BMCR 2021.09.37

Ancient magic: then and now

, , , Ancient magic: then and now. Potsdamer Altertumswissenschaftliche Beitraege, 74. Stuttgart: Franz Steiner Verlag, 2020. Pp. 451. ISBN 9783515127967 €82,00.

[Authors and titles are listed at the end of the review.]

This volume is the product of the Humboldt Kolleg ‘Magic in the Ancient World – New Perspectives’ conference held in Italy in 2016. Following broad surveys of the relationships between magic and science and magic and religion in the Preface (Giacomo De Angelis) and Foreward (Hans-Christian Günther) respectively, Marianna Scapini and Joseph E. Sanzo (Introduction) outline the volume’s aim to consider ‘ancient magic’ as an ‘analytical construct and as a domain of historical inquiry and imagination’ (p. 19). This ambitious project is tackled through three ‘partially overlapping perspectives’ (p.19) – consideration of the value of ‘magic’ as a heuristic rubric for studying aspects of antiquity, collection of case studies examining phenomena considered ‘magical’, and examination of the transmission and reception of aspects of ancient magic – and aims to highlight the ‘interdisciplinary and international interest intrinsic to the study of ancient magic’ (p. 22).

The first section – ‘Magic as a Category: Voices from the Past, Voices from the Present’ – considers the heuristic value of the term ‘magic’. Joseph E. Sanzo surveys the term ‘magic’ and the problems associated with alternative terminology before suggesting how we might move forward in our use of ‘magic’ as a taxonomic category. Antón Alvar Nuño and Jamie Alvar Ezquerra examine ancient and modern concepts of ‘pure’ magic – ‘natural’ ‘magical’ abilities distinct from ritual magic – through anthropological discussions of sorcery and witchcraft and a pan-generic survey of the ‘evil eye’ in Graeco-Roman literature. A better balance could have been achieved in this paper to avoid significant overlaps with Sanzo’s extensive survey and to allow discussion of other modern approaches – such as psychoanalytic contributions – to the study of the evil eye. Orietta D. Cordovana turns to areas of interchange between ‘magic’ and ‘medicine’. This paper goes far beyond the anticipated focus on Pliny’s Naturalis Historia to illustrate the interconnectedness of magic and medicine over a broad social and cultural demographic through analysis of legal evidence and magical objects. These three theoretically and conceptually focussed papers consider a diverse range of trans-temporal and trans-cultural studies and exempla to form a robust framework for the study of ancient magic.

The second section – ‘Interpreting Magical Texts and Objects’ – is the most substantial part of the volume and examines ‘specific phenomena … habitually labelled as ‘magic’ in scholarly discourse’ (p. 20). Silvia Salin opens the section with a close analysis of key terms associated with symptoms of depression and the effects of witchcraft in Assyro-Babylonian texts and broader discussions of the place of magic in Mesopotamian healing practices. After Salin’s study, the remainder of the papers in this section focus upon Graeco-Roman ‘magical’ phenomena.

Three papers concern themselves with inscriptions of various kinds. Attilio Mastrocinque conducts grammatical and onomastic analyses of the texts on a gold lamella excavated in Vinkovci (Croatia) and discusses the place of such lamellae in necromantic activities, as well as links between necromancy and dreams. Alongside Mastrocinque’s generous coverage of Mesopotamian, Egyptian, and Jewish necromantic traditions, Graeco-Roman necromancy – and the centrality of Thessalian witches to this practice – seems overlooked by comparison and could have been afforded greater consideration. Celia Sánchez Natalías presents a variety of ‘interpretative possibilities’ for the inscription on container 475549 from the Fountain of Anna Perenna, acknowledging similarities with writings on defixiones and in the Greek Magical Papyri (PGM). Francisco Marco Símon explores the relationship between Romano-Celtic ‘magico-religious’ practices and the legal sphere through a defixio from Suffolk, evaluating the significance of ius and obligatio in law and ‘magic’, the ‘bureaucratic and quasi-legal’ language of defixiones, and their role in judicial procedure in Roman Britain.

The next three papers focus on entire material ‘categories’. Francesca Diosono explores the ritual associations of lamps, analysing substantial deposits across the Roman empire alongside divinatory recipes in the PGM and literary descriptions of lychnomancy. Juan R. Carbó studies six examples of gems from Dacian sanctuaries which feature Egyptian iconography and discusses the magical character and religious value of the gods featured within their syncretistic environment. Véronique Dasen analyzes Egyptian and Graeco-Roman board game imagery and the inscription on a lapis lazuli amulet gemstone alongside visual and textual representations of games and their associations with divination and chance or fortune to offer possible interpretations of the gem’s iconography and origins.

