The typical “wicked witch” of books and films has a pointed hat, wrinkled skin, hooked nose, warts and a hairy chin. Witches and wizards are people who possess magical powers or command supernatural forces. The word "witch" usually refers to a female, while their male equivalents are known as either "wizards" or "warlocks". In many myths and legends, witches are evil and dangerous to ordinary humans. Those who learn magic for the purpose of harming others are called sorcerers or sorceresses rather than wizards and witches. In some stories, people often meet old women, not realising that they are in fact witches. In these instances, the witch may reward kindness but punish rudeness. Belief in witches was widespread during the Middle Ages in Europe. They were said to be worshippers of the Devil. Thousands of women were tortured and executed after being accused of witchcraft. A witch hunt in Salem, Massachusetts, in 1692 led to the execution of 19 people.
In the Odyssey, an epic by the ancient Greek poet Homer, the hero Odysseus and his men met a witch called Circe. The daughter of the god of the sun, Helios, and Perse, an oceanid (sea nymph), Circe had the power to turn people into animals using potions and herbs. Lions, bears and wolves—humans she had previously transformed by magic—crowded her island home of Aeaea. With her wand, Circe turned some of Odysseus’s men into pigs. Only Eurylochus, who suspected treachery, escaped to warn Odysseus and the others who had stayed behind at the ships. Protecting himself from her magic by moly, a special herb, Odysseus freed his men.
The enchantress Morgan Le Fay of Arthurian legend is a kind of witch. She tricks Arthur's magician Merlin into falling in love with her. Once she has learnt Merlin's secrets, she imprisons him behind invisible walls.
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