BMCR 2000.10.24

Witchcraft and Magic in Europe. Ancient Greece and Rome

, , Ancient Greece and Rome. Witchcraft and magic in Europe. Philadelphia: University of Pennsylvania Press, 1999. xvi, 395 pages : illustrations ; 23 cm.. ISBN 0812235177. $24.95 (pb).

“People everywhere are concerned about the same things: health, wealth, good looks, favorable marriage, children, protection from dangers or disasters.” Georg Luck’s statement (105) explains the demand, and witches and magicians supply the product. This collection of four essays is part of a series whose scope is indicated in the title. The period surveyed in this volume extends from Homer to Augustine, well over a thousand years. The scattered nature of the evidence (geographically and chronologically), the hostility of many of the sources (esp. Christian), the uncertain nature of much of the archaeological data, and the difficult philological and interpretive problems posed by producers and operators, either sub-literate or secretive or both, make a comprehensive presentation into a daunting task.

The contributors, in order (although the reason for this order is not apparent), are Daniel Ogden (University of Wales, Swansea), Georg Luck (Johns Hopkins), Richard Gordon (no affiliation listed), and Valerie Flint (University of Hull). The first and third contributions have helpful bibliographical essays, and the entire volume has a comprehensive bibliography, although no index was provided in the page proofs that I reviewed (nor were the referenced illustrations included). I trust that the authors (hardly the press) caught the review copy’s many crude misprints present in the bound proofs. Therefore, I won’t trouble the reader with my list.

Ogden examines “Curse tablets and voodoo dolls,” an archaeological topic founded by the pathbreaking works of R. Wuensch (1897) on Attic materials, A. Audollent (1904) on other Greek and Latin materials, and K. Preisendanz (1928-31) on magical papyri (mostly from Egypt), and continued by recent publications of D. Jordan, C. Faraone, and R. Tomlin for the peculiar Bath material. Over 1,600 tablets are already known and more appear as excavators learn what to look for.

Ogden surveys “binding spells” (probably called katadesmoi and defixiones) on lead tablets, lamellae (often rolled and “bound,” sometimes nailed), and on amulets, etc., and examines spells associated with anthropomorphic objects (made of clay, mud, metal). He is scrupulously informative about the studies that he has consulted. He discusses twistedness (the curses, the spell, and the request). He examines development through time (when a date can be established) of spells for five categories: love (separation and attraction; one quarter of the total, chiefly men chasing women), for athletic competitions, for litigation or trade (esp. innkeepers), and “prayers for justice” (more humble requests for restitution of stolen goods, often quite ordinary like a cloak or bowl). He discusses deposition sites such as graves and wells (underground water seems to have been an especially communicative medium) . Literary texts are provided when suitably parallel (e.g., Plato, Vergil, Apuleius).

Ogden discusses the powers addressed, commonly Demeter, Mercury, or the mysterious Iao. He is noncommittal on how professionalized the business of “binding spells” became (cf. the comparatively early source, Plato Rep. 364b, Laws 933a), rightly so since anyone with some literacy could bury his/her own. He thinks the magicians saw themselves as “countercultural.” He presents evidence for “pre-inscribed tablets to sell off the peg.” Tablets without any writing at all are known from the Bath Sacred Spring. Gender and Class (slaves) receive attention, and the noteworthy observation is made that the archaeological evidence seems to be at serious variance with the literary portraits of binders and witches (summarized 62-63; see below on Luck).

The dolls, voodoo-ish or not, are made of clay, mud, wool, dough, or wax. They too are found in various venues, often encased or inscribed and sometimes mutilated or penetrated, although Ogden finds this last fact less probative of male misogyny than Faraone or his teacher Winkler did in the case of the Louvre female with 13 needles driven into her orifices and limbs (66). He draws a parallel with Vergil’s Dido’s burning of a bust of Aeneas with his belongings, a ritual that combines erotic attraction and destructive cursing ( Aen. 4.508-640; p.75). Similarly, Horace combines erotic and necromantic rites with dolls in one of his Canidia stories ( Sat. 1.8; Ep. 5, 17). One might add that Apuleius’ Charite practices rituals before Dionysiac images of her untimely deceased husband. These idols may be relevant to his sudden return as a dream-spectre ( Metam. 8.7). Animals are sometimes killed so that the operator can activate the curse-tablet or images. The force of this magical practice is somehow connected to the worldwide religious practice of animal sacrifice. Sometimes the dolls themselves are deliberately broken.