The penultimate ‘grouping’ covers the PGM’s spells and religious and literary dimensions (p. 21). Christopher A. Faraone considers the shared ritual apparatus and actions associated with images of Imhotep and Sarapis on rings, Hermes/Thoth in statuettes or on cloth, and Bes on hands or cloth and proposes that PGM VII 300 may have been used in a domesticated and miniaturised version of the practice of sleeping on the ground in a sanctuary. Emilio Suárez de la Torre analyses 16 non-literary examples of women using erotic spells from papyri and defixiones, highlights the adaptability of formulaic spell models and key features of texts featuring female agency, and considers how contemporary environments may be deduced from such spells alongside non-magical documents. Isabel Canzobre Martínez examines references to deities as daimones, angeloi, or pneumata in the PGM and attempts to clarify practitioners’ motives for this interchangeability and equivalence by reviewing conceptions of these entities in Egyptian, Graeco-Roman, and Jewish cultures and traditions. Miriam Blanco Cesteros examines three ‘magical hymns’ from the PGM, highlighting their defining features and evaluating the texts’ magical language and style alongside their aims, to determine whether they had been composed in ‘a magical context to be used in a magical ritual’ (p. 261).

The section’s final two papers explore therapeutic matters (broadly speaking). Like Suárez de la Torre, Giulia Pedrucci focusses on ‘practices strictly related to Greek and Roman women (p. 21), providing a survey of ancient discussions from ‘elite’ and ‘common’ spheres of the use of breast milk and menstrual blood in magic and medicine and evaluating why these substances are considered ‘magical’ and used for ‘magical’ activities by considering the nature of the humours involved, homeopathic mechanisms, (super)human figures associated with these practices, and the chromatic symbolism of the materials. Through varied and plentiful illustrations, Aurelio Pérez-Jiménez demonstrates that the polarity between left and right – a concept perhaps more commonly associated with astrological activities – is also explored (along with their respective qualitative values) at great length in therapeutic and aphrodisiac recipes and spells.

This section certainly achieves its stated aim to ‘reflect the manifold ways ancient cultures drew upon one another in ritual contexts’ (p. 20). However, despite the thematic groupings of papers around thematic/conceptual categories, the chapters can feel more like stand-alone entities than components of a larger whole. More cross-referencing between papers – for example, between discussions of dice games by Mastrocinque and Dasen, the Anna Perenna fountain by Sánchez Natalías and Diosono, lamp divination, necromancy, and dream divination by Faraone, Diosono, and Mastrocinque, divine images by Suárez de la Torre and Faraone, PGM XV 1-23 by Canzobre Martínez and Suárez de la Torre, and the left side by Pérez-Jiménez and Faraone – would have created a greater sense of cohesion to this collection of studies.

The final section – ‘The Transmission of Ancient Magic’ – centres around the transmission and reception of traditions related to Greek and Roman magic in the pre-modern world (p. 22). Like the middle portion of the volume, this section is chronologically, geographically, and methodologically diverse. The first two papers of this section explore ancient magic (broadly defined) in Late Antique contexts. Franco Ferrari examines the role of theurgy in the Chaldean Oracles and its integration within a philosophical and religious framework, tracing the incorporation of theurgy into the Late Antique system of Platonism, the theurgist’s theological and magical qualities, and the centrality of experiential elements in contact with the ‘super intellectual’ which unite ritual dimensions with philosophical discussions. Laura Mecella explores the place of magic in Julius Africanus’ discussions of military science in his encyclopaedic Cesti, surveying wider associations between magic and war from Homeric heroes’ divine assistance to instances of Roman emperors engaging with magical practices, analysing the association of early examples of ‘chemical warfare’ with magical recipes, amulets, and spells, and probing the tensions between Africanus’ Christian faith and the polyphonic cultural dimension of his work. The next pair of papers consider divinatory materials and activities connected with ancient magical practices. Raquel Martín Hernández focusses on the material dimension of the Sortes Homericae and conducts a papyrological and codicological study of the three papyri which transmit the text (P.Bon. 3, P.Oxy. 56:3831, P.Lond. 1:121), illustrating the diversity in its transmission and diffusion. Salvatore Costanza illustrates the contribution of Late Antique papyri and medieval manuscripts to the history of magic through comparative analyses of pseudepigraphy, flexible invocations, and the allegory of man as a microcosm of the universe in medieval divinatory treatises and the PGM before noting key similarities between the services of ancient and magical practitioners demonstrated in advertisements in 21st-century Greece. We then take a brief trip into the German Middle Ages with Marina Foschi Albert’s study of magical motifs in Gottfried von Strassburg’s Tristan, which surveys usages of the Middle High German term zouber in a transposed sense to denote cunning and the art of enchantment before considering von Strassburg’s depiction of Iseult’s magic and the love potion in the poem and use of the epithet zouberer in relation to Tristan, and comparing Tristan’s ‘magical’ and cunning qualities to those of Ulysses and Jason in the works of Homer and Pindar. The final two papers are philologically-focussed. After outlining the challenges of tracing the transmission of ancient magical texts and the limitations of the traditional methods of Classical Philology for such endeavours, Tiziano Dorandi argues for a renewed edition of PGM XIII which considers the collection in its entirety, accepts the presence of several individual versions of the same text, and offers a detailed commentary on the whole of the transmitted edition. Carlo Lucarini proposes that we look to Mesopotamian literature rather than a pre-Odyssean Argonautica for the origins of Homer’s Circe. Strangely, Circe is absent from much of this paper and her magical abilities are largely overlooked, with the discussion focussing instead on rejecting broader hypotheses around Argonautic influences on the Odyssey.

