BMCR 2003.07.01

Magic, Witchcraft, and Ghosts in the Greek and Roman Worlds. A Sourcebook

, Magic, witchcraft, and ghosts in the Greek and Roman worlds : a sourcebook. New York: Oxford University Press, 2002. 1 online resource (x, 353 pages) : illustrations. ISBN 9780198034483 $24.95 (pb).

At long last there is an alternative to Georg Luck’s Arcana Mundi for those looking for translated sources for magic in the ancient Greco-Roman world.1 Ogden (hereinafter O.) has collected a good mix of literary and non-literary sources in this book designed for undergraduates, and it is explicitly (p.4) designed to be a replacement for Arcana Mundi. O. avoids most of the problems of Luck’s collection, and his collection has enough strengths of its own that I will use it to replace Luck as a sourcebook for my own undergraduate class on Magic in the Ancient Greco-Roman World. Nevertheless, O.’s collection has some serious flaws of its own, which need to be taken into account by anyone planning to use it in a course.

The sourcebook consists of fourteen chapters, followed by a series of useful bibliographies and indices. The introductory chapter, which lays out O.’s aims and premises in the book, is followed by six chapters on the users of magic. The first of these covers the various types of sorcerers attested in ancient Greece, while the next includes “Alien Sorcerers”, that is Persians, Chaldaean, Syrians, and Egyptians. O. includes a separate chapter on the Rivals of Jesus, wonderworkers such as Apollonius of Tyana, Alexander of Abonouteichos, and Simon Magus. These three chapters on more or less historical figures are followed by three on literary figures in the Greek and Roman literary tradition, with a special chapter devoted just to Medea and Circe. A chapter on ghosts forms the centerpiece of the work, followed by three chapters on types of magic — necromancy, curses, and erotic magic. O. then has two chapters on types of magical devices, one on voodoo dolls and other magical images and another on amulets. The final chapter is devoted to Magic and the Law.

O. includes a much more extensive collection of non-literary sources than Luck, although his selections of curse tablets, magical papyri, and amulets cannot substitute for the collections in translation of Gager, Betz, or Kotansky.2 His inclusion of legal material is a most welcome addition to the materials collected in Luck, and his juxtaposition of Greek sorcerers with foreign wizards or female witches from literature rightly emphasizes the way in which magic was often seen as something characteristic of others, not normal male citizens. O. includes biblical passages describing the miracles of Jesus, putting them in the context of other wonderworkers in the period, something Luck seems unwilling to do. While O.’s chapter divisions sometimes separate related material (e.g., some erotic magic is found under amulets; healing and protective magic is scattered in various chapters), his extensive cross-referencing and indices do help one bring these subjects together. His special sections on the evil eye, the iunx/rhombos, and drawing down the moon provide a nice collection of evidence for these important elements in the tradition of Greco-Roman magic.

The bibliographies consist of a list of the editions and translations of the texts included, an extremely useful section of further readings for each chapter and subsection of each chapter, and an extensive list of Works Cited. These bibliographies provide good starting points for students (undergraduate or graduate) wishing to learn more about the particular topics covered in the collection. In addition to a decent general index, there is also an index of source passages so that it is possible not only to find all the passages from Plato in the collection, but also all the texts from the Papyri Graecae Magicae or Kotansky’s collection of amulets. All these features, coupled with extensive cross-referencing within the text, make this collection much easier to use than Luck’s. One resource missing from this collection, however, is a numerical list of the sources such as Luck has, so that one could discover all the sources in a given section without having to thumb though the texts.

O. provides readable translations of the texts, with transliterations of key or disputed terms, and generally useful commentary to help undergraduates contextualize the evidence. He notes important disputed readings, explaining what is at stake and citing relevant recent discussions, and he often provides help in identifying the crucial elements of extended passages, sometimes even setting out the key points in a bulleted list. Most importantly, whereas Luck’s commentaries in Arcana Mundi are too often skewed by Luck’s outdated theories of magic and religion, O.’s commentaries, with some critical exceptions, provide non-tendentious interpretations with useful comparisons to other materials in the collection.

One of the central problems with Luck’s collection is the way in which Luck frames the distinction between magic and religion in Christian terms. Luck sees “the consciousness of sin and the prayer for forgiveness” as the feature which distinguishes religious activity from magical, and his characterization of magic as inherently coercive and immoral vitiates much of his otherwise quite learned commentary throughout the collection.3 O., on the other hand, explicitly refuses to provide a dogmatic definition of magic that might bias his selection and interpretation of the material. “The primary criterion I have in fact adopted for the selection of passages for this book is that of relevance to the subject matter of recent scholarly books on antiquity with such words as ‘magic’ in their titles. I am aware that this will appear to be a disappointing sleight of hand to many of a philosophical bent, but it would have been pedagogically irresponsible to take any other course of action.” (p. 5) Although I happen to be one of those many of a philosophical bent, I think such an approximate and open-ended definition has many advantages, particularly in the pedagogy of an undergraduate course. For the students to wrestle for themselves with the categories of magic, religion, and science and to think about how both the ancient Greeks and they themselves would classify any given piece of evidence and on what grounds is a valuable lesson in critical thinking.

