Bryn Mawr Classical Review

Bryn Mawr Classical Review 2008.04.29

Kimberly Stratton, Naming the Witch: Magic, Ideology, and Stereotype in the Ancient World.   New York:  Columbia University Press, 2007.  Pp. xv, 289.  ISBN 978-0-231-13836-9.  $45.00.  

Reviewed by Patrick Maille, Oklahoma Panhandle State University (
Word count: 1981 words

Kimberly Stratton offers an analysis of how magic in the ancient world was connected to authority and power as an element of cultural discourse. The ability of the culturally powerful to label their critics and challengers with the pejorative term of magic played a significant role in maintaining the status quo. Over the period of time examined in the book, from Classical Greece to Late Antiquity, the strategies of discourse associated with the process of stigmatization with magic developed and adapted to several cultural contexts. Universal definitions and explanations of magic are rejected, and local factors are emphasized.

Stratton provides four chapters that examine four different cultural contexts. After an initial chapter which focuses on "Magic, Discourse and Ideology," the author moves chronologically and geographically through four more chapters. Those chapters are: "Barbarians, Magic, and Construction of the Other in Athens," "Mascula Libido: Women, Sex, and Magic in Roman Rhetoric and Ideology," "My Miracle, Your Magic: Heresy, Authority, and Early Christianities," and "Caution in the Kosher Kitchen: Magic, Identity, and Authority in Rabbinic Literature." There is also an epilogue entitled "Some Thoughts on Gender, Magic, and Stereotyping."

The author is not concerned with making an attempt to provide a history of ancient magic but, rather, wishes to "reveal magic's role as a discursive practice, which mediates power and social identity in specific ancient contexts (18)." This practice itself does indeed have a history, and it is very well articulated by Stratton. Efforts to construct a universally applicable definition of magic, however, are seen by the author as diverting attention from the local factors that shape how magic is deployed as a discursive element in the construction of what made power legitimate or illegitimate. Her approach is illuminating and her arguments effective, making the book a valuable scholarly contribution at a number of levels. The book will be useful to undergraduate and graduate students or to anyone interested in the history of magic as it relates to gender, authority, religion and other social or cultural contexts. The bibliography alone makes it a worthwhile acquisition for the scholar of magic in the ancient or late ancient world.

The opening chapter provides what one would expect to see in such a book. There is a discussion of the relevant terminology and historiography. Stratton spends nearly four pages addressing the definitional breadth of the term magic. Given the fact that she is examining Greek, Latin, and Hebrew primary sources, there is a significant amount of background to be distilled and summarized. This is done effectively but in a cursory fashion, with adequate notes provided should further material be desired. The relevant terms to be used later in the book are introduced and explained in a manner that will prevent those with little background in the field from becoming lost and will assure experts of the author's familiarity with the literature of the field. Questions related to the linkages between gender and power are raised to provide the context for the remaining chapters.

Stratton sees Classical Greece as the time and place where a discourse of magic emerged in which "Othering" was developed through association with "effeminate treachery, subversion, and oriental barbarism (44)." By the fourth century B.C.E. magic was fully established as a marginalizing device. Euripides' Medea and Sophocles' Trachiniae are used to illustrate the association of magic with gender inversion in Greek tragedy. Women are perceived as dangerous and associated with magic in circumstances where the sexual conduct of women could threaten men's honor and civic identity. Aspects of Greek Tragedy are also linked to the citizenship laws of Pericles to portray magic as a tool in the discourse of alterity implemented for the purpose of containing women within the Athenian culture of masculine control and xenophobia.

Just as Pericles' citizenship laws were used to maintain a strong sense of identity in the face of internal and external challenges associated with magic, so too were the marriage laws of Augustus. Augustus' marriage laws reflect a conservative desire to maintain order and the institution of family in a manner that perpetuates the imperial institutions in the face of perceived threats from powerful women. Stratton sees in first century Rome a fear of women with economic or social independence being linked to portrayals of sexually predatory, often older, women. Cleopatra is only discussed briefly in this context and should have been given a more thorough examination. The author does note that Plutarch suggested she used magic to manipulate Marc Antony. Interestingly, the same stereotype of the sexually aggressive woman as a threat to society was used as much in critiques of imperial power as it was in assertions on behalf of imperial power. Tacitus' Annals are used as source material for powerful women and their use of magic and poisoning to show that "wicked women" such as Livia or Agrippina were examples of the excesses of imperial rule.

Stratton may surprise readers in her examination of early Christianities. She sees early Christian writers, such as Origen and Irenaeus, adding a new dimension to the gendered stereotypes of magic by demonizing male leaders of (what would later be called) heretical sects by asserting that such men used magic in order to seduce foolish women into joining heretical communities. Such a tactic represents a shift from targeting women to targeting men. However, Stratton sees this trend as coming to an end by the third century once Christianity gained some status in Roman society. In asserting that early Christian leaders directed their accusations chiefly at men, she points out that such a strategy drew upon the pre-existing issues of true versus false prophets as well as attitudes about false claims to magic. For background on these topics the author examines Apuleius' Metamorphoses and the magoi in the gospel of Matthew. Stratton demonstrates the linkages between social authority and claims of magic or miraculous power being associated with Christian leaders.

