Bryn Mawr Classical Review

Bryn Mawr Classical Review 2003.02.14

Sulochana R. Asirvatham, Corinne Ondine Pache, John Watrous, Between Magic and Religion. Interdisciplinary Studies in Ancient Mediterranean Religion and Society.   Lanhan, MD:  Rowman & Littlefield, 2001.  Pp. 212.  ISBN 0-8476-9969-2.  $27.95 (pb).  

Contributors: Ellen Bradshaw Aitken, Sulochana R. Asirvatham, Spencer Cole, Kate Blair-Dixon, Mary Margaret (Molly) Fulghum, Prudence J. Jones, Amanda Luyster, Corinne Ondine Pache, Zsuzsanna Várhelyi, Alicia Walker, John Watrous

Reviewed by David Porreca, Religion and Culture, Wilfrid Laurier University (
Word count: 1250 words

This collection of essays is the result of a colloquium entitled "Between Magic and Religion" held at Harvard University in November, 1998. It touches upon a wide variety of topics broadly connected with ancient magic and religion and contains several papers which are of high quality. As is often the case with such collections, the quality of the papers varies widely. In addition, the topics covered are so diverse that the reader is left to question the wisdom of having them published under a single heading.

This impression is reinforced by the apparent struggle the editors have in underlining a unifying theme in the general introduction. It is their "hope that these essays will serve to problematize some common distinctions that readers generally bring to the study of ancient Greek and Roman religion and its legacy" (p. xi). This use of neologisms is mercifully short-lived, yet, in their attempt to classify and connect the themes of the papers, the editors are forced into verbal and conceptual acrobatics in order to give an impression of continuity. A simple list of the themes covered will illustrate the nigh-impossible task of consolidating the wide variety of topics covered.

Under the heading "Ancient Religion, Self and Other", with the sub-heading "Greeks and Others", we see a paper illustrating how the tension arising in the Athenians' perception of themselves and foreigners is resolved in the cult of the Thracian goddess Bendis, while the second paper deals with the variation observed in statements by the oracle of Apollo at Claros regarding the causes and cures of the plague. The second sub-heading, "Roman Magic and Religion from Two Perspectives", itself indicative of a lack of a coherent theme beyond that announced in the title of the book, introduces papers on the perceived religious causes and consequences of the flooding of the Roman forum, and on the reaction of Jesuit missionaries to the religion of the Iroquois in the sixteenth century.

The second Part of the book, entitled "Man, Hero or God?", presents a greater degree of thematic unity. Two of the three papers in this section deal with aspects of individual deification, the first relating to portrayals of Augustus in Virgil and Horace, the second a comparison between Alexander the Great's religiosity and that of his mother, Olympias, with respect to the former's supposed ascent to godhood. The third introduces the figure of the hero in ancient cult, specifically Achilles as depicted in Philostratus' Heroikos.

The third and last part brings together papers on coins used as magical amulets in Late Antiquity, Early Byzantine marriage rings and the personification of lust in medieval cathedral sculptures. Although the editors manage to make coherent and interesting summaries of the papers in the course of the introduction, their struggle to link the various papers thematically reveals one of the main structural weaknesses of this book.

A related weakness is the often tangential relation of papers to the declared themes of the book, magic and religion. More often than not, the papers deal with one or the other of these, but not the interplay between them. An example of this can be found in Spencer Cole's article entitled "The Dynamics of Deification in Horace's Odes 1-3". It is a well-argued paper, possibly the best one of the collection, and contributes meaningfully to the debate surrounding the process of Octavian's divinisation as witnessed in the poetry of his time. It does not, however, mention anything to do with magic, and would therefore have been better suited to a collection or journal specifically devoted to the intersection between ancient religion, politics and culture. The same applies to the other two papers included in Part II of the book, neither of which deals with magic in any sense. The book's index confirms this: with but one exception, there are no recorded mentions of magic between pages 63 and 149 (almost half the book's length), although Mary Margaret Fulghum's well-constructed paper on coins used as amulets conceptually belongs under the heading of magic.

Another example of an outstanding paper which seems largely out-of-place in this collection is Amanda Luyster's novel interpretation of the image of the femme-aux-serpents image on the medieval cathedral at Moissac. The strength of this paper lies in the fact that it acknowledges its own limitations. The author concludes with the following significant qualification of her findings: "It is not possible to demonstrate outright that the porch [of the cathedral at Moissac] was designed with mothering in mind, but I have shown that there are valid reasons to believe that at least some of the porch's visitors might have understood the porch to address models of both the good and bad mother" (p. 191).

Such critical self-awareness is refreshing when compared to the misguided faith placed in other new ideas introduced in the book. The concept behind Kate Blair-Dixon's paper entitled "Magic, Dreams and Ritual in the Iroquois Conversion" is interesting and original: that the Jesuits interpreted religious contact with the "pagan" Iroquois through the world-view that they learned in their study of the early Christian Fathers. Yet the final product in the paper leaves much to be desired. The author simply strings together examples of "obstinacy", as interpreted by Jesuit missionaries, on the part of the Iroquois people whom the former were attempting to convert. Helpful editorial intervention could have halved the length of the paper without any real loss of content in terms of the development of the argument. Beyond problems of repetition and juxtaposition, several fairly important omissions occur which weaken the author's argument. In attempting to focus exclusively on the Jesuits' ideological links with Late Antiquity, the whole Medieval tradition of missionary activity as embodied most prominently by Thomas Aquinas' Summa contra haereticos, is neglected. Other issues of similar magnitude, such as comparisons with contemporary Jesuit missions to "pagan" communities in India and China, are also omitted. Finally, the name "Isidore of Seville" is misspelled twice in the same footnote.1

By comparison, most of the problems in other papers are minor, such as the occasional appearance of out-dated concepts and sources. One example of this is Zsuzsanna Várhelyi's use of the division between chthonian and Olympian divinities in her otherwise informative paper on the oracle at Claros. Another example appears in Ellen Bradshaw Aitken's paper on the cult of Achilles where she mentions the supposed decline in belief in traditional Greek gods during the period when Philostratus wrote his Heroikos (p. 133). In concluding her paper, the author also suddenly brings in the impact of this text on Christian communities, a topic never broached previously and somewhat out of place.

These shortcomings aside, many of the papers provide new insights into the topics they cover. In addition to the valuable papers mentioned above, Alicia Walker's careful critique of Vikan's ideas on the iconography of early Byzantine marriage rings is an excellent example of how old material can be fruitfully re-examined. Prudence J. Jones's paper establishes new connections between sacred space, the flooding of the Tiber and the changing topography of Rome as illustrated in Augustan poetry.

To conclude, this collection of essays contains several papers which are worthy of note, yet lacks any sense of conceptual consistency in spite of the editors' efforts at linking them under the single heading of "magic and religion". It will be a necessary addition to academic libraries, but casual readers interested in these topics would be better off consulting more general works which provide a clearer picture of the issues at hand.


1.   p.62, note 41. Issues of consistency of spelling occur elsewhere in the book: the name of an evil baby-killing demon is spelled "Gylou" on pp.142-143 and "Gyllou" on p.154.

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