Bryn Mawr Classical Review 02.04.08


Magika Hiera. Ancient Greek Magic & Religion. Edited by Christopher A. Faraone and Dirk Obbink. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1991. Pp. xiii, 298. ISBN 0-19-504450-9.


Reviewed by Gregory W. Dickerson, Bryn Mawr College.

All readers, from professional Hellenists to "Greekless" generalists curious to learn about the irresistibly intriguing world of the occult, will welcome the appearance of this uniformly useful and often stimulating collection of ten essays by established experts on practices and problems encountered in the broad sphere of Greek "magic." As a group, these chapters, each augmented by copious notes, are especially valuable in illuminating, by providing an extended context and some detailed analyses, the equally welcome publications which have recently made a rich store of evidence for Greek "magic" accessible to English readers, i.e., Luck's Arcana Mundi and the collection of Greek Magical Papyri in Translation edited by Betz. It must also be said, however, that this volume could have been made more useful still by imposition of greater consistency of format on its contributors. For example, special bibliographies of works most frequently cited, extremely helpful for readers wishing to pursue further a specific topic, are prefixed to the notes of the first four chapters but absent in the rest; cross-referencing between chapters dealing with identical issues and texts is surprisingly rare (there is no index of the principal ancient texts discussed for the reader to use as a substitute); and provision of the Greek, with careful English translation, of the texts and key terms studied, though laudably prevalent in the book as a whole, is by no means uniform throughout. (There is a somewhat curious inconsistency in the the editorial decision to translate Greek for readers, but not the German occasionally cited in the texts and notes of the book.) In addition, the sequence in which the ten contributions are presented (four chapters "devoted to newly found or reedited inscriptional material and to the subsequent refinement of categories and theories of historical development," followed by six chapters dealing with "specific ritual practices and procedures -- and with new definitions of ... religion and magic or science ... prompted by refinements in methodology" (p.vi) seriously disjoints a consecutive reading of the book for anyone led by its title to expect a systematic, linearly logical discussion of "Greek Magic and Religion." Chapters 1, 3, and 8, for example, closely related in both subject and argument, could be read far more profitably and easily as a connected group, and one, or all, of the efforts (Chapters 7,9 and 10) dealing directly with what almost all the contributors acknowledge to be the critical problem of definition confronted by modern attempts to distinguish magic from religion should most definitely have been situated at the start of the volume, especially since each author was urged by the editors "to ask whether the traditional dichotomy between magic and religion helped in any way to conceptualize the objective features of the evidence examined." [pp.vi-vii] This injunction seems, moreover, more than a bit odd, since, in the immediately preceding paragraph of their brief preface, the editors have explicitly admitted: "There cannot at present be said to exist anything approaching a consensus over the deployment and definition" of the terms 'magic' and 'religion,'" an assessment amply validated by what we find in the ten chapters to follow. What, then, is the "traditional [does not this word imply some sort of consensus?] dichotomy" against which the contributors, and readers, are supposed to bring to bear the specific texts and practices discussed throughout the book? In sum, the volume's title implies that "Greek Magic" is somehow legitimately separable from "Greek Religion," but it conspicuously fails to provide an initial demonstration to both its contributors and its readers of precisely how this line, at least for purposes of discussion, should be drawn. The result is a significant degree of "overkill" on this issue, with each of the contributors compelled to duplicate the efforts of his collaborators in demonstrating the inadequacy of any such "traditional dichotomy" when applied to to the specific material under study on each occasion. Some, however, treat this unquestionably important -- and interesting -- definition problem more fully and forcefully than others, as will be noted in the following comments on individual chapters.

Chapter 1, "The Agonistic Context of Early Greek Binding Spells," by Christopher A. Faraone.

