BMCR 2004.04.24

Icons of Power: Ritual Practices in Late Antiquity

, Icons of power : ritual practices in late antiquity. Magic in history. University Park, PA: Pennsylvania State University Press, 2002. xxv, 161 pages ; 24 cm.. ISBN 0271021470. $45.00.

In truth, this book might better have been sub-titled, “theories governing certain élite ritual practices in late antiquity, especially Jewish.” The “Magic in History” series notwithstanding, Naomi Janowitz is not interested in magic as a general ritual phenomenon in the Mediterranean world so much as the range of ritual practices — often denoted “mystical,” a term she eschews — that preoccupied esoterically-minded rabbis, Christian intellectuals, and theurgists in their spiritual endeavors to ascend to the Divine. These practices ranged from the chanting of heavenly liturgies to the utterance of holy names, to the manipulation of amulets and the transformation of metals. A specialist in early Jewish visionary texts and the linguistic qualities that made them ritually effective,1 Janowitz uses these texts as the principal exempla of late antique élite ritual. She focuses especially on verbal rites, rather than the material bricolages to which Apuleius and the Greek Magical Papyri have made us accustomed. Overall, her emphases make for a quite different book on magic than we have seen in the past ten years, neither privileging classical literature nor covering the typical range of unofficial ritual.2 Her expressed goal, the Introduction explains, is to describe “both how ancient practitioners believed rituals worked and how modern semiotic theory can illuminate the rituals” (xxiv).

Chapter One, on “theories of efficacy,” focuses on the principles of ritual action outlined by late antique theurgists (Iamblichus, Chaldaean Oracles) and reaffirmed (Dionysius) or rejected (Augustine) by Christian authors. This should be familiar ground: theurgists intellectualize traditional practices like sacrifice, gesture, and prayer; Augustine demonizes the divinities addressed while not questioning the rituals’ efficacy. The problem for the historian of religions is that the late antique discussion of these topics seems to take place among a very small group of intellectuals; while the expectation (and in many cases explanation) of traditional rites’ efficacy took place at every shrine, temple, and altar in the Empire: Christian, Egyptian, Bedouin, and Milesian. Given Janowitz’s broad endeavor, one wonders whether the pontifications of a few theurgists and patristic critics had general significance for “ritual practices in late antiquity,” especially as the aspects of ritual she discusses in subsequent chapters really do follow from the everyday and public rites common throughout the Empire.

Chapter Two, on “The Divine name as Effective Language,” covers the various notions of the tetragrammaton YHWH in early Jewish texts, as both a part and a symbol of the Jewish God. The notion that the divine name expressed the efficacious force of the “pronouncing god” himself, that it concretely represented YHWH’s very presence, underlay Jewish magical texts and amulets and had analogues in other religious cultures that put equal store in the ceremonial utterance of deities’ names. Janowitz, however, focuses on a very limited range of texts — Targums, rabbinic midrash — which she takes to illustrate the modern semiotic theories of C. S. Pierce: the divine name as “icon,” possessing the subject’s essence in its very sign. The theoretical observations are both well-taken and helpful, and the chapter is one of Janowitz’s best. Yet the utility of this analysis beyond rabbinic literature (given the book’s title) might really have been extended to other cultural and ceremonial contexts. Chapter Three, “Thinking With the Divine Name,” does make it clear that “Christians” — Origen and Dionysius — maintained these Jewish views of the divine name, even assimilating other such notions — Proclus’s, for example. But these rarefied Christian scholars of late antique “divine name theory” seem oddly, artificially separated from those of the previous chapter, as if Origen, Dionysius, and the rabbis did not share a world of arcane speculation about the perception of the god of the Bible. Given the general contemporaneity of Janowitz’s sources and the well-documented continuity among these authors’ cultures, the division of “Jewish” and “Christian” chapters is a bit surprising.

Chapter Four, “The Meaning of Letters: From Divine Name to Cosmic Sounds,” begins with the alphabet mysticism of the second-century Christian (/Gnostic?) Marcus and moves to the early Jewish texts Sefer Yetsira (Book of Creation) and Shiur Komah (Measurement of the [Divine] Body). Here Janowitz demonstrates that a theory of letters as primal cosmic elements, the comprehension of which can bring the adept to union with the Divine, was common to Jewish and Christian circles — and even Neo-Platonists. Marcus’s ideas, described in Irenaeus’s Against Heresies, revolve around the letters in holy words, even their shapes and numerical equivalents. The letters of the Greek alphabet correspond to the members of a divine “Body of Truth,” while vowels supply the primal sounds for liturgy. For Janowitz, Marcus offers a neat combination of theory and practice in late antique speculation on the letters as symbol and sound. Similar applications of this kind of theory appear in Jewish visionary texts that imagine God through a divine body composed of letters and names, or that contemplate God’s emergence into the created world through letters and names, whose powers humans can harness themselves (as in the famous story of the Golem). With a rather awkward segue, Janowitz “return[s] to the Neoplatonists” to show that they too — Theodorus of Arsine, Iamblichus, Nichomachus, et al. — applied their theories of letters as cosmic elements to construct ritual practices around alphabetic sounds and symbols.

