruler despite the fact that she had two adult sons.

As Alexander Jannaeus had strived for war, so Salome Alexandra worked for peace. She reconciled with her husband’s enemies within and without while maintaining a strong military and hiring additional foreign troops to use as a deterrent against invasion.

Salome Alexandra also made peace with the Pharisees, a religious faction which had been persecuted by her husband in favour of the rival Sadducees. The Pharisees were popular among ordinary Judeans, emphasising piety and simple living and championing the Oral Law which made life easier for the common people.

With the help of the Pharisees, Salome Alexandra reformed the court system and introduced the ketubah—a marriage contract that specified the obligations of the groom toward his bride in order to protect women. She also decreed that all children attend school.

The Talmud describes Salome Alexandra’s reign as so prosperous that “the rains would come down from Sabbath eve to Sabbath eve, until the wheat became like kidneys, the barley like olive pits, and the lentils like golden denars. The sages gathered some of them and put them aside for the coming generations.”

Salome Alexrandra died at the age of 73 after ruling for nine years. Her two sons were left to fight each other for the throne and at this point Rome saw their chance to invade. The late queen’s elder son, Hyrcanus was permitted to act as high priest, but not as king. Four years after Salome Alexandra’s death, Judea was declared a Roman possession. It would not become a sovereign nation again for more than two thousand years.

[Salome Alexandra] was a woman who showed none of the weakness of her sex; for being one of those inordinately desirous of the power to rule, she showed by her deeds the ability to carry out her plans, and at the same time she exposed the folly of those men who continually fail to maintain sovereign power. – Josephus


Talmud – The central text of Rabbinic Judaism.


Queen Salome: Jerusalem’s Warrior Monarch of the First Century BCE – Kenneth Atkinson

The History of the Jews in the Greco-Roman WorldPeter Schafer

On Wikipedia:

Shanakdakhete – Reigned c.177 – 155 BCE – Meroë, Kingdom of Kush

Kingdom of Kush

Earliest known ruling queen of ancient Nubia


Queen-of-MeroeShanakdakhete (or Shanakdakheto) was a ruling queen of the Kingdom of Kush (also known as Nubia – modern day Sudan).

The term ‘Kush’ or ‘Kushite’ is particularly used to describe the Nubian cultures that had major contact with ancient Egypt. Kush survived longer than Egypt, and invaded Egypt under King Piye in the 8th Century BCE, with Kushite kings ruling as Pharaoh’s for almost a century.

Kush shared many cultural practices with Egypt, including religion – we know that Shanakdakhete called herself ‘Son of Re, Lord of the Two Lands’. Bas-reliefs dated to about 170 BCE depict Shanakdakhete dressed in armor and wielding a spear in battle.

Unusually for a female ruler of this time, Shanakdakhete did not rule as queen regent or queen mother, but as a fully independent ruler. Equally unusually, she did have a husband, who acted as her consort.


In carvings found in the ruins of building projects she commissioned, Shanakdakhete is portrayed alone as well as with her husband and son, who would inherit the throne upon her death.


The Black Pharaoh’s – Robert Draper for the National Geographic

Nubian Pharaohs and Meroitic Kings: The Kingdom of Kush Necia Desiree Harkles

On Wikipedia:

Image credits:

Sudan Meroe Pyramids 2001 N11“. Licensed under CC BY-SA 1.0 via Commons

Queen-of-Meroe” by Udimuderivative work: AnnekeBart (talk) – Nubia_Queen_of_Meroe_in_Cairo_Museum_1989.jpg. Licensed under CC BY-SA 2.0 via Commons –

Cleopatra II – c.185 – 116 BCE – Alexandria, Ptolemaic Egypt

Ancient Egypt


The Ptolemaic dynasty of Egypt was defined by infighting and incest as every member of the family battled fiercely for power and sole rule of the country.

