Bryn Mawr Classical Review

BMCR 2018.10.09 on the BMCR blog

Bryn Mawr Classical Review 2018.10.09

Emilio Suárez de la Torre​, Miriam Blanco, Eleni Chronopoulou, Isabel Canzobre (ed.), Magikè téchne: formación y consideración social del mago en el Mundo Antiguo. Colección Clásicos Dykinson​.   Madrid:   Editorial Dykinson, 2017.  Pp. 259.  ISBN 9788491484318.  €23,75.  ISBN 9788491485230.  ebook.  

Reviewed by Florian Audureau, Paris-Diderot (

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[Authors and titles are listed at the end of the review.]

As its title makes clear, this volume of collected essays continues along the path which Magika hiera1 opened more than thirty years ago in the history of ancient magic. In doing so, it gives a fresh boost to novel approaches and suggests new themes for studying what was once labelled ‘magic’. Indeed, the collected papers of this international symposium held in Barcelona no longer search for a distinctive criterion between magic and religion. On the contrary, taking for granted that our categories are social constructs, the authors aim not to define the practices and their boundaries, but to examine how ritual knowledge and the acquisition of ritual skills were socially constructed. They therefore raise an important question with regard to the transmission of religious practices: how does one become a ritual expert and how do experts and their clients interact? Knowledge and techniques have to be considered within their social context and placed into a communicative dynamic. The attention is drawn to the relation of the expert to his peers or to the texts and practices which convey ritual expertise. If, indeed, neither magic nor the status of the magician are given, what remains to be understood is how expertise and authority were obtained.

The book is divided into two parts. The first set of papers deals with the intellectual context in a broad sense (religious, philosophical, social and cultural). The papers use very diverse documentation and rely mainly on philological sources. The second part, entitled “aprendizaje, transmisión y presentación de la operación mágica: entre el misterio, la técnica y la ciencia” focuses on the papyrological evidence from the PGM.2 In order to present the main argument of each of these rich studies, I will use a more precise grouping in the following.

1. Blurred boundaries between magic, philosophy and religion

Núria Torras (pp.15-32) opens the book with a study on the functions of an Egyptian temple priest, the w‘b priest of Sekhmet. As other scholars have already shown,3 Egyptian religious practice cannot be distinguished from magic. This priest had multiple responsibilities, some of them being medical or political, others concerning sacrificial norms, and the healing of animals.

Even though the name magos has been used in a polemical sense since classical antiquity to label certain ritualists and their practices as outside of the religious norms, the word could also be used with a positive meaning, as Marco Antonio Santamaría (pp.33-46) demonstrates in studying three instances of this term (Gorgias Hel. 10; Derveni papyrus col. VI; Plato Symp. 202d-203d).4

Giulia Sfameni Gasparro’s paper (pp.47-64) starts with a famous episode of the Life of Plotinus: the meeting of the Neoplatonic philosopher with an Egyptian priest in the Isaeum of Rome. It ends with an other famous document: the hermetic prayer of the Mimaut papyrus (PGM III, 595-611), whose text is also conserved in the Latin Asclepius and the Coptic codices of Nag Hammadi. The author intends to highlight a “dimensione ‘sapientiale’” (p.61) in ancient magic, a challenging suggestion that departs from the common view. However, Sfameni Gasparro sometimes merges sources of very different nature. To what extent, for example, is the discourse of Kalasiris in a Greek novel, whose author remains unknown (Heliodorus, Aithiop. III, 16) (p.59) relevant for a social consideration of magic? This character is clearly a philosophical construct framed into a narrative. In any case, the portrayal of Kalasiris cannot be used on the same level as other types of evidence.

2. Ritual communication and knowledge

a. Secret and initiation
For Attilio Mastrocinque (pp.65-74), magic was a job, and initiation had become a way of becoming a professional after the older way of familial transmission had been lost. Moreover, it allowed the transfer of religious practices from one social milieu to another. The author focuses on the transmission of a spirit during gnostic thanksgiving rites occurring after a prophecy was given.

