Biblical and Classical Interpretations of the Witches of The Scarlet Letter

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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" Typically, Hawthorne treats her ambiguously. She may be a mildly tolerated eccentric, an insane busybody, or an anti-Christian cultist. She functions in the novel as the kategor or accuser. She emulates her Black Man friend, the devil, who is called "the accuser" in Revelation 12:10. The Greek word used here is normally used in a legal sense, assigned to the person bringing charges such as the way Satan appears in the Book of Job "before God's tribunal."3 Mistress Hibbins talks about the Black Man's book, chortles over Hester's sin and Pearl's illegitimacy, but, unlike a pharmakous, we know of no associations with potions or poisons.


There is another character more in line with the New Testament understanding of witch. He was associated with Simon Forman, a "philtre-vendor" who poisoned a nobleman in a notorious English scandal.4 He was seen with savage Indian priests, "powerful enchanters, often performing seemingly miraculous cures by their skill in the black art."5 One of the authorities he refers to is Kenelm Digby, British occultist and botanist.6 He is a gatherer and mixer of herbs. He uses "European pharmacopoeia" not just for medicine, but to control another man emotionally and avenge himself.7 He is seen gathering nightshade, dogwood, and other plants associated with magic and witchcraft.8 That character is, of course, Roger Chillingworth.


The Nature of Roger Chillingworth

According to Galatians 5:20, pharmakeia is a "work of the flesh." So we see how Chillingworth has turned from the spiritual to the carnal. Though of Puritan background, he confesses to Hester that he has "long forgotten" Christianity. He refuses to forgive, thereby denying the working of grace. He questions, if not denies, the existence of the soul, thereby denying the eternal nature of man. Chillingworth's fleshly nature, separated from the spiritual, transforms him. He is first seen by the people of Boston as a blessing, but as time goes on they notice how his eyes flash red, and they consider him a fiend. Indeed, he loses all reason for living after Dimmesdale's confession. The cleansing virtue of Dimmesdale's repentance triumphs over Chillingworth's drive for revenge and control. The herbalist has become a pharmakous who, according to Scripture and Hawthorne, has no place in the Kingdom of God.


In the Book of Acts, the apostles encounter several sorcerers or magicians--but the Greek uses different words for them. However, one sorcerer may be of some interest to the reader of The Scarlet Letter. Acts 8:5-25 tells of Simon the Magician who is rebuked by the Apostle Peter for thinking he can buy the free gift of the Holy Spirit. The Scripture here gives a clue to what motivated Simon to delve into magic. In Acts 8:23 Peter describes as being "in the gall of bitterness." Similarly, Chillingworth seems to be motivated by bitterness-- bitterness at Dimmesdale for having his wife, bitterness at Hester for being unfaithful, and at himself for thinking he could win the love of a young woman like Hester.


Literary Allusions and the Classical Understanding of Witchcraft

Hawthorne's allusive style may make us think of related figures in literature. Hawthorne compares himself to another customs agent, Geoffrey Chaucer,9 whose ruthless physician in The Canterbury Tales cites pagan authorities and denies the existence of the soul. Others have pointed out the similarities between Hawthorne's "eminent doctor of physic, from a German university" and Faust.10 Indeed, Marlowe describes his Dr. Faustus as a skilled pharmacist


"Whereby whole cities have escaped the plague,

And thousand desperate maladies been erased."11


The New Testament and Septuagint were written in Greek. It is worth noting that the classical idea of witchcraft contemporary to these writings also emphasizes the mixing of drugs or poisons. Ovid's Metamorphoses tells us of two witches, Medea and Circe. Medea uses drugs to help Jason overcome the bulls and dragon which guarded the Golden Fleece and to rejuvenate Jason's elderly father, Aeson. She tries to poison her stepson, Theseus. She prays to Hecate, the same goddess acknowledged by Macbeth's witches, and she mixes a potion at least as grotesque as theirs. She flies through most of the known world in search of herbs for her potions. Circe is seen gathering herbs in the woods, just like Chillingworth.


Just as Chillingworth is motivated by a purposeless revenge, both of Ovid's witches viciously torment those who love men that they love or once loved. Medea left Jason to marry someone else. Nevertheless, when she hears that Jason is remarrying, she returns to wreck the wedding. She murders her two sons by Jason and poisons the bride-to-be and her father. Similarly, Circe becomes infatuated with Glaucus, a minor sea god who loves the maid Scylla. In jealousy Circe puts some herbs in Scylla's bath and turns her into a monster with six heads.12


Missing, presumed dead, and never claiming to have had any of Hester's affection, Chillingworth likewise makes life miserable for Dimmesdale. Like Medea and Circe, he is motivated by jealousy and revenge. His conversations with the minister torment him. His medicines seem to aggravate his patient's symptoms. In fact, Dimmesdale is perfectly healthy until Chillingworth moves in with him.


