The Stygian Witches were a peculiar group of three Greek crone-sisters, the Graeae, who shared between them just one eye and one tooth. They were brought back to prominence in our culture by their portrayal in the classic 1981 epic Greek fantasy movie, Clash of the Titans. In the famous Ray Harryhausen movie, they were played by three veteran British actresses, Flora Robson, Anna Manaham and Freda Jackson.
As is so often the case in Greek mythology, there are a number of different clashing details about the Stygian witches. Some things are certain, though. They were the daughters of Phorcus and Ceta, and may have been born as triplets. They were the sisters of the Gorgons (the famous Medusa and her two obscure sisters, Euryale and Sthenno), and also their assigned guardians. They were grey-haired from the moment of birth – Graeae means ‘Grey Woman’ – and shared between them just a single eye and a single tooth. They were able to pass these organs around between them, so that each could take her turn seeing and eating. However unlikely it may sound, the Graeae are described as originally being beautiful – “fair-faced and swan-like” – although by the time they feature in any legends, they have become old and hideous.
In the best-known myth about the Stygian Witches, King Polydectes sent the hero Perseus on a mission to get Medusa’s head – even in death, the gorgon would still have the power to turn people who saw her to stone. Perseus was aware that he would be aided in his task by a group of nymphs, but didn’t know where to find them, or where to look for Medusa. He did know how to find the Graeae however, so he went to visit them, and as they were passing their eye between them, he snatched it from them and demanded that they tell him everything he needed to know, or he wouldn’t give it back. The desperate Graeae obeyed and answered all his questions. Despite their assistance, Perseus broke his promise to return the eye, and later threw it into lake Triton.
The Graeae are thought to have been the focus of a group of swan cults across ancient Greece. Strange as it may sound to us now, swans are not just symbolic of beauty, but they were also thought to represent cunning, prophecies (particularly of death), access to other realms, and a range of other, darker things. The Stygian Witches were probably worshipped as the avatars of that set of symbolism – particularly being born grey-haired and with just one eye, and yet also described as swan-like beauties. The missing eyes would have implied sight into other realms, and the grey hair was a symbol of their wisdom and magic power. Peculiar modern suggestions that the Stygian Witches actually represented nothing more than the white froth on top of waves seem to be based on linguistic similarities between their name and the colour grey.