Ogden hesitates to assign Near Eastern origins to Greek practices but mentions Egyptian, Babylonian, and Jewish parallels. He is noncommittal about whether the magic “worked,” and unsure, without adequate discussion, of just what such a question could mean. (Gordon has a more sophisticated conceptual framework.) He clearly establishes the importance of magical texts for scholars working in the fields of religion and gender and pleads for the scholarly demarginalization of these often illegal practices occurring on the social margins.

Luck surveys “witches and sorcerers in classical literature,” a topic on which he has written well before ( Arcana Mundi 1985). He acknowledges recycling. This volume, however, seems pitched at the same audience of advanced undergraduate students. A glossary of relevant Greek and Latin terms is provided. It is odd to call Apuleius’ autobiographical court-pleading, on which his life depended, “a fairly well balanced account” (98). Gordon’s take (200) is properly more cautious.

The magician as “crisis manager, an all-purpose therapist” (H. Betz’s phrases), seems an odd introduction to the imaginary literary vignettes of Circe (a divine singleton here), Medea, Deianeira, Moses, Orpheus, Simaetha, Dido, Canidia, Erictho, Pamphile, Heliodorus’ Bessan necromancer, and even the historical, if grossly caricatured, Alexander from Pontine Abonuteichus. The description better fits Apollonius of Tyana or Jesus and Simon Magus, and it certainly suits the “backwoods” sorcerers of PGM (Betz’s own topic). Luck is more persuasive in his section on Apollonius (130-37) claiming that Philostratus (our main source) shows Apollonius to have been a magos not a philosopher, despite his clear intentions. But, as Gordon iterates (178-82), the category of magic has no fixed denotation beyond “the dream of power” in a world where some men and women are endowed with unusual “crafts.”

Nigidius Figulus, a scholarly friend of Cicero’s and an occultist, shadowy savant though he be, belongs to a different category and problem for the history of magic. Luck says too little about this multi-talented(?) “Pythagorean” astrologer known to Varro and mentioned by Gellius as second only to Varro and by Apuleius ( Apol. 42.7; cf. E. Rawson, Intellectual Life in the Late Roman Republic [1985]). I might note here that the cumulative bibliography includes R. MacMullen’s Enemies of the Roman Order (1966) but ignores Paganism in the Roman Empire (1981) and his other publications relevant to the location of ancient witch practices.

One may question Luck’s undifferentiated prosopography of channelers and the undifferentiated genres of the sources. Horace’s satirical portrait of Canidia and the “Apocryphal” Acts of Peter (or the fourth-century Syriac so-called Clementine Recognitions) have different audiences and purposes—although all can be entertaining: Priapus farts, Peter resurrects a smoked(!) tuna fish, and Simon Magus levitates, flies a spell, but soon crashes, after which he dies and fails to resurrect as promised. Luck recognizes this problem (133) but fails to act on the awareness. Luck includes some good, not well known, later passages from the neo-Platonist Plotinus, the theurgists Proclus and Maximus of Ephesus, and the Christian bishop Sophronius. He appropriately notes in closing that the Roman Catholic church still requires two attested miracles for canonization as Saint.

Flint ponders “Christian redefinitions of pagan religions” in “The Demonisation of Magic and Sorcery.” This wisely more limited essay studies the alteration (for the worse, arguably) both of the concept of daimon and of the emergent monotheism’s institutional, ideological, and imperialistic need to dishonor, disprove, and disestablish “older, looser” supernatural exercises and the pagan powers that they served in worship. Sources of “salutary fear” were refashioned for specifically Christian purposes. She shows that it was more profitable for Christianity to capture, tolerate, and incorporate the demons, practices, operators, and their followers than to extirpate them (if that were possible). Collision was followed by compromise that “allowed much pagan ‘magic’ to survive and …be condoned” (280). Little evidence survives from the losing, elided side.