This volume covers a vast amount of ground, exploring the taxonomic category of ‘magic’, examples of practices considered magical in the ancient world, and the reception of some aspects of ancient magic. In so doing, it certainly achieves the bold aims laid out by Scapini and Sanzo. However, the volume does not feel entirely unified, and perhaps more dialogue between editors and contributors would have been needed during its assembly. Few of the papers refer to or engage with the conceptual frameworks provided in the first section, and there is very little dialogue between the papers in sections two and three. There are some typographical errors and inconsistencies throughout the volume – in the spelling of certain words (e.g. Greco-Roman vs. Graeco-Roman, Nilus vs. Nilos in PGM XV 1-23), the glossing of key terms, the placement of references relative to punctuation marks, and the numbering of books in the Homeric epics (numerals vs. Greek letters) – which could have been avoided with closer editorial scrutiny. There are also inconsistencies in the accessibility of ancient materials presented: some authors provide block quotes in the original with a translation either alongside or in the notes, some do the inverse, others do not offer translations at all. The volume also lacks an overarching index which would have made it more user-friendly. All things considered, this is certainly a very useful book which will appeal to a wide audience of students and specialists alike: the first section will be valuable to anyone approaching the broad subject of ancient magic, while individual papers in the latter sections will interest to those working on specific areas of ancient magic and their afterlife.

Table of Contents

Preface, Giacomo De Angelis 9
Foreward, Hans-Christian Günther 15
Introduction, Marianna Scapini and Joseph E. Sanzo 19

Deconstructing the Deconstructionists: A Response to Recent Criticisms of the Rubric “Ancient Magic”, Joseph E. Sanzo 27
“Pure Magic” and its Taxonomic Value, Antón Alvar Nuño, Jamie Alvar Ezquerra 49
Pliny the Elder between Magic and Medicine, Orietta D. Cordovana 63

Anti-Witchcraft Rituals Against Depression in Assyro-Babylonian Therapeutic Texts, Silvia Salin 83
A Lamella from Vinkovci (Croatia) and the Jewish Necromancy, Attilio Mastrocinque 97
Seth in the Fountain of Anna Perenna? A New Interpretation of the Container, Celia Sánchez Natalías 113
Domino Neptuno corulo pare(n)tatur: Magic and Law in the Romano-Celtic World, Francisco Marco Simón 123
Lamps as Ritual and “Magical” Objects in Archaeological Contexts, Francesca Diosono 139
Magia y cultos “orientales” en la Dacia romana, Juan Ramón Carbó García 159
Play with Fate, Véronique Dasen 173
The Use of Divine Images in the Dream-Divination Recipes of the Greek Magical Papyri, Christopher A. Faraone 193
Women as Users of Erotic Spells: Evidence Provided by Papyri and Defixiones, Emilio Suárez de la Torre 211
Remarks on the Categorisation of the Divine in the PGM, Isabel Canzobre Martínez 233
The Paradox of a “Magical Hymn”: Reviewing the Poetic Compositions of the Greek Magical Papyri, Miriam Blanco Cesteros 257
On the Use of Breast Milk and Menstrual Blood in the Greek and Roman Worlds, Giulia Pedrucci 287
Importancia de la oposición derecha/izquierda en la magia y la astrología, Aurelio Pérez-Jiménez 315

Filosofia e teurgia negli Oracoli Caldaici, Franco Ferrari 335
Guerra e magia nei Cesti di Giulio Africano, Laura Mecella 349
The Transmission of the Sortes Homericae. A Papyrological Approach to the Texts, Raquel Martín Hernández 375
Dottrina magica nei manuali divinatori greci, bizantini e metabizantini, Salvatore Costanza 387
Magic Potions, Homeric Cunning, and Jason’s Charm: Magic Motifs in Gottfried von Strassburg’s Middle High German version of the Tristan Legend, Marina Foschi Albert 405
Considerazioni sull’ecdotica dei testi magici antichi alla luce del PLeid. J 395 (PGM XIII), Tiziano Dorandi 415
La prima apparizione di Circe nella letteratura greca e il fantasma dell’epos argonautico pre-odissiaco, Carlo Martino Lucarini 425