BMCR 1995.04.12

1995.04.12, Kotansky, Greek Magical Amulets

, Greek magical amulets : the inscribed gold, silver, copper, and bronze "Lamellae" : text and commentary. Abhandlungen der Nordrhein-Westfälischen Akademie der Wissenschaften. Sonderreihe Papyrologica Coloniensia, vol. 22. Opladen: Westdeutscher Verlag, 1994-. volumes 1 : illustrations ; 24 cm.. ISBN 9783531099361. DM 128.

Roy Kotansky’s precious volume of amulets from the late antique Mediterranean world has been long awaited, especially if one has followed his steady stream of publications releasing notable pieces from various collections. As vital documentation for popular or quotidian piety in the late antique world the volume takes its place among the increasing publications of “magical” texts in English, including Hans Dieter Betz’s edition of Greek Magical Papyri in Translation, including the Demotic Texts (Chicago 1986), which expands the corpus originally collected in Preisendanz’s Papyri graecae magicae; Gager’s selection of Curse Tablets and Binding Spells (New York 1992) from Audollent and more recent publications; and Meyer and Smith’s edition of “Coptic Texts of Ritual Power,”Ancient Christian Magic (San Francisco 1994). After generations of vague speculation on Jewish elements in such texts scholars can now make use of the exemplary editions of Jewish manuals, amulets, and “magic bowls” edited by Naveh and Shaked (Jerusalem 1985, 1993), Schiffman and Swartz (Sheffield 1992, with a particularly good introduction), and now Schäfer and Shaked (Tübingen 1994- ). Kotansky himself has been actively involved in these latter publishing endeavors, and his facility in moving among numerous corpora, languages, and traditions is quite evident in this volume.

Many of the new texts in the Betz volume are now collected in critical editions by Daniel and Maltomini in Supplementum Magicum I-II (Opladen 1990-92), Kotansky’s predecessor in the series P.Col. The series has now distinguished itself as the major publisher of critical editions of new texts in the field pioneered by Audollent and Preisendanz; and the format, which includes for each text an accurate drawing of the original, in most cases a photograph, a list of previous literature, commentary, and close attention to archaeological provenance and present state, improves on all those points where A. and P.’s anthologies were lacking. Indices of Greek and Latin words, sacred names, and voces magicae have immense value for tracing divinities and incantation-forms among the various corpora. The series allows for considerably less introductory analysis than can be found in Betz, Gager, Naveh/Shaked, Schiffman/Swartz, Meyer/Smith, and the older though equally important works on gems by Campbell Bonner and Delatte/Derchain. But in presenting the original materials in such clear format these volumes impel thinking about any number of issues concerning the use of amulets and spells in late antiquity.

Most of the “magical” texts that have been published consist of grimoires, handbooks for the preparation of rites and efficacious materials like amulets, or of “master-“spells that leave open the names of clients or victims by whose inclusion the spell would be customized. Now, like Gager, Kotansky has collected the amulets themselves, just as the grimoires instruct them to be prepared: inscribed on lamellae of diverse metals, often customized for particular clients, and fitted into a tube to be worn around the neck. Many of these amulets were found in precisely these “working” circumstances—some even around the neck of a corpse.

Kotansky presents this volume as containing “Published Texts of Known Provenance”. Some specimens have received recent treatment in other forums (including in the Supplementum Magicum), others have considerable publication histories, like #32, the “Phylactery of Moses,” or #13, the Antaura migraine spell made famous by A. A. Barb. But Kotansky appropriately sees fit to collect them anew to show the scope of the amulet genre in the ancient world. In this case the “Known Provenances” become one of the more interesting facets of the volume, as Kotansky’s specimens reflect the complex Greco-Roman cultures that had settled, negotiated misfortunes, and entombed their departed loved ones throughout Europe and the Near East. One encounters a Jewish amulet from Wales, an Egyptian divine name from York, England, and an invocation of Romulus from Hungary—hardly surprising, to be sure, from an historical perspective but nevertheless intriguing in the context of this collection.

The relative dating of these amulets, which mostly span the same second-to-fourth-century period observed for other magical texts, is derived most certainly from archaeological context when this is available (many amulets were found in situ in tombs, grave-sites, or houses), less certainly from paleography. The imprecision of letter-forms for rendering certain dates for specimens explains the many vague dates among the entries. Given that Kotansky often relies on the paleographical speculations of previous editors it might have been useful to justify this method of dating as it applies to the inscribing of lamellae of diverse metals.

