Traditions of Magic in Late Antiquity

Discussion in 'Occult.. Research' started by webmaster, Sep 19, 2003.

  1. webmaster

    webmaster Administrator Staff Member



    "Magic," as modern scholars have grudgingly learned to admit, is a very elusive category. No definition of "magic" has ever found universal acceptance, and countless attempts to separate it from "religion" on the one hand and "science" on the other have borne few, if any, fruits. The problem lies, to a large extent, in that what one society may label "magic," another would label "religion," and another "science," so that by choosing one label we are implicitly choosing sides whenever conflicting definitions of magic compete with each other, or run the risk of imposing our own categories upon societies in which these categories would have made no sense.

    Given these difficulties, the present exhibition will not attempt any definition of ancient magic. Its goal is much more modest -- merely to present some of the materials in the University of Michigan's collections which might prove useful in any discussion of magic and its practitioners in the Mediterranean basin and the Near East from the 1st to the 7th centuries A.D., a period which saw the magical traditions of several different cultures coalesce and merge into an unprecedented form of international, and even multicultural magical praxis, with its own rituals, symbols, and words of power. Presenting the available evidence, and pointing to some of the interrelations between different types of evidence and to the possible origins of some of the motifs and practices embedded in it, are only first steps on the road to understanding, but crucial steps nonetheless. Moreover, the fact that until quite recently this aspect of that civilization which we often call Greco-Roman has received far less attention than it deserves renders such an exhibition even more significant. Finally, the study of ancient magic can teach us much not only about ancient society, but about human nature and human social structures in general, especially as they relate to the generation, accumulation, and transmission of knowledge about the powers above and the powers below. Magic, after all, is just another manifestation of the innate human desire for control -- to control our natural environment, to control our social world, and eventually to control our own destiny. The techniques may have changed over the last fifteen centuries, but the goals remain the same.

    The current exhibition is divided into three sections: one deals with manuals of magical practices, another presents various protective devices, and the third presents some of the more aggressive uses of ancient magic. The wall cases display enlarged photographs of some of the items, allowing a closer examination of even the smallest details.

    The present catalogue contains translations of most items, accompanied by brief comments and notes. It must be stressed, however, that both translations and notes are tentative -- the texts and images often defy interpretation, and much remains unknown. If the present exhibition will contribute to a growing interest in, and a closer study of these intriguing sources, it will have achieved its goal.

    Traditions of Magic in Late Antiquity


    The practice of ancient magic was quite like that of modern cooking. Just as today, while anyone can cook but only some can cook well, anyone in the ancient world could make a simple amulet or castigate a wayward demon, but only a few specialized in such activities and achieved superior results. And, just like modern cooks, such ancient practitioners had their own private note-books, where their painstakingly accumulated secrets were preserved -- collections of recipes, hints, notes, and ideas, whether borrowed or adapted from others or independently developed. Each recipe was tested, improved upon, and in some cases passed on to clients, colleagues, disciples, or successors. Being the main vehicle for the transmission of magical lore, such books often were the target of suppression, especially, but not exclusively, by Christians (cf. Acts 19:19). Fortunately, some of these collections have survived. Since these were normally written on papyrus, a perishable organic material, the specimens which did survive all come from the dry sands of Egypt, and are written either in Greek or in Egyptian. However, similar recipe-books -- in Hebrew, Aramaic, and Arabic -- were found in the Cairo Genizah (the used-paper store-room of a medieval synagogue in Cairo, Egypt), and numerous medieval manuscripts -- in Greek, Latin, Arabic, and many other languages -- attest to the vitality of such recipe-books in various forms throughout the Middle Ages.

