BMCR 2015.07.15

Daughters of Hecate: Women and Magic in the Ancient World

, , Daughters of Hecate: Women and Magic in the Ancient World. Oxford; New York: Oxford University Press, 2014. xv, 533. ISBN 9780195342710. $39.95.


An edited collection of fifteen articles, Daughters of Hecate: Women in Magic in the Ancient World follows in the footsteps of Brian Levack’s (1992) Articles on Witchcraft, Magic and Demonology series, Marvin Meyer and Paul Mirecki’s two volumes, Ancient Magic and Ritual Power (1995) and Magic and Ritual in the Ancient World (2002), and Gordon and Simón’s Magical Practice in the Latin West (2010). This particular volume – which is not a conference proceedings – focuses on women and magic and helps narrow the scope of a potentially broad field by purposefully avoiding treatments of the by-now familiar characters of Apuleius, Pythagoras, Empedocles, Chresimus, Zatchlas, and the like, in favor of exploring the roles of lesser-known, often anonymous women. (Circe and Medea, for example, are discussed at length in only one article [p. 42-52].) The result is a thorough collection that offers diverse perspectives on the roles of women and magic supported by evidence from the written and material records of numerous cultures.

Stratton’s introduction sets the theoretical and scholarly context of the chapters that follow. It is a well-researched, clear and concise overview of the state of scholarship regarding the study of women and magic. Of the volume’s thirteen other authors,1 the mixture of experience levels makes for a collection that offers usefully diverse perspectives. The text is divided into three sections covering literature, practice, and the material record respectively. These divisions are not absolute, however, as literature is often cited (critically) as evidence for practice, just as evidence from material culture is. For the purposes of this review, I have found it more useful to categorize articles based on the different cultural contexts they address: Greek and/or Roman, Jewish, and early Christian.

Seven of the volume’s fifteen chapters cover material from the Greek and Roman world, making it – perhaps unsurprisingly – the most well represented area of investigation. Three of these articles are very much in line with current scholarship, and, although they address well-known topics, their contributions to the volume are valuable. Barbette Stanley Spaeth’s “From Goddess to Hag” constructs broad typologies for the Greek and the Roman witch, then posits various explanations for the similarities and differences between the two. While I personally disagree with the construction of these categories, the article’s conclusions about the functions of the witches of classical literature as ( inter alia) reflections of male anxiety and negative role models for women remain relevant and insightful. Kimberly Stratton’s “Magic, Abjection, and Gender in Roman Literature” utilizes Julia Kristeva’s treatment of the abject in order to explain the disparity between the material magical record – in which men practice magic equally as much as, if not more than women – and the literary evidence, in which magic is a predominantly feminine activity. Elizabeth Ann Pollard’s “Magic Accusations against Women in Tacitus’s Annals ” addresses the problems of defining leges magicae in Tacitus and assesses how “witchcraft” accusations fit within Tacitus’ larger narrative and reflect sociological developments in first-century CE Rome.

The other articles pertaining to the Greek and Roman world offer different perspectives. David Frankfurter and Pauline Ripat’s pieces importantly examine magic as evidence of the quotidian issues faced by women in the ancient world. Fritz Graf’s “Victimology or: How to Deal with Untimely Death” is a less technical, expanded version of a previously published article that explores the epigraphical attestations of suspicions of witchcraft/sorcery in cases of untimely death.2 Graf observes that the gender of the accused was often unspecified or targeted both men and women, such that – much in keeping with Stratton – the literary stereotype of female magical practitioners does not match with the “reality ‘on the ground’” (406). Nicola Denzey Lewis’s “Living Images of the Divine” treats Eunapius’ conceptualizations of theurgy and the implications its mastery has on practitioners such as Sosipatra and Hypatia, namely that “the perfect sage transcends human categories of gender” (290), since Sosipatra’s mastery of theurgy does not render her (as other successful women) more masculine in the doing.

Frankfurter’s “The Social Context of Women’s Erotic Magic in Antiquity” is arguably one of the more important contributions to the field in recent years. It disentangles women’s magical activity both from Christopher Faraone’s philia / agoge dichotomy and from Matthew Dickie’s assertion that “good” women do not use magic and “bad” women do. Instead, Frankfurter situates women’s use of magic as an expression of otherwise overlooked agency, as a “creative, active intervention in the unpredictabilities of affection and love, in the daunting competition for devoted partners, and in the social vagaries and constraints of a traditional society” (332). Likewise, Pauline Ripat’s “Cheating Women” examines a collection of curse tablets directed against female slaves/freedwomen in order to question “modern scholars’… approaches to the literary stereotype of ‘women’s magic’” (353) as1) reflective of actual practice, 2) groundless male fantasy, or 3) a subjective label for women’s challenges to established hierarchies (353). Instead, Ripat argues for the understanding of women’s magical acts as demonstrative of real, unrecognized problems faced by historical women.

