BMCR 2005.05.32

Magic and Divination in the Ancient World; The Metamorphosis of Magic; Prayer, Magic, and the Stars

, , Magic and Divination in the Ancient World. Leiden: Brill/Styx, 2002. xii, 152 pages. ISBN 9789004124066
, , , The Metamorphosis of Magic from Late Antiquity to the Early Modern Period. Leuven: Peeters, 2002. xv, 318 pages. ISBN 9789042912274
, , , Prayer, Magic, and the Stars in the Ancient and Late Antique World. University Park, PA: Pennsylvania State University Press, 2003. xiv, 255 pages. ISBN 9780271031521

The three collections under review here land on an ever-rising stack of “magic volumes,” including notable collections edited by Faraone and Obbink, Meyer and Mirecki, Schäfer and Kippenberg, Jordan, Montgomery, and Thomassen, Ankarloo and Clark, and Koenig, in which scholars from Egyptology and Classics to medieval studies strive to redefine materials once relegated to superstition and syncretistic survivals.1 In many ways, of course, “magic” has become too easy a reason to assemble a volume (or to hold a conference in the first place); and one still awaits the collected volume that cumulatively advances thinking about how the term magic can be constructively applied. What makes any magic volume useful depends on the conception of its over-arching theme and the cohesiveness of the papers — and barring these editorial attributes, the individual interest of the contributions within. Two of these volumes seek to consider the relationships between “magic” and those more identifiable classes of religious behavior, divination (Ciraolo/Seidel) and astrology (Noegel/Walker/Wheeler); but magic then remains the more elusive zone of practice. The third volume is interested in the “transformation of ritual into occult philosophy against the background of cultural changes in Judaism, paganism and Christianity” (Bremmer/Veenstra), but it leaves entirely vague what genus of ritual it is that magic should represent: secretive, diabolical stuff; experimental attempts at reifying power; or whatever was deemed illegitimate or peripheral at some point in time? It is also a notable feature of all three volumes (like most of their predecessors) that there is no real cohesiveness among the papers nor any kind of interconnected discussion of a particular theme or category. They present us, rather, with groups of individual papers; and this review will consider them on their merits.

The Ciraolo/Seidel volume actually stems from a Berkeley conference of 1994, resulting in some papers’ inability to take account of publications in the intervening years, others to have been preempted by their authors’ later work, and in one case (Kolenkow) the author’s demise before shaping her paper for publication. With the mandate “to explore aspects of the interrelationship between magic and divination from earliest times,” the papers concern everything from ancient Egyptian coffin texts to Rabbinic exegesis.

Joann Scurlock, “Soul Emplacements in Ancient Mesopotamian Funerary Rituals” (pp. 1-6)

Ann Kessler Guinan, “A Severed Head Laughed: Stories of Divinatory Interpretation” (pp. 7-40)

Joel Sweek, “Inquiring for the State in the Ancient Near East: Delineating Political Location” (pp. 41-56)

Richard Beal, “Hittite Oracles” (pp. 57-82)

John Gee, “Oracle by Image: Coffin Text 103 in Context” (pp. 83-88)

Robert K. Ritner, “Necromancy in Ancient Egypt” (pp. 89-96)

Jonathan Seidel, “Necromantic Praxis in the Midrash on the Seance at En Dor” (pp. 97-106)

Gregg Schwender, “Under Homer’s Spell” (pp. 107-118)

Peter T. Struck, “The Poet as Conjurer: Magic and Literary Theory in Late Antiquity” (119-32)

Anitra Bingham Kolenkow, “Persons of Power and Their Communities” (133-44).

Of these papers, Guinan’s and Sweek’s stand out as particularly worthy of note for their discussions of divination in general: that is, the designation of some field of random (or partly controlled) activity, like birds or liver-lobes or star constellations, as having the capacity to transmit divine messages. Guinan examines collections of portents and omens from Mesopotamia with an eye towards how these portents and omens were chosen. Following a detailed study of the texts (and before a lengthy appendix of primary sources), she offers some invaluable, theoretically-informed observations on the nature of divination (pp. 18-30) that should be required reading for anyone embarking on the study of these phenomena. Sweek’s paper, examining the real importance of diviners in ancient Near Eastern societies (including Israel), likewise provides useful general observations on divination as public religious practice.