However, the danger of choosing not to defend an explicit definition is that an implicit definition may creep in. Despite his explicit disclaimer, O. immediately goes on to reveal the implicit criterion that shapes his collection. “If there is one overriding argument implicit in the book, it is, as the title itself indicates, the contention of the centrality of ghosts to ancient magic: they were not its only motor, but it is fair to say that they were its chief one.” (p. 5) This idea that most of Greco-Roman magic depends on ghosts creates the most serious problems with O.’s collection, both in what O. chooses to include or omit and in how he explains the evidence.

Although his inclusion of material on haunted houses or the kinds of restless ghosts does provide some good background material for the types of magic, such as necromancy or some curses that do actually make use of the dead, they appear to come at the cost of omitting other material that would fall under most definitions of magic, especially a definition as broad as the one O. purports to be using, that of relevance to recent scholarly discussions of magic. Although O. has nothing that corresponds to Luck’s section on alchemy,4 the primary casualty is divination, since O. includes very little that is not necromancy. The Necromancy chapter includes a section on Further Varieties which includes one PGM recipe and one testimonium each for lecanomancy and lychnomancy, along with three lines from the PGM’s Homer oracle. The only other oracles included are oracles of the dead; astrology is mentioned in some of the evidence for prohibitions, but there are no texts that pertain to its theory or practice. Although O. admits “It was in the Roman period that divination came to be seen as the greater part of magic” (p. 59), he omits the greater part of this greater part.

O. also omits the ancient theories of magic that do not fit with his idea that magic is primarily driven by the manipulation of ghosts, although he does include many texts that condemn magic as fraud. While Luck may include more passages of Platonic philosophers expounding ideas of theurgy or cosmic sympathy than strictly necessary, the philosophical explanations of magic are almost entirely absent from O.’s collection. Instead O. relies on Christian authors such as Augustine and Tertullian and the Byzantine Suda for explanations of magic that attribute its power to ghosts. (cp. texts # 43, 112, 48, 34, 30 = Augustine, City of God 7.35; Tertullian De Anima 56-7; Suda s.v. goetia, engastrimuthos, psychagogia).

These omissions of alternate theories of magic, however, are not as problematic as the way that O.’s commentary often gives explanations in terms of ghosts or necromancy even when such explanations are unwarranted or even contradicted by the materials he is explaining. A few examples will illustrate the point. Ventriloquists (engastrimuthoi) are identified as people possessed by ghosts on the strength of a Suda entry that claims that the witch of Endor was a ventriloquist who was possessed by the ghost of Samuel. (pp. 31, 151) Erotic spells are connected with ghosts in an even more tenuous fashion: “the beloved [is] made to toss and turn without sleep (like a restless ghost?) until she gratifies her lover.” (p. 234) O. concludes that the blood smeared on the curse tablets addressed to the gods below found in the house of Germanicus means that they are “associated with cadaverous material so as to enlist a ghost for their activation.” (p. 217) Although some curse tablets do make use of spirits of the dead, others invoke gods and daimons instead, and the mere presence of blood in a magic ritual is not sufficient to show that a ghost is the operative agent. O. is not dogmatic or absolute in these interpretations, but the bias recurs throughout the commentaries.