The association of supernatural power and legitimate Christian authority is given consideration in the author's examination of Luke's Acts chapter 19. Christians and Jews are differentiated when itinerant Jewish exorcists are unable to effectively wield the power of the name of Jesus because demons will not recognize their authority since they are not actual followers of Jesus. The arch-heretic Simon Magus is seen in similar terms. His magic, however, dealt with internal rather than external challenges to authority and status. If a group was linked to Simon Magus, they would be established as guilty by association, and we see this tactic taken in Irenaeus' attack against heretical groups.

Irenaeus is also used as an example where Roman gender norms are perpetuated by the Church, while heretical groups are portrayed as violating such norms. Irenaeus' discussion of Marcus as a false prophet is given in a manner that portrays Irenaeus' Church as defending the honor of women through its value of chastity. This is contrasted with claims that women supporters of Marcus have been duped and seduced. A similar point is made using an example from Hippolytus' Refutation with a woman named Helena who was the servant of Simon Magus. The women in these examples are portrayed along the lines of Roman gender stereotypes as passive and ignorant while, simultaneously, a sense of honor is claimed for the Church which, like a patriarchal family, protects women from the dangers of the world.

Stratton's examination of Origen's responses to the Christian critic Celsus lead her to the well established conclusions that there is a significant gray area between the terms magic and miracle and, further, that Christians could be seen as practitioners of a fraudulent type of magic in the eyes of outsiders. She asserts, however, that Christian writers did not portray women as evil and as practitioners of magic. Instead, they portrayed males in the role of evil seducers. She goes on to claim that first and second century Christian discourse on the topic of magic marginalized women, not by associating them with magic but by ignoring them and thereby reducing their significance in relation to males.

Christian apologists such as Justin Martyr and Tertullian are examined to show the beginnings of a radicalized dimension to the discourse about magic that would become entrenched after Christian ascendancy. These Christian apologists associated the pagan deities with demons and associated all magic with demonic aid. Further, in the context of Christian dualism, all magic would inevitably be seen as demonic. The ability of Church leaders to effectively label groups and individuals that they opposed as practitioners of magic would have enormous consequences by the medieval period.

Her examination of the rabbinic literature is interesting and strengthens her assertion that cultural differences are clearly seen in the variety of ways that the discourse of magic was used to marginalize groups and negotiate power, authority, and status. She notes the ambivalence of magic relative to the Babylonian Talmud. It could connote divine power or subversive danger. Several anecdotes show that Rabbis could be adept at magic and that magic could be studied in order to be understood, but such studies were not seen as condoning the practice of magic.

Magic is particularly represented as evil when associated with a lack of piety or with heretical movements. Two anecdotes where the name of Jesus is used are given to show that Rabbis recommended death before pursuing any benefit from heretical magic.

Stratton notes differences between Babylonian or Eastern sages and Palestinian sages in the rabbinic literature. The former are presented in a manner that emphasizes the link between knowledge and power, while the latter are represented as emphasizing the link between piety and power. The author also examines the influences of Greco-Roman culture on the Palestinian Rabbis, claiming that they developed a moderate renunciation of worldliness that stood in contrast to Christian asceticism.

Stratton offers an interesting examination of women, magic and food in the Jewish culture of Late Antiquity. "As the [post-Temple] Rabbis asserted their role as arbiters of religious law and practice, food became a central symbol of their influence and power (172)." Stratton then draws on the work of Mary Douglas to show that the human body represents the social body in terms of taboos and power. Sharp social distinctions are made as a function of dietary restrictions. These distinctions can be between leaders and members of a community, but they can also draw distinctions between insiders and outsiders of a community. The authority of men, which was symbolized and ritualized in the context of food preparation and consumption, overlapped with the sphere of women as the agents of preparation. Consequently, an area of potential conflict was created and the desire to strengthen control over women was increased. Stratton contends that rabbinic sources of feminine magic are frequently associated with food.

In discussing the differences between Babylonian and Palestinian Judaism in Late Antiquity, the author asserts that different cultural contexts result in different conceptions of magic. The same applies to examinations of Greek, Roman, and Early Christian magic. Her point is that magic is "socially constructed, local, and dynamic (176)." She rejects any universal explanations or "metanarratives" for magic. As to the consistent targeting of women with the accusation of magic, Stratton concurs with Sherry Ortner (Sexual Meanings: The Cultural Construction of Gender and Sexuality) in asserting that, when the status and honor of men is dependant on how they control or dominate women, the loss or reduction of that control results in more aggressive techniques of dominance. Magic comes into play at such points.

Naming the Witch is a well argued, well constructed book that can be highly recommended. It sheds a great deal of light on the cultural context of magic in ancient societies as well as on the evolving meaning of magic within those cultures. Its treatment of gender is effectively connected to the issues of power, status, and authority with which magic and its discourse are so strongly associated.

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