BMCR 2007.08.06

Magic and the Supernatural in Fourth-Century Syria

, Magic and the supernatural in fourth-century Syria. London and New York: Routledge, 2007. xi, 220 pages ; 23 cm. ISBN 041539242X. £17.99.

This volume is a revised version of the Ph.D. thesis Silke Trzcionka (hereafter T.), an Australian Research Council Senior Research Associate at the Centre for Early Christian Studies at Australian Catholic University, prepared under the auspices of Wendy Mayer and Paul Tuffin and submitted to the University of Adelaide in 2004. According to the title T. primarily focuses on late antique Syria and the practices and beliefs present there to summon supernatural powers for help in specific situations of life. In addition, the back cover unveils that T. will specify on Palestine, too, and, together with the first page of the book, it promises that she is going to deal with “a myriad of magical activities” (for instance, curses, spells, and amulets; accusations; methods of healing, protecting, and exorcism). With a strict geographical, chronological, and thematic framing and by applying methodological theses from sociology and anthropology, T. engages in painting a realistic picture of region, time, and people. By doing so a “belief system emerges that intricately intertwines the supernatural and tangible worlds, and in which magic pervades and defines social reality.” The book is aimed at “students and specialists of late antiquity, ancient magic, ancient religion and early Christianity” (see the summary on the back cover).

Apart from acknowledgements (ix), a list of abbreviations (x-xi), endnotes (164-204), a bibliography (205-16, split up in primary texts and translations and secondary sources), and a general index (217-20) T.’s book comprises ten chapters, although the introductory chapter one (1-4) is simply a condensed summary of the other chapters to follow and chapter ten (161-3) a brief and overall conclusion of the whole study.

Chapter two (5-23) is essential for comprehending and assessing the whole study, so that its contents are given in more detail than that of the other chapters. It is dedicated to the fundamental prerequisites for a work like the present one: what is the status quaestionis in that area of research? In other words, T. depicts the problems that arise when the phenomenon ‘magic’ is in the focus of interest, develops the parameters of her own investigation, and explains the method(s) applied to the material she utilizes throughout her study. With a succinct research history she hits the sore point of most of the research in magic in (late) antiquity carried out so far: whether it be from an unconscious bias or even occasionally deliberate, scholars who worked on ‘magic’ often harshly distinguished between religion and magic. With such a dichotomy at hand magic was pejoratively determined, so that orthodoxy (for religion) on the one side and heresy or the like (for magic) on the other were seen as two hostile opposites. Moreover, magic was interpreted as something wrong, primitive, and sometimes even detestable. Attitudes and approaches have changed since then, but still terminology is seldom unambiguous. T. presents the most significant studies carried out for defining ‘magic’ in sum,1 but eventually refrains from defining ‘magic’ herself. Moreover, she even eliminates “the one-word label such as ‘magic’ ” in order not to get drawn into the abyss of erratic terminology. Thus, her subject matter includes (10) “those activities that involve humanly instigated communication with supernatural entities, such as divinities and daimones, for the purpose of protection, or assistance in beneficent or maleficent action.”

Then T. sets out the parameters of place, time, and sources for her approach: the focus is on Syria and Palestine (including Palaestina and Palaestina Salutaris) in the fourth century CE. Of course, the artifacts T. could have used for her study are legion. Thus, a distinct selection of sources must be made in order to specialize on the social context papyri, tablets, and other materials present. But T. even widens the scope by integrating written, mostly literary sources, such as early Christian authors, law codes, and Jewish material of that era. This chapter ends with a survey of scholarly approaches to the supernatural in the fourth century (14-23).

T.’s overall approach from the general to the particular is first manifested by chapter three. After an overall discussion of the focus of the study itself, T. sketches the socio-cultural background of fourth-century Syria and Palestine (24-37). Here she touches the impact of Roman imperial administration on everyday life and how it was organized in the first place. Readers learn about the social strata of society, the language and educational situation, and culture in general. Then T. writes about Syrian Christianity and the diversity of religion and beliefs. This fundamental information is vital for understanding the individual ritual practices that follow. So, the alliterative heading “Curses for courses [Heavy tactics in the hippodrome]” (38-52) immediately indicates what the next pages will be about. T. does not only treat curses in general, but she specializes on those linked with chariot races in hippodromes and how charioteers summoned supernatural powers for assistance. As in most other chapters she first shares her insider knowledge about Syria and then Palestine, before she pinpoints a specific issue, here the charioteers’ motivations in that agonistic context, and ends up with a brief conclusion. Apart from defixiones T. can refer to Jerome or the Codex Theodosianus to provide proof for the practice of aggressive magic to hinder or even to cause severe damage to rivals in the chariot races. According to T. charioteers could gain high status and power so that they might have been regarded as supernatural powers themselves that only could be fought by other kinds of supernatural powers. It is natural that honor and envy play important roles in that conception.

Even more aggressive and active practices are in the center of the next chapter (“Supernatural sabotage: ensuring a successful livelihood”, 53-80), which homogeneously adds to the picture painted in the previous chapter and could have formed a part of it. Here T. relies on curse tablets and Theodoret of Cyrrhus, although she starts with quotations from John Chrysostom and other Church Fathers thereafter. Protagonists of that time were involved in a continuous struggle between defensive and aggressive measures, in which again honor and envy and additionally also shame were important.