Kotansky’s texts reveal a host of different functions, contexts in which amulets contributed to the negotiation of quotidian affairs in the ancient world. Among amulets to safeguard health appear those for migraine (#13), for eyesight (#53), and for gynecological disorders (#51). Two amulets seem to have been commissioned to aid in judicial enterprises (##7, 36). At least two protected homes and property from threats meteorological, human, and supernatural (##11, 41; cf. 61). Two were found in sanctuaries filled with votive dedications and seem to have functioned thus as offerings or votives of some sort (although the actual texts provide no clarity in this regard: ##44, 64). The largest number of amulets, of course, were meant to protect the wearer from various identifiable and inchoate threats—”every spirit and sicknesses,” as one specimen from the Crimea puts it (#66; cf. 38-39, 45, 24-25, 46, 52, 65).

But the specific circumstances of the amulets’ commission or manufacture—as the texts imply them—apparently did not exhaust the powers that their owners attributed to them. Many of these amulets followed their wearers into the tomb or the cremation jar still bound in their tubes around the neck. And while Kotansky includes several amulets that were designated explicitly for protection in the next world (##15, 23, 27), there is little relationship between the text of #36, which repels lawsuits, or of #41, which protects a home, and their presence on (or with) entombed corpses. One should conclude that amulets that had been commissioned for specific purposes (or most-feared dangers) came to represent for their wearers a multivalent protection, a sine qua non for every activity in life. And in the face of the liminal dangers of the afterlife passage (aptly discussed in connection with #27) this same amulet that had come to protect all aspects of life would now be considered crucial in death, the apotropaic token of the soul. The same “magic,” that is, would function throughout the life of the individual and across into death, as an extension of that individual.

The amulets reveal something of the social, ritual, and mechanical circumstances in which they were commissioned and prepared. One inevitably confronts the questions, Were they the products of professional “magicians,” shopkeepers, family-members, the owners, or minor literati? Was the preparation, inscription, or donning of the amulet conceived or enacted as a ritual act or in a purely perfunctory manner?

The use of legal phraseology in #58 may militate against the notion that freelance “magicians” were the singular purveyors of lamellae. In this case the craftsman might be “a court-clerk who had access to magical books containing formularies.” From this cogent proposition it is no large step to correct the entire, rather literary notion of the local wizard. For there was indeed a broad class of minor literati in the late antique and byzantine worlds who were capable of inscribing amulets and earning a solid additional income in this craft.

A typical spell-instruction (such as we find in the Greek, Coptic, or Hebrew magical papyri) includes a stated purpose (often with an authoritative pedigree to guarantee the spell), the ingredients, a time and place for performance, accompanying gestures, and the incantation itself, to which one adds the name of ritualist, client, victim, or other relevant individual at the indicated points. Instructions for amulet-preparation may be much more abbreviated than those for invoking otherworldly spirits, but the implications of a “ritual” context in such texts inspires the question whether these amulets too corresponded to the admonitions of lost grimoires. The most famous example of this correspondence between ritual instructions and materials is the Louvre “magical ensemble,” whose inscribed lead defixio and accompanying female figurine, punctured with nails, adhere closely to instructions in a fourth-century Theban grimoire for accomplishing an erotic binding ritual (PGM IV.296-435; cf. Martinez, P.Mich. XVI. A Greek Love Charm from Egypt [Atlanta 1991]).

But far from requiring an inevitably verbatim transcription of authoritative words, as many scholars assume, amulets are the functional interpretations of master-texts and grimoires. Some amulets seem to take and “freeze” a text meant rather for oral performance—an exorcistic adjuration (##35, 67-68), a litany of angelic powers (#52)—so as to function either as a concrete form of the efficacious utterance or, as Kotansky has himself argued in a separate essay, as a perpetual recitation of an initial logos or epoidê (“Incantations and Prayers for Salvation on Inscribed Greek Amulets,” in Faraone & Obbink, eds., Magika Hiera [New York 1991]). Three Christian exorcistic amulets (##35, 67-68) were quite likely prepared to seal the priest’s oral rite with the concrete representation of his speech.

One can detect the existence of some kind of textual “masters,” whether grimoires, looseleaf scraps, or some other kind of literary authority, behind many of these amulets. A long angelic invocation found in Lebanon (#52) “shows all the earmarks of a well-circulated and widely documented tractate that seemingly had an independent existence long before it found particular expression in the Beirut spell.” Amulets ##30 and 62 both closely resemble specific instructions in the Greek magical papyri, while ##32, 35, and 51 all preserve—in the text of the amulet—rubrics, pedigrees, or other features proper to the instructions in manuals. Amulet #51, for example, preserves ipsa … ipsa where the client’s name should have been inscribed. This retention of ritual instructions can often reflect mere carelessness on the part of the craftsperson. But in such cases as the long “Moses” spell in #32 it points to that quintessential tendency in religions to sacralize everything lying in proximity to sacred things: not only the efficacious words but the words that introduce them.