Cleopatra II (not to be confused with Cleopatra VII) is a prime example of this turbulent era as a queen (and briefly sole ruler) who married two of her brothers, saw her daughter marry her Uncle and survived the murders of several of her children.


The young princess was married to her elder brother Ptolemy VI when she was 10. They had their first child together, Ptolemy Eupator when she was 19. He was followed by three sisters and a brother; Cleopatra Thea, Cleopatra III, Berenice and Ptolemy.

Cleopatra, her brother-husband and her second brother, Ptolemy Euergetes Physkon (Potbelly) ruled jointly together for seven years, until younger brother Potbelly deposed his siblings temporarily.

Ptolemy Eupator and his wife did regain power, but once Eupator died, Cleopatra wasted no time in remarrying immediately – this time to Potbelly.

By this time, Cleopatra II was 39, and while she did have a son with Potbelly – Ptolemy Memphites – the Pharaoh began to look elsewhere and married Cleopatra’s daughter, Cleopatra III, three years later.

Ptolemy family tree

The two Cleopatra’s and Potbelly attempted to share power for a little while – but this was not a happy family. In 131 BCE Cleopatra II led a rebellion against her husband-brother and her daughter, driving them out of Egypt.

In retaliation, Potbelly murdered both his stepson and his son by Cleopatra, had them dismembered and sent the parts to Cleopatra as a birthday present.

Cleopatra II’s rule lasted only three years, from 130 BCE to 127 BCE when she was forced to flee to Syria, to join her other daughter, Cleopatra Thea, and her son-in-law Demetrius II Nicator.

A public reconciliation of Cleopatra and Ptolemy VIII was declared in 124 BC. After this she ruled jointly with her brother and daughter until 116 BC when ‘Potbelly’ died, leaving the kingdom to Cleopatra III. Cleopatra II herself died shortly after.

Other Ptolemy women in this project are: Arsinoë IIArsinoë III, Bilistiche


Ptolemy VIII Euergetes was popularly known as “Physkōn“, meaning sausage, potbelly or bladder, due to his obesity.

In Fiction:

Played by Elizabeth Shepherd in the 1983 BBC drama ‘The Cleopatras’ (on youtube).


The House of Ptolemy E. R. Bevan

Encyclopedia of Women in the Ancient World Joyce E. Salisbury

On Wikipedia:

Image Credits:

Wall relief Kom Ombo15” by I, Rémih.

Licensed under CC BY-SA 3.0 via Commons

Ptolemy family tree – by myself

Amage – 2nd Century BCE – Scythia

Ancient Scythia


Queen Amage was fed up.

Her husband, the Samaritan king Medosaccus, was a lazy, useless ruler. He was more interested in spending their money than running his kingdom on the coast of the Black Sea. So Amage took over.

She headed the government, exercised judgment in legal matters and involved herself in the defense of her Kingdom.

Queen Amage wasScythia-Parthia_100_BC so successful in her leadership that she was famous throughout Scythia (modern day Eastern Europe and central Asia). So famous was her strong army and powerful reach, that the Chersonese people (whose territory covered parts of modern day Russia and Ukraine) appealed to her for assistance.

The Chersonese were being harassed by the Crimean Scythian king and hoped that Amage would intervene on their behalf. The queen wrote to the Scythian prince, politely asking him to leave the people of Chersonesus alone.

When the prince refused and insulted the queen, Amage gathered one hundred and twenty of her best warriors and marched against the Scythian prince. She provided each of her warriors with three horses, meaning that they were able to cover a vast amount of land very quickly and took the palace by surprise.

Taken off guard, the inhabitants of the palace and the palace guard were all killed. Amage insisted on kilingl the prince personally.

A just ruler (by the standards of the time, anyway) Amage allowed the prince’s son to live and rule the kingdom on the condition that he not repeat his father’s mistakes.


