BMCR 2023.02.49

Greek and Egyptian magical formularies, vol. I: text and translation

, , Greek and Egyptian magical formularies, vol. I: text and translation. California classical studies, 9. Berkeley: California Classical Studies, 2022. Pp. xxviii, 531. ISBN 9781939926166

Open access


Christopher A. Faraone’s and Sofía Torallas Tovar’s edited book is the product of the research project “The Transmission of Magical Knowledge”, funded by the Neubauer Collegium for Culture and Society at the University of Chicago and led by the editors of the volume under review since 2015. After Karl Preisendanz’s influential first edition of the magical papyri––Papyri Graecae Magicae (PGM), completed between 1928 and 1931, and revised in 1974 by Albert Henrichs––and Hans Dieter Betz’s 1986 English translation of the Greek and Demotic magical papyri, Faraone and Torallas Tovar have created in Greek and Egyptian magical formularies (GEMF) an invaluable and much needed corpus. Not only does it thoroughly deal with fifty-four Greek, Demotic and Coptic magical texts, but it also presents important differences from Preisendanz’s and Betz’s editions.

Among these differences––all laid out in the “Preface” that includes a useful guideline to the new edition of the magical texts and an explanation of the translations proposed by the two editors as well as by other contributors[1]––the principal one is that Faraone and Torallas Tovar have made the practical decision of only reporting recipes, either single or collections––a choice that enabled them to avoid the publication of several volumes that would have otherwise encompassed “numerous duplications of the simplest and most common formulas” (p. xviii). It also furthers one significant aim of the present volume, an understanding of how “the technical knowledge preserved in the formularies of late Ptolemaic and Roman Egypt was transmitted from one generation to the next and what this transition can tells us about the relationship between these books and others being produced at the same periods and in some cases in the same areas of Egypt” (p. xviii-xix). For this reason, the book even presents formularies that are found outside of Egypt on other media, such as a copper lamella (GEMF 26) and a spherical gemstone (GEMF 27), which both take information from ancient handbooks (p. 343, 346).

Additionally, Faraone and Torallas Tovar propose editions of the texts that, unlike Preisendanz’s work, rigorously reproduce their original versions, thus respecting their distribution and transmission with scribal errors, phonetic spellings, marginalia, lectional signs, drawings, and symbols. The material is also organised in a chronological order––drawing upon the organisation of Robert W. Daniel’s and Franco Maltomini’s 1990–1992 Supplementum Magicum (p. xx)––examining texts that span from the 2nd century BC to the 4th century AD. This arrangement allows the reader to clearly perceive the historical development of magical formularies that, as Faraone and Torallas Tovar further affirm at p. xx, other previous editions have undervalued by privileging longer (and later in date) texts over chronological evolution.

The first chapter is devoted to an earliest phase of these formularies (2nd BC–2nd AD), whereas the second and third chapters chronologically overlap by respectively analysing four bilingual Demotic-Greek formularies and twenty-six monolingual Greek ones during the 2nd and 3rd centuries AD. The selection of only four bilingual texts follows a logic: as Faraone and Torallas Tovar state (p. xxii), Demotic-Greek formularies will eventually be complemented by other works, such as the new edition of the Demotic magical texts that is currently being prepared at the University of Heidelberg. This strategy should not surprise us, as it avoids the overlapping of different projects, a problem that some fields have faced over the last decades. The volume then concludes with a final chapter, which focuses instead on ten Greek formularies of the 3rd and 4th centuries AD. An extensive bibliography and a list of general abbreviations follow––the latter completes the initial list of “Greek Monograms and Abbreviations” found at p. xxvi.

In every chapter, the formularies have an attributed number that either encompasses diverse editions of the same papyrus or merges different segments that have been previously treated separately.[2] Inspired by the structure of the Supplementum Magicum, each entry begins with an introduction of maximum five pages, containing various information that goes from the condition of the papyrus to its dating, as well as from a summary of the content to its special features, paleography, and a necessary bibliography of past contributions that varies in length (p. xxi-xxii). For each edition the respective contributor(s) present(s) an original text with a critical apparatus that shows the different word variations, and a translation with commentary in very informative footnotes.

Overall, Faraone’s and Torallas Tovar’s edited book has the remarkable strength of updating, in an orderly manner, a century of research that has primarily depended on corpora with outdated references. The various formularies offer systematically organised entries and a consistent arrangement of the edited texts that enables the reader to quickly check a reference or the general interpretation of a specific papyrus. The same structure even allows one to study the trends of each period, and the significant attention that the editors have paid to the paleography and morphology of the texts has importantly led to either a substantial re-structuring of some papyri or to their re-dating. This is, for instance, the case of PGM I (= GEMF 31), which Preisendanz dated back to the end of the 4th or 5th century AD,[3] and now dated instead to the second half of the 3rd century AD (p. 382).

