BMCR 2011.06.16

Magie et sortilèges dans l’Antiquité romaine: archéologie des rituels et des images

, Magie et sortilèges dans l'Antiquité romaine: archéologie des rituels et des images. Paris: Hermann Éditeurs, 2010. 212; xix p. of plates. ISBN 9782705670498 €44.00 (pb).

Anglo-American scholarship on ancient magic in recent decades has been preoccupied, first, with the relationship of literary representations of witches and wizards to the documents of real magic—amulets, binding spells, and the such—and second, to the evolving construction of mageia as a category of subversion. Magali Bailliot’s insightful and well-documented little book, however, is interested in the practice and efficacy of the rituals, symbols, and ingredients used in actual magical practice. Informed by anthropological theory (Austin, Tambiah, Augé) and the most recent archaeology (including recent discoveries at Reims and Rome), and supplemented with an extensive series of rare and instructive color plates of magical objects and sites, the book offers a refreshing and genuinely interesting attempt to reframe the discussion of ancient magic. Classical sources (literary, legal), while not the main focus of discussion, are competently deployed to give magical practices cultural context. By restricting herself to Roman antiquity Bailliot manages to avoid strict historical considerations—e.g., the evolution of Greek or Christian ideas or the impact of multiculturalism—to develop out of archaeological sources a synchronic cultural dimension in which magical practices made sense.

An Introduction briefly critiques earlier notions of “magic worldview” before defending an approach based primarily on magical papyri, gems, and binding tablets. Bailliot situates herself in a scholarly trajectory (Graf, Scheid, Faraone, Versnel) that tries to avoid past prejudices about a “magic underworld” of secrecy and subversion and to discern the rationality and, indeed, the social implications of private ritual actions. More than literature, she argues, archaeological discoveries have shown much local variation in magical practices, implying their reflection of immediate cultural contexts rather than some universal underworld of magic.

In an effort to shift the discussion of magic away from its torrid depictions in classical literature Bailliot gives considerable weight to the efficacy of images and symbols. Chapter Two, “Beliefs and Iconography: Prophylactic Symbols and Amulets,” reviews a great diversity of apotropaic images and gestures that dominated the imagination, households, and cityscapes of people across the Roman empire, addressing a general fear of evil eye and sorcery. Drawing on grafitti, floor mosaics, and literary evidence she discusses the apotropaic eye, phallus, horn, Medusa-head, various animals and birds, as well as potent apotropaic gestures like spitting, urinating, and even defecating. Some images, like the mosaic representation of an unswept floor, Bailliot decodes in connection to beliefs about ghosts. The chapter is abundantly illustrated from archaeological sites around the Roman empire.

The third chapter addresses the ritual process of “binding” rivals and opponents through the preparation and depositing of lead tablets, figurines, or other media. It is “performative” in the sense of assembling materials and declaring ideal scenarios that would affect a social situation—resolve a crisis—through proper ritual performance. The very vocabulary of binding, Bailliot argues, implies a series of ritual stages, some oral, some involving materials and gestures. Archaeology shows considerable diversity in binding practices, from the media for inscribing spells (lead, wax) to the sites chosen for depositing them (wells, cemeteries, even the sea), and of course the great variety of deities and spirits invoked in the spells. Archaeology also reveals how little evidence we have of the total ritual process. Various binding assemblages include everything from tablets and figurines to bowls and lamps and even some bone fragments, indicating that animal slaughter occasionally accompanied the rite. A particularly rich discussion of ritual figurines and their treatment, informed by the most recent finds from the Anna Perenna fountain in Rome and elsewhere, is supplemented by ten excellent photographs, and one may be grateful that Bailliot here eschews the needlessly confusing and exoticizing term “voodoo doll.” The subsequent discussion of iconography on curse tablets demonstrates the integral function of magical drawing in the course of binding ritual, but a protracted description of sketches of the Egyptian gods Osiris and Seth begs the larger question of mythological eclecticism or syncretism in binding rituals. Why use this crude Seth iconography in binding rituals in the Latin West? Finally, Bailliot describes a sequence of ritual stages in the binding rite, from initial invocations and offerings, to the dedication of the targeted individual, and finally the manipulation and depositing of the tablets and figurines.