Here co-editor F. sets out to "provide an analysis of the function and social context of the katadesmoi in early Greek society." (p.3) (The emphasis on "early" both here and in the chapter title is puzzling, since F. stresses in his opening paragraph that the earliest of these curses yet discovered belong to the 5th century B.C. and in fact proceeds to discuss many exx. dating to late Classical and Hellenistic times, not to mention one type (athletic) which does not originate until the 2nd-3rd c enturies A.D.) The chapter's first section (pp.4-10) is mainly devoted to the presentation of a tripartite typology of the spells employed on the more than 600 Greek defixiones so far made available for study (F. mentions that over 400 others still await publication): 1) "the direct binding formula, ... a performative utterance ... by which the defigens hopes to manipulate his victim ... 2) the prayer formula... to underworld deities ... that they accomplish the binding ...; 3) the ... similia similibus formula, ... a form of 'persuasive analogy,' ... a wish that the victim become similar to something which he or she is manifestly dissimilar." (p. 10) [Example: "Just as this lead/corpse/etc. is useless, so may person X be useless in respect to his Y."] Interspersed throughout this concise but uniformly interesting introduction to the language of these strange documents are descriptions of materials used, writing styles, and placement procedures, for which F. generally prefers "practical" rather than superstitious origins (e.g., lead was first used simply as convenient and cheap writing medium and retrograde writing was originally "accidental" as in many earlier Greek written documents, but both features over time became fixed in ritual usage as archaic oddities with magical powers of their own). Throughout this section, discussion of linguistic and ritual detail alike makes a persuasive case for the first of F.'s two major theses in this chapter: "Defixiones ... provide means of binding or restraining enemies without killing them." (ibid.) The demonstration that these curses, despite their invocation of chthonic forces, were, almost always, not murderous in intent, constitutes a valuable clarification of the role of these imprecations within Greek religion and society and certainly, by eliminating actual demise as the sole criterion for judging their success, helps explain the survival of reliance in their efficacy over so many centuries.

The chapter's second section, (pp. 10-17) is structured similarly to the first, beginning with a typology of the social contexts which seem to have generated "binding spells." F. divides them into four categories, commercial (e.g., attempts to invoke profit loss for rival workshops), competitive public performance (athletic and dramatic), judicial, and amatory with the last divided into two sub-types, of which one aims at separating a rival from the beloved and the other at inflaming reciprocal passion . (F. reasonably excludes the purely aphrodisiac spells from further discussion, noting that they lack the agonistic element which is his focus and that they are discussed by Winkler in a later chapter.) A number of interesting exx. of all four categories are discussed, with careful attention to issues of relative chronology, e.g., the puzzling fact that tablets attempting to hex athletic rivals do not occur before the 2nd century A.D., whereas those directed against rivals in theatrical performance are already underway in the Classical period. (F's suggestion [p.11] that Pelops' prayer to Poseidon for help in the race against Oenomaos in Pindar, O. I, 75-8 constitutes the earliest example of athletic defixio is not convincing, given the absence of any reference to chthonic divinity or accompanying ritual action.) Judicial curses are persuasively argued to be attempts to gain an advantage during the actual legal proceedings, rather than "posttrial" exercises in revenge by unsuccessful litigants, as some have argued. (F.'s n. 67, succinctly outlining this scholarly dispute over this issue is a good example of the rich store of information provided in the ample notes to this chapter.) F. rightly stresses the powerful appeal of such supernatural intervention within a legal system requiring all litigants to do their own pleading before the jury. (p. 15) The best effort of a Lysias could, after all, be thwarted by an uncanny case of stage fright or memory lapse. As a whole, the detailed discussion in this segment lends convincing support to F.'s second major thesis: that these spells, in which political as well as professional rivalries may often be involved, originate out of the agonistic element long recognized as permeating Greek society.

In his "Conclusions," F. provides some judicious demonstration of the perilous subjectivity, at least when applied to binding spells, of the "piety vs. superstition / religion vs. magic" dichotomy which dominates much of the earlier scholarship on his topic. (Nabers' claim to find such a distinction in the six Morgantina lead tablets receives a convincing refutation here [p. 19]: "Whether the prayer is benevolent or malevolent is immaterial to the pious belief that the gods addressed can and will do what they are asked provided they are approached in a ritually correct manner.") As an alternative to "shame" (considered by some as a criterion for differentiating [black] magic from "religious" practice) as the explanation for the secrecy and anonymity which characterizes the placement and authorship of these spells, F. suggests practical motives. The need to prevent discovery from prompting ritual countermeasures explains the burying in taboo areas. Much less cogent is the suggestion that difference in social or political status motivates the anonymity. (Self-protection seems an obvious and much more compelling reason for concealed identity.) This approach has value as a corrective to an assuredly simplistic view that all or even most practitioners of these rites observed secrecy to conceal activities felt to be disreputable, but it is itself a bit simplistic in failing to note the existence of evidence clearly showing that intense moral disquiet could, at least occasionally, be generated by such actions , e.g., the intense ambivalence about the ethics of agonistic amatory spellbinding expressed by Sophocles' Deianeira in Trachiniae.