Eleni Pachoumi (pp.149-158) provides a case study of seven texts from the PGM in order to shed light on the magic- mysteries assimilation (PGM I, 42-195; XII, 14-95; IV, 2476-2483 and 2592; IV, 1596-1715; VII, 643-651; VIII, 1-63).5 Although it is a useful study, she fails to completely convince the reviewer. Indeed, the terms magic and mystery are used interchangeably in the PGM. But what this assimilation exactly means remains to be answered. The ‘mystery’ category in Late Antiquity is ambiguous and used in many different contexts. Pachoumi is correct that a ‘mysterization’ of the discourse on religious ceremonies occurs during the Roman period, but this does not always imply a transformation of ritual practices.

Emilio Suárez de la Torre (pp.113-147) examines the training of magicians, their group identity, and their relation to their customers using the PGM as evidence. In contrast to interpretations of PGM that view the corpus either from an Egyptian or Greek perspective, he rightly advocates an independent analysis which takes into account the unique features of this corpus and the peculiarities of each document. After discussing the theoretical framework, this detailed study stresses the contradictions between the transmission of magic, its public uses and confidentiality or secrecy.

b. Writing, drawing, carving
Mariangela Monaca (pp.159-176) and Isabel Canzobre Martínez (pp.177-192) focus their attention on the technical skills of magic. They use two complementary methods. Martínez offers a “magical amulets users’ guide,” which includes a typology of amulets and describes material, graphical and pragmatic aspects in making and using an amulet. She concludes her study with some considerations on the marketplace of magic: the magician had to reconcile two contradictory requirements in selling amulets: being innovative and maintaining professional secrecy. Monaca’s paper is dedicated to a single ritual (Pity’s spell, PGM IV, 2006-2139). She analyses the uses of drawings and amulets, and compares them with the iconographical elements contained in magical gems. The results should now be compared with the extensive and fascinating study on amulets published by Faraone this year.6

Alberto Nodar Domínguez (pp.215-224) provides a paleographical analysis of magical handbooks. One would expect that these texts were written by trained scribes, but Domínguez demonstrates that “slow writers”, i.e. non-expert writers, were numerous. This, of course, provides important evidence for a better understanding of the textual transmission of magic.

c. Astrology
Aurelio Pérez Jiménez (pp.75-94) presents an overview of the connection between magic and astrology. In the first part of his paper, he briefly focuses on famous teachers of magic and astrology, such as Zoroaster, Hermes, Thessalus and Salomon, and also mentions the medieval Picatrix. In the second part, he analyses four documents to illustrate the connection (PGM VII, 284-300; Codex Additicius 17900 (XVIIth c.); Catalogus Codicum Astrologorum Graecorum IX.2, pp.141-149 (=C. Holkham 290, XVth c.); and Codex Vaticanus Reg. Lat. 1283 fol. 36v (XIIIth c.)). One wonders, however, to which extent we can rely on these medieval sources – some of them being translations from Arabic (Picatrix, C. Vaticanus) – to uncover the exact relation between magic and astrology during late Antiquity? A thorough analysis of the PGM may give another view on the topic.
d. Greek poetry
Not only technical skills were required for magic but also cultural and literary competence. Michela Zago (pp.193-214) offers a study on the Egyptian Homer and the Graeco-Egyptian interaction in magical practices. To describe the place of Homer in magic, she speaks of “osmosi culturale” and a “ tradizione omerica tipicamente egiziana (p.209).

3. A gender study of ancient magic and its transmission

In the PGM, it is often assumed that the magicians were men, while the literary sources link magic with women and offer a rather disparaging view of witches. Miriam Blanco Cesteros (pp.95-110) challenges this paradox and underlines the redoubling of this stereotype (first, it is gender-based and, second, magic is a discourse on otherness). She compares literary texts with non-literary documents in order to get a better understanding of the social place of witches. The most interesting part of her contribution evokes some cases where the text is addressed to a “daughter” (θυγάτηρ) (PGM IV, 478; Cyr. prol. 1-5, 30-31 Kaimakis) or more often to a “child” (τέκνον) (being neutral, the Greek word can refer to both a boy and a girl) (pp.106-109). Instead of assuming that women received magical knowledge only through oral transmission, Blanco Cesteros convincingly argues that women could engage with learned magical knowledge, and she supports her argument by referring to female philosophers of the theurgical tradition (Sosipatra and Asclepigeneia).