Other papers are more restricted in scope. Scurlock’s discussion of Mesopotamian mortuary ritual and its use of places or objects to transfer the soul from the body makes effective comparisons with Asian materials but has little to do with divination per se. Beal’s description of Hittite divination methods gives a vivid sense of the great range of mantic fields that one ancient culture might designate as omen-bearing: from intestinal arrangements and bird behavior to the provoked actions of sheep and snakes. The papers on ancient Egypt are particularly set apart from broader conversation. Gee, for example, examines the ancient Egyptian coffin texts with little sense of cultural context, and he leaps abruptly from the Middle Kingdom to texts of the Greco-Roman period. Ritner’s paper serves basically as a polemic against another article’s assertion (in another magic volume!) that ancient Egypt lacked a tradition of “necromancy” — that is, seeking oracles from spirits of the dead. But while he does not seek to broaden his topic or to problematize the definition of necromancy as a phenomenon of ancient religions,2 Ritner does give an effective overview of the use of spirits of the dead to give oracles in the history of Egyptian religion.3

The four essays on the Roman/late antique period are quite diverse in their methods and scopes. Schwender, using the evidence for book-divination in Roman Egypt to argue for larger religious shifts from place to text as well as for priestly bilingualism, seems not to have updated his original paper to reflect the abundant work on these topics since 1994. Seidel’s paper analyzes the various rabbinic attempts to make sense of the story of Saul and the raising of Samuel at Ein Dor (1 Sam 28), arguing on largely philological grounds for rabbis’ continuing awareness of necromantic practices. Struck’s essay, since folded into his Birth of the Symbol (Princeton 2004), examines classical conceptions of the symbolon as a vehicle for divine expression and even a token of power, not simply mimesis of some original form. Finally, in what is more a series of compelling impressions than an essay, the late historian of Greco-Roman religions Anitra Kolenkow discusses the various ways that ancient holy men worked within and served communities — through their acolytes, their enactions of myth, and their involvement with traditional structures.

The Metamorphosis of Magic began as a 1999 invitational seminar at the University of Groningen on “Cultural Change,” which included a stellar cast of scholars. The intention was to look at how “magic” took on different forms from the early Roman period (Dead Sea Scrolls) through early modern Europe (represented by various learned grimoires). The papers are all quite discrete in historical/cultural focus, however, making it difficult to see the continuous development of any particular phenomenon over time and space. What might be “magical” for the Dead Sea Scrolls certainly bears little similarity to what Augustine discusses or to early modern debates about lycanthropy.

[Editors], “Introduction” (pp. ix-xiv)

Jan N. Bremmer, “The Birth of the Term ‘Magic'” (pp. 1-11)

Florentino Garcia Martínez, “Magic in the Dead Sea Scrolls” (pp.13-33)

Sarah Iles Johnston, “The Testament of Solomon from Late Antiquity to the Renaissance” (pp. 35-49)

Jan N. Bremmer, “Magic in the Apocryphal Acts of the Apostles” (pp.51-70)

Anna Scibilia, “Supernatural Assistance in the Greek Magical Papyri: The Figure of the Parhedros” (pp.71-86).

Fritz Graf, “Augustine and Magic” (pp.87-103)

Bernard H. Stolte, “Magic and Byzantine Law in the Seventh Century” (pp.105-15)

Valerie I. J. Flint, “Magic in English Thirteenth-Century Miracle Collections” (pp.117-31)

Jan R. Veenstra, “The Ever-Changing Nature of the Beast: Cultural Change, Lycanthropy and the Question of Substantial Transformation (From Petronius to Del Rio)” (pp. 133-66)

Nicolas Weill-Parot, “Astral Magic and Intellectual Changes (Twelfth-Fifteenth Centuries): ‘Astrological Images’ and the Concept of ‘Addressative’ Magic” (pp.167-87)

Jan R. Veenstra, “The Holy Almandal: Angels and the Intellectual Aims of Magic” [with an appendix: The Art Almadel of Solomon ] (pp.189-229)