Good and bad daimones filled the Greek world from Homer to Plato and beyond ( Symp. 202e, Apul. Apol. 43), sometimes helpful, sometimes the source of fear or evil (Plut. Brut. 36.3-4). They were spirit-bridges and Neo-Platonists and Theurgists both contributed Greek ideas and psychology to the new Christian system (288, e.g., Euseb. Dem. Evang. 3.6, 5) that inherited only ubiquitous bad “devils” from its Palestinian monotheistic theological matrix (293-95) and rarely finds a neutral term for such spirits (perhaps, Acts 17:22-23, 25:19). Eventually, Augustine refashioned the Hebrew angels to serve as the useful good demons that paganism had once enjoyed. They were too useful to suppress utterly. Signs and wonders were expected, as testify both canonical and non-canonical gospels of Jesus and the popular Peter-Simon Magus contest literature (300). The heresiologists credited Samaritan Simon with real marvels as well as fraudulent (if effective) illusions. For triumphant and exultant Christianity, Simon emblematizes false claims of messiahship and failed pagan magic and witchcraft (303).

Flint emphasizes the role of Gnostic dualism, secrecy, and beliefs in evil demons (even Yahweh! 299). The Christian assault on Gnosticism required condemnation of many mysteries, magics, and defenses along with their “scruffy racketeers” (307). All the creeds and rites sought (and seek) “right access to the supernatural,” and all located human fear somewhere in the process (Origen c. Cels. 1.68, 2.51, 8.36, quoted 308). Origen, Athanasius, and Cassian contrast Christian protection from harm to demonic cruelty and Christ’s success to the devils’ many recent losses ( c. Cels. 1.60, 8.44; v. Ant.). Patristic sources describe monkish battles against demonic monkey-business. It was nevertheless still hard labor to distinguish non-Christian from Christian exorcisms, even Jesus’ own (e.g., Luke 8:26-39, 11:14-22) as Morton Smith argued in Jesus the Magician (1981). Augustine, countryman and frequent quoter of Apuleius, wrote many pages on wicked demons and how to escape their very real powers (e.g., Div. Daem. 3.7-8, 5.9; Civ. Dei 8.18-22, 9.1). He generously defends, ca. 406, both Jesus and Apuleius against charges of magic (320).

Flint, following Peter Brown’s hint (“Sorcery, Demons, and the Rise of Christianity” [1970]), believes that increasing imperial prosecutions for sorcery and increased penalties ca. 350 CE reflect imperial desire to control the pagan aristocracy (320-24). At this time, the church showed more forebearance than the state and even granted asylum for some persecuted practitioners. The victims of demonization, the possessed, were shown compassion in part because they offered saints and bishops opportunities to show their (exorcizing) stuff (333-34), foremost, the sign of the cross. Ordinary Christian baptismal rites echo(ed) older, pagan expurgations of demons (335-37). Recognizing the interference of wicked spirits diminishes human guilt and alleviates brutal secular penalties. Would you prefer exorcism or execution? Here we see a secular motive for popular acceptance of the demonization of late antiquity (291) — a rational “escapism” into invoking, propitiating, manipulating, and expelling malefic powers, and scapegoating invisible beings for bad news, such as plague, that afflicted the individual and the community. Interpretatio Christiana infected the Church Triumphant to the point where St. Hilarion sprinkles horses and starting gates in order that Christian chariots should win. They did, and Jerome ( v. Hil. 20) attests that this event and others similar led to many conversions (341). Augustine too concedes the acceptability of Christianized pagan practice including food offerings, lotteries, and coincident festivals, whenever such events support the worship of the one true god, encourage the religiously displaced to enter the fold, and undercut the pagan competition (342-47). Flint has rather little to say of historical persons and instances, for she focuses on the Christian theology of demons—how they were divided and conquered and made to serve Christian purposes. She well explores how Christianity convinced itself to recycle the wonderful demons of its pagan and late Israelite heritage.

