The passages collected here translate literary and documentary texts written in Greek or Latin (occasionally both) produced throughout the Graeco-Roman world between the beginning of the Greek archaic period, 776 B.C., and the end of the Roman Empire, 476 A.D. (with a few run-overs). The primary focus is on magic in its pagan context; Christian sources are included where they shed important light on this, but there has been no systematic attempt to cover Christianity's reception of magic. A particular attempt has been made to give heavy coverage to material from the earlier end of this period, that from archaic and classical Greece.
The definition of "magic" is famously problematic, and authors of books on the subject usually feel the need for many pages of philosophical reflection on the issue in their introductions. It is obviously desirable that a sourcebook, particularly one designed to be used by undergraduates, among others, should avoid the expression of any dogmatic view on the matter and leave its readers to make up their own minds on it. At the same time, it would be naïve to suppose that such a book could be compiled in the first place without any criteria of selection of material, and these criteria must proceed from, or lead to, some sort of definition of magic, however inexplicit, inchoate, or half-baked. The primary criterion I have in fact adopted for the selection of passages for this book is that of relevance to the subject matter of recent scholarly books on antiquity with such words as "magic" in their titles. I am aware that this will appear to be a disappointing sleight of hand to many of a philosophical bent, but it would have been pedagogically irresponsible to take any other course of action. Some recent discussions on the definitional problems of magic in ancient context can be found in A Guide to Further Reading I.8.
It would also be naïve to suppose, running commentaries aside, that the source passages, once selected, could be grouped and sequenced within the book without the entailing of a series of arguments about the configuration of ancient magic. If there is one overriding argument implicit in the book, it is, as the title itself indicates, the contention of the centrality of ghosts to ancient magic: they were not its only motor, but it is fair to say that they were its chief one. The importance of the role of ghosts in ancient magic has particularly come to the fore in recent work on curse tablets. The chapterization of the book has been developed to take this importance into account. Otherwise the book has been structured at chapter level in accordance with a number of overlapping categories: in part in accordance with sorcerer type (shamans, mages, Egyptians, neo-Pythagoreans, witches, etc.); in part in accordance with type of magical document (literary account, curse tablet, voodoo dolls, papyrus recipes [these being concentrated in chapter 11], amulets, and laws); in part in accordance with type of magical activity (necromancy, cursing, erotic attraction, etc.). Heavy cross-referencing between the passages reproduced extends the range of each chapter. Cross-referencing has also been used to draw together groups of passages united by themes unaddressed at chapter or subsection level. In this way one can quickly assemble passages relevant to the goddess Hecate, for example, or to healing magic, or to the technique of snake-blasting. Where particularly desirable, chronological factors have also been used in sequencing. Some of the sourcebook's focal subjects are treated in considerable detail, with the reproduction of series of passages on similar themes, in order to afford the reader opportunities for a greater depth of engagement. The advantages of such opportunities, in my opinion, outweigh the corollary retraction in the range of subjects covered.
The book begins with a series of chapters, 2-7, on sorcerer types, focusing first on men, then on women. These chapters include many narratives of a particularly appealing and accessible nature and so afford a relatively congenial entry into the study of ancient magic. Chapter 2 looks at the earlier homegrown Greek sorcerers of various kinds. First, consideration is given to the Pythagorean-inspired traditions of a group of men that supposedly flourished in the archaic period, whom we now call the Greek "shamans." These men had a number of miraculous capacities, many of which proceeded from their abilities to detach their souls from bodies during life. In the classical period a range of largely hostile sources constructs for us, under such terms as goêtes ("sorcer ers") and magoi ("mages"), an impression of a nebulous group of supposedly fraudulent and beggarly magical professionals who concerned themselves with such things as the curing of illness, the manufacture of curse tablets, and the well-being of the soul in the afterlife. Among these a subgroup of "evocators" (psuchagogoi) is identifiable. Also in the classical period is found the phenomenon of the "ventriloquists" (engastrimuthoi, etc.), men or women with prophetic demons in their stomachs that use their hosts as mouthpieces. But already too in the classical period the Greeks were beginning to project the idea of the male sorcerer onto alien races, primarily Oriental ones, and many of the most exciting portraits of male practitioners in the Graeco-Roman tradition belong in this category. The developing trend in the representation of male sorcerers as Median or Persian mages, as Babylonian Chaldaeans, and as Egyptians is the subject of chapter 3. Chapter 4 looks in greater depth at three sorcerers from the first and second centuries A.D. for whom substantial and developed literary portraits survive. Two of these, Apollonius of Tyana and Alexander of Abonouteichos, were neo-Pythagoreans and revived the work of the shamans. The first is known primarily from the positive portrait of Philostratus; the second is known almost exclusively from the extremely hostile portrait of Lucian. These two pieces accordingly constitute a useful antithesis. Also included here is a substantial portrait of Simon Magus, supposedly the great rival of Saint Peter. Our accounts of him may be almost entirely fictional.