O. associates voodoo dolls (kolossoi) with the dead in an argument that I think reveals much about the implicit premises that govern his idea of magic. “Similar dolls are used for laying ghosts, where they provided new bodies for them (124). It is tempting to believe that this was their original function. The hobbling of dolls could have here performed a function similar to of machalismos (122).[sic]5 Then, perhaps, the opportunity was taken, while laying ghosts, to ask them to take (aspects of) the living with them, to deaden them. As such a practice developed, the dolls will have become construed as representing the curse victim instead of the ghost.” (p. 245) Granting that the hikesioi in the Cyrenean decree (#124 = SEG 9 no. 72 110-121) are indeed ghosts (plausible but debatable), there are nevertheless numerous problems with this interpretation. First, the figurines are never described as providing new bodies for the spirits (new bodies are not something which the restless dead are generally seeking in any case), but, having been both given a good meal and abandoned far away from the community, they operate rather as persuasive analogies for the spirits to be both satisfied and distant. Secondly, his postulated evolution of the practice is not only dependent on the previous misinterpretation but implausible in itself. The manipulation of the figurines, like the inscription of the name of the victim on a curse tablet, is done to identify and afflict the victim, whether the process of affliction is imagined as effected by ghosts, chthonic deities, or even by some principle of similia similibus (as this lead is cold and useless…). Even more troublesome is the suggestion that the “original” way that magic worked was through the dead, which permits later developments, such as Stoic theories of cosmic sympathy or a Roman focus on divination, to be ignored as inauthentic. Even if O. could prove his evolutionary idea, for which he in fact supplies no evidence, an explanation of origin is only of limited value in explaining the actual evidence. Such a premise, however, explains O.’s emphasis on the so-called shaman figures, fabled wonderworkers of the Archaic period such as Aristaeus, Pythagoras, or Empedocles, to whom he devotes the first section of the first chapter of evidence. By equating these figures with the ritual specialists of the Tungus, who do attribute their powers to manipulation of dead spirits, O. makes it seem as if the earliest figures known in the Greek magical tradition operate by ghost manipulation.

One of the fascinating things about the Greco-Roman magical tradition is the way in which the same procedure can be explained in the ancient sources by the operation of different principles — the action of divine personalities, the coercion of the restless dead, impersonal action of principles of cosmic sympathy or divine influence, and so forth. To reduce all these explanations to a single mode, whether by excluding evidence or by distorting presented evidence is to rob this intriguing collection of some of its richness. It is particularly a shame in a collection aimed at undergraduates and others experiencing this material for the first time.

Nevertheless, O.’s collection, despite its flaws, remains a better option than Luck’s Arcana Mundi. O.’s bias for a ghostly explanation is less pervasive and distorting than Luck’s assumptions about the coercive and immoral nature of magic. Perhaps more importantly, O.’s ghost theory plays less upon the unquestioned prior assumptions about religion that inexperienced students coming from a predominantly Judaeo-Christian culture tend to have. The problems and limitations of O.’s collection are thus easier to overcome, which makes his new sourcebook a better choice for the classroom. The omissions can be supplemented by other readings; the biases in theory can be made the subject of discussion. Moreover, the strengths of the book — the up to date bibliographies, the cross-referencing, the inclusion of legal and non-literary material — all make it a worthwhile tool for the teaching of ancient magic.


1. Luck, Georg, Arcana Mundi Magic & the Occult in the Greek & Roman Worlds, Baltimore : Johns Hopkins University Press, 1985.

2. Betz, Hans Dieter (et al.), The Greek Magical Papyri in Translation: including the Demotic spells, reprinted with new bibliography, University of Chicago Press, 1997. Gager, John G. (ed.), Curse Tablets and Binding Spells from the Ancient World, Oxford University Press, 1992. Kotansky, Roy, Greek Magical Amulets: the inscribed gold, silver, copper and bronze lamellae (Part I: Published Texts of Known Provenance), Papyrologica Coloniensia 22/1, Opladen: Westdeutscher Verlag, 1994. While Betz and Gager include only texts in translation with some commentary, Kotansky, like the two volumes of Supplementum Magicum, has both original texts and English translations, along with more detailed commentaries. cp. Daniel, Robert W. & Maltomini, Franco (edd.), Supplementum Magicum vol. I & II, Papyrologica Coloniensis XVI.1-2, Westdeutscher Verlag, Köln, 1990, 1992.

3. Luck, p. 5. “Praying for something, giving thanks for something, is conceivable in magic, but not the consciousness of sin and the prayer for forgiveness. The magus does not recognize sin; he is, in a way, above morality and the law, a law unto himself.”

4. Alchemy is curiously neglected in collections on magic and, for the most part, remains the province of the historians of science. Two of the most important early alchemical papyri (P. Holmiensis and P. Leid. J 397) were part of the same Anastasi collection of papyri as the bulk of the PGM (and written in the same scribal hand as PGM XIII, indicating that the ancient magicians saw alchemy as a part of their art. Preisendanz, however, omitted these manuscripts from his PGM collection, so they are not available in Betz’s translation. A recent sourcebook for the study of ancient science, however, includes a nice selection of alchemical texts, as well as a section on astrology. (Irby-Massie, Georgia L. and Keyser, Paul T., Greek Science of the Hellenistic Era: A Sourcebook. New York: Routledge, 2002.)

5. There are a regrettable number of such minor typographical errors scattered throughout the book. Most are easy enough to understand, but a missing letter from a name or title (e.g., Rosher for Roscher on p. 313 or Polyaenus’ Stategemata instead of Strategemata on p. 105) might cause difficulty for an undergraduate looking up a reference.