Chapter 2, "'Cursed be he that moves my bones'," by J. H. M. Strubbe.

Choosing a line from Shakespeare's epitaph for his title, S. here provides a study of funerary imprecations (i.e., those directed against potential tomb violators) found in Greek epitaphs of Asia Minor. These are classified into two types, "specific" and "non-specific," depending on whether or not the [supernatural] punishments involved are made explicit. (S.'s terminology here is a bit confusing, since his exx. of the "non-specific" group, with which he begins, frequently contain very "specific" fines to be paid to the city by violators. Hence my insertion, in brackets, of "supernatural" as an essential qualifying adjective.) Latte's claim that the first type is "religious" and Anatolian in origin, whereas the second reflects Greek "magic," is convincingly argued to be arbitrary, and a brief but somewhat rambling discussion of the non-specific type is provided (pp. 33-6) before addressing examples of the specific group (the ca. 350 exx. extant were closely studied in S.'s 1983 doctoral dissertation), which serves as the focus of all that follows. S. first notes (pp. 37-41) that the general practice of protection through imprecation was common throughout Greece as well as in Anatolia and the Near East in ancient times, whereas funerary imprecations "are very rarely [only twenty exx., and of these only two prior to the imperial period] used ... in the Greek world outside of Asia Minor." (p. 38) As the cause of this phenomenon, S. reasonably suggests the "oriental tradition" of such curses, already attested in 11th century Phoenicia, with the first Greek exx. occurring in 4th century Lydia, although they do not become numerous until imperial times. The eastern tradition itself is reasonably linked with the oriental habit of viewing the tomb as a house, a permanent residence for the corpse, an idea alien to the conventional views of death prevailing in Greece proper. The following section, "The Power of Words" (pp. 41-5), presents an amalgam of miscellaneous observations on fairly familiar characteristics of curses in general without any conspicuous specific relevance to funerary imprecations per se, e.g., rhetorical devices (anaphora, metre, triplets), accompanying gestures, and scope (extension to cover the entire oikos and genos of the victim). The discussion of the spear ritual associated with some of S.'s Lydian exx., by contrast, provides more interesting, because less familiar, food for thought. The chapter concludes with a brief and somewhat superficial look at "Funerary Imprecations and the Gods" (pp.45-7).

Here S. first notes that approximately thirty divinities are addressed in these documents, with hoi katachthonioi, the lunar gods, and Helios being the most frequently invoked, and then proceeds to suggest some fairly self-evident motivations for the practice, e.g., (p.46): "The gods may have been chosen because the Greeks were convinced that the gods punished all crimes."

In general, then, though this chapter contains some information of considerable intrinsic interest, the discussion is somewhat diffuse, symptomatic, perhaps, of an effort to include too many facets of the argument developed within the more expansive framework of the author's doctoral dissertation on this subject.

Chapter 3, "Beyond Cursing: The Appeal to Justice in Judicial Prayers," by H. S. Versnel.

In this masterfully constructed contribution, V. presents a uniformly compelling discussion of inscriptions on lead (and occasionally on other materials), Latin as well as Greek, which, though they share some features of the defixiones discussed in the first chapter of the book, nonetheless also differ from them in purpose, placement, tone and content in such striking ways that they must clearly be assigned to a special category, "judicial prayers," in order to distinguish them from the "judicial curses" previously discussed by Faraone. Whereas F.'s exx. were anonymously authored, coercive in spirit, universally indifferent to any issues of "justice," secretly placed, and closely associated with chthonic powers, the authors of V.'s prayers frequently identify themselves, adopt a much humbler, supplicant posture, specify the wrong for which they are seeking redress, often make their pleas public, and address Olympian as well as underworld deities. They also occasionally imply embarrassment at being forced to resort to "magic." (V. explicitly rejects F's view that use of defixiones was morally and socially acceptable in antiquity, discerning in their characteristic anonymity evidence of a "double standard of morality," still operative in modern Mediterranean societies, permitting strictly private resort to publicly condemned stratagems for personal advantage, "There can be little doubt that...social abhorrence is the main reason why people did not add their signatures to what must be unconditionally labeled as an instrument of black magic." [p.63]

