Circe was a “dread goddess with human speech”, as she is described in the Odyssey. Pythia was the high oracle at the sanctuary of Delphi and uttered prophecies by channelling Apollo. Ever since ancient times, women have been attributed magical and sacral powers. In pre-Christian Celtic Europe, the priestesses of Carnac attended to the holy bonfire at the god Beltane’s sun festival. Druidic priestesses were believed to exert powers and recite chants capable of churning the seas, curing diseases and predicting the future. In the Abrahamic religions, in which priesthood is reserved to males, women nevertheless assume an important role that was strengthened by great mystics and saints, such as Hildegard of Bingen and Teresa of Ávila, as well as lesser-known but equally fascinating figures such as Christina Mirabilis (tradition has it that she died and came back to life), and Madame de Montespan (Louis XIV’s enigmatic chief mistress). This unusual and powerful book illustrates a gallery of extraordinary women, including some from non-European contexts: Central Asian shamanesses, American curanderas and medicine women, Congolese nganga marindas, and the mythical Hindu apsaras and ḍākinīs.
Franco Cardini is professor emeritus of Medieval History.
Marina Montesano teaches Medieval History at the University of Messina and is the author of “Classical Culture and Witchcraft in Medieval and Renaissance Italy” (Palgrave, 2018).