The final chapter revolves around the ambiguity of magic. Despite its popularity and regular deployment in every situation of competition or rivalry, civic institutions disapproved of magical intervention and often levied strict legal penalties. Bailliot reviews primary witnesses to anti-sorcery persecutions (Tacitus, Ammianus) and then the evidence for the popularity of binding rites across class, profession, region, and scale of crisis. As one might expect, local professionals—ritual experts, scribes—facilitated the production of efficacious rituals in most areas. Thus magic had a social ambiguity: in no way restricted to a “demi-monde,” yet suspicious nonetheless.

It also, Bailliot argues, had a discursive ambiguity. An indigenous term implying magical efficacy like amuletum might also have a medical sense. A bulla worn around the neck and a beautiful floor mosaic both displayed social status and carried apotropaic efficacy. Certain terms for official religious speech— carmen, evocatio —also carried magical capacity, and “religious” speech operated on the same illocutionary principles as “magical” speech. Apotropaic symbols—eyes, phalluses—pervaded the cityscape, in no way private or secret.

It is on the basis of this ambiguity that Bailliot explains the efficacy of magic. Magic “works” not because of some kind of private cathartic drama, as Malinowski and Winkler proposed, but because the ritual expert, the client/performer, and the targeted individual all operate within a common system of symbolic limits, in particular the boundaries of the private and the separation of the dead and the living. The expert and client ritually transgress those limits, while the target— who might, like Libanius, find a weird ritual object hidden in his chambers, or, like Gemellus Horion of Karanis, encounter a fetus thrown at him1 — will impute ritual potency to the anomalies he encounters. This idéologie commune across society will inevitably be shaped by local traditions as well: say, about the apotropaic or impure potency of various local animal or gestural symbols. Thus Bailliot proposes a kind of discourse of efficacy continuous with (public) religion and based in a kind of structuralism instead of notions of “magic worldview” or “degenerate religion.”

Magie et sortilèges has its limitations, of course. Bailliot asserts rather than explores the overlaps of magical efficacy with the efficacy of public ceremonies and animal slaughter, and she leaves aside the larger belief-systems about witches and ghosts against which apotropaia were meant to work and out of which binding spells sought to employ spirits. While using the Greek Magical Papyri to explicate binding spells Bailliot ignores entirely the revelation spells, an enormous component of the larger PGM manuals. There may be good reason to give these rituals less historical significance, but this should be explained. Furthermore, while making use of Christian authors and late antique sources, Bailliot ignores the impact of Christianity or Judaism on the construction of magical efficacy and demonic dangers. (Certainly a study like hers invites a new consideration of what Christian and Jewish might mean for the topic of magic). Finally, her conclusion about a common discourse of efficacy and symbolic limits struck this reader as curiously under-developed, given the voluminous theoretical literature on liminality, impurity, and ambiguity in social experience.

Overall, it is a book that might, in size and coverage, helpfully complement any course on ancient magic or religion in the Roman world, especially if translated into English, but at forty-four Euros for a short paperback it may remain only “suggested reading.” Libraries would do well to buy it for the invaluable illustrations and unusual approach to magic. Meanwhile, anglophone readers will look forward to Andrew Wilburn’s forthcoming Materia Magica: The Archaeology of Magic in Egypt, Spain and Cyprus (University of Michigan Press, 2011?), which likewise puts the evidence of material culture at the center.


1. P. Michigan VI.423-24, on which see David Frankfurter, “Fetus Magic and Sorcery Fears in Roman Egypt,” Greek, Roman, and Byzantine Studies 46 (2006): 37-62, and Ari Z. Bryen and Andrzej Wypustek,”Gemellus’ Evil Eyes (P.Mich. VI 423-424),” Greek, Roman, and Byzantine Studies 49 (2009): 535-555.