Bryn Mawr Classical Review 03.02.17

David G. Martinez, Michigan Papyri XVI: A Greek Love Charm from Egypt (P. Mich. 757). American Studies in Papyrology no. 30. Atlanta: Scholars Press, 1991. Pp. xiii + 161; 1 plate. $44.95. $29.95 with Scholars Press discount. ISBN 1-55540-547-9.

Reviewed by S. J. Johnston, Ohio State University.

Much of the work on Graeco-Roman magic that has appeared during the last few years has focused on presenting corpora of material (the translation of the Greek Magical Papyri, edited by H.D. Betz [Chicago: 1986]), on interpreting individual magical praxes and the theories that underlay them (the essays collected by C.A. Faraone and D. Obbink in Magika Hiera [Oxford: 1991]), or on seeking to understand the attitudes towards magic that were held by the ancients themselves (R. Gordon's essay "Aelian's Peony: the location of magic in Graeco-Roman tradition" Comparative Criticism 9 [1987] 59-95).

Although David G. Martinez's Michigan Papyri XVI: A Greek Love Charm from Egypt (P. Mich. 757) does all of these things to some degree, its greatest contributions lie in performing two services that are relatively uncommon. First, M. offers an edition, translation and extensive commentary of a single magical text: a love-spell inscribed on a lead tablet in Egypt during the third or fourth century A.D. (exact site of origin unknown).1 Second, in the course of completing this first task, M. offers us a look into the "business world" of the professional magician. I will address these contributions separately.

Regarding the first: I am not a papyrologist, and thus cannot offer an evaluation of M.'s edition itself; instead, I will focus on the commentary that accompanies it. This not only elucidates and provides comparanda for the spell in question, but also serves as a good source of information and citations concerning magical praxis and daemonology in general. M.'s discussion of barbarika onomata, for example, is thorough (pp. 34-36). In addressing the fact that the ancients believed these arcane words to be the gods' most ancient and therefore most authentic and powerful names, he adduces information not only from magical texts (e.g., PGM VIII.20 ff.; Orac. Chald. fr. 150) but also from literary sources (e.g., Hdt. II.50.1; Lucian Nec. 9 and D. Meretr. 4.5; Eur. IT 1337-38) and from ancient authors who were themselves concerned with developing a "theory of magic" (e.g., Iamb. Myst. VII.4). At several subsequent points in the commentary (e.g., p. 37 s.v. "yessimeigadon"; pp. 104-105 s.v. "Zeus atheresphilauos"), M. then discusses both the origins and the probable meanings of individual barbarika onomata that appear in P. Mich. 757 and related texts, identifying Semitic, Egyptian or other linguistic influences where possible, or listing those gods with whom the name usually is associated. Such information will be helpful not only to those scholars who want to study P. Mich. 757 further, but also to those who encounter these particular barbarika onomata in other texts (M. includes an index entitled "Nomina Barbara/Voces Magica").

M.'s discussion of magicians' attempts to control the gods or daemones by threatening to reveal the gods' secret names similarly benefits from the variety of evidence that he adduces (pp. 70-75). M. notes that in a number of texts -- both magical and literary -- the pronouncement of divine names brings on cosmic calamities -- reversals of rivers' courses, disruptions of the Sun's and Moon's movements, splittings of the earth's crust and subsequent revelations of Hades' horrors (e.g., PGM XII.239 ff.; Luc. VI.730). Thus, M. concludes, a magician's threat to reveal a god's name is not necessarily a threat against the god himself, as has been assumed by some scholars, but rather may be a threat to abrogate the control of cosmic processes that the god usually possesses. M. nicely supports this theory by adducing a passage in which Iamblichus argues that the continuity and serenity of the cosmos depends precisely on the continued concealment of such divine secrets (Myst. VI.7; 248, 5 ff.). Despite my agree ment with M.'s analysis here, however, it is not clear to me how he intends his conclusions to be applied to the interpretation of lines 14-19 of his text, where a nekudaimon, rather than the god himself, is threatened by the revelation of the god's name. Are we to assume that the nekudaimon would be discommoded by the disruption of the cosmic structure and therefore would hasten to fulfill the magician's command before the magician was forced to reveal the secret name? Or would the divine name simply threaten the nekudaimon with the god's invoked presence in this case? Here, perhaps, we have entered into one of the many grey areas of ancient magic and daemonology.

