BMCR 2016.02.44

Vanishing Acts on Ancient Greek Amulets: From Oral Performance to Visual Design. BICS supplement, 115

, Vanishing Acts on Ancient Greek Amulets: From Oral Performance to Visual Design. BICS supplement, 115. London: Institute of Classical Studies, School of Advanced Study, University of London, 2012. xii, 105. ISBN 9781905670406. £38.00 (pb).

[The Table of Contents is listed at the end of the review.]

The ‘vanishing acts’ of the title refer to the ‘vanishing’ names or words on ancient amulets: these names are written over and over on magical amulets, one letter shorter on each repetition, so that the word ‘disappears’ by the end of the text. These texts were referred to in ancient times as ‘wing-shaped’ (if they made a right-angled triangle) and ‘heart-shaped’ (if they made an isosceles triangle, usually by deleting letters from both the beginning and the end of each line). In the early twentieth century, these were viewed as curative amulets which cured illness by gradually ‘deleting’ a disease or the demon who caused it, a process dubbed deletio morbi. More recent scholarship had moved away from this view of wing- and heart-shaped texts, noting that these ‘vanishing’ texts could be used to summon as well as banish — for example, to call on a demon in a love spell, or to encourage menstrual bleeding to start. In this short monograph Faraone seeks to revive the idea of deletio morbi by showing that it constitutes the earliest stage of an evolving magical tradition, while acknowledging the large degree of variation which exists within this small corpus.

Faraone stresses that the generic differences between the various types of amulet and non-amuletic magic are the key to our understanding of the historical development of wing- and heart-shaped magical texts. He suggests that, in origin, the practice of writing wing- and heart-shaped amulet texts derived from oral magical practices, in which the name of the demon would be repeated aloud and reduced progressively until its name was gone. Setting up five basic stages of development (p6-7), Faraone argues for purely oral ‘vanishing speech-acts’ in the earliest phase, with handbooks writing out the spell but only referring to it being read out, not copied in written form. There is then a progression through several stages where the triangular layout of these texts was developed and the oral and visual influenced and fed off each other, finally resulting in a stage where the only consideration was the visual appearance of the written text. It is in these later stages that (Faraone suggests) scribes noticed that the name of the demon or disease remains present in a written ‘vanishing text’ not only along the first line, but also along the diagonal of the triangle, making the writing text quite unlike oral versions of the spell. As a result, extra symbols and magical characteres are added to the sides of the triangle of text in some cases to ‘contain’ the vanishing demon. But in other cases, the triangular text is used instead to give power to and summon a demon rather than making it disappear, and so wing- and heart-shaped texts are believed to be appropriate in some cases to love-charms. In these later stages, the triangles may appear in groups, or upside-down, and are much less likely to include comprehensible Greek.

Faraone is generally cautious about how clear-cut these developments are, though he suggests that these five stages may become a helpful diagnostic for dating new amulets as they are discovered and gives an outline of likely dates based on existing examples (p76). He nevertheless fully acknowledges the fuzzy boundaries between these stages of development, and says from the outset that the evidence is ‘not so tidy’ (p7), expanding on this lack of tidiness particularly in the final chapter. Overall, his heuristic use of a five-stage development, with detailed readings of the evidence which allow for porous boundaries between the stages, leads to a highly convincing explanation of the use and development of wing- and heart-shaped texts, and seems to be a valuable contribution to our understanding of ancient amulets.

The internal chapters of the book each take a different illness as their main focus: fever (Chapter 2), bleeding (Chapter 3) and headaches and sore throats (Chapter 4). Chapter 3 is based on Faraone (2009a), and Chapter 4 combines Faraone (2009b) and (2010). In practice, Faraone allows himself to draw comparisons across genres where necessary, and it would be best not to read any one chapter in isolation. The Appendix (given on several slightly awkward fold-out pages) lists 49 amulets and amulet recipes from around the first century CE to the sixth century CE, and Faraone gives close readings of almost all of these at some point in the monograph, usually accompanied by photographs, drawings or typed representations of the layout of the text. Most of the examples he includes are in the Greek alphabet and the Greek language (where the inscriptions have identifiable words), but he also includes several examples which use Latin, Aramaic and Coptic.

The real strength of the work is the close attention that Faraone pays to both the language and the materiality of the amulets. His focus on the materiality of the amulets addresses a very current issue in research on magic of all periods (see for example Boschung and Bremmer 2015; Houlbrook and Armitage 2015). He argues that the material of the amulet seems to be specific to individual diseases, with haematite for bleeding, cool-coloured stones for fever, and so on. Faraone suggests that we may be able to use the colour and material of the amulet as a diagnostic where the purpose of the charm is not stated explicitly, which allows him to include several additional texts in his fever chapter (p32). He also includes the interesting suggestion that ceramics may have functioned as ‘a poor man’s version of a cool stone’ (p24).