Three articles focus on the Jewish tradition, two of which engage extensively with the Book of Watchers (I Enoch 1-36) while the third is concerned with the manufacture of Babylonian demon bowls. Both Rebecca Lesses’ “The Most Worthy of Women is a Mistress of Magic” and Annette Yoshiko Reed’s “Gendering Heavenly Secrets?” advocate caution when evaluating gendered remarks about sorcery in I Enoch, Genesis, and rabbinic commentaries. Lesses notes that such texts do not represent a unified belief system and that they often undermine or directly contradict one another. Reed critiques modern scholarly analyses of these (and other) texts and the latent perpetuation of gender stereotypes accomplished through assuming an “active male gaze” therein. Yaakov Elman’s “Saffron, Spices, and Sorceresses” is a more esoteric analysis of the tradition of Babylonian demon bowls and posits that women, in addition to being “consumers, victims and perpetrators of incantatory attacks” (p. 365), were also likely involved in the production of these prophylactic bowls.

The early Christian tradition is the subject of four of the volume’s chapters; three of them focus on Christian orthopraxy and two (Tuzlak and Luijendijk’s) do so to such an extent that their treatment of women and magic at times feels secondary, if not tertiary. Ayşe Tuzlak’s “The Bishop, the Pope, and the Prophetess” is, while informative, somewhat out of place in this volume. Although putatively writing about a possessed Cappadocian woman who baptized locals and seduced members of the clergy, Tuzlak spends the first eleven pages articulating Firmilian and Cyprian’s views surrounding Montanism before remarking “This is a book about women, witchcraft, and magic in the world of antiquity, but I have mentioned neither witchcraft nor magic so far in this essay” (262); the remaining five pages characterize the unnamed woman as a “witch” (264) and a “bad ritual expert” (266). AnneMarie Luijendijk’s “A Gospel Amulet for Joannia” offers a critical reading of a healing amulet from Oxyrhynchus and skillfully contextualizes it as an artifact of 5th century conflicts on theology, economics, and Christian praxis. Still, other than the fact that the amulet’s intended wearer was a woman, issues of gender are largely unimportant to Luijendijk’s overall thesis.

Dayna S. Kalleres also treats early Christian orthopraxy in the intriguing “Drunken Hags with Amulets and Prostitutes with Erotic Spells,” which analyzes Late Antique homilies against the magical female figures of the old healer and the prostitute. She argues that church leaders like John Chrysostom and Athanasius had come to view their congregants’ visits to these previously innocuous figures as emblematic of deviation from the teachings of the church, and thus characterized those figures as significantly more opprobrious than they traditionally had been. The fourth early Christian contribution, “Sorceresses and Sorcerers in Early Christian Tours of Hell,” by Kirsti Barrett Copeland, stands out as a succinct article that proves (rather definitively) via textual analysis of the Apocalypse of Peter and the Apocalypse of Paul that these texts “attest to one early Christian view in which there is no particular association between women and magic” (308), and that “the condemnation of magic is unconcerned with gender because the only pertinent question is salvation and damnation” (309).

Overall, this is a wide-ranging volume that will be a valuable resource for scholars, and the first two chapters may function quite well in an introductory course on Greek and Roman magic/witches. My primary criticism is one that I articulated in passing above and is, all told, relatively minor: some articles feel only tangentially related to the volume’s commitment to “challenge presumed associations of women and magic by probing the foundation of it, the processes underlying, and the motivations behind the stereotypes” (ix), in that they use magic and women as springboards to explore other avenues of inquiry, rather than the other way around. Other critiques are matters of form (by covering such a broad swath, few topics can receive extensive analysis) and personal taste (I find the use of endnotes unwieldy), and thus are of even less import. The book itself is impressively well bound; even the soft-cover spine is sturdy enough to withstand the volume’s 530 pages, which is notable given its affordable $39.95 price-tag. Typographical and formatting errors are all but absent.


1. In the interest of full disclosure, one of the authors – Fritz Graf – was my graduate thesis advisor. I have made every effort to remain impartial in my review of his work, along with that of the other thirteen contributors.

2. Zeitschrift für Papyrologie und Epigrafik 162 (2007) 139-150: “Untimely Death, Witchcraft, and Divine Vengeance: A Reasoned Epigraphical Catalog.”