Bernd Roling, “The Complete Nature of Christ: Sources and Structures of a Christological Theurgy in the Works of Johannes Reuchlin” (pp. 231-66)

Jan N. Bremmer, “Appendix: Magic and Religion” (pp.267-71)

Bibliography (pp.273-305)

Index (pp.307-17)

Bremmer’s (Groningen) first and last essays are revisions of a 1999 ZPE article (126:1-12). In the first he argues that the ancient Greek use of magos as a term of abuse equivalent to the English term “charlatan” arose only in the fifth century BCE, due to the increasingly prominent activities of real Persian magi. Thereafter, magos and mageia eclipse older terms of disapproved ritual activity like goês and goêteia. The second part of the 1999 article, which Bremmer placed in this volume as an Appendix, argues that “magic” should not be juxtaposed to “religion,” since the latter is a relatively recent category that was never conceptualized in antiquity — and certainly not as the opposite of “magic.” Claiming to rebut a 1991 essay by Henk Versnel that in fact makes much the same point (with broader methodological implications), this Appendix should probably have been excised for this publication.4

One of the confusing features of this volume revolves around whether the term “magic” is a historically-specific invention, specific to a group or an institution, or a general, second-order type of ritual behavior. Thus, if Bremmer clings meticulously to the word’s historical etymology in the first essay, his chapter on the Apocryphal Acts presents these early Christian texts, full of the apostles’ elaborate thaumaturgical techniques, as rich repositories of magic, even though the ancient authors are adamant that the apostle is the very opposite of the magician. So why compare an apostle to a magician? The phenomenological resemblances may be clear, as Bremmer shows with references to Greek Magical Papyri and ancient novels, but extending the use of the term “magic” to cover Christian thaumaturgy is only justified if one defines magic in general, second-order (“etic”) terms. Valerie Flint (Hull) actually addresses a similar question, the ways in which Christian thaumaturgical bishops covered the same ritual territory (techniques, ingredients, concepts) as the freelance ritual experts in thirteenth-century England; but the miracle dossiers she uses offer a more likely picture of real local ritual practices than do Apocryphal Acts.

Garcia Martínez (Groningen) lays the same confusion over the fascinating incantations, amulets, and oracle instructions found among the Dead Sea Scrolls. While the Qumran sectarians had a clear concept of illegitimate, demonic ritual (following revelations in 1 Enoch 8), the exorcistic and divination rites in which they themselves engaged — horoscopes, physiognomies, manuals for demon-expulsion — were actually practical extensions of their dominant ideology of cosmic dualism. The sectarians, that is, did not in any way consider these practices akin to what the fallen angels had taught. So it does no good to call them magic — unless, that is, the word carries some helpful comparative meaning that will illuminate their function or nature. Unfortunately, scholars who have clustered the exorcism, divination, and practical incantation texts from Qumran as magic have simply imported the classification from nineteenth-century stereotypes.

Other papers emphasize particular literary corpora, and in quite inconsistent ways. Among those concerned with Mediterranean antiquity, Johnston (Ohio State) gives a succinct picture of that central document of early demonology, the Testament of Solomon, focusing on two unusual features in the text: the imprisoning of demons in vessels and the harnessing of demons for positive purposes. Scibilia (Messina) examines spells in the Greek Magical Papyri meant to invoke a supernatural assistant, but her discussion suffers from an overly literal interpretation of these Greco-Egyptian incantations and a tendency to isolate them from any historico-religious context. Graf (Ohio State) shows how Augustine, in his references to magic as demonic, inherits traditional Roman fears of magic as a peripheral, immoral, and dangerous ritual pursuit. And for the end of late antiquity, Stolte (Groningen) describes how civil legislation against “magic” ceases in the late sixth century, leaving the topic largely for church bodies in prosecute. Ecclesiastical canons thus become a resource for investigating various types of marginal ritual practices — both real and, one presumes, imagined. But should not an essay like Stolte’s here have been preceded by ones on the Twelve Tables and Theodosian Codes as similar witnesses to magic? Readers may find themselves quite unable to see the “metamorphosis” the editors advertise over such a confusion of different kinds of texts.