Regarding the language of the amulets, Faraone shows that words which appear at first sight to be nonsense (and may, in some cases, have seemed to be nonsense even to the original users of the spell) can in fact be shown to have origins in understandable Greek words or names, often with a plausible connection to the disease which the charm was supposed to cure. In the examples from Aramaic and Coptic, for example, Greek words and names have often been transliterated into other writing systems; the Latin word morbus ‘disease’ also appears backwards on a number of Greek amulets as ΣΟΥΒΡΟΜ (p18). These transliterations quickly seem to become ‘nonsense’ magical words to the users of the spells, showing the important role of language contact in the creation of magical traditions in the Mediterranean. The author’s focus on the interplay between orality and writing throughout the book is thoughtful, and is present in all of his close readings. But he could go even further, since literacy probably also had an effect on the first, oral stage of the five-stage development he lays out. The practice of reciting names which reduce by one letter-sound each time must itself be heavily influenced by alphabetic literacy, since non-literate individuals do not usually segment words into phonemes in this way (Morais et al 1979; Manfrellotti 2001). It seems therefore that even the earliest oral stage of vanishing names may have been dependent on written versions in handbooks, or at least heavily influenced by the alphabetic literacy that was present in Greek society of the first century AD.

The book is well-produced and clearly laid out, with useful indexes. The Appendix, while very helpful, could have been easier to use if it had been printed on normal pages rather than as fold-outs. It is also inconvenient that the Appendix lists the main features of each text (including the words in the wing- or heart-shaped formation, the invocation and any images, the date and material) but does not give the full text of each amulet, for which readers must refer back to the main chapters. Many of these texts are quite long, and so a full corpus of texts would have added somewhat to the length of the book – but given that the book as it stands is only just over 100 pages, it would have been a bonus to make this a user-friendly reference book as well as a well-argued monograph.

In conclusion, Faraone argues convincingly for the development of the oral magical and medical practice of ‘vanishing names’ into wing- and heart-shaped written forms, with orality and writing feeding off each other at multiple points during the spells’ evolution. His close attention to the language and orality of these texts makes for a compelling contribution to the study of ancient magical amulets.

Readers interested in the volume can currently find the preface, table of contents and first chapter on Faraone’s page here.1

Table of Contents

1. Introduction: Oral performance and epigraphic habit
2. Fever: Palindromes, confrontation and containment
3. Bleeding: The evolution of a vox magica
4. Headache and sore throat: Vanishing acts as expulsion rituals
5. Conclusions: A tentative history of disappearing speech-acts
Appendix: Survey of wing- and heart-shaped names in magical texts
Non-amuletic magic
Subject index
Magical texts and gems
Index of foreign words
Index locorum


1. References:

1.Dietrich Boschung and Jan N. Bremmer (eds.) (2015) The Materiality of Magic. Paderborn: Wilhelm Fink.
Christopher Faraone (2009a) ‘Does Tantalus drink the blood, or not?: An enigmatic series of inscribed hematite gemstones.’ In U. Deli and C. Walde (eds.) Antike Mythen: Medien, Transformationen und Konstruktionen. Berlin; New York: De Gruyter. 248-273.
Christopher Faraone (2009b) ‘A Socratic leaf-charm for headache (Charmides 155b-157c), Orphic gold leaves and the ancient Greek tradition of leaf amulets.’ In J. Dijkstra, J. Kroesen and Y. Kuiper (eds.) Myths, martyrs, and modernity. Studies in the history of religions in honour of Jan N. Bremmer. Leiden; Boston: Brill. 145-166.
Christopher Faraone (2010) ‘A Greek magical gemstone from the Black Sea: amulet or miniature handbook?’ Kernos 23. 91-114.
Ceri Houlbrook and Natalie Armitage (eds.) (2015) The Materiality of Magic: An artifactual investigation into ritual practices and popular beliefs. Oxford: Oxbow.
Olga M. Manfrellotti (2001) ‘The role of literacy in the recognition of phonological units’ Italian Journal of Linguistics 13(1): 85-98.
José Morais, Luz Cary, Jésus Alegria and Paul Bertelson (1979) ‘Does awareness of speech as a series of phones arise spontaneously?’ Cognition 7(4): 323-331.