Beyond the structure, another notable strength of the volume pertains to the translations of the formularies; they present, contrary to Betz’s edition, a high degree of technical accuracy that methodically renders in English specific terms and sentences, which respect the original semantics. Clear examples of this precision can be seen at: lines 44-45 of column i of GEMF 31, where the words “[τὸν πάρεδρον]” and “[τὴν πρᾶξ]ιν” have been respectively translated as “[paredros-procedure(?)]” and “[procedure]”, while Betz proposed “[this spell for acquiring an assistant]” and “[this rite]”;[4] lines 63-64 of column iii of the same papyrus, where “πρὸϲ πᾶϲαν ὑπεροχὴν̣ ἐξου-/ϲίαϲ” have been rendered as “against every prominent power”, instead of “against all excess of magical power”;[5] or line 1 of GEMF 50, where “τὸ]ν̣ λ̣ό̣γ̣ο̣ν̣” has been aptly translated as “[the] formula” rather than “[the] spell”.[6] These instances illustrate how the translations proposed in Faraone’s and Torallas Tovar’s volume adhere to the technical terms of the discipline and successfully avoid a distortion of the nuances that ancient languages often lend themselves to in modern translations.

However, despite its many strengths, Faraone’s and Torallas Tovar’s edited book is not void of weaknesses. It is clear from the first chapter of the volume that technicalities and textual fidelity take precedence over aesthetics. The choice of privileging both features, especially textual faithfulness, over the layout––even if I completely agree with it––has unfortunately generated lengthy blank spaces, frequently occurring at the end of the translations, that give the book an overall unpolished look. Nevertheless, it must be admitted that, since one criterion of the work is to translate and comment each column of a papyrus mainly on facing pages, such blank spaces would have been hard to avoid. What, however, could have been avoided are those full blank pages, present in the second part of the volume (e.g. p. 348, 360, 414, 447), which give the impression that the layout criteria changed across the book.

The second weakness pertains to the clarity of the apparatus, presented in the form of a continuous text below the original formulary, whose rules remain rather obscure to someone who is not conversant with the methodology of the editors. The high technicality of the apparatus, in fact, overshadows at times its intuitiveness and presents editions that cannot always be easily followed. Consequently, some reconstructions are hard to integrate in given sentences, such as the proposal “].[: fort. [τὴν] φ[̣ύϲιν]” for line 13 of GEMF 13 that in the main text reads as “[…] [ca 2 κ]είϲθω δὲ αὐτῷ”, while others follow a complicated logic. A case in point is the apparatus of column ii of GEMF 30, where for line 30 we read “μεταυτη[·] Pr in Pap.”. The abbreviation “Pr in Pap.” stands for “Preisendanz in Papyrus”, thereby meaning that Preisendanz had already seen that the word μεταυτη[·] can be read in the text of the papyrus. The scholar, however, also acknowledged that “τοδε·”, occurring in the apparatus of line 34 of GEMF 30, could be found in the papyrus,[7] and yet in GEMF 30 it is simply quoted as “Pap.”, rather than as “Pr in Pap.” as for the case of “μεταυτη[·]”. Furthermore, in the same formulary, the critical apparatus of lines 29–55 of column iii quotes the edition “Ti2”, which is nowhere stated in the bibliographical section of the introduction to GEMF 30 (p. 361). In the apparatus of many formularies, there is also a potential confusion, for non-specialists, of papyrological abbreviations––e.g. “l.” means lege in the apparatus and “l.” means line in the footnotes. A lack of cross-references between the apparatus and the footnotes, which could have been eased by the insertion of “cf. comm.”. Its insertion would have indeed been useful for a better textual understanding of the formularies, as in the case of GEMF 3, where the reconstruction of the vacuum “[ca 4]” at line 8 of column ii is first briefly explained in the apparatus and then fully in footnote 4 at p. 14.

But these weaknesses do not certainly undermine the high value of Faraone’s and Torallas Tovar’s volume. No one can in fact deny that the book is an important contribution to the field of magical papyri from which, I am sure, researchers from different disciplines will greatly benefit. Indeed, papyrologists can now access a consistent work that includes a thorough technical analysis and mise en page of the original texts, whereas non-specialised scholars can finally consult updated editions of magical papyri that up until today have been referenced only through obsolete corpora. These different audiences will find the present volume even more useful as soon as its supplementary material, comprised of a collection of images, is made available on the publisher’s website.



[1] Apart from Faraone and Torallas Tovar, the volume has twenty-two additional contributors, enumerated in alphabetical order in the “List of Contributors”.

[2] To cite some examples: GEMF 4, 8, 24, 30, 38.

[3] Preisendanz, K. 1928. Papyri Graecae Magicae. Die griechischen Zauberpapyri. Leipzig: Teubner, 1.

[4] Betz, H.D. 1986. The Greek Magical Papyri in Translation: Including the Demotic Spells. Chicago, London: The University of Chicago Press, 4.

[5] Betz, H.D. 1986. The Greek Magical Papyri in Translation: Including the Demotic Spells. Chicago, London: The University of Chicago Press, 8.

[6] Betz, H.D. 1986. The Greek Magical Papyri in Translation: Including the Demotic Spells. Chicago, London: The University of Chicago Press, 296.

[7] Preisendanz, K. 1928. Papyri Graecae Magicae. Die griechischen Zauberpapyri. Leipzig: Teubner, 22.