BMCR 2001.01.01

Ancient Pathways and Hidden Pursuits: Religion, Morals, and Magic in the Ancient World

, Ancient pathways and hidden pursuits : religion, morals, and magic in the ancient world. Ann Arbor: University of Michigan Press, 2000. xii, 314 pages ; 25 cm. ISBN 0472107909 $54.50.

Ancient Pathways consists of 22 essays, spanning nearly 50 years of L.’s scholarship on a variety of topics related to philosophy, religion, and magic in the ancient Greco-Roman world. All but one of these essays are reprints collected from a wide variety of publications, and many have been translated into English by the author from their original German publications. The scope of the collection ranges from a study in the etymology and use of Latin sapientia, to articles tracing the philosophical doctrinal affiliation of certain Ciceronian texts, to essays on the generic difference between Suetonian biography and the early Christian lives of the saints, to excurses on magic and theurgy in the ancient world. Such a diverse collection provides the reader an overview of the paths L.’s erudite scholarship has pursued over the past decades.

Several of the articles are concerned with questions of doctrine and influence among Hellenistic and Roman philosophical schools—”Panaetius and Menander,” “Epicurus and His Gods,” “Was Lucretius Really Mad?,” “Studia Divina in Vita Humana: On Cicero’s Dream of Scipio and Its Place in Graeco-Roman Philosophy,” “On Cicero De Fato 5 and Related Passages,” and “A Stoic Cosmogony in Manilius (1.149-72).” In these articles, the argument often attempts to pinpoint the origin or influence of a specific doctrine or idea despite the massive gaps in the sources. For example, in “Studia Divina,” L. argues that Cicero’s Somnium Scipionis must have been based on a lost work of Antiochus of Ascalon. Rejecting the influence of Poseidonius and Panaetius because of minor discrepancies in doctrines, he postulates a lost work in which the peculiar combination of ideas must have occurred. Such a hypothesis is explicitly part of an attempt to reconstruct a history of Hellenistic philosophy in the absence of the actual texts of these thinkers, “to transform, as it were, anonymous ideas into a chapter in the history of late Greek thought.”[p.86] While his arguments are plausible that Antiochus, given what we know of his positions and the interests of his students, might have created a work that combined such ideas, it remains a methological assumption that any idea in Cicero can be traced back to an earlier source. If no such source is extant, it must be postulated so that no loose ends remain.

The tracing of sources can be particularly valuable when charting the variations in manuscripts as they were copied over the centuries, but the manuscript model is less successful in describing the relation of ideas or themes instead of concrete manuscripts. Such a methodology is particularly problematic when the sources of a text are sought, not merely in another text, but in a ritual. L. adopts this method in a number of his essays. For example, “Virgil and the Mystery Religions” is an attempt to revive the thesis of the eighteenth century Bishop Warburton that Aeneas’ katabasis more or less exactly replicates the Mysteries at Eleusis. Here again L. tries to recreate the form of a specific source for which insufficient evidence remains on the assumption that the pieces of the lost source can be found in some extant text. That Virgil drew upon a traditional stock of images of the journey to the underworld is indisputable; that the Eleusinian Mysteries made use of the same tradition in the ritual is probable; that some of Virgil’s images would remind initiates of images from Eleusis is likely. That Virgil’s narrative provides a basis for reconstructing the ritual at Eleusis, however, is implausible for a number of reasons. Perhaps the earliest objection was raised immediately by Gibbon in his 1770 review of Warburton: Virgil, if an initiate, would not reveal the mysteries, or, if not an initiate, could not reveal the mysteries. This objection is unsatisfactorily dismissed by L. with the suggestion that Virgil was probably not an initiate but knew enough about the ritual to make allusions that would have profound meaning to the initiate. L’s point that Virgil corresponds with Claudian, who might be expected to be less reticent about revealing the mysteries, shows only that both authors drew on the same tradition of underworld journeys (and, specifically, that Claudian drew on Virgil’s famous example). Other problems, perhaps more fundamental, also trouble the argument. The methodological assumption at the root of L.’s hypothesis is that the sequence of a ritual can be reconstructed from a narrative that plausibly shares some imagery with the ritual. The trouble, however, is that myth cannot be directly mapped onto ritual or vice versa, for the sequence of a narrative is put together in different ways and for different purposes than the sequence of a ritual.