Chillingworth the Trust-Breaker

Chillingworth is sinister in a manner similar to these mythological witches because of the element of betrayal. Chillingworth acted like a trusted friend and confidant to Dimmesdale. So one of Medea's potions was supposed to rejuvenate the elderly uncle of Jason but she deliberately killed him instead. So Circe appeared to be hospitably welcoming Odysseus' men by offering them wine. In reality she was turning them into swine.


Hawthorne's Biblical and Classical Background

There is little question that Hawthorne would have been aware of the Biblical and classical view of witchcraft. He researched both the Puritans and witchcraft and would have known of the Bible's use of the term. The prescribed course at Bowdoin College in Hawthorne's day "included a heavy concentration in Greek and Latin."13 In 1821, the year Hawthorne entered college, admission required knowledge of the Greek New Testament. Greek and Latin writings made up half the curriculum until the senior year.14 Stories such as his Tanglewood Tales and Wonder-Book for Boys and Girls show that Hawthorne knew the Metamorphoses.15 The Scarlet Letter itself contains at least one allusion to a story from the Metamorphoses when it mentions Cadmus and the dragon's teeth.16 Hawthorne noted the connection between heartless evil and herb-medicine a number of times in his work including "Rappacini's Daughter," "Dr. Heidegger's Experiment," "The Birthmark," and his unfinished Elixir of Life or Dolliver Romance. It appears to be one of the most common motifs in his work.


The Author's Purpose in This

Using Chillingworth, Hawthorne may well have been making a point about science and technology--if people exalt the material realm and deny the spirit, they become like the classical witches, heartless and manipulating. He may have also been making a point about the colonial witch trials--that the real witches according to the Biblical and classical understanding of the term were people like Roger Chillingworth. It may even heighten the feminist aspect of Hester Prynne's persona since the worst sinner was neither she nor a woman at all, like most of the convicted Massachusetts witches.


Most important, though, Hawthorne is interested in the human heart. We see a detached and heartless experimental horror in "Ethan Brand" or "Rappacini's Daughter." Hawthorne's notebook in 1842 contemplated a story with the unpardonable sin as "separation of intellect from the heart."17 So Chillingworth betrays the physician-patient confidence and becomes a study in malevolence. He is not only no longer a Christian, but no longer a man.


Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn expressed concern that the people who made a living by torturing the prisoners in the Gulag were "departing downward from humanity."18 Likewise the author of The Scarlet Letter notes: "Old Roger Chillingworth was a striking evidence of man's faculty of transforming himself into a devil, if he will only for a reasonable space of time, undertake the devil's office."19 The herb-gathering and drug-mixing amplify this inhuman quality:


[Hester] wondered what sort of herbs they were, which the old man was so sedulous to gather. Would not the earth, quickened to an evil purpose by the sympathy of his eyes, greet him with poisonous shrubs?...Did the sun, which shone so brightly everywhere else, really fall on him? Or was there, as it rather seemed, a circle or ominous shadow moving along with his deformity, whichever way he turned himself? And whither was he now going? Would he not suddenly sink into the earth, leaving a barren and blasted spot, where, in due course of time, would be seen deadly nightshade, dogwood, henbane, and whatever else of vegetable wickedness the climate could produce, all flourishing with hideous luxuriance? Or would he spread bat's wings and flee away, looking so much the uglier, the higher he rose towards heaven?20


Roger Chillingworth had become a witch, a pharmakous like Medea, suggesting the devil himself. The Biblical and classical understanding of witchcraft as an evil, carnal practice involving the mixing of herbal drugs to gain power over others should make us think of the actions of Roger Chillingworth. Both in practice and in spirit, he is the real witch of The Scarlet Letter.




1. William F. Arndt and F. Wilbur Gingrich, A Greek-English Lexicon of the New Testament and Other Early Christian Literature, (Chicago: University of Chicago, 1957), 861, 862.

2. The Revised Standard Version does translate Deuteronomy 18:11 as wizard (the verse division is different in the Septuagint) and Exodus 22:18 as sorceress. This version reflects the gender in the Hebrew. The Hebrew word is the same except for the gender affix. The word in the Greek (whether Septuagint or New Testament) does not make a distinction in gender here, nor does the English King James Version. As far as anyone can tell, the Hebrew word does not have to include drugs in its meaning, but the Septuagint translators appear to have made a connection. R. Laird Harris et al.,Theological Wordbook of the Old Testament (Chicago: Moody Press, 1980), I, 458.

Online for more classical Greek, but the same word see Perseus Project Lexicon's pharmakos.