But readers will find much of interest among the four papers devoted to later medieval and early modern materials. Veenstra’s (Groningen) first paper, on the cultural construction of the werewolf, and more broadly on theories of animal/human transformation, makes fascinating reading even if it has little to do with notions of magic. His second paper traces the evolution of angel invocation from the concatenation of sacred names that one finds in early Jewish ritual texts and the Magical Papyri to the theoretical angelologies one finds in medieval texts like the Solomonic Almandal text, which Veenstra translates with diagrams, in an appendix. Roling (Munster) also discusses angelology, showing the development in late medieval Christianity (from Jewish sources) of rituals to summon private angels to facilitate mystical self-perfection. Weill-Parot (Paris VIII) looks at the use of amuletic designs, drawn from manuals, to control stars and therefore fate; and he coins the term “addressative” to encompass those acts of preparing amulets to “address” some otherworldly being and secure its help in accomplishing some goal (169). These last three papers show the potential fruit that might have resulted if the editors had integrated the volume around a single topic like magical manuals or practical hierarchies of spirits.

Prayer, Magic, and the Stars — also based on a conference, at the University of Washington in 2000 — is by far the most useful of these three volumes, not for the coherence of its essays but for its genuine effort to be up-to-date in its critical approaches to materials and its conceptions of magic and astrology. The editors warn up-front that magic serves both as a general category for the study of religion and as an ancient marker for peripheral or exotic ritual. Their interests, however, lie less in shaping a consistent definition of magic than in framing different areas of cultural activity to which magic was relevant.

[Editors], “Introduction” (pp.1-17)

Part I. Locating Magic

Jonathan Z. Smith, “Here, There, and Anywhere” (pp. 21-36)

Part II. Prayer, Magic, and Ritual

Ian Moyer, “Thessalos of Tralles and Cultural Exchange” (pp. 39-56)

Marvin Meyer, “The Prayer of Mary in the Magical Book of Mary and the Angels” (pp.57-67)

Gideon Bohak, “Hebrew, Hebrew Everywhere? Notes on the Interpretation of Voces Magicae” (pp. 69-82)

Michael G. Morony, “Magic and Society in Late Sasanian Iraq” (pp.83-107)

Part III. Dreams and Divination

Kasia Szpakowska, “The Open Portal: Dreams and Divine Power in Pharaonic Egypt” (pp.111-24)

Peter Struck, “Viscera and the Divine: Dreams as the Divinatory Bridge Between the Corporeal and the Incorporeal” (pp.125-36)

Jacco Dieleman, “Stars and the Egyptian Priesthood in the Graeco-Roman Period” (pp.137-53)

Michael D. Swartz, “Divination and Its Discontents: Finding and Questioning Meaning in Ancient and Medieval Judaism” (pp.155-66)

Part IV. The Sun, The Moon, and the Stars

Francesca Rochberg, “Heaven and Earth: Divine-Human Relations in Mesopotamian Celestial Divination” (pp. 169-85)

Mark S. Smith, “Astral Religion and the Representation of Divinity: The Cases of Ugarit and Judah” (pp.187-206)

Nicola Denzey, “A New Star on the Horizon: Astral Christologies and Stellar Debates in Early Christian Discourse” (pp. 207-21)

Radcliffe G. Edmonds III, “At the Seizure of the Moon: The Absence of the Moon in the Mithras Liturgy” (pp. 223-39)

Index (pp.245-55)

“Here, There, and Anywhere” is Smith’s best essay in decades. Here he nuances his classic dichotomy of “locative” and “utopian” worldviews to embrace, now, three spheres of religious practice and ideology in the Greco-Roman world: the domestic, the civic/national, and the trans-national — which includes not only religious associations that eschewed terrestrial anchors but also “entrepreneurial religious figures.” Each has its sense of geography and cosmos, its particular fears, and its integrating rituals. In his depiction of the “religion of ‘anywhere’,” Smith is able to capture novel religious developments in the Mediterranean world without recourse to notions of anxiety, spiritual decline, rising superstition, or the inevitability of Christian salvation. Magic itself is as much a hybrid of domestic practice as it is an expression, and miniaturization, of civic traditions and transcendent deities.