The same problem lies at the root of L.’s attempt to reconstruct an Orphic ritual of penitence from Ovid’s tale of King Midas. In “King Midas and the Orphic Mysteries,” L. takes the narrative’s sequence of events in Ovid Metamorphoses 11 and tries to map them onto a ritual of confession and absolution that corresponds to Christian practice. “Thus, we can reconstruct, I think, for the Orphic mysteries a ritual of penitence which is comparable to early Christian practices. In the narrative, the sequence of events which we may assume for the mysteries ritual, is overlayed by fairy-tale motives and aetiology.”[p. 14] Not only does L. assume that the narrative sequence exactly reproduces a ritual sequence, but he relies on outdated assumptions about the relation of Greek mystery religions (especially Orphism) to Christianity. Citing such scholars as Kern, Jaeger, and Nilsson, L. builds his argument upon the idea that the mystery religions (and especially Orphism) introduced into Greco-Roman paganism elements that foreshadowed the key doctrines of Christianity, particularly the centrality of soteriology. The mystery religions, according to these scholars, represent an advance in religious terms over the traditional religions of Greco-Roman antiquity because they share Christianity’s interest in soteriology.1 While such an evaluation is problematic enough on its own, a further problem is created when scholars, attempting to supplement the dearth of solid evidence for the mystery cults, reconstruct the mysteries on the assumption that Christian ideas of soteriology must have been central to the mysteries. While atonement for offenses against the gods is certainly a part of Greco-Roman religion, both in and out of the mysteries, to read the story of Midas as “an allegory for the fate of the repentant sinner who is redeemed by the grace of a god,”[p. 15], as L. does, is to impose Christian soteriological ideas where they do not belong. Such an imposition of Christian paradigms is characteristic of many of the late nineteenth and early twentieth century scholars on whom L. relies, but, contrasted with recent work in the history of religions, L.’s methodology in this 1969 article seems painfully out of date and his conclusions fundamentally misguided.

Traces of this evolutionary view of pagan and Christian religions trouble other essays in this volume. In “The Doctrine of Salvation in the Hermetic Writings,” L. attempts to find a soteriologically focused “doctrine of voluntary suffering” in the Hermetic Corpus. Despite the lack of words relating to savior or salvation, he insists, salvation was a crucial idea for the Hermetics. L. refers to a general decline in true religious spirit in paganism, with formal ritualism replacing authentic religious spirit in the pagan religions while Christianity represented a fresh start of authentic religious belief. Such a decline in religious spirit., L. asserts in “The Muses in Roman Poetry,” underlies the transformation of the Muses from an authentic religious experience in Hesiod to a derided convention in Persius. In his discussion of “Epicurus and His Gods,” L. asserts: “The essential meaning of religion was changing. Convention was taking the place of spontaneous emotion.”[p. 52] Likewise, in his two articles on the generic form of early lives of the Saints (“The Literary Form of Suetonius’ Biographies and the Early Lives of the Saints” and “Notes on the Vita Macrinae of Gregory of Nyssa”), L. is particularly concerned with marking out Christian biographies as something new and different from Suetonian biographies, fresh and filled with spirit. L. argues that Christian biographies do not smell of the lamp, like the carefully researched and formatted Suetonian ones; rather they are products of personal memories that convey the spirit of the person profiled. “This personal contact may be the reason why many of the lives of the saints have a quality of immediacy which one does not find in other ancient biographies, for instance, Suetonius’ Caesares, whose structure has been discussed so often.”[p. 182] Just as Christianity took over from the decaying pagan religious spirit, so too, for L., Christian biographies depart from the tired conventions of their pagan predecessors and bring an authentic spiritual experience of the subject.

Despite L.’s eagerness to capitalize on the new blossoming of interest in magic in recent decades, his article on “Recent Work in Ancient Magic,” first published as the introduction to the 1995 Spanish translation of his Arcana Mundi, reveals that he relies heavily on older paradigms of magic and religion that owe much to evolutionary and Christian perspectives. Although this somewhat rambling look at magic in antiquity provides a useful overview of the variety of phenomena that have been categorized as ‘magic,’ L. nevertheless sticks fairly close to Frazer in his theoretical understanding of the categories of magic, religion and science, despite some of the recent work in ancient magic that has challenged the very underpinnings of such ideas. L. opens the essay with Frazer himself and continues to cite related ideas with approval. For example, magic, like science, is a way of trying to solve problems, even if the logic that magic follows to achieve its ends is based on false premises instead of true observations. In contrast to the open and pious supplications of religion, magic involves crude coercion and secrecy, manipulation for selfish individual purposes of supernatural forces. Although he refers to the critiques of scholars such as Phillips and Smith of the ways in which Frazer and his successors have constructed the categories of magic and religion, L. nevertheless continues to make use of these same categories without engaging the critiques.2 After citing Smith’s devastating attack on the bias underlying scholars’ labels of religion and magic, for example, L. merely reinforces these same categories with his evaluative image: “Magic seems to have grown on a substratum of religion, like a fungus.” Such an idea of magic as crude and primitive seems also to underlie his protestation, in the article on “Theurgy and Forms of Worship in Neoplatonism,” that: “It is hard to picture a Neoplatonist like Iamblichus or Proclus uttering inarticulate sounds or imitating an animal or laughing insanely as he rotated his bull-roarer. Perhaps they let someone else do this for them and simply watched and listened.”[p. 130] A sophisticated thinker could not really have taken this stuff seriously, could he? Wouldn’t a true theurgist surely leave the primitive rituals to the magicians in his religious and philosophical quest for salvation through communion with the highest God? Such assumptions, however, undermine the possibility of understanding why sophisticated thinkers such as Iamblichus did actually engage in practices that they and others described as “magic.” More recent studies, a number of which L. cites in his “Recent Work in Ancient Magic,” have for this very reason abandoned such presuppositions and examined the evidence in fresh ways.

By publishing this collection of essays now, L. is attempting to capitalize on, as he puts it, the “dramatic revival of interest in magic during the last ten or twenty years,” for which he gives H. D. Betz’s publication of the Greek Magical Papyri the lion’s share of the credit. L. suggests in his preface (p.vii) that the essays in Ancient Pathways might “be useful as a companion volume to Arcana Mundi,” L.’s collection of primary texts in translation which provides a valuable set of testimonies to the ancient practices often labeled “magic.” Unfortunately, because of its methodological presuppositions, the collection of essays in Ancient Pathways does not fulfill such a claim to the extent that, for example, the collection of essays in Magika Hiera does.4 An inevitable problem with reprinting old essays is that the methodological assumptions underlying the earlier essays can seem simply outdated if some effort is not made to place them in the development of the scholar’s thought. An introductory essay by the author, laying out his perspective on the connections between the topics of the essays he collects under the rubric of the subtitle, “religion, morals, and magic in the ancient world,” would have been illuminating, for there is undoubtedly much to be gleaned from these studies. Such an evaluation might have also provided perspective on changes in the scholarship during the decades in which these essays were written. L.’s essays, however, often seem to be trying to answer questions whose meaningfulness is now in question or to be working with categories whose validity is now rejected. While L.’s erudition and knowledge of the texts is always manifest in his articles, his theoretical presuppositions about the nature of religion, morals, and magic create grave problems in his arguments and undermine their usefulness to, in the words of L.’s preface, “help the general reader understand the extraordinary complexity of occult science in antiquity.”[p.vii]


1. As J. Z. Smith notes in his critique of the comparison of mystery religions with early Christianity, “In the hands of many scholars, both past and present, it is primarily soteriological notions which supply an evolutionary scale that ranks religions, with Protestant Christianity often serving as the implicit or explicit norm or the culmination of the exercise.” (Smith, J. Z., Drudgery Divine, p.119)

2. Smith, J. Z., ANRW 2.16.1 (1978), pp. 430ff. and Phillips III, C. R., Helios 15 (1988), pp.151-70. L. also quotes his own review of Magika Hiera (see below, n. 4) in which he summarily dismisses the theoretical work of Graf as an interesting point carried a bit too far, p.211.

3. p.204. Speaking of fungus, L. also strongly emphasizes the possible role of hallucinogens in magical rituals in a number of his essays, seeming to explain away in a rather materialist fashion the magico-religious experience. In discussing hallucinogens in Neoplatonic theurgy (although he admits a lack of evidence), L. even comments on “the biochemical accident that our adrenal glands happen to produce adrenaline and not…mescaline. One wonders whether in the course of the history of humankind not only cultures change but also the human brain and human glands. Perhaps there is even a connection between the two types of change.” [pp.148-9, elipsis in the original]

4. Magika Hiera: Ancient Greek Magic and Religion, eds. Christopher A. Faraone and Dirk Obbink, Oxford University Press, 1991.