In chapter five, T. adds love charms to the depiction of the ritual practices discussed so far (“Demanding desire: rituals of love and lust”, 81-100). Following the same pattern of structure and sources, T. concludes that there must have been a concern about “family unity, marriage, honour and shame” (100) intertwined with sexual desire and issues of gender as a background from which special ritual practices resulted. It is very interesting that the erotic spells preserved by tablets and papyri confirm the hagiographical accounts, which themselves present a more clearly identifiable setting.

The next chapter, “The apotropaic: protecting good fortune” (101-20), is dedicated to defensive, i.e. protective, ritual practices. It is not surprising that the ‘evil eye’ is focused on by the material employed, because objects protecting from the ‘evil eye’, a result of envy, exist in large quantity and in diverse forms. Here and there T. could have approached objects more closely and added some more bibliographical background (so, for instance, for the fascinating phenomenon of apotropaic door lintels,2 the utilization of Septuagint Psalm 90, the most popular biblical text in this respect, against all kinds of evils and diseases3). Shecould also have addressed other assertions of belief in protective supernatural powers more appropriately (for example, the Εἷς Θεός formula4 and the Mezuza, the latter in connection with the lintels and other house/door inscriptions). T. is right in writing (117): “It has been seen that which is valued is vulnerable.” That is why people have the desire to protect everything that is precious to them. Therefore, the Church Fathers can easily identify ‘envy’ as the root of almost all evil interferences in people’s lives (T. refers to Basil here). According to T. this unveils the belief that people could be harmed by daimonic powers exactly where they are vulnerable (i.e., these supernatural powers could inflict harm to what people loved and valued) and, thus, must be alert and take measures of protection.

The next two chapters are closely linked to each other. In “Illness and healing: threats and retaliation in a discourse of power” (121-41) T. confronts the reader with the struggle between holy men as representatives of positive powers on the one side and magicians, enchanters, mathematicians, or astrologers (see the Synod of Laodicea) on the other. For instance, Codex Theodosianus records the possibility of divorcing one’s wife when she has been in contact with a medicamentaria, so that this becomes identical with severe crimes. T. utilizes the accounts of Christian writers about ‘holy men’ and their healing activities (see, for example, Palladius on Benjamin; Theodoret on Peter the Galatian, Maron, Romanus and Macedonius). Of major impact on further discussions about the quality of illnesses and their potential connection with daimonic powers is the section offered near the end of this chapter. Here T. refrains from simply taking over the regularly asserted notion that (137) “the daimonic could be seen as intricately linked to the cause of illness.” According to T., supernatural practices were only useful against supernatural entities, so that physical medicine and healers who applied supernatural powers may have complemented each other in certain cases. Consequently, it is not appropriate to regard (138) “supernatural and non-supernatural methodologies as inherently opposed.” Within this framework Christianity could establish its specific and significant role as supplying a potent healing power represented by and easily identifiable with the holy men themselves.

Chapter nine completes the picture painted in chapter eight by focusing on “Possession and expulsion: experiencing and dispelling the daimonic” (142-60). Again T. relies on her usual sources and rightly so: Theodoret’s narratives about the activities of holy men are vital depictions of the beliefs and attitudes present in those days. These are supplemented by other literary accounts, such as John Chrysostom’s reports on the martyria of St Babylas and St Julian and Jerome’s Life of St Hilarion. T.’s observation is succinct (160): “It is here proposed that within the framework of fourth-century supernatural belief daimonic possession and expulsion provided a forum for the display of supernatural and human power and control.” Of course, daimonic power is expressed by possession and consequently a ‘holy man’ could embody the positive and superior power by performing expulsions.

In her brief concluding chapter “Conclusion: ambitions, desires, fears and insecurities” (161-3) T. summarizes most of her previously asserted conclusions, but also returns to the necessity of a sound method applied to the phenomenon ‘magic’ in general. Throughout, many interesting pieces of information are provided in the explanatory notes, which also offer useful bibliographical references, supported by the following bibliography.

Without doubt T.’s meticulous work is very welcome and a significant contribution to the field of research on (late) antique magic. T. approaches magic in two geographical regions and in a historical period, both of which are usually not in the main focus of scholarly work. This is done in an unbiased and sound way. Very impressive is her skillful narrative account and her fluent style of writing. With her fine and concise observations at hand the readers, no matter if they are specialists in the field, beginning students of (late) antiquity, or just readers interested in the subject matters, are enabled to develop some further insights in some very specific topics that could only be touched in the book. T. must be thanked for having written that fascinating book.


1. However, further essential studies in this respect are: J.N. Bremmer, ‘The Birth of the Term ‘Magic”, ZPE 126 (1999) 1-12, and idem, ‘The Birth of the Term ‘Magic”, in: idem/J.R. Veenstra (eds.), The Metamorphosis of Magic from Late Antiquity to the Early Modern Period, Groningen Studies in Cultural Change 1. Leuven et al. 2002, 1-11, 276-271; H.D. Betz, ‘Introduction’, in: idem (ed.), The Greek Magical Papyri in Translation Including the Demotic Spells. Chicago-London: 1992 (2nd edition, paperback edition 1996), 244-259.

2. See the numerous entries in IGLS (Inscriptiones grecques et latines de la Syrie. 7 vols. Paris 1929-1970).

3. For details, see T.J. Kraus, ‘Septuaginta-Psalm 90 in apotropäischer Verwendung: Vorberlegungen für eine kritische Edition und (bisheriges) Datenmaterial’, Biblische Notizen 125 (2005) 39-72.

4. See, for instance, the classic work by E. Peterson, Εἷς Θεός. Epigraphische, formgeschichtliche und religionsgeschichtliche Untersuchungen, FRLANT 41. Göttingen 1926.