BMCR 2020.03.28

Magic in ancient Greece and Rome

Lindsay Watson, Magic in ancient Greece and Rome. . London; New York: Bloomsbury Academic, 2019. x, 248 p.. ISBN 9781788312981 £21.59 (pb).



Watson’s 2019 Magic in Ancient Greece and Rome is, by the author’s prefaced account, a book with a long gestation. The underpinning was based on a 2006 research grant from the University of Sydney to study the role of animals in Greek and Roman magic. The resulting 248-page publication delivered here is focussed on “challenging a number of orthodoxies where scepticism seemed in order” (p.vii). It is organised into seven distinct chapters: Introduction; The Violence of Amatoasry Magic; Defixiones: A Recent History; Magic and Herbs; Animals in Magic; Fictional Witches; Human sacrifice in Ancient Magic? There is no conclusion or collative chapter. The main body of the text is followed by the bibliography and index. Supplementary appendices on whether defixiones ‘worked’ and on amulets, broadly discussing lamellae and phylacteries, are found at the end of chapters three and five respectively. In both appendices there is scope for incorporating fuller discussion, but particularly with the curse tablets on the social significance and psychological effects of cursing or being cursed.

The introduction is an overview of the subsequent text, and a historiography of the discovery, translation and impact of the Papyri Graecae Magicae. Interestingly, and for better or worse, Watson actively distances the intrinsically thematic-led approach of this volume from the necessity to engage in semantic and theoretical debates (pp.1-3). Scholars of ancient religion and magic are all too well aware of the difficulties surrounding the semantic debate in their field. Avoiding, as Watson puts it, “an excess of abstraction” (p.3) is a valid approach, but the very fact that the title of the book incorporates the word ‘Magic’ probably required a bit more semantic and/or etymological unpacking here for the uninitiated.

The main strength of this book lies in its concise introduction of different facets of ancient magical practices, drawing on a broad (although exclusively textual) evidence base, predominantly informed by the PGM, the corpus of curse tablets, and the writings of Pliny the Elder, Dioscorides, Theophrastus, and Ovid.  This focus is surprising when the recent ‘material turn’ in ancient magical studies has helped to develop a deeper understanding of the nature and scale of such practices. The edited volumes by Boschung and Bremmer (2015),[1] Houlbrook and Armitage (2015),[2] and the book by Wilburn (2012) are cases in point.[3] Chapter 3 is a well-considered introduction to the topic of curse tablets and defines their form, function, and categorisations clearly. Chapter 4 focusses on the use of plants in ancient ritual and on the nature of sympathy and etymological nomen omen in forming conceptual relationships to healing practices, an often-neglected subject of which further discussion is always welcome. This approach contrasts with the firecracker content of Chapter 2, which concentrates on promoting the palpably visceral nature of love magic – again, as derived from textual sources — but at the same time lays down a challenge to other contemporary scholarly positions throughout. The contrast is so great that these chapters read as if they are from entirely different books. Chapter 5 is in fact written not by the author but by the author’s partner, who is not given a full co-author credit on the cover. Having a different author for only one chapter is a little baffling. While this chapter’s question-led discussion of the ousia (substances) derived from animals and utilised in myriad ways is very good, the change in tone and writing style is jarring. The final two chapters, on witches and human sacrifice, move beyond the broad theme of an individualistic, creative approach to magic and stray into highlighting specific sensational aspects of ancient ritual; while there is no inherent problem in doing this, as interest often focusses on these issues, it is worth noting that the approach differs slightly from the preceding content.

The Greek world is clearly overrepresented in the general studies of ancient magic (Bremmer 2015, 8), and so there is clearly academic space for synthetic publications on the developments of Greek, Hellenistic, and Roman magical practices;[4] this was the intention of the recent volume on amulets by Faraone for example.[5] Watson takes an essentialist approach to ancient Greece and Rome. There is no sense of cultural or chronological separation through the chapters; while there was of course great influence from the former to the latter, Watson delivers no sense of the temporal or geographic uniqueness of any of the experiences discussed (with the exception that the chapter on human sacrifice focusses on the Roman rather than Greek experience (p.211)) with an eye always on the literary nature of each topic. One concludes that Watson suggests extensive overlap/continuity in the practices and, in part, presumes that readers will bring with them a sufficient knowledge of the Classical world to identify these – sometimes – nuanced  differences.