4. Economical insight on magical practices

To date the economical aspects of magical practices have received limited scholarly attention.7 Eleni Chronopoulou’s original contribution (pp.225-233) is an attempt to analyze some ingredients (wine, olive, honey, papyrus) from an economical perspective. Given the cost and scarcity of these materials, she concludes, the magicians had to live in an urban milieu and the customers had to be sufficiently wealthy to pay for these imported products.

Authors and titles

1.- Núria Torras, Funciones y habilidades del sacerdote puro de Sekhmet: rituales mágicos en el contexto del templo
2.- Marco Antonio Santamaría, Valoración positiva de los magos y la magia en testimonios griegos de época clásica (Gorgias, papiro de Derveni y Platón)
3.- Giulia Sfameni Gasparro, Il mago e i suoi clienti: rivelazione di saperi, epifania divina e arte magica
4.- Attilio Mastrocinque, Teaching magic. Simon the Magus and the spirit
5.- Aurelio Pérez Jiménez, La astrología como parte del curriculum del mago grecolatino
6.- Miriam Blanco, Women and the transmission of magical knowledge in the greco-roman world. Rediscovering ancient witches (II)
7.- Emilio Suárez de la Torre, La formación del mago: el testimonio de los papiros mágicos del egipto grecorromano
8.- Eleni Pachoumi, The magicians and their assimilation with the initiated into the mysteries in the Greek magical papyri from Greco-Roman Egypt
9.- Mariangela Monaca, A scuola di magia. Gli strumenti del mago tra papiri e gemme: rileggendo PGM IV 2006-2139
10.- Isabel Canzobre, Magical amulets user’s guide: preparation, utilization and knowledge transmission in the PGM
11.- Michela Zago, L’apprendimento poetico: ricordando Omero
12.- Alberto Nodar, El aprendizaje y la escritura de la magia
13.- Eleni Chronopoulou, De economía mágica


1.   Dirk Obbink and Christopher A. Faraone (dirs.), Magika hiera: Ancient Greek Magic and Religion, Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1991.
2.   Karl Preisendanz (ed.), Papyri graecae magicae: die griechischen Zauberpapyri, 2 vols., Leipzig; Berlin: Teubner, 1928.
3.   For a similar argument, see e. g. Joachim Friedrich Quack, « La magie au temple », in Yvan Koenig (dir.), La magie en Égypte : à la recherche d’une définition, Paris: Documentation Française, 2002, pp.41 68.
4.   For a different view of the Derveni papyrus, see Radcliffe G. Edmonds III, « Extra‐Ordinary People: Mystai and Magoi, Magicians and Orphics in the Derveni Papyrus », Classical Philology 103 / 1, 2008, pp.16 39.
5.   On the same topic, see Hans Dieter Betz, « Magic and Mystery in the Greek Magical Papyri », in Christopher A. Farone, Dirk Obbink (dirs.), Magika Hiera, op. cit. , pp.244 259; Fritz Graf, « The Magician’s Initiation », Helios 21 / 2, 1994, pp.161 177. Thomas Galoppin’s communication and mine during a recent international symposium on mysteries at Paris should be mentioned also.
6.   Christopher A Faraone, The transformation of Greek amulets in Roman imperial times, Philadelphia: University of Pennsylvania Press, 2018.
7.   See Lynn R. LiDonnici, « Single-Stemmed Wormwood, Pinecones and Myrrh: Expense and Availability of Recipe Ingredients in the Greek Magical Papyri », Kernos 14, 2001, pp.61 91.

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