V. begins with exx. from "The Border Area" (pp. 64-8), i.e., those in which elements of curse (e.g., first person verbs like katagrapho and katadeo) coexist with those of prayer for justice (e.g., reference to wrongful treatment suffered and dike-related vocabulary), concluding with a tablet from Delos which responds to the theft of a necklace by a curse on one side and by a prayer on the other, so providing an ideal transition to the consideration of the unadulterated form in the following subsection, "The Prayer for Justice" (pp. 68-75). Here coercive elements are absent, and the responsibility for securing revenge for irreparable harm or redress of wrongful action is humbly ceded to divinity by the injured parties. The appeals for redress cited by V. are particularly interesting. Victims of theft "consecrate" to the divinity sometimes the perpetrator (whether already known or still to be identified), and sometimes the stolen article itself, urging the god to torment the culprit until a public confession is made and the lost property restored, whether to the victim or to the god not always being clear. (Here, as on other uncertainties, V. has much of value to suggest about the possibilities.) Reference to the occasional requests for confession leads smoothly to a discussion of the "confession inscriptions" (pp. 75-9) erected in Anatolia during the 2nd and 3rd centuries A.D., eloquent testaments to the perceived effectiveness of the gods in bringing hidden wrongdoers to light and repentance. Here exposed culprits, including practitioners of black magic (further evidence that at least some of the supernatural manipulation reflected in the defixiones was not, in fact, sanctioned by society at large), confess their crime, praise the god who has compelled the confession by infliction of illness, accident or the like, and profess their wonder at his power. In one case the confessing culprit makes explicit reference to a document (pittakion), provided by the man he has slandeed, which apparently precipitated the punishment inflicted by god and so provides close and illuminating analogues to the judicial prayers previously discussed. V.'s "Conclusions from the Greek Material" (pp.79-81) succinctly summarize the results of the argument up to this point and persuasively suggest that though clearly there was no uniformity of practice with regard to the degree of secrecy maintained by the authors of these prayers for justice, "the most obvious... procedure may be that the injured party first tries to draw a confession from the suspected culprits and then tells them explicitly that he is making a higher appeal to the gods." This, suggests V. would likely be enough to compel the culprit "to reconsider his deeds, especially when shortly thereafter he does not feel perfectly healthy." (p.81) Next, the results of this intriguing investigation of the Greek documents are applied to a fresh look at a group of Latin "curse tablets," many of them discovered in Britain, which until now have been loosely categorized as defixiones despite a variety of enigmatically anomalous features. Noting that Seneca reported the submission of libelli involving legal cases to the Capitoline Triad, V. masterfully dispels the obscurity of the anomalies by establishing incontrovertible parallels with the language, tone, and procedures characteristic of the Greek prayers for justice just discussed (e.g., consecration of missing property to the divinities, prayers for visitation of disease to prompt restitution by the culprit), so revealing the Latin texts to be prayers for justice as well. (In the course of this illuminating discussion, V. provides some convincing new readings of some of the problematic Latin texts and suggests some important alternatives to prior translations of certain words, e.g., [pp. 84-7] the recurrent phrase sanguine suo, which Egger had intepreted as "in person," but which V. here decisively demonstrates to mean "with his own blood / life.") At the end (pp. 90-3), V. finds the similarities between his hellenistic Greek exx. and his 3rd-4th century A.D. British exx. too numerous and too close to be explained by "spontaneous generation," and prefers to see the practice brought to England from regions further east by Roman soldiers. The attempt to "legitimize" the appeal for supernatural retaliation by reference to wrong done is reaffirmed as "the essential criterion" for differentiating true judicial prayer from true defixio, and both are claimed to be "the two opposites on the extreme ends of a whole spectrum of more or less hybrid forms" connecting the realms of "religion" and "magic." (p.92) Finally, V. presents as "perhaps the most interesting" aspect of his study the fact that "'manipulative' aspects predominate in the traditional defixiones found in Greece proper, whereas we find supplicative elements in areas where Greek culture was imported at a later period," reflecting the "strongly monarchical ideology" which had previously prevailed in these regions. (p.93)

Chapter 4, "Incantations and Prayers for Salvation on Inscribed Greek Amulets," by Roy Kotansky.

Here, after some helpful introductory remarks on matters of definition (e.g., an "amulet" [periapto] is "attached" to a person as remedy for medical complaint; a "phylactery" protects from impending calamity or plague) and a brief review of antecedents (curative amulets cited by Homer and Pindar; amulet to be accompanied by oral incantation first in Plato), K. focuses first (pp. 110-2) on the extremely scanty evidence for inscribed exx. from the Classical period, with some interesting remarks on the apotropaic use, written and oral, of the Ephesia grammata, mystic letters inscribed on the cult statue of Artemis at Ephesus. Here K.'s failure to provide more than a few disconnected elements of "the rather long text" of the one ex. of the actual use of these symbols during this period (a 4th century B.C. phylactery from Crete) is especially disappointing and a conspicuous departure from the generosity of the extensive citations provided by most of the contributors to the book. Discussion of the much more numerous exx. from the Roman Empire begins (pp.112-3) with remarks on some antecedents of the incantations inscribed on the amulets of these times (e.g., hariolae, short stories recounting mythological themes that sympathetically persuade the sufferer's illness to cease, as in the Philinna Papyrus of the 1st century B.C. [P.G.M. XX]), and introduces the gold and silver lamellae studied in K.'s 1988 doctoral dissertation (pp. 113-6). Here the well-known "Orphic" exx., generally buried unfolded with corpses, are presented as prototypes, and a plausible case made that three of them, showing signs of having at some time been folded up to carry, may have actually been used by the the living as phylacteries proper. Here again failure to provide complete texts and translations of any of the exx. cited, Orphic or otherwise, will certainly frustrate readers desiring to gain a sense of the essential flavor of these documents. Next (116-9), a subsection noticeably failing to deliver what its subtitle promises, "The Social Context" of these documents. Instead we are informed simply of the categories of ailments addressed by these amulets, e.g., headache, eye-ache, swelling, epilepsy, and -- perhaps -- gout. (K., p. 118, neatly connects a late literary prescription, instructing a gout sufferer to write, on tin, a curious combination of Greek with gobbledy-gook [chentima (?) tephêken (??) tephra glukaine], with a terse, four-word inscription found on a gold lamella: CHENTEMMA, TEPHREICHEN, TEPHRAIS [., BLU[... Similarly, the only Homeric verse found on K's exx. (Iliad 2.95) is also found, in still another late literary source, prescribed for lamella use against gout. Noting that the Homeric line begins with the verb tetrêchei, a noticeable sound-alike for the nonsensical tephêken and TEPHREICHEN, I wonder whether there may be traces of the magical use of the same Homeric line there as well.) From exx. of this "hocus-pocus" approach, K. turns to amulets inscribed with coherent "prayers for protection" addressed to divinities. (119-22) Here K. provides mostly exx. of simple commands to gods to take apotropaic or protective action, concluding with a demonstration that here, too, as in the case of Faraone's defixiones, the demarcation between spheres of coercive "magic" and pious "religion" is "difficult-if-not-impossible to draw." (p. 122)

Though useful as a very general introduction to amulet usage in antiquity, and here and there enlivened by some memorable eccentricities of ancient magic (e.g., p. 110, Lucian's reference to a gout cure necessitating combination of incantation with ligature of a fragment of a deceased virgin's tombstone to the patient's foot !), the value of this chapter is significantly diminished by the noted paucity of actual texts cited in any detail, and it occasionally suffers from the same sense of aggregated dissertation detail already detected in Strubbe's contribution. Proofreading lapses, extremely rare in the book as a whole, are evident in at least three places: the indication of note 37, which seems to deal with the Greek term for migraine, is confusingly placed at the end of p.112 rather than after the word (hêmikranion) at the top of the next page; there is a stray macron intruding over the word epôidh in the middle of p. 113; "foriegn" has escaped editorial notice in n. 60, p. 132. The failure, on p. 118, to provide the dubious chentima with an accent may well be supported by ms. authority; if so, the donation of an accent to the equally unintelligible tephêken seems odd.