Polyaenus: Stratagems – Book 8, Chapters 26-71, chapter 56. Translation by Andrew Smith, Adapted from the translation by R.Shepherd (1793)

The Role of Women in the Altaic World, edited by Veronika Veit, 2007, p.261

The Amage Story Studies in the History and Language of the Sarmatians – J. Harmatta

On Wikipedia:

Image sources:

Scythia-Parthia 100 BC” by Dbachmann. Licensed under CC BY-SA 3.0 via Commons

Teuta of Illyria – fl. 231 – 227 BCE – Scodra, Illyria

Ancient Illyria

Pirate Queen and scourge of the Roman Empire


When Teuta’s husband King Argon died, she became a very powerful woman. With her stepson Pinnes too young to rule, Teuta was the queen regent of the Ardiaei, the most powerful tribe in Illyria (now the Balkan Peninsula).

Illyria was a seafaring nation, occupying mainly coastal towns. King Argon had been responsible for expanding much of the Ardiaei’s territories, and Teuta had no intention of letting her dead husband’s work go to waste. She continued his campaign, supporting her subject’s piratical raids on neighbouring states.

800px-Mbretëresha_Teuta_në_Muzeun_e_ShkodrësThe power hungry queen set her sights on Dyrrachium (modern-day Durrës, Albania), capturing the city and fortifying it in her name. When her fleet was not attacking nearby cities, it was attacking nearby vessels. Teuta’s pirate army plundered a number of Roman merchant ships as it tore its’ way through the Adriatic.

These triumphs encouraged Teuta to push further south, defeating huge enemy fleets and capturing the island of Corcyra, which stood on an important trade route between Greece and Italy.

Understandably, the Republic of Rome had had enough by this point, with Teuta’s forces pressing uncomfortably close to its own territories. The Senate sent two ambassadors to demand that Queen Teuta repay what she had stolen and cease operations at once.

The Illyrian queen was not interested in what Rome had to say. As far as she was concerned, she told them, piracy was perfectly legal in Illyria, and she had no right to interfere with her subject’s right to private enterprise.

“It was never the custom of royalty to prevent the advantage of its subjects they could get from the sea”

The ambassadors, furious with this response from someone they considered a barbarian, countered that Teuta had better change the law if she knew what was good for her. They also threatened the queen with ‘public revenge’. Insulted, Teuta proved that she had no intention of changing her laws by capturing the ambassadors vessel and having one of them killed and the other imprisoned.

Rome declared war.

For the first time in history the entire Roman fleet of 200 ships containing 20,000 troops crossed the Adriatic to take back Corcyra. Teuta’s army had no choice but to surrender. But Rome hadn’t finished yet, and the army continued on, eventually laying siege to Scodra, Teuta’s capital.

Teuta finally surrendered in 227 BC, forced to accept an ignominious peace. She was permitted to continue to rule, but restricted to a much smaller territory and forbidden to sail in an armed ship. The Pirate Queen of the Adriatic was tamed.


Scodra, the city Teuta ruled from, is modern day Shkodër in Albania.


Ancient Illyria: An Archaeological Exploration Arthur Evans

Women Rulers Throughout the Ages: An Illustrated Guide Guida Myrl Jackson-Laufer

On Wikipedia:

Image sources:

Mbretëresha Teuta në Muzeun e Shkodrës” by Irvi Hyka – Own work.

Licensed under CC BY-SA 3.0 via Wikimedia Commons

The Kandakes of Kush – Black History Month

Black History Month

The culture, art and religion of ancient Egypt is recognised the world over. With dynasties stretching back thousands of years into pre-history and gigantic monuments left behind in the deserts, it is easy to understand why this civilisation has so captured our imaginations.

Africa_in_400_BCHowever, the Egyptians had close neighbours whose culture and people both mirrored and rivalled them – the Kushites.

The kingdom of Kush (also known as Nubia) covered parts of modern day Ethiopia and Sudan. It sprang from an Egyptian colony during the New Kingdom period (16st Century BCE), gaining independence in 1070 BCE.

