Biblical and Classical Interpretations of the Witches of The Scarlet Letter

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Biblical and Classical Interpretations of the Witches of The Scarlet Letter

The theme of witchcraft is woven into the fabric of The Scarlet Letter. The introductory "Custom-House" chapter includes an appeal by the author to remove any witches' curses on his family. Once he takes us back to the Boston of the 1640's, he frequently hints about the cohorts of the "Black Man" who meet in the woods beyond the town. But if the reader understands the classical meaning of the word witchcraft such as used in the Bible and other classical works, then we understand that Hawthorne had something more in mind than the sad cultists like Mistress Hibbins. The real witch of The Scarlet Letter was a far more sinister character, a personality who makes a significant statement about the nature of man.

The Greek New Testament and Septuagint on Witchcraft

Witchcraft occurs only once in the King James New Testament and sorcery twice--Galatians 5:20, Revelation 9:21 and 18:23. The word in the Greek New Testament in all three cases is pharmakeia, derived from the word pharmakon ("drug"), the source of the English word pharmacy and its cognates. The standard koiné Greek-English Lexicon translates the word as "sorcery" or "magic," but its cognate "sorcerer" (pharmakous) used in Revelation 21:8 and 22:15 is translated "mixer of poisons" as well as "magician." The root of both words, pharmakon, literally means "poison" or "drug."1

A few key Old Testament passages about witches which are often associated with the puritans such as Exodus 22:18 ("Thou shalt not suffer a witch to live"--KJV) use pharmakous in the Septuagint--the word translated sorcerer in Revelation 21:8 and 22:15.2 The Greek New Testament and the Septuagint version of the Hebrew Scriptures use different words such as mageia ("magic") when other types of occult practices like calling on spirits or using curses are meant. In English such words are usually translated "wizard," "necromancer," or some other appropriate word or phrase.2 Because of the Greek word chosen in each case, it appears that the New Testament authors and Septuagint translators understood the idea of witchcraft in terms of the use of drugs or poisons.

Finding the Witch according to this Definition

Now there is a character in The Scarlet Letter who would be convicted of witchcraft, Mistress Hibbins. She characterizes the witch of New England folklore such as we see in "Young Goodman Brown.

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