BMCR 2000.03.27

The World of Ancient Magic. Papers from the first International Samson Eitrem Seminar at the Norwegian Institute at Athens 4-8 May 1997

, , , The World of Ancient Magic. Papers from the first International Samson Eitrem Seminar at the Norwegian Institute at Athens 4-8 May 1997. Bergen: The Norwegian Institute at Athens, 1999. 335.

Samson Eitrem was not only Norway’s most notable classicist, but also one of the great classical scholars of the twentieth century. In a publishing career of some seventy years he touched on a wide range of subjects, but his greatest contributions were to papyrology and the study of ancient religion and magic. In these fields he produced works of lasting value, characterized by wide learning, sound judgment, and emphasis on primary materials. At his death at the age of ninety-three in 1966, he left a lengthy but unfinished monograph on magic and divination in Greece and Rome. A small portion of this magnum opus appeared in English translation in 1991, and the whole work, it is to be hoped, will appear at some point in the future.1 Until that time, however, this fine volume of essays from a seminar held in his memory will serve as a fitting memorial to his work. As always with such volumes, the quality of the contributions varies somewhat, but the overall standard is high: all the pieces offer something of value, and several are excellent.

The volume opens with an entertaining reminiscence- cum -appreciation of Eitrem by Knut Kleve (15-19) and then proceeds to two papers that focus on the well-worn problem of defining magic. The first and longer of these, Jens Braarvig’s ‘Magic: Reconsidering the Grand Dichotomy’ (21-54), is the less successful. He begins with a plea for retaining ‘magic’ as useful category in scholarly investigation, with the proviso that we must be aware of how the term is being used. Braarvig outlines three different uses (self-definition, polemical definition, and scientific/historical definition) and then proceeds to discuss a number of particular cases ranging from Empedocles to theurgy. Although along the way he makes several striking and insightful observations, the essay as a whole is rather diffuse, and the conclusion is disappointing. Braarvig admits that most of the ancient evidence is polemical, and accordingly stresses the importance of the ‘magical’ papyri and the curse tablets, which, he says, ‘give evidence of what I would contend magic really is‘ (51, his emphasis). This appears to beg the question, however, especially since the authors of these texts rarely use the term ‘magic’ or its equivalents. What turns these texts into evidence for the self-definition of magic is in fact the scientific/historical or polemical definitions that have already been used to classify them as magic. This hermeneutic circle is of course one of the major problems in the study of magic, and it is hardly surprising that Braarvig is unable to break out of it; yet despite the sophistication of his analysis, he seems somewhat unaware of the extent to which he is caught in it.

The second essay to deal with the nature of magic is Einar Thomassen, ‘Is magic a subclass of ritual?’ (55-66). He begins with the classic definitions of magic and religion advanced by Frazer and Durkheim and goes on to note that the same scholars who are keen to mark off magic from religion also tend to dismiss ‘mere’ ritual: in both cases they privilege belief over action. He then examines the differences between ‘religious’ and ‘magical’ ritual, and argues that both types are simultaneously communicative and instrumental: the Frazerian dichotomy of coercion versus supplication simply does not hold true for ritual in general. He concludes by advancing a modified version of Durkheim and Mauss’ sociological analysis: magic is not merely unofficial and private, but is ‘the appropriation of ritual power for personal ends’ (65). Thomassen’s paper is excellent: concise, crystal clear, marked by striking insights and a sensitivity to complexity.

There follows the publication by Anastasios-Ph. Christidis, Sotiris Dakaris and Ioulia Vokotopoulou of five oracular tablets from Dodona that mention pharmaka, curses, or psychagagoi (67-72). Although the vast bulk of the Dodona tablets are unpublished, the authors note that approximately 1400 of them should soon appear: the selection here provides a very interesting preview of this material. The volume also contains the publication by David R. Jordan of three previously unpublished or poorly published curse tablets (115-24).

Emmanuel Voutiras, in ‘Euphemistic names for the powers of the nether world’ (73-82), focuses on the practice of addressing the corpses in whose graves curse tablets were placed by names that indicate power. He argues that these curses have a double aspect: the authors both treat the deceased as lifeless corpses while also placating them with these honorific names. The topic is an unusual and interesting one; Voutiras handles it with much learning, although his argument is at times rather unfocused.

Sarah Iles Johnston’s ‘Songs for the ghosts: Magical solutions to deadly problems’ (83-102), a condensed and modified version of material that appears in her recent book,2 is one of the standouts in the collection. Johnston argues that the goês was in the late archaic and classical periods primarily a specialist in dealings with the dead. The Greeks took over the idea of manipulating the dead through specialized techniques from Mesopotamian culture in the late archaic period, a time when communication with the dead was in their own culture becoming much more isolated from everyday life. Johnston’s argument is thorough and convincing, and her style clear and engaging; anyone in the future who works with the term goês will have to take her work into account.

In ‘Samson Eitrem and the death of Dido: A literary reappraisal of a magical scene’ (103-13), Egil Kraggerud elaborates on a study of Eitrem’s to argue that Vergil has modified the tradition of Dido’s death by adding the magical elements; these have the effect of turning her death into a sort of devotio, thereby adding force to her curses on Aeneas and his fate.

Hendrik S. Versnel, in ‘”Punish those who rejoice in our misery”: On curse texts and Schadenfreude‘ (125-162), begins with examples of pleas for the punishment of those who take pleasure in the misfortunes of others. He then proceeds to elaborate on the connections between gossip, mockery, the evil eye, magic, and injury: all of these, he argues, are forms of damage arising from secret malice, and were more easily conflated in Graeco-Roman culture than in our own. After some striking observations on a range of related topics, he concludes with the proposal that many curse tablets aim not only at the immediate stated goal, but also, secondarily, at causing loss of face among one’s enemies. As often with Versnel, this is not so much a tight argument aimed at proving a specific point as an exploration of previously unnoticed connections and parallels; as always, the results are rich and evocative.3

Matthew W. Dickie, ‘The learned magician and the collection and transmission of magical lore’ (163-93), is another of the outstanding pieces in the collection. He is concerned to trace the figure of the learned philosopher-magician as it emerged in the Hellenistic period and left its mark on late antique collections of esoteric lore, e.g. lapidaries and alchemical texts. At the core of his paper is the argument that behind the magi cited by the elder Pliny is the figure of Bolus of Mendes, who presented in his work the magico-medical traditions of Mesopotamia as the teachings of the magi; similar material exists in eighth-century BCE cuneiform texts from Babylon. Dickie’s argument is dense, and makes considerable demands on the reader but seems to me an important step in clarifying what at least some ancient writers meant when they used the term ‘magus’ and its cognates. I wonder, however, whether the distinction that Dickie makes between ‘learned’ and ‘practical’ magic was as sharp as he implies: he certainly suggests connections between the tradition he examines and the magical papyri, although the latter seem to fall into the category of ‘practical’ magic. It would be interesting to hear more on this topic, and to bring in work done on the notion of tradition in the papyri themselves.4

Jaime B. Curbera, ‘Maternal lineage in Greek magical texts’ (195-203), deals with a striking feature of later Greek magic: the designation of a person by the matronymic formula ‘whom so-and-so bore’. He rejects the idea that its purpose was simply to identify the person more securely; instead, he notes its probable Egyptian source and argues that it was originally adopted to make the spell seem more ‘Egyptian’ and thus more effective. Curbera makes his case cogently and with concision.

The evocation of Egypt continues with David Bain, ‘Melanîtis gê, an unnoticed Greek name for Egypt: New evidence for the origins and etymology of alchemy?’ (205-226). He convincingly argues that this very rare phrase, found only in Cyranides and in related texts, is a reference to Egypt, which the Egyptians themselves designated by a word meaning ‘the Black Land’ (transliterated into Greek as chêmia). This lends support to the hypothesis that the word ‘alchemy’ may go back to an esoteric Greek tradition in which alchemy was known as ‘the art of the Black Land’. Bain concludes with a useful postscript on the value of Cyranides as a source.

Siri Sande, ‘Famous persons as bringers of good luck’ (227-38), considers the significance of the portraits on contorniates, medallions distributed in Rome in the late fourth and early fifth century CE. She rightly plays down the notion that these were propaganda for the so-called ‘pagan revival’, and argues instead that the subjects were chosen for their associations with magic and good luck. She introduces some very interesting material, e.g. the naming of particular dice throws after famous authors, but the paper as a whole does not hang together well. That Vergil and Apuleius had associations with magic we might grant, but Terence and Sallust? Moreover, the connection between magic and good luck is very unclear, perhaps in part because she never examines the notion of ‘luck’.