    Being in large part the working-manuals of individual practitioners, such collections vary greatly in length and quality -- from an individual recipe scribbled upon a small slip of papyrus torn off a previously used scroll, to large anthologies with dozens of recipes, meticulously copied and lavishly annotated. Moreover, because they were meant for their owners' private use, they often contain such brief instructions as "(repeat this) three times," or an "etc.," when only a few words of a well-known (to the owner, that is) invocation are written down. Such abbreviated notes, and the lack of a systematic ordering of the spells -- not to mention a preface or an index -- would have made such a recipe book hard to use for anyone who was not intimately familiar with its contents. In rare cases, the recipes were written in a special cipher, apparently invented by one practitioner for that specific purpose, in which case no outsider could make any use of the encoded recipes.

    Unfortunately, recipe books never mention their owners' names, though in some cases the identity of the owner can be deduced, at least roughly, from the papyrus' provenance. In rare cases, the book's owner noted where a specific recipe came from, and such notes as "This is a recipe which a physician in the Oxyrhynchite nome gave me" (PDM xiv. 528), or "I have heard from a certain man of Herakleopolis that..." (PGM V.372), can teach us something about the lines of transmission of the recipes themselves. In one case, we even have a practitioner's brief memo to himself (Suppl. Mag. I, 5): "The amulet against tonsillitis for the gold plate -- write it on a slip of papyrus, word for word, and send it to Sarmates," another indication of how such recipes were disseminated.

    Traditions of Magic in Ancient Antiquity
    Protective Magic
    Amulets and Gems


    Amulets -- protective devices worn around the body, or placed next to other objects, to protect them from various evils -- were common in all societies and all periods of antiquity, and their use was accepted as normal by secular, religious, and "scientific" authorities (i.e., the physicians). Almost anything could serve as an amulet -- a red string wound around the wrist, a stone carried in a small pouch around the neck, or a piece of iron tied to one's bed. Such amulets could be prepared at home, and called for no special knowledge or technical skills. Given their mundane nature, such amulets often are hard to identify -- for when we come across a decorated ring, for example, how can we tell whether it was an amulet or merely a piece of jewelry?

    The items presented in the next two cases, however, are of a very different nature. On a technical level of execution they range from the crude to the exquisite, but are mostly too elaborate to have been manufactured by mere amateurs. In their contents -- both visual and textual -- they disclose their manufacturers' access to the technical literature (such as the recipe-books in cases 1 and 2), and familiarity with the images, methods, and idiom of the other media of the "international" magic of late antiquity. Thus, one can fruitfully compare the instructions embedded in various recipe-books with the thousands of ancient amulets and gems which have come down to us. Unfortunately, such studies are hampered by the fact that such artifacts often surface in the antiquities markets rather than in documented archeological excavations, leaving us without any external indication of date and provenance, and with the additional difficulty of separating the authentic pieces from modern fakes and forgeries. Given these difficulties, no attempt has been made to assign specific dates to most of the gems and amulets presented here.

    Traditions of Magic in Late Antiquity
    Protective Magic
    Babylonian Demon Bowls


    Within the wide category of protective magic, one local tradition stands out as unique, namely the so-called Babylonian demon bowls. These inscribed earthenware vessels were found in several sites in Iraq and Iran, dating from the 6th to the 8th centuries A.D. and are unknown outside that region. They are normally inscribed in one of three Aramaic dialects -- Jewish-Aramaic, Syriac, and Mandaic -- though some bowls are known which are inscribed in Persian (Pehlevi). The form and direction of the writing varies -- the most common form being spirals, beginning from the bowl's rim and moving toward the center. Some bowls are inscribed on the outside as well as the inside. Moreover, numerous bowls are inscribed in various pseudo-scripts, either because the person who manufactured them was illiterate, or because the text itself was deemed only a secondary component of the bowl, and could be recited orally, or dispensed with altogether. While many bowls show little sign of outside influence, others display the well-known motifs of "international" magic -- common divine names, familiar voces magicae, and symbols such as the ouroboros or the characteres.

