The Pythonissa: A Slippery Soothsayer

Here’s a new insult for you:

A white snake with its mouth open. Cartoon stick arms are drawn on it, pointing finger guns, and there's a speech bubble saying "eeeyyyyy!"

Margery Ryvel was excommunicated by the church in April 1348 for practising divination, superstition and illusion. Whichever clerk wrote the report that survives in the Register of John de Grandisson, Bishop of Exeter, clearly did not like her or her activities. The report reads as a barely-concealed rant on why the church dislikes magic and must root out practitioners, and as such, the writer has a few descriptions for Margery: she talks to Satan, is a “wicked woman” and “reputed to be a devilish witch” (phitonissa demoniaca reputatur). And a threat to all the good folk of Christendom she might corrupt.[1]

It’s the word the writer uses for the last phrase that intrigues me. Phitonissa, or pythonissa, is a rare word. Here, it’s a synonym for witch. I only came across it on this one occasion while trawling through volumes of 14th and 15th century bishops’ registers in search of trials for magical or unorthodox beliefs. (This was for my MA dissertation – see here for a brief intro to what I was doing.)

The term originally comes from the name Pythia, which is the name of the oracle and high priestess of the Temple of Apollo at Delphi. She in turn got her name from Python. In Greek mythology, Python was a giant (you guessed it) snake waaaay back who presided over the Delphic oracle which at this time belonged to her mother Gaia, and marked the centre of the Earth. Python was slain by Apollo, who took over the oracle. The Pythia made prophesies when she was filled by the spirit of Apollo, and was the most authoritative oracle among the Greeks between the 7th century BC and 4th century AD. She was no doubt the most powerful female figure in the classical world at that point.

Painting in Pre-Raphaelite style of the Delphic Oracle. She sits inhaling steam from a crack beneath her feet and wears red and orange robes.

“Priestess of Delphi” by John Collier (1891). I love a good Pre-Raphaelite.

By late antiquity, the title Pythia has been corrupted in non-specific usage and was used to refer to diviners and soothsayers in general, usually with the idea that their powers are a result of being possessed by some unidentified spirit (much in the same way that the Pythia was possessed by or channelling Apollo). This meaning is recorded in the 7th century by that great lad of learning, Isidore of Seville, in his Etymologiae. This is the sign that you’ve made it as a late-Antiquity Latin concept – if Isidore of Seville doesn’t include you in his encyclopaedia of human knowledge, then do you really exist? (I exaggerate, of course, but Isidore’s monumental work recorded many otherwise lost books, and was highly regarded. Many medieval copies still survive today, showing how popular and widely read it was, too.)

Pythonissa appears several times in Jerome’s translation of the Old Latin Bible. This translation’s what we call the Vulgate bible, and was begun by Jerome in 382. Perhaps the most notable usage of our word here is specifically referring to a female soothsayer who was consulted by King Saul: the Witch of Endor.

A group of Ewoks on their home moon, Endor, from Star Wars.

No, not that Endor you bunch of heathens. (Pic from Starwars.com )

She is described as pythonem in Aendor – the witch/diviner/python of Endor. Saul had spent most of his reign banishing unauthorized diviners from his lands, as God and the prophets had instructed him, but suddenly found no-one heavenly answering his calls. Desperate, he asked the Witch of Endor to raise up the ghost of the prophet Samuel. When Samuel makes it clear Saul has lost God’s favour, he falls into a terror, and the python comforts and feeds him. (1 Kings, 28:7) Biblical scholars have of course debated whether she did summon up Samuel, or a disguised ghost to give him a fright as payback for expelling her kind.[2] King James’ preoccupation with the evils of witchcraft no doubt influenced her reputation and the interpretation of pythonem as “witch” and not “diviner” in his Bible translation.

The word appears several more times in the Vulgate, each time referring to male and female soothsayers. One of these is a female soothsayer who bumped into King Saul and his pal Silas when he was leaving the synagogue one day (Acts, 16:16-32). She is described as “having a python spirit” (mulier habens pythonum), that is, she was possessed by a spirit or demon. It’s most likely that our bishops’ register writer picked up the word from here, or Isidore of Seville.

Later in the middle ages, the meaning appears to have changed, along with the spelling. Robert Rypon of Durham Cathedral Priory mentions phitonissae or phitones during an early fifteenth century sermon condemning magic as blasphemy. But these phitones are, specifically, beings who fit bridles, ropes or threads into the mouths of sleeping people, who then believe themselves to be turned into horses and are ridden by the phitonissae. These phitonissae can also travel in one night from England to Bordeaux and return drunk on wine – it’s not clear if they’re riding their transformed sleeping people, but I imagine that would be exhausting. Here, they are akin to creatures in medieval folklore called the bonae res: female spirits who would enter people’s houses and drink their wine.[3] Much like me at a houseparty.

Medieval manuscript image of a two women riding brooms.

This looks a more friendly way to travel. Detail from manuscript of Martin Le Franc’s “Le Champion des Dames”, c.1450.

Around the same time, Chaucer writes in the same vein of “Phitonesses, charmeresses, / Olde wicches, sorceresses” in his House of Fame, who do not tell the future but use magic to hurt people or create illusions (11. 1259-1270). Pythonesses were clearly not merely diviners any more, but embodied the same skills that are ascribed to witches in late medieval and early modern writings. Similarly, the word fitonisse in Anglo-Norman comes from the same root, and has the same meaning (here’s a great blog post on that).

So there you have it, a new word to drop casually into conversation. It is an unusual, uncommon word, and no doubt our writer fancied including it in his wee rant against magic to add a bit of unusual colour and show off his linguistic skills. Nerd.

[1] Hingeston-Randolph, Rev. FC. The Register of John de Grandisson, Bishop of Exeter 1327-1369 Parts 1-3 (London: George Young and Sons, 1894), pp.1044-5.

[2] Rider, Catherine. Magic and Religion in Medieval England (London: Reaktion Books, 2012), p.82

[3] Rider, pp.76-7, 141.

2 thoughts on “The Pythonissa: A Slippery Soothsayer

  1. I’m going to come back and give this another read when my brain isn’t so fussy so that I can appreciate the effort taken with this post! I love history especially interesting history. I love how much of a cross section of history you have covered with just one interesting word 🙂 definitely one to read again!!

    Rach

    https://rachaelhope.co.uk

    Liked by 1 person

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