The Kushites buried their dead in pyramids and shared many of the same gods as their northern neighbours, particularly Amun and Isis. Positioned on the intersection of the blue and white Nile, the kingdom grew wealthy and powerful, often clashing with Egypt and eventually – during the 8th Century BCE – conquering it.

Meroe pyramids in Sudan

Meroë pyramids in Sudan

The Nubian pharaohs (sometimes known as the black pharaohs) ruled Egypt and Kush for 200 years.

After being pushed out by the Neo-Assyrians, the Kushite dynasty returned to Sundan, using Meroë as the capital. There, this under-acknowledged society continued to flourish.

It was the largest producer of gold in the ancient world, making its’ rulers incredibly rich. When Egypt fell to Rome, Kush stood firm and remained independent.


Much like Egypt, it appears that the Kushite dynasties were matrilineal (power was transferred from the mother rather than the father). The women of Meroë had a number of rights and freedoms that Roman or Greek women could only dream of. As a result, there are several known women rulers of Kush.

Known as Kandakes (or Kentake or Candace) these women often ruled in their own right, built monuments, commanded armies and led their nation both politically and spiritually.


Bas-reliefs dated to about 170 BCE reveal Kandake Shanakdakhete dressed in armor and wielding a spear in battle. Shanakdakhete did not rule as queen regent or queen mother, but as a fully independent ruler. She did have a husband, who acted as her consort.


Amanirenas was ruling queen following the death of Egyptian ruler Cleopatra which had resulted in Roman occupation of Egypt.  Amanirenas, seeing her boarders threatened by the Romans launched an attack and defeated their forces in the Egyptian cities of Syene (now Aswan) and Philae. It was a profitable venture; Amanirenas’ army returned to Kush with prisoners and treasure, including several statues of the Emperor Augustus.

Rome later took Syene back, and at this point, Amanirenas chose diplomacy. She sent negotiators to visit Augustus in Samos and managed to strike a peace treaty with Rome.  This mutually beneficial arrangement continued for three hundred years, and relations between Meroe and Roman Egypt were generally peaceful during this time.


This Kandake was a prolific builder who had a very prosperous reign.

There is a portrait of Amanishakheto in the Amun Temple in Kawa and a palace in Wad ban Naqa, showing her taking enemy prisoners, however she is best known for the treasure found in her pyramid complex. Amanishakheto was buried with a vast amount of great jewelry, befitting a great queen.



Amanitore was a prolific builder, one of the last Kushite rulers to focus on construction. She restored the temples of Amun at Meroë and Napata following its destruction by the Romans and built two further temples at Naqa and Amara. As well as taking care of the spiritual health of her people, the queen also built reservoirs to retain water for her kingdom during drought.

Amanitore was buried in her own pyramid (rather than sharing with her husband or son) in Meroë.

Note: There were of course other notable Kandakes of Kush who will be included in this project. As I am creating embroideries chronologically, I simply haven’t reached them yet! At the time of writing (October 2015) I have reached 60 CE.


The Story of Africa: Nubia BBC

Meroitic Palaeography as a tool for Chronology: Prospects and LimitsDr Claude Rilly

The Black Pharaohs – Robert Draper for the National Geographic

The Image of the Ordered World in Ancient Nubian Art: The Construction of the Kushite Mind (800 BCE – 300 AD) – László Török

Dictionary of Greek and Roman Geography: Aetheopia – William Smith

A Dictionary of Greek and Roman biography and mythology – William Smith, Ed.

Nubian Pharaohs and Meroitic Kings: The Kingdom of Kush – Necia Desiree Harkless

Roman Military Equipment: The Accoutrements of War: Proceedings of the Third Roman Military Equipment Research Seminar, British Archaeological Reports, 1987 Issues 336-338 – M. Dawson

Dictionary of African Biography, Volumes 1-6 – Professor Henry Louis Gates, Jr., Professor Emmanuel Akyeampong, Mr. Steven J. Niven

On Wikipedia:


Africa in 400 BC” by Kubek15 – Own work.