    Those bowls which are found in situ often are positioned face-down, and in some cases two bowls are found glued together with pitch, the space enclosed between them containing such items as inscribed egg-shells or human skull fragments. From their positioning, and from the images of bound demons which adorn numerous bowls, it would seem that these were demon traps, meant to lure, trap, and disable any malevolent demons, preventing them from hurting humans or causing damage to property. It seems that such traps often were placed in room corners, since the meeting of walls and floor created cracks through which the demons could sneak in -- a fact which is also verified in contemporary literary sources. However, in some cases the bowls' inscriptions reveal them to have been not so much "environmental protection" devices, but rather aggressive instruments aimed at sending the demons upon an enemy's head. Such bowls could be buried in cemeteries -- where ghosts and demons were abundant -- and perhaps also next to the victim's house and property, to enhance their efficacy and accuracy.

    Traditions of Magic in Late Antiquity
    Aggressive Magic


    Of all issues connected with ancient magic, none has evoked more fascination, attraction, or revulsion than the image of the lone magician, closed in his or her room, manipulating voodoo dolls and chanting hymns of violence and destruction. From ancient literature to modern scholarship, this aspect of the magical praxis -- often labeled "Black Magic" -- has received more attention than any other type of magical activity, apparently because it is here that the practitioners' otherwise innocuous activities acquire a very sinister tone. For the ancient, practitioners themselves, however, the distinction between "protective" and "aggressive" magic seems to have made very little difference, as can be seen from the intermingling of both types of recipes in the extant recipe-books (cf. no. 1), and from the many similarities between both types of praxis.

    Aggressive magic could take many different forms, the commonest one -- of those that were committed to writing -- being the lead tablets known in Greek as katadesmoi and in Latin as defixiones. These cursing and binding tablets seem to be a specifically Greek invention, known in Greece from the 5th century B.C. and spreading from there throughout the Mediterranean world. The earliest ones consist merely of the victim's name, scratched on a thin sheet of lead and thrown into graves, pits, or wells, thus handing the victim over to the care of the chthonian demons and the ghosts of the dead. As time went on, such tablets became more elaborate, with long texts and elaborate designs, and their preparation often entailed complex rituals, including the binding, piercing, or burning of wax, clay, or lead voodoo dolls, representing the spell's intended victim.

    Defixiones appear in many different social contexts, from the disgruntled lover who wishes to coerce the object of his or her desire, to the chariot-races, theaters, courtrooms, and business transactions, where one participant would try to ensure his or her victory by "binding" or "fixing" a rival. Thus, such texts not only provide us with valuable information on ancient magical practices and beliefs, they also allow rare glimpses of the social tensions and everyday conflicts of ancient society.

    While defixiones -- written on lead, a non-perishable material -- are common, they certainly were not the only form of cursing practiced in late antiquity, and examples are also known of curses being written on gems, papyri, wooden tablets, and Babylonian demon bowls (cf. above).

    Suggestions for Further Reading


    Christopher A. Faraone & Dirk Obbink (eds.), Magika Hiera: Ancient Greek Magic and Religion, Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1991.

    Valerie I.J. Flint, The Rise of Magic in Early Medieval Europe, Princeton: Princeton University Press, 1991.

    John G. Gager, Curse Tablets and Binding Spells from the Ancient World, Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1992.

    Michael A. Morgan (tr.), Sepher Ha-Razim: The Book of the Mysteries, Chico, CA: Scholars Press, 1983.

    Joseph Naveh & Shaul Shaked, Amulets and Magic Bowls: Aramaic Incantations of Late Antiquity, Jerusalem: Magnes Press,1985.

    Joseph Naveh & Shaul Shaked, Magic Spells and Formulae: Aramaic Incantations of Late Antiquity, Jerusalem: Magnes Press, 1993.

    Geraldine Pinch, Magic in Ancient Egypt, London: British Museum Press, 1994.

    Robert K. Ritner, The Mechanics of Ancient Egyptian Magical Practice, [Studies in Ancient Oriental Civilization, 54], Chicago: Oriental Institute, 1993.

Share This Page