“Prayer, Magic, and Ritual” is rather a hodge-podge of topics that don’t really address magic or ritual expressions in general. But of the four essays in this section, Moyer’s (Pomona) is the most historically far-reaching, examining a text well-known among students of Egyptian religion in its later phases, the novelistic preface by Thessalos of Tralles to his second-/third-century herbal. An inquisitive Greek heads to Thebes in search of Egyptian ritual wisdom and gets himself initiated into secret mysteries (and a direct vision) by some aged priests. Moyer discusses both the authentically Egyptian traditions maintained in this text and its reflection of the commodification of these traditions — as “magic” — in a world entranced by exotic wisdoms. Meyer (Chapman) discusses a late Coptic spell invoking Mary for a range of purposes, but as one who breaks bonds and chains. Like many of the texts in Bremmer/Veenstra, this Mary spell questions distinctions between magic and prayer (if there is anyone who still maintains such distinctions). Bohak (Tel Aviv) shows that the Jewish influence long imagined to pervade the voces magicae in Greek spells and amulets comes down only to disparate words and phrases requiring little knowledge of Jewish liturgy. In an abundantly illustrated and thorough survey of magic bowls in Iraq, Morony (UCLA) lays out the ritual preparation and function of these personalized apotropaic devices — used among Jews and non-Jews alike — and offers some broader observations on social and economic changes in late antique Iraq based on patterns in the personal names in the bowls. Morony’s is certainly the most accessible discussion yet of the magical bowls and of their historical and social significance.

Part III is meant to be distinct from Part IV by focusing on matters of practice rather than constructions of the heavenly world; yet overlapping papers like Dieleman and Rochberg make the division rather arbitrary. More importantly, without real conversation among the papers in either section, the reader unfamiliar with ancient divination or the range of astrologies craves some thematic synthesis or explanation of these larger topics. Szpakowska (Swansea) looks at various ways that gods could appear in dreams in New Kingdom Egypt, according to one ancient manual of oneiromancy. She then turns to “waking” apparitions of the goddess Hathor, in what appear to be image-processions. The connection between these two types of theophany is unclear; and one especially wishes for some segue with Dieleman’s (UCLA) masterful overview of Egyptian priests’ growing engagement with astrology over the Late and Greco-Roman periods. Struck (Penn), also represented in Ciraolo/Seidel, here offers a quite innovative discussion of Greek notions of the body as microcosm of the heavens (Hippocrates, Plato). Therapy of the body can consequently take place through dreams, which both reach out to the macrocosm and allow the respective celestial bodies to penetrate the organs. Finally Swartz (Ohio State) identifies the multiple fields in the environment — birds, books, and children’s behavior, for example — where early Jews sought divine omens, often assisted by divination manuals. It is important to appreciate the great range of devices and “pallettes” that communities located in their environments for divining supernatural intent. Divination was not so much a belief-system as multiple concrete devices for accessing belief-systems — to make them relevant and active. It is through such surveys as Swartz’s (like Guinan’s and Beal’s in Ciraolo/Seidel, above) that we can grasp how environments could provide such diverse langues for the parole of the gods.

The papers in Part IV address the various ways that religions and ritual systems in antiquity could either construct or appropriate astrological themes. Thus Rochberg (UC-Riverside) examines the basis for celestial omens in Mesopotamian cosmology: rather than presuming some kind of cosmic harmony, the omens indicate various isolated correspondences believed to exist between divinities and terrestrial events. It is quite astounding that she makes no reference here to Struck’s or Swartz’s papers, given the convergence of their themes. One might think they had never heard each others’ papers. Rochberg’s contribution to this part of the volume is evidently intended to show that astral conceptions of deities in Mesopotamia were intrinsically rooted in divination practices and manuals: ritual precedes myth (or theology). The reverse conclusion emerges in Edmonds’ (Bryn Mawr) paper, which argues that the ritual insistence on a moon-less sky for the performance of the famous “Mithras Liturgy” in the Paris Magical Papyrus reflects “an underlying cosmology in which the moon is seen as a potentially hostile and dangerous power, in contrast to the benevolent power of the sun” (224). Taking such ascent texts as attempts to participate in preexisting cosmologies, as Edmonds does here, represents their more classic appraisal, although one should always consider as a plausible default that the cosmologies are ad hoc inventions, sanctifying ritual experiments and bricolages. Edmonds can justify this moon-less cosmology by reference to some Mithraic remains; but one wonders what alternative conclusions might follow the recognition of the text’s fundamentally Egyptian context.