Licensed under GFDL via Commons

Sudan Meroe Pyramids 30sep2005 2” by Fabrizio Demartis.

Licensed under CC BY-SA 2.0 via Commons

NubianPharoahs” by Wufei07 – Own work.

Licensed under Public Domain via Commons

Aglaonice – 2nd or 1st Century BCE – Thessaly, Greece

Ancient Greece

Known as the ‘Witch of Thessaly’ Aglaonice was considered a sorceress for her ability to predict the movements of the moon.


In fact, Aglaonice (sometimes Aglaonike) was an astronomer. Her apparent ability to ‘pluck [the moon] down from heaven’ is taken to mean that she could predict lunar eclipses.

We know about Aglaonice mostly from the writings of Plutarch who said that she was ‘thoroughly acquainted with the periods of the full moon when it is subject to eclipse, and, knowing beforehand the time when the moon was due to be overtaken by the earth’s shadow, imposed upon the women, and made them all believe that she was drawing down the moon.’


Plato later wrote about a group of women astronomers, associates of Aglaonice, who were active from the third to the first century BCE, calling them ‘the Thessalian enchantresses’.

Little is known about the life of Aglaonice, other than that her father was Hegetor of Thessaly (and we don’t have any details on him either).

It is suggested that she encouraged the perception of herself as a sorceress and perhaps boasted about her powers – giving rise to the Greek proverb: ‘Yes, as the moon obeys Aglaonice.’

‘Aglaonice… being skilful in astrology, made the vulgar believe, whenever the moon was eclipsed, that by means of some charms and enchantments she brought it down from heaven.’ – Plutarch

Whether she was a serious astronomer, a powerful witch or simply an excellent performance artist, Aglaonice is honored today in the field of astronomy; one of the craters on Venus is named after her.


De defectu oraculorumPlutarch

Journal of the British Astronomical Association: The Witch Aglaonice and Dark Lunar Eclipses in the Second and First Centuries BC Peter Bicknell

On Wikipedia:

In Fiction:

Aglaonice is a character in the Jean Cocteau film Orpheus, in which she is a friend of Eurydice and leader of the League of Women.

Image Credits:

FullMoon2010” by Gregory H. Revera – Own work.

Licensed under CC BY-SA 3.0 via Commons

Arsinoë III – 220 – 204 BCE – Alexandria, Ptolemaic Egypt

Ancient Egypt


Arsinoë III Philopater (father loving) embodied many of the traits common among the women of the Ptolemy family. Strong willed, intelligent, fearless and a born leader, Arsinoë was easily the most powerful woman in the world in her lifetime.

She and her brother Ptolemy IV were the fourth generation of Macedonian Greeks to rule Egypt since Alexander the Great – and things were getting ugly.

After the death of Arsinoë’s father, Ptolemy III, her brother quickly had their mother Berenike killed in order to rid himself of her influence in government. According to Ptolemaic royal tradition, Ptolemy then married his sister, proclaiming Arsinoë queen.

At 26, Arsinoë proved herself a formidable leader. She ruled on equal terms with her brother-husband, taking an active role in government, as her mother had. Arsinoë did not stop there; when Syrian king Antiochus the Great declared war on her family Arsinoë stepped forward.

She dressed for battle and rode at the head of the Egyptian cavalry in the 217 BCE defeat of Antiochus at the battle of Raphias.

Unfortunately, not everyone was impressed with the hands on queen. The reign of Ptolemy IV and Arsinoë III was beset by factions and in-fighting at court.

When Ptolemy IV died in 204 BCE, his two favourite politicians feared that Arsinoë would attempt to claim the throne as regent for her five year old son. Threatened, Agathocles and Sosibus had Arsinoë murdered before she even heard the news of her brother-husband’s death.


The House of Ptolemy: A History of Hellenistic Egypt under the Ptolemaic Dynasty – Edwyn R. Bevan

On Wikipedia: