In this volume Carastro (C.) aims to trace the figure of the Magos introduced into the Greek language in the fifth century B.C.E., arguing in essence that the term
This volume is based on a doctoral dissertation that C. completed in Paris in 2002. Despite the intervening time and the presentation in monograph form, there seems to have been very little attempt to adapt the work from the form of a student thesis to that of an academic book (although the research has certainly been brought up to date). The thinking is mature but the structure is perhaps unsophisticated, with long stretches of pedantic argument, and not always the most elegant use of citations (in one chapter, for example, seemingly every reference to purification is adorned with a footnote referring Parker’s Miasma). More on the presentation will be discussed at the end of this review.
The current work is part of a fairly extensive, although relatively recent, tradition of scholarly work on ancient magic. Early collections like Faraone & Obbink’s (1991) Magika Hiera and Betz and co.’s (1986) translations of the Greek Magical Papyri, helped to usher in a renaissance of respectable scholarship in the area. Many of the monographs that followed, including volumes by Bernand, Graf, and Dickie, attempted create a synthetic picture of magic in the whole of the ancient world, with mixed success, as did the primarily teaching collections of Luck and Ogden.1 More recently there has been a tendency to build upon these foundations with far more focussed studies of particular aspects of magic, delimited by time and/or place, such as works by Faraone, Janowitz, Trzcionka, and Collins, which have on the whole led to more fruitful scholarship.2 The current volume falls in the latter category of focused works that avoid the pitfalls of over-generalising across the thousands of miles and years of antiquity.
C. begins, sensibly, with a discussion of his terms, his definitions, and the scholarly history of studies of magic. He refers to the important difference between emic and etic approaches to magic (the first of which he characterizes as necessary but not sufficient, and the latter as problematic). He argues that the term
This book is divided into three parts, containing two, three, and two chapters respectively. Part I, “L’Avènement des Mágoi“, begins with a relatively cursory chapter entitled “Histoires des Mágoi“. This chapter begins, reasonably enough, with a summary of Herodotus’ mentions of the Magoi, and concludes that, because their rituals are often described as failing, their representation is ultimately negative. The fact that they fail because Xerxes has to fail to invade Hellas is a level of problematisation C. seems to overlook, although it does not entirely invalidate his observations. By the by, C. rejects the reference to Magoi in Heraclitus 14B (DK) as an anachronism, but accepts Aeschylus’ Persae 318 as a significant reference to a Magos. In a discussion of Persian sacrificial ritual, he shows that Herodotus misunderstood their use of theogonic song as a (“magical”?) epaoide. He concludes that in the Greek view the Magoi were “violent”, and that Persian funerary rituals were “outrageux”; that Herodotus represents the Magoi as capable of true divination, but not infallible. The involvement of Magoi in political machinations renders them with ultimately negative connotations, and that their sacrificial practice is described using the verb
Chapter Two, “Au Coeur de la Cité”, presents evidence for the reception of terms relating to the Magoi in Athenian literature, principally tragedy, philosophy, medicine, and rhetoric. In a discussion of the passage in Sophocles’ OT where Oedipus calls Teiresias “Magos”, C. points out that this term is used as a general insult with connotations of “beggar” and “trickster”, but also seems to follow Rigsby ( GRBS 1976) in seeing a political reference to the Magoi as king-makers; wrongly, I believe. C. also argues that Iphigenia’s purification ritual in Euripides’ IT is meant to recall those of the Magoi, and that in the same playwright’s Supplices the related noun
The second part of the book, “La Constellation de Thélgein“, which makes up almost half of its length, begins with a chapter on “Des Dieux qui Médusent”. This chapter starts to make clear the true agenda of the book, which is not to discuss the historical or stereotypical Magoi in fifth-century Hellas, but to discuss terminology and thought surrounding the concepts of magic, charming, and bewitching. Most of the discussions in this long section are therefore close readings of particular myths or works of literature (mostly from the Homeric texts); all very interesting, valuable, and convincing in their own right, but with only marginal relation to the argument of the preceding chapters. This chapter focuses on a discussion of the verb
Chapter Four is a study of the Sirens, and this topic seems to be at the heart of C.’s interest in the subject matter. (One wonders why this book was not more obviously centred on the magic of the Sirens rather than bringing in the Magoi in the first place.) In this section also the structure of the work as a dissertation is most obvious and most intrusive upon the scholarly writing. C. begins the chapter with a reinterpretation of the Homeric episode involving the Sirens in the light of the semantic range of
Chapter Five, “La Pharmacie de Circé”, which together with the preceding dominates the volume, moves away from music as the instrument of charming to the use of drugs. C. begins this chapter by disagreeing with Scalera McClintock ( PP 1999), whom he characterises as arguing that Circe is not a magician (using the “emic” approach), but that what she does is, somehow, magic, according to the rational/irrational dichotomy. C. proposes to argue that Circe is indeed a “magicienne”, if only retrospectively, in terms of Greek concepts that in the fifth century were labelled
A discussion of the verb
Part Three of this work is titled “Penser la Mageía“, and begins with the sixth chapter, “Au Pays des Liens”, which focuses on curse tablets. This chapter begins with a few pages summarising the state of the field, which is useful, and is riddled with footnotes referencing the magisterial works of David Jordan and Roger Tomlin, as one would expect. C. does make some precarious claims, however, including the idea that the practice of creating defixiones on lead was a Middle Eastern invention, perhaps even brought to Hellas by the Magoi (63). He argues that the intention of this chapter is to put curse tablets into their full context in the Greek world, both as texts, as material objects, and as objects of the Greek “imaginaire”. The argument about the status of these curses as written or as oral texts is rehearsed, with C. remarking that curse tablets were not meant to be read, and later concluding that they were not merely (pace Faraone and Graf) records of a spoken ritual. He argues that one cannot, after all, comment on the “missing” oral text that these written words would be a record of, and also makes the point that such a reading privileges the more elaborate texts at the expense of the majority of texts which are little more than names and sometimes a significant verb and a chthonian divinity. C.’s position comes close to relying on an ex silentio argument of sorts; recognising that we can not comment with any confidence on the spoken text of which no record survives is not the same as concluding that there was no such oral dimension behind the often brief written remains.
This chapter then proceeds to focus upon two example texts, both unusual in their own way, and neither especially relevant to the question of imports from Asia Minor. The first of these is a curse tablet of the early fifth century from Selinous in Sicily; C. gives a sketch, the text, and a translation, then mentions a couple of textual difficulties. This text, however, seems principally to offer C. the opportunity to discuss the word
Staying with Plato, the seventh and final chapter, “La Magie de Platon”, deconstructs the dichotomy between “elite” philosophy and “vulgar” magic. This chapter traces the use of words related to Magos and other language that C. has highlighted in this volume, through the works of Plato. In the Republic, a Magos is a sophist; in references to Homer, Plato associates the charming of the Sirens to bad, corrupting persuasion. Meno compares Socrates to a
In a very short, two page conclusion tacked on to the end of the book, C. attempts to draw together some of the disparate topics covered in his dissertation. The Magoi, he begins, “entered the Greek city” in the fifth century B.C.E., both as a term in language and as a concept for understanding certain practices and beliefs. Gorgias associated
It would have been helpful if C. had somewhere in this book explained his own beliefs about who the Magoi that “entered” Hellas actually were, and summarised the evidence for their presence and existence. Were the Magoi to whom he refers lone Persians, coming to Greece in the wake of Darius’ and Xerxes’ defeats? Were they in fact members of the caste of Magoi described by Herodotus? Or were they perhaps Greeks come from Ionia (or even natives to the mainland), itinerant ritual practitioners and mendicants but posing as wise foreign religious experts? Did they exist at all outside of the popular imagination and a new vocabulary for describing native figures who always had existed, or was Magos merely another word for the agurtai and goetes ? This reviewer finds it difficult to assess C.’s arguments in places without understanding in precisely what sense he means the reader to take this term.
At times the content of this book is disjointed and uneven. The striking amount of space spent discussing the Sirens and Circe in Homer in great detail, and lengthy digressions on philological details, for example, while not uninteresting or worthless in themselves, do seem disproportionate to their function in the discussion of Magoi and the language of magic. The discussion of the Magoi in Herodotus and other fifth century sources would make a good article or monograph; the close reading of Odyssey 10 is also good and should stand alone; the discussion of curse tablets is good if thin. All of these lead to conclusions that are important to C.’s argument, but these conclusions would stand up with less background and more discussion of their significance. These passages are clearly necessary to the dissertation, where the candidate is proving his worth and demonstrating his research skills and argumentative method, but they feel excessive in a monograph. This may seem like an invidious criticism, but it should not detract from the value of the research in this volume.
There are few errors and inconsistencies in this text. C. adopts an unambiguous transcription from the Greek that combines accents with macrons for eta and omega; sometimes, however, especially in footnotes and extended quotes, he uses Greek script.
1. André Bernand, Sorciers grecs, Paris, 1991; Fritz Graf, La magie dans l’antiquité gréco-romaine: idéologie et pratique, Paris, 1994; Matthew Dickie, Magic and Magicians in the Greco-Roman World, London 2001; Georg Luck, Arcana Mundi: Magic and the occult in the Greek and Roman worlds, Baltimore, 1985; Daniel Ogden, Magic, Witchcraft, and Ghosts in the Greek and Roman Worlds: a sourcebook, Oxford, 2002.
2. Christopher Faraone, Ancient Greek Love Magic, Harvard, 1999; Naomi Janowitz, Magic in the Roman World: Pagans, Jews, and Christians, London, 2001; Silke Trzcionka, Magic and the Supernatural in Fourth Century Syria, London, 2007; Derek Collins, Magic in the Ancient Greek World, Oxford, 2007.
3. But he needs a reference to J. Stannard, ‘The Plant Called Moly’, Osiris 14 (1962), 254, or, more recently, J. Scarborough, ‘The Pharmacology of Sacred Plants, Herbs, and Roots’, in Magika Hiera, 1991, 165 n. 24.
4. But needs to refer to, e.g., J. Winkler, The Constraints of Desire, 1990 (esp. ch. 3, “The Constraints of Desire”) and other recent work on social and cultural explanations for the dominance of women in literary magic.
5. He cites Meuli, Dodds, and Burkert on “Greek shamanism”, but not J. N. Bremmer’s 1983 The Early Greek Concept of the Soul and 2002 The Rise and Fall of the Afterlife, which between them strongly challenge the view that there is anything convincing to tie Central Asian shamanism to Hellas in any way.