In ‘”What’s in a list?” Listing in Greek and Graeco-Roman malign magical texts’ (239-77), Richard Gordon examines the use of lists in the request sections of curse tablets and the like. He argues that such lists are not simply neutral devices for gathering the information relevant to the curse, but deliberate rhetorical constructions that were ‘in themselves means of attaining the ends they propose’ (274); the use of columnar lists in curses from classical Athens, for example, alludes to publicly posted lists of deserters and others exposed to public shame. Gordon’s essay is stimulating and provocative, but to me, at least, somewhat opaque. In this respect it falls a little below the standard of his best work on magic, which, however, is very high indeed.5

Christopher A. Faraone’s very brief contribution, ‘The construction of gender in ancient Greek love magic’ (279-82), is a summary of the conclusion of his recent book.6 He sketches a taxonomy of Greek love magic, which he classifies into two classes: spells for philia, used by women on the husbands, and spells for eros, used by men to draw women away from families or spouses; deviations from these patterns cast light on gender relations. This piece is highly schematic, but sufficient to suggest the great interest of the arguments that he must develop in more detail in his book.

Fritz Graf, in ‘Magic and divination’ (283-98), asks why the close association of magic and divination became dominant in later antiquity, when it appears hardly at all before the imperial period. He argues that this is partly due to the tendency by Roman authorities to lump together magic, astrology and private divination. At the same time, however, the magical papyri themselves describe a variety of divinatory practices, a development that must be explained in other ways. Graf tends to talk in this paper as though ‘magic’ and ‘divination’ were two clearly defined things, which, as he himself points out, they were not. Consequently, I was uncertain whether his question was one of terminology, of techniques, of ethnic/cultural associations, or of political implications. Nevertheless, his discussion is as always learned, perceptive, and rewarding.

Signe Horn Fuglesang’s ‘Amulets as evidence for the transition from Viking to Medieval Scandinavia’ (299-314, including photographs) is the odd paper out, as much for its concern with material culture as for its very different chronological focus. She outlines four different types of amulets, and discusses the changes that these undergo during the period in question, partly under the influence of Christianity. Although I suspect it was the Norwegian content of this paper that led to its inclusion, it is valuable as a reminder of the breadth of ancient magic. Most of the papers in this collection are determinedly Greek in their focus, with forays back into the Near East and over to the Roman west. But there are occasional references, sometimes hidden away, to things beyond these horizons: a Punic curse tablet of the third century BCE from Carthage (128) and a Gaulish curse tablet of the first or second century CE from southern France (196 n. 2). It would have been good to have more of this sort of thing in a collection entitled The World of Ancient Magic, since that world was considerably wider than that of ancient Greek magic. But the fact that my chief criticism of this book concerns its title is an indication of its value. This is an excellent collection, and should certainly be consulted by anyone working on ancient magic and religion.


1. ‘Dream and Divination in Magic Ritual’, translated by D. Obbink and with a preface by F. Graf, in C. A. Faraone and D. Obbink, eds., Magika Hiera: Ancient Greek Magic and Religion (New York: Oxford University Press, 1991), 175-87.

2. Restless Dead: Encounters between the Living and the Dead in Ancient Greece (Berkeley and Los Angeles: University of California Press, 1999).

3. To the excellent bibliography might be added the important study of K. M. D. Dunbabin and M. W. Dickie, ‘Invida rumpantur pectora: The Iconography of Phthonos/Invidia in Graeco-Roman Art’, JAC 26 (1983), 7-37.

4. For example, H. D. Betz, ‘The Formation of Authoritative Tradition in the Greek Magical Papyri’, in E. P. Sanders et al., eds., Jewish and Christian Self-Definition (Philadelphia: Fortress Press, 1982), 3. 161-70; M. Smith, ‘The Eighth Book of Moses and How It Grew (P Leid. J 395)’, in M. Gigante et al., eds., Atti del XVII Congresso Internazionale di Papirologia (Naples, 1984), 2. 683-93 = idem, Studies in the Cult of Yahweh (Leiden: E. J. Brill, 1996), 2. 217-27.

5. Notably ‘Imagining Greek and Roman Magic’, in B. Ankarloo and S. Clark, eds., Witchcraft and Magic in Europe: Ancient Greece and Rome (Philadelphia: University of Pennsylvania Press, 1999), 159-275. Since Gordon is the author of one of the other great unpublished books on ancient magic, it is heartening to see listed as ‘forthcoming’ in the bibliography his Spells of Wisdom: Magical Power in the Graeco-Roman World.

6. Ancient Greek Love Magic (Cambridge, Mass.: Harvard University Press, 1999).