Chapter 5, "The Pharmacology of Sacred Plants and Roots," by John Scarborough.

Historians of science and students of Theophrastus will find this often rambling and repetitive chapter more satisfying than will those seeking detailed instruction about the specific functions of a wide variety of plants within Greek "magical" usage.

S. begins (pp.139-42) with a survey of the Homeric treatment of pharmaka, important in its basic differentiation of "good" from "bad" drugs, and in its concern with the specific properties of various plants, e.g., the notorious molu and Helen's Egyptian tranquilizer in the Odyssey, the latter here rather tenuously identified with opium on the basis of Homer's supposed reference to poppy juice as poppy "fruit" at Iliad VIII, 306-7. (S. here, as often, frustratingly fails to provide the reader with the Greek text of the passage adduced as evidence.) There follows some, to this reader, at least, fairly obscure general discussion of early Greek medicine, which is argued to be characterized by a theoretical fusion of "natural" and supernatural causation, precipitating a combination of "theurgy" with the "practical application of drugs" in the attempts at remedy. In the presentation of the "murky" evidence for herbalist concerns in the period between Homer and Theophrastus (pp.142-5) Musaeus, early Orphics, and Pindar are singled out, though the latter does not, as S. claims on p. 143, specify herbal amulets in the passage cited, P. III, 51-3. (Kotansky's chapter has just made it clear that all pharmaka are not of an herbal nature.) The magical practices recorded in Athenian drama are said to demonstrate that the audience must be familiar with such practices in real life, a claim that may apply to the exx. singled out here (root-cutting procedures described in a fragment of Sophocles Rhizotomoi and Aristophanic allusions to herbal contraceptives in Peace and Lysistrata), but fails to account for the clearly fantastic magical procedures imagined in the poetry of Euripides' Medea and Sophocles' Trachiniae. Discussion of the Aristophanic exx. centers on pennyroyal (blêchôn), which is first acknowledged to have general mythological associations with "birthing," apparently on the basis of its role as a constituent of the Eleusinian kukeôn, and then said to be a pharmacologically effective abortient familiar to all 5th century Athenians. (p.145) No attempt is made to explain this remarkably paradoxical usage (and, most surprisingly in a chapter devoted to "pharmacology," the discussion of the Eleusinian kukeôn is abruptly dropped without a hint of allusion to other discussions of its "active ingredients," e.g., the ergot theory proposed by Wasson and Hofmann). In what follows, the discussion rambles noticeably and sometimes fails to pinpoint the nature and location of evidence cited. (To cite only two out of several exx., S. extensively discusses "squill" without ever providing the Greek word conventionally so translated, and on p. 150 quotes Theophrastus on use of prayer by root-cutters without any reference to source.) Here S. has much more to say about the attitudes towards botanical folklore and herbal magic discernible in the writings of ancient scholars (a characteristically "grand and opaque jumble of opinions" mingling strict empiricism with religion and magic, p. 150) than about magical pharmacology as actually practiced. After a mini-history of the development of pharmacology from folklore into empirical science, beginning with Theophrastus' "muddled" definition of "herb" and culminating in praise of Dioscorides' "brilliance" in the field (pp. 151-4), comes an interesting introduction to"hermetic" pharmacology, in which astrological beliefs are employed to validate the powers of various herbs, with a full translation (but again, no Greek text) of an intriguing recipe for the use of chicory in manufacturing tablets to cure digestive disorders. (p. 156) Here, and in the following section on the magical papyri (pp. 156-61), S. finally focuses closely (except for the conspicuously repetitive and irrelevant excursus on magical use of magnets on pp. 158f.) on the "popular" usage of herbs in combination with a farrago of often revolting other ingredients (e.g., the nasal mucous of a cow, p. 158) for such purposes as contraception, and provides (pp. 159f.), though again only in translation, a fascinating papyrus text explaining code names used for various herbs in magical recipes (e.g., "tears of a Hamadryas baboon" = "dill juice").