3. Arndt and Gingrich, 424, note also kategoreo (verb form of the word).

4. Nathaniel Hawthorne, The Scarlet Letter ed. Sculley Bradley et al., (New York: W. W. Norton, 1962), 93 incl. n. 1. The notes in this edition are helpful in explaining the significance of some of the herbs named and some of the historical figures alluded to.

5. Scarlet Letter, 93, cf. 47, 55, and 87.

6. Scarlet Letter, 88 incl. n. 5.

7. Scarlet Letter, 93 incl. n. 1.

8. Scarlet Letter, 126, 127 incl. 127 n. 4.

9. Scarlet Letter, 24.

10. Scarlet Letter, 89; William Bysshe Stein, From "Hawthorne's Faust," Twentieth-Century Interpretations of The Scarlet Letter, ed. John C. Gerber, (Englewood Cliffs NJ: Prentice-Hall, 1968), 70.

11. Christopher Marlowe, The Tragical History of Dr. Faustus, 1.1.21,22.

12. Ovid, The Metamorphoses 7.98-400 (Medea) and 14.1-66 (Circe). Euripides' play Medea includes more graphic details about the murder of Jason's bride and what information we have on the father's poisoning. Homer's Odyssey, which was part of Bowdoin College's course of study when Hawthorne attended, tells of Circe's potions also (10.234-406, 388-395). Even Shakespeare notes: "Medea gathered the enchanted herbs/ That did renew old Aeson," (The Merchant of Venice 5.1.13,14).

For Medea and Aeson online see Metamorphoses 7.1 and following.

For Medea and Pelias see Metamorphoses 7.297 and following.

We should also note that in the very ancient Greek of Homer, the word pharmakon, which literally means "drugs," is sometimes translated "witchcraft," "sorcery," or "wiles," when describing Circe. See, for example, Odyssey 10.287.

For an online description of Medea's dastardliness see "Who Is Medea and Why Do So Many People Hate Her?"

13. James R. Mellow, Nathaniel Hawthorne in His Times (Boston:Houghton Mifflin, 1980), 29.

14. Catalog of Officers and Students of Bowdoin College and the Medical School of Maine, February 1825 (Brunswick ME: Joseph Griffin, 1825), 14, 15. Courtesy of Susan Ravdin, Special Collection, Bowdoin College Library. She notes that the entrance requirements did not change from 1821 to 1825.

15. Harry Levin, "The Power of Blackness: [Hawthorne's Fiction]" in Scarlet Letter, 351.

16. Scarlet Letter, 71, incl. n. 3; cf. Metamorphoses, 3.99-139.

17. Nathaniel Hawthrone, The American Notebooks, ed. Charles M. Simpson, ([Columbus]: Ohio State University Press, 1972), 251.

18. Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn, The Gulag Archipelago trans. Thomas P. Whitney, (New York: Harper and Row, 1975), II, 613.

19. Scarlet Letter, 123, cf. 122 n. 1.

20. Scarlet Letter, 126, 127.



Arndt, William F. and Gingrich, F. Wilbur. A Greek-English Lexicon of the New Testament and Other Early Christian Literature. Chicago: University of Chicago, 1957.

The Bible. Revised Standard Version. New York: American Bible Society, 1980.

The Englishman's Greek Concordance of the New Testament. Ninth ed. London: Samuel Bagster and Sons, 1903.

Harris, R. Laird et al. Theological Wordbook of the Old Testament. Vol. I. Chicago: Moody Press, 1980.

Hawthorne, Nathaniel. The American Notebooks. Ed. Charles M. Simpson. [Columbus]: Ohio State University Press, 1972.

_____. The Elixir of Life Manuscripts Ed. Edward H. Davidson et al. Columbus]: Ohio State University Press, 1977.

_____. Scarlet Letter. Ed. Sculley Bradley et al. New York: W. W. Norton, 1962.

Holy Bible. Authorized (King James) Version. Philadelphia: A. J. Holman, 1955. Abbreviated KJV in text.

Marlowe, Christopher. The Tragical History of Dr. Faustus. New York: P. F. Collier, 1909.

Mellow, James R. Nathaniel Hawthorne in His Times. Boston: Houghton Mifflin, 1980.

Ovid. The Metamorphoses. Trans. Mary M. Innes. New York: Penguin, 1955.

The Septuagint Version of the Old Testament and Apocrypha. New York: Harper and Brothers, n.d.

Solzhenitsyn, Aleksandr. The Gulag Archipelago. Vol. II. Trans. Thomas P. Whitney. New York: Harper and Row, 1975.

Twentieth-Century Interpretations of The Scarlet Letter. Ed. John C. Gerber. Englewood Cliffs NJ: Prentice-Hall, 1968.

Webster, Noah. An American Dictionary of the English Language. 1828; rpt. San Francisco: Foundation for American Christian Education, 1967. Good for word definitions at the time of Hawthorne.

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