Bryn Mawr Classical Review

Bryn Mawr Classical Review 2003.01.08

Paul Mirecki, Marvin Meyer, Magic and Ritual in the Ancient World.   Leiden:  Brill, 2002.  Pp. xvii + 468.  ISBN 90-04-11676-1.  EUR 161.00/$187.00.  



Reviewed by Gary Beckman, University of Michigan (sidd@umich.edu)
Word count: 1108 words

Contributions

William Brashear and Roy Kotansky, A New Magical Formulary

David Jordan, Two Papyri with Formulae for Divination

Roy Kotansky, An Early Christian Gold Lamella for Headache

Paul Mirecki, A Seventh-Century Coptic Limestone in the Ashmolean Museum, Oxford (Bodl. copt. inscr. 426)

Jonathan Z. Smith, Great Scott! Thought and Action One More Time

Fritz Graf, Theories of Magic in Antiquity

H. S. Versnel, The Poetics of the Magic Charm: An Essay on the Power of Words

David Frankfurter, Dynamics of Ritual Expertise in Antiquity and Beyond: Towards a New Taxonomy of "Magicians"

C. A. Hoffman, Fiat Magia

Richard H. Beal, Dividing a God

JoAnn Scurlock, Translating Transfers in Ancient Mesopotamia

Billie Jean Collins, Necromancy, Fertility and the Dark Earth: The Use of Ritual Pits in Hittite Cult

Brian B. Schmidt, Canaanite Magic vs. Israelite Religion: Deuteronomy 18 and the Taxonomy of Taboo

S. Daniel Breslauer, Secrecy and Magic, Publicity and Torah: Unpacking a Talmudic Tale

James R. Davila, Shamanic Initiatory Death and Resurrection in the Hekhalot Literature

Michael D. Swartz, Sacrificial Themes in Jewish Magic

Christopher A. Farrone, The Ethnic Origins of a Roman-Era Philtrokatadesmos

Sarah Iles Johnston, Sacrifice in the Greek Magical Papyri

Lynn R. LiDonnici, Beans, Fleawort, and the Blood of a Hamadryas Baboon: Recipe Ingredients in Greco-Roman Magical Materials

Oliver Phillips, The Witches' Thessaly

Peter T. Struck, Speech Acts and the Stakes of Hellenism in Late Antiquity

Marvin Meyer, The Prayer of Mary Who Dissolves Chains in Coptic Magic and Religion

Ayse Tuzlak, The Magician and the Heretic: The Case of Simon Magus

Nicole B. Hansen, Ancient Execration Magic in Coptic and Islamic Egypt.

The editors conceived this volume and the conference that gave rise to it -- held in August 1998 at Chapman University in Orange, California, and at the Institute for Antiquity and Christianity of Claremont Graduate University -- as extensions of the accomplishments of a meeting convened in Lawrence, Kansas in 1992 and its proceedings, Ancient Magic and Ritual Power (Leiden: Brill, 1995; paperback edition, 2001). They have fittingly dedicated the book to the memory of the outstanding papyrologist, William M. Brashear, a contributor to both collections, who died in 2000.

The cultures whose magical practices and conceptions are treated in these essays are limited to those of ancient western Asia and the eastern Mediterranean (including Egypt), but the chronological span covered is quite broad -- from the Late Bronze Age Hittite empire to the early Islamic period in Egypt. Some participants present primary editions (Brashear/Kotansky, Kotansky, Mirecki) or thorough reconsiderations (Jordan) of particular ancient documents.

Other authors, while basing themselves on the sources, pursue more general questions: Smith reopens the question of the relationship between "what is thought" (philosophy, theology, mysticism) and "what is done" (ritual, theurgy, magic) in religion, showing that in practice the two are inseparable. He tellingly observes that "[t]he capacity to alter common denotations in order to enlarge potential connotations within the boundaries of ritual is one of the features that marks off its space as 'sacred'" (p. 90, italics mine).

A more basic problem, addressed most directly in the essay of Hoffman, is the delimitation of magic from religion. All would agree that magic involves the manipulation or placation of para-human beings or forces for the purpose of affecting the world in which humans live. But how does this differ from religion? Some would say that magical rites coerce while religious ceremonies simply make requests. Others maintain that magic seeks to do harm while religion is benign. (This seems to be the usual attitude in the ancient Near East, in whose civilizations damage caused by supernatural means was punishable as a tort, not as an offense against community moral standards.) Still others observe that magic is practiced in secret, but religion is public. Judaism, Christianity, and other monotheistic creeds hold that their own ceremonies are religious, while the cult of others constitutes magic. In all of these contrasts, magic is the derogatory term.

Contemporary students of religion have largely abandoned the attempt to separate the concepts, recognizing that magic is generally simply religious activity of which the speaker or text disapproves. Indeed, Hoffman here stresses that the definition of magic is necessarily arbitrary and argues that researchers should be free to utilize the term in a manner that "provide[s] us with the means to analyze what we find interesting about the materials we consider" (p. 194). Nonetheless, the dichotomy between magic and religion has of course been of immense societal importance from the Classical period until modern times. It has often been quite dangerous to engage in magic! Several contributors to this volume examine the emic or native understanding of magic in various traditions: those of the Hellenistic world (Graf), biblical Israel (Schmidt), rabbinic Judaism (Breslauer), and early Christianity (Tuzlak).

A focus on the person of the practitioner is evident in the essay of Frankfurter. In a wide-ranging survey taking its starting point in Coptic Egypt, he stresses the function of the local cultic functionary as a mediator between the "Great Tradition" of a culture and the exigencies and conditions of a particular locality. Choosing and adapting ideas and practices as necessary, "[t]he ritual expert is ... a bricoleur (p. 167). This observation can be usefully combined with that of Johnston, who sees in the ritual practitioner a "creative conservator" of traditional rites, who utilizes his expertise "to extend them in ways that preserv[e] their underlying ideologies" (p. 357). Anyone who has immersed himself/herself in cuneiform ritual texts or the Greek magical papyri will have observed that as often as not each individual manuscript is the product of a ritual "handyman" rather than a fair copy of a standard text.

Particularly interesting for comparative purposes are the contributions dealing with Hittite and Mesopotamian sources, whose authors thoughtfully present a sizable amount of primary material in translation. Beal discusses a curious Hittite ritual in which a deity is divided in two as part of the process of establishing an additional cult site in her honor. Scurlock insightfully compares ancient Mesopotamian conceptions of magical contagion with early modern Moroccan beliefs reported by Westermarck. And Collins shows how fertility offerings, disposal of pollution, and communication with the dead were combined in Hittite rites performed in specially dug pits.

I have touched upon only a portion of the twenty-four essays in this volume. Without exception, all of the contributions are well informed and above all interesting. Magic and Ritual in the Ancient World should find a place in all institutional libraries of classical, ancient Near Eastern, and religious studies. Unfortunately, its exorbitant price will undoubtedly dissuade most individual scholars from purchase.

The book concludes with indices of primary sources cited.

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