Chapter Five, “Using Names, Letters, and Praise: The Language of Ascent,” addresses the (almost exclusively Jewish) ritual process of “ascending” to behold the divine visage through multiple levels by means of chanted names and images. One finds this phenomenon in the early first-century Songs of the Sabbath Sacrifice from Qumran, which suggest a kind of ascent through describing and imitating the angels’ praises. One also finds it in that late antique masterpiece of “throne mysticism,” Hekhalot Rabbati, where specific hymns, blessings, names, and “seals” allow the adept’s upward progress, through levels of hostile gate-keeper angels, to the psychedelic heights of the Godhead. Based on a rather impressionistic 1963 comparison by Morton Smith, Janowitz then attempts to show similar techniques and goals underlying the “Mithras Liturgy,” a hybrid ascent spell among the Greek Magical Papyri (PGM IV.475-829); but the goals in this text are as different as the heavenly zones through which the adept proceeds.3 Far more convincing is Janowitz’s brief reference to a Nag Hammadi text, Marsanes, since these symbolic/verbal ascent techniques were central to many of the cabals once labelled “Gnostic,” who drew on Egyptian as much as Greek and Jewish notions of penetrating divine zones (the Books of Jeu being the signal example here).

Chapter Six, which is the least digested of the book, concerns the strange Jewish apocalyptic spell-manual Sefer Ha-Razim, where rather practical rites for contacting ghosts or healing headaches are arranged according to heavenly level. Here Janowitz is interested not only in the practice of verbally adjuring divine beings and in the use of ritual substances and preparations (which she regards as dis-placed temple sacrifices), topics obviously central to all ritual in the Greco-Roman world. She also, finally, addresses the social context that such books as Sefer Ha-Razim would have in the complex (and incompletely rabbinized) world of late antique Judaism. The answer, she proposes after a somewhat cursory review of past discussions, lies among shadowy non-rabbinic collectors of popular ritual lore during the ascendancy of rabbinic wizards. Unfortunately, one would not guess from her footnotes — Lauterbach 1936, Lieberman 1939, Neusner 1969 — that the social world of late antique Jewish magic has been itself the subject of an enormous scholarship in recent decades: Halperin, Swartz, Schäfer, Naveh/Shaked, Lesses, all of whom she cites in the bibliography but whose carefully formulated propositions about the social world of Jewish magic do not seem to merit review here.

The last chapter veers in a quite different direction: alchemy, as an example of “Transformation by Deed Alone.” Using the works of Zosimos, Janowitz describes the ancient theories that linked the ritual transformation of metals with the transformation of the adept himself: “By means of fire, the metal makes a dramatic progression upward to another type of existence, exactly as human bodies can” (119). Ritual preparation and manipulation result in revelation; metals and their changes correspond to cosmic metamorphoses.

A “Concluding Note” (123-28) attempts to tie together the texts and conclusions of the various chapters through the central themes of cosmic speculation, efficacious action, and the symbol of the name or letter (which certainly, as she argues, illustrates semiotic theory, although to what end?). The reader may suspect that alchemy itself lies somewhere on the periphery of these themes, while the vast world of normative temple ritual and domestic or consulted magic, which Janowitz never really addresses, underlies the entire complex she describes.

Icons of Power should be seen as a preliminary work, hardly the final word on such rituals, and not only in its definition of the subject — its framing of the categories by which certain texts and rituals and not others should be compared with each other productively. One craves this kind of definitional precision in dealing with a phenomenon so evident in ancient texts and yet so richly connected to all kinds of other phenomena. But it is also preliminary in its bibliography, with glaring lacunae in the secondary literature Janowitz uses: on the “Mithras Liturgy,” beyond James Tabor’s dissertation; on vowel mysticism and letter magic, beyond Dornseiff’s 1922 book;4 on the efficacy of ritually harming surrogate objects, she does not go beyond James Frazer’s Golden Bough (what about Malinowski, Tambiah, Gager?). Readers may also crave clearer historical justification for the focus on Jewish texts within the claim to characterize “ritual practices in late antiquity” and clearer historical contexts for the comparative discussions of Christian, Neo-Platonic, and “magical” materials like the “Mithras Liturgy.” These justifications and contexts can certainly be made: Judaism may provide particularly interesting examples of new late antique trends; all the texts might be said to point to some late antique Zeitgeist in imagining the utility of symbols; perhaps all the phenomena she describes point to an interiorization or intellectualization of public ritual, or to the proliferation of new élites.

While it may leave the reader craving more explanation, more thoroughness in the ideas, Icons of Power captures a fascinating element of late antique ritual speculation, in which certain words, written or spoken, were imagined as connected intrinsically to the Divine and therefore subject to efficacious manipulation or utterance. These ideas may have simply extended intellectually the assumptions and beliefs of temple liturgies and everyday magic, even ancient understandings of sacred writing (not only Hebrew but Egyptian too), and perhaps should most properly be understood in that general context. Yet the literatures Janowitz cites clearly point to remarkable new degrees of ritual speculation in the late antique era; and one may hope that future students will advance the comparative understanding of these literatures.


1. See her Poetics of Ascent: Theories of Language in a Rabbinic Ascent Text (Albany: SUNY Press, 1989).

2. Janowitz also has a general book on magic, published shortly before this one: Magic in the Roman World (New York, 2001), reviewed in BMCR 2002.05.09.

3. See Martha Himmelfarb, “The Practice of Ascent in the Ancient Mediterranean World,” in Death, Ecstasy, and Other Worldly Journeys, edd. J. Collins & M. Fishbane (Albany: SUNY Press, 1995), 123-37, and Sarah Iles Johnston, “Rising to the Occasion: Theurgic Ascent in its Cultural Milieu,” in Envisioning Magic, edd. P. Schäfer & H. Kippenberg (Leiden: Brill, 1997), 165-94. Both articles are cited in Janowitz’s bibliography but neither of their observations of the texts’ differences is taken into account.

4. See Patricia Cox Miller’s famous “In Praise of Nonsense,” Classical Mediterranean Spirituality, ed. A. Armstrong (New York: Crossroad, 1986), 481-505. This author reviewed scholarship on letter magic since Dornseiff in 1994: David Frankfurter, “The Magic of Writing and the Writing of Magic,” Helios 21 (1994), 179-221.