I would like to criticise the liberal use of the term ‘magician’, which is used throughout to describe those who were using magic, but because it is used so frequently here, its semantic baggage is (deliberately?) lost. The reader is left to discern who or what a ‘magician’ was and the range of practices with which they could be associated. The biggest issue with this text, however, remains its limited view of what comprised the corpus of ancient magic. ‘Magic’, for Watson, is focussed on the practices, rituals, formulae, and so on named within the Papyri Graecae Magicae or discussed by ancient authors. This leaves out the other well-established material strategies by which supernatural effects or protection may have been sought for individuals or places; for example, where are the phallic pendants, the lucky hand gestures, the exotic fossils in graves? While there is discussion of ‘folk-medicine’ in the chapters on plant and animal substances, there is no sense here of everyday magic.

It is this non-textual, archaeological/material evidence that may, at least in part, undermine or subvert Watson’s text-informed argument. As a case in point, Watson goes to some pains to argue that amatory love magic (chapter 2) was not only characterised by violent and visceral language, but intensely connected to similar real-world experiences. Perhaps this was true for some, but other non-linguistic material evidence beyond the PGM might point to a more benign, or even romantic, form of love magic – the gold openwork ring inscribed in Greek as the ‘Love Charm of Polemius’, for example, has no such violent connotations associated with it.[6] Nor do pendants depicting the dextrarum iunctio or couples kissing made from Whitby jet; a material which takes a static charge and was ritually rubbed by its users to experience a thrilling sensation.[7] Equally, the discussion of the gendered construction of the witch in ancient literature doesn’t help us to identify the contemporary implications of taking  a pragmatic approach to ancient magic, but it instead reveals more about modern reactions to ancient narrative tropes. Understanding that the reductive male portrayals of supernatural women are just that – reductive – is important, but the chapter is unable fully to correct this revisionist view without the use of archaeological evidence of actual ritual practices to show whether they might have been undertaken by men, or women, or were egalitarian in their outlook. A focus on fictional witches in ancient literature is far less relevant for investigating magic ‘on the ground’ than archaeological evidence would be. There are thirteen monochrome figures punctuating all the chapters. Eight of these are helpful additions, but the five examples of supporting imagery from early-modern artists (Figs. 7-9, 12-13) are unhelpful anachronisms; they signpost the author’s investment in a post-reformation understanding of witches rather than uncovering an ancient one. Additional supporting imagery surrounding the material and sensory nature of Watson’s ‘pragmatic magic’ would have been beneficial.

Watson’s work is clearly born from great experience and expertise with Classical literature, and its central theme that ancient magic was a “profoundly pragmatic business with concrete, clearly delineated aims” (p.3) remains both noble and welcome; it is a concept that has further room for growth. However, this text is not, by a long way, what the title may lead the reader to expect: namely, a holistic view of Magic in Ancient Greece and Rome.. It is a view, albeit a detailed and informative one, of a set of practices known from textual and documentary sources, and despite its aims and protestations it remains firmly within a traditional approach to this subject.

[1] Boschung, Dietrich and Bremmer, Jan. N. (eds) The Materiality of Magic (Morphomata 20). Paderborn, Wilhelm Fink.

[2] Houlbrook, Ceri. and Armitage, Natalie. 2015. The Materiality of Magic: An Artefactual Investigation in Ritual Practices and Popular Beliefs. Oxford, Oxbow.

[3] Wilburn, Andrew. T. 2012. Materia Magica: The Archaeology of Magic in Roman Egypt, Cyprus, and Spain.

[4] Bremmer, Jan. 2015. ‘Preface: The Materiality of Magic’, in Boschung, Dietrich and Bremmer, Jan. N. (eds) The Materiality of Magic (Morphomata 20). Paderborn, Wilhelm Fink. 1-19, pp.8.

[5] Faraone, Christopher A. 2018. The Transformation of Greek Amulets in Roman Imperial Times. Philadelphia, Pennsylvania, University of Pennsylvania Press.

[6] Frere, Sheppard S. and Tomlin, Roger. S. O. (eds). 1991. The Roman Inscriptions of Britain, Volume II, Fascicule 3. Stroud, Administrators of the Haverfield Bequest. See no. 2422.12.

[7] Parker, Adam. 2016. ‘Staring at Death: The Jet Gorgoneia of Roman Britain’, in Hoss, Stefanie and Whitmore, Alissa. (eds) Small Finds and Ancient Social Practices in the Northwest Provinces of the Roman Empire. Oxford, Oxbow. 98-117.