Gordon first discusses the marvellous, the extra-ordinary: what are the rules of Nature as we experience it and how are “normal” states infringed by gods or humans. How do Hermes’ untoward but tolerable archaic powers become “bracketed off” by the polis’ religion as negative magic: anomalous acts of daemons and their human contacts’ techniques of unnatural, unsanctioned power? “Non-citizens and non-men, that is, women” (194) are the repositories of “illegitimate religious knowledge” because of their exclusion from full membership in the community. Magics, sorceries, and witchcrafts exemplify slippery terms — good to persecute with — in nearly any time or culture, a fortiori in past centuries and distant cultures. These terms serve the defining intellectual elite, in antiquity, the Middle Ages, and the “modern” period, in order to derogate enemies and to distinguish legimating and dominant monopolizing ideologies with their civic institutions from excluded, degraded, and “dominated” forms (163). Magic, “the last recourse of the weak” (196) often supplied only a weak solution, but beggars could not be choosers.

Gordon then limits his large topic to amatory magic and the female night-witch (an inversion of the desirable “babe”). Another’s magic spell or love-potion offers a way to explain one’s own or a beloved’s defects or failures, such as male impotence or female inconstancy. Such exculpation allows losers to become victims of others’ malign skills, for example, IG XII 7.2, p.1: an Amorgan concubine ran off to her master’s humiliation and anger. Accusations of magic explain any woman’s failure to meet your or vicinal gossipy standards of proper widowly or virginal paradigms (199-204). Accusations of magic, as Other, in short, can save your reputation or damage an opponent (as Apuleius discovered at Oea’s assizes).

The night-witch, not your neighborhood philtre-fabricator but a useful collective nightmare, reflects a deeper unease, a sense of pollution and corpse-chopping and parsing, in a world of evil whose conception Gordon dates to the civil wars of the late Roman republic. The dystopian vision featured necromantic disturbance, witch-hunts, and a growing belief in uncontrollable evil. Gordon’s essay, brilliant at moments, ranges perhaps too far for a collection of essays; he announces as forthcoming Spells of Wisdom where he may argue his ideas more fully. The organization here becomes obscure as he moves from erotic sociology to philosophers’ responses to magic and illicit cult. He finds “a vacancy that is the structural consequence of negating the norm” (210). This striking if paradoxical idea is not developed in the consequent catalogue of those who denigrate magic as illusory flotsam of a bogus wisdom: Hippocrates, Plato, Anaxilas, Cicero, Lucian, Arnobius, etc. Gordon’s learning is truly overwhelming, but one reader at least got lost as he segued without explanation to six very various domestications of the marvellous (220-43). “Lunar slime” in “Pulling down the Moon” is one fascinating topic but not parallel to “Magic in History.” The hodgepodge, like a magic recipe, incapacitated the victim, your reviewer, interested though he be in the relevance of the tick and the cicada (237-38).

Gordon’s final section examines “the repression of magic,” noting first the paucity of our Greek para-legal and legal sources. He discusses a Tean curse, a Smyrnean confession inscription, and the Athenian graphe asebeias (convenient instrument of policing ideas because of its vagueness). Gordon sees magic developing a clearer and more damaging identity in the Hellenistic period. The Romans, with their magistrates’ massive inquisitorial and capital powers, employed laws against spells and poisons from an early time (cf. XII Tables 8.8, Livy 8.18.11) and intermittently used them ferociously. Livy reports thousands executed at a time in limited areas in the second century (39.41.5, 40.43.2-3). For the Greeks and Romans, the social status of the accused always meant much. Magic furnished “an index of infamy” (262), an additional weapon or a ground for shared communal outrage in “a theatre of purgation” (266).

Gordon closes by observing that ancient historians have worked little on magic, and we have long awaited a general synthesis (see now F. Graf, Magic in the Ancient World (1994, 1997 English translation), although various aspects of the subject have received fruitful elucidation. The general editors’ introduction here is unnecessarily perfunctory, not the desirable locating of ancient European (Mediterranean branch) magic in the larger continuum. Despite its useful questions, one hopes for wider contextualization: how are Greek and Roman witches and magic different from and similar to those of other ancient parts of Europe, and how are later traditions dependent on the Greeks and Romans and independent of them? The redoubtable Richard Gordon, to judge from the other contributors’ various notes of gratitude, seems to have been the guiding spirit behind the volume. His own prior work, e.g., “Aelian’s Peony” (1987) is among the best. He surely could have supplied this as a better mise-en-scène. In sum, this volume is unevenly useful, sometimes surveying the basic but elsewhere bringing forth new evidence and new hypotheses.