Neither Smith nor Denzey is so interested in ritual applications. In a quite engaging history of the elevation of the originally astral god Yahweh in ancient Canaan to become Lord of Israel, Smith (NYU) shows Yahweh’s progressive juxtaposition to, then synthesis of, the non-astral “storm-god” features of the Canaanite god Baal. It is in this synthetic form that Yahweh assumes the role of the astral high-god El, whence he becomes Elohim in early psalms and narratives. Denzey (Bowdoin) gives a fascinating overview of early Christian discussions of Christ’s relationship to the celestial order. As Seidel (in Ciraolo/Seidel) uses rabbinic exegesis of 1 Samuel to reveal evidence of rabbinic divination practices, Denzey draws her evidence from early interpretations of the star of Bethlehem legend (Matt 2:1-12). We find that Christians were wed to a variety of astrological systems to undergird Christ’s cosmic inevitability. Yet many writers came to argue that Christ’s advent superseded and even vanquished the power of the stars.

Overall, as interesting and innovative as many of these papers are, these are conference volumes in which the editors have made little effort to impose or require conversation among their contributors, even though these contributors clearly had the benefit of such conversations at the time — to learn from each other, to gain illumination from the comparisons their colleagues brought, and to experiment with new models. Perhaps as book-publishing becomes more competitive, the conference volume will also become a more selective and integrated genre. There may also come a time when “ancient magic” or “magic and divination” make insufficient rubrics for either a conference or a volume. Instead, organizers might begin to consider the kind of thematic work that can be done across a series of papers: the history of a seminal text like the Testament of Solomon, for example, or transformations of divination traditions in Egypt, Mesopotamia, or Judaism, or the changing conceptions of illegitimate ritual (not exotic practices), or the different genres of magical texts and spell manuals, or the metamorphosis of spirit and angel invocations over time. Perusing these latest magic volumes makes it clear how much could be done productively if thought were put into new directions for research in magic and if interaction were required of authors.


1. Jacob Neusner, Ernest S. Frerichs, and Paul Virgil McCracken Flesher, eds., Religion, Science, and Magic: In Concert and in Conflict (New York: Oxford University Press, 1989); Christopher A. Faraone and Dirk Obbink, eds., Magika Hiera: Ancient Greek Magic and Religion (New York: Oxford University Press, 1991); Marvin Meyer and Paul Mirecki, eds., Ancient Magic and Ritual Power (Leiden: Brill, 1995); Peter Schäfer and Hans G. Kippenberg, eds., Envisioning Magic: A Princeton Seminar and Symposium (Leiden: Brill, 1997); David R. Jordan, Hugo Montgomery, and Einar Thomassen, eds., The World of Ancient Magic: Papers from the First International Samson Eitrem Seminar (Bergen: Norwegian Institute, 1999); Bengt Ankarloo and Stuart Clark, eds., Witchcraft and Magic in Europe: Ancient Greece and Rome (Philadelphia: University of Pennsylvania Press, 1999); Marvin Meyer and Paul Mirecki, eds., Magic and Ritual in the Ancient World (Leiden: Brill, 2002); Yvan Koenig, ed., La magie en Égypte (Paris: Louvre, 2002).

2. See, e.g., Sarah Iles Johnston in BMCR 2002.06.19.

3. Readers should probably consult the updated French translation of this paper: Robert K. Ritner, “Des preuves de l’existence d’une nécromancie dans l’Égypte ancienne,” La magie en Égypte, 285-304.

4. H.S. Versnel, “Some Reflections on the Relationship Magic-Religion,” Numen 38 (1991) 177-97.