The manufacture of metal amulets involves their careful inscription and insertion into a metal tube to be worn around the neck. Kotansky discovered that the craftsmen would roll up the lamellae before inscribing them, to produce grid-lines that facilitated the orderly writing of text (cf. ##18, 32-33). The use of tubes for inscribed amulets must itself derive from Jewish and Egyptian traditions: wooden tubes for the apotropaic “decrees” of gods have been found in Late Period Egypt and both tefillin and mezuzot—select portions of holy scripture encased for ritual or protective purposes—seem to have been a staple of piety at Qumran by the early Roman period. But the tradition took on new aspects as it spread through the wider Roman world, and the precious metals that served as the amulets’ media were probably imbued with their own special power: one capsule found in the Crimea contained both a silver and a gold lamella (##65-66).

In their broad geographical representation the amulets offer access into the ways familiar Greco-Roman deities functioned in the quotidian domain, access that is at least as direct as inscriptions afford. Aphrodite grants favor and success along with love through wearing her secret names in a second-century CE specimen from Thessalonika (#40). The goddess Hygeia is invoked to repel illness-demons (#66); while a Jewish amulet from third/fourth-century Sicily specifies Artemis as the chief local danger, to be repelled with angels’ names (#33). A fertility amulet from third/fourth-century Nubia invokes Osiris, Horus, Anubis, and especially “Isis, queen of Denderah” according to ancient Egyptian historiolae, an indication of the vitality of the old priestly tradition in this time and place (#61).

Amulets from Jewish tradition show the particular influence of angel-names as a standard of apotropaic power. The names appear inevitably in lists, which are sometimes quite extensive and may point to a lively circulation of texts behind them. While some lists are too brief and typical to assume a literary source (the four archangels in #26, cf. #64), the complexity of ##33 and 41 suggests a dependence upon angelological formularies circulating in some form among the craftsmen (who may in this case be rabbis). Through marshalling lists that parallel a long invocation of angels of the cosmos (#52) Kotansky shows the manufacturer’s certain dependence upon a widely-circulating hierarchy. The proximity of the seven archangels in #48 to those of the ancient Jewish apocalypse the Book of the Watchers also makes a literary relationship quite certain. This important text, part of the apocryphal 1 Enoch corpus, was known throughout ancient Judaism and Christianity (notably to the author of Jude in the New Testament). The date of this amulet in the first century BCE would make it (or its source) important evidence of the early circulation of the Enoch tradition.

It is quite difficult to gauge actual belief-systems, convictions, or religious “affiliation” from the invocations in amulets, a useful corrective against those who would too easily draw facile religious distinctions in assessing late antique piety. The invocation of angels, for example, hardly distinguishes Jews, as the Greek-Hebrew specimen #56 demonstrates: the text refers only to God’s creative word as a healer of fever and pain. The long invocation of cosmic angels in #52 has appended to it a brief plea to “One God and his Christ”; whether an afterthought or a customization this appendix is certainly proof that a Christian client depended upon a “magic” that was essentially Jewish.

Amulets such as ##35, 45, and 53 are clearly Christian, but their direct invocations of Christ and allied powers contrasts with a perhaps more typical form of Christian amulet, the gospel incipit, psalm, or scripture-passage written on papyrus, leather, or wood and worn as a phylakterion. In a 1987 study E. A. Judge showed that most published Greek fragments of Jewish and Christian scripture may actually have served talismanic functions (“The Magical Use of Scripture in the Papyri,”Perspectives on Language and Text [Winona Lake, IN]). Turned around, this observation suggested that a, if not the, primary appeal of Christianity in antiquity was its mastery of magical scripture. But at some point, in some regions, the “scriptural” element of Christian amulet tradition gave place to a mythological element: the pantheon of Christian powers. The Christian lamellae reveal a culture in which the figure of Christ and not the sacred text was the all-purpose power (cf. the vineyard-fertility tablets published by Jordan, GRBS 25 [1984]:297-302).

Kotansky has succeeded masterfully in assembling this invaluable resource for late antique religious life. His commentaries include penetrating name- and word-derivations, especially important for discerning the pervasive Egyptian and Hebraic legacy in spells. His achievements in demonstrating specific sources and literary contexts include not only the angelic lists but the systematic deployment of specific biblical passages, in one case drawn specifically from the Aquila translation (#32; cf. 56). Kotansky’s volume makes a necessary addition to the growing corpus of ancient magical texts and a heady standard for future contributions to it.