Theoris of Lemnos might not have been the very first person to be put on trial for witchcraft, but her story is the first recorded witchcraft trial (and execution) in human history. Residing in Athens, Greece around the year 320 b.c.e., Theoris was a known witch and fortuneteller who specialized in potions. Historic literature about this classical-era witch is sparse, but what is known about her is that at some point before 323 b.c.e., she was put on trial for a variety of offenses — and then executed. The glossy, summarized story is that she was tried for witchcraft, but like most victims of witch hunts and associated trials, her story is far more complicated than that.
Theoris was mentioned in approximately three ancient documents, with at least one of which confirming that she healed with potions and incantations. Of the very few historical documents that mention her, it can be gathered that a scandal took place involving her use of these magical elements, which led to her demise. That scandal may have involved a poisoning, but some historians have noted that Theoris may have been conspiring with slaves, giving them knowledge that would assist them in an uprising against the ruling class.
Demosthenes, known as the Father of Oration, presented the most thorough details surrounding what happened to Theoris in his two-part speech titled Against Aristogeiton. In this speech Demosthenes referenced Theoris by referring to her as a “filthy sorceress” and declared that his opponent partook in the same things that led to her execution. In his orations, Demosthenes cited that Theoris was tried and executed for malicious magic and “using dangerous drugs.” According to Philochorus, an historian from around the time this trial took place, Theoris was executed for acts known as asebeia, among many other crimes associated with witchcraft. In Greece during the Axial era, asebeia described actions which were considered a mockery to the gods. In short, Theoris was accused of being a “godless” witch who made use of toxic plants and substances in her potions.
3rd Century historian Plutarch wrote that Theoris of Lemnos was a seer and a witch who “taught slaves how to deceive.” Very little documentation exists to explain this detail about the crimes she is said to have committed, but historians believe Theoris plotted an uprising with her slaves. This may be the most important detail in the story of Theoris, because during this era in Greek history, chattel slaves were the lowest class of people in their society — just beneath women. There is no solid evidence that witchcraft in and of itself was an actual crime in ancient and classical Greece, but a woman acting “outside of her role” and conspiring with slaves would truly be considered a treasonous act.
The specific details surrounding the trial and execution of Theoris of Lemnos may never be known — nor will the specifics of the crimes she was accused of committing. One thing is certain, however: She must have been convicted of a truly heinous crime as a witch, because her entire family — including her children — were executed alongside her. Theoris of Lemnos left no surviving descendants, thus ending her bloodline.
Not long after the trial and execution of Theoris of Lemnos, another Athenian woman was put on trial for witchcraft. Known only in historical documents as Ninos (or Ninon), she was one of two priestesses that were put to death sometime after 340 b.c.e. Historian Josephus wrote that the young priestess was put on trial and executed for providing love potions (aphrodisiacs) to young people, and teaching them about “foreign gods.” The famed classical-era author also wrote that she was one of five priestesses who were prosecuted and killed for the specific crime of impiety. The names of the other priestesses, sadly, were not recorded.
Not much else is known about Ninos. Being a priestess of Athena, she was held to a standard of purity, meaning that she was unmarried and without children. It is clearly certain that she left behind no surviving descendants, and thus her bloodline ended with her execution.
Eidinow, Esther (2016), Envy, Poison, and Death: Women on Trial in Ancient Athens, Oxford: Oxford University Press
Josephus, Jewish Antiquities Volume IX; Translated by Louis H. Feldman; 1966