The second major contribution of M.'s book, as noted, is that it gives us a look into the "business world" of the professional magician. In the introduction, M. suggests that the text of P. Mich. 757 was based on the "handbook" exemplum of a love-spell as found in PGM IV 269-433; it generally is assumed that a magician would have used texts such as PGM IV as sourcebooks when creating charms or spells for individual clients, but would have adapted the books' exempla to fit his clients' specific situations. As comparanda for P. Mich. 757, we possess not only PGM IV 269-433, but also four other love-charms on lead tablets that resemble PGM IV 269-433 closely; it is probable that they also were created by magicians who owned copies of the same "handbook" of spells as did the creator of P. Mich. 757.

M. divides the text of PGM IV 269-433 into 16 sections, and compares each of them to the corresponding sections of P. Mich. 757 and the four other lead-tablet texts. Some sections of PGM IV 269-433 find only weak equivalencies in the lead tablets. The handbook instructed the magician to make two effigies from clay or wax (a male and a female), for example, to inscribe that of the female with magical words, to pierce it with bronze needles and then to bind it to the lead tablet on which the logos of the spell was to be inscribed. Only one of the lead tablets was found in the company of a clay effigy (a kneeling female, pierced but not inscribed); it is not clear whether this effigy originally was bound to the tablet or not. One of the other lead tablets had holes, by means of which a effigy could have been attached; if made of wax, such an effigy might not have survived. The remaining three tablets, however, show no holes by which effigies could have been attached, nor were they found in the company of effigies. Although this absence may mean only that effigies that originally accompanied the lead tablets have perished, it also opens up the interesting possibility that the magicians, in these cases, simply chose to omit steps that their handbooks advocated -- we know already that a magician chose not to inscribe the one effigy that has been found with its lead text.

More detailed comparisons are possible in the case of the spells' logoi -- that is, the words that were to be inscribed on the lead tablets. In two cases, for example, the magician told the nekudaimon whom he commanded to seek out his client's beloved not only "in every place, in every quarter, in every house," as the handbook exemplum suggests, but also "in every tavern". As the original editor of these texts noted,2 this implies either that the clients knew that their beloveds were prostitutes or that they simply wanted to cover every possibility. On all four of the lead tablets that serve as comparanda for P. Mich. 757, the logoi are markedly shorter than the handbook exemplum recommends. M. suggests (p. 113) that, like scribes, magicians probably were paid by the line; thus, these abbreviated texts may have been commissioned by clients who could not afford the full treatment. The text of P. Mich. 757, in contrast, not only includes the logos recommended by the handbook exemplum in full (with certain variations), but also adds material that our existing version of the handbook exemplum does not include. Most notably, the magician closes P. Mich. 757 with what is called an "ego eimi" formula -- a statement in which the speaker/writer identifies himself with a great god or daemon. These and other variances in the six texts discussed by M. help to remind us that magic was a business endeavor in the ancient world, as well as a religious undertaking. These variances also should help remind us that magic was not an "automatic" art -- i.e., that by doing one thing, the magician could not "automatically" bring about a result in either the divine or human world. If this had been the case, then varying the prescribed logos or praxis of a spell should have disarmed it. What we seem to have instead is a sort of sliding scale of effectiveness. One had a chance of persuading the gods or daemones to do one's bidding by performing certain minimal acts; like mortal men and women, however, the gods and daemones were more likely to be persuaded when additional prayers, threats and magical actions were added.

The book concludes with 14 detailed indices, comprising 26 pages. M. has given us a very useful study, which I hope will serve as a model for further in-depth examinations of individual magical texts.


  • [1] Martinez adds (p. xi) that an abbreviated and adapted version of his edition and commentary has been published in Supplementum Magicum vol I, edd. R.W. Daniel and F. Maltomini (Papyrologica Coloniensia XVI.1) (Opladen: 1990). The present reviewer has not obtained a copy of this work yet.
  • [2] D. Wortmann, "Neue Magische Texte" Bonn. Jahr. 168 (1968) 56-80 Nr. 1 and 2 (complete bibliography on subsequent publications of these texts is given by Martinez, p. 132).