Chapter 5 turns to the women—to witches, the representation of whom in the Graeco-Roman tradition is almost entirely fictive. First are a series of portraits, some of them extended, of the two great witches of Greek mythology, the kindred Medea and Circe. The tales about these women, already well established in the Archaic period, bestow a full range of powers upon them. Chapter 6 looks at other witches and witch-like women in Greek (and related Latin) literature, such as Deianeira, the wife of Heracles. Chapter 7 is devoted to the Latin response to such imaginary witches, first in poetry, in which witch figures became commonplace, and second in novels. The Romans liked to imagine their witches as altogether more bloodthirsty, gruesome, and morbid figures. Readers who prefer their magic in "Gothic" style should turn straight to the sections given to Horace's Canidia, Lucan's Erictho, and Apuleius's Meroe.
Ghosts and cadaverous material play an important role in the unlovely craft of the Latin witches, which leads conveniently to consideration of ghosts and the dead in their own right in chapter 8. The categories of dead most likely to be restless, and therefore to manifest themselves as ghosts or to haunt, were those who died before their time (aoroi), those who died by violence (biaiothanatoi), those, particularly girls, who died before marriage (ag-amoi), and those who were denied due burial after death (ataphoi). It was the restless dead who lent themselves most easily to exploitation for magical purposes. Much of this chapter is devoted to the laying of ghosts, and in this connection some entertaining stories about haunted houses survive. Attention is also given to the (Jewish-influenced) evidence for the expulsion of possessing ghosts from individuals. The souls of young boys could be so valued for magical operations that they could, in popular imagination at any rate, even be "manufactured" for the purpose. The supposed purity of the soul of the living boy in any case gave it a privileged position in attempts to communicate with ghosts and other powers. Finally this chapter looks briefly at werewolves, which were sometimes regarded as a kind of ghost.
The most direct use of ghosts for magical purposes was for necromancy, a term I use here in its original sense to mean "divination from the dead," and this forms the subject of chapter 9. Ghosts could be evocated for divination either at oracles of the dead or at tombs. The existence of the former seems to be attested already in Homer's Odyssey. The Roman period sees the emergence of a new variety of necromancy alongside the evocation method, that of the reanimation of corpses. The roots of this form of divination in reality are difficult to fathom but may have been connected with skull necromancy. Other varieties of magical divination, some of them not entirely unconnected with ghosts, are also considered here.
Another important magical use for ghosts, directly or indirectly, was in the execution of binding spells (katadesmoi or defixiones). These form the principal subject of chapter 10. The main themes of these fascinating texts are now conventionally classified under five headings: legal curses, competition curses, trade curses, erotic curses, and the slightly distinctive "prayers for justice." All these varieties are exemplified here, apart from the erotic one, which is dealt with in the next chapter. Included with our treatment of binding spells are also some passages on the "evil eye," another variety of cursing, which, however, did not always proceed from intention.
Chapter 11 is devoted to erotic magic. Apart from being the subject of many of the more striking curse tablets, it is a particularly popular theme in the Greek magical papyri, which are given prominence here, and it is very often the chief concern of the witches in the literary portraits of them. It is also a subject of interest within the continually expanding field of ancient gender studies. Here consideration is given to the two principal varieties of erotic magic, curses of separation and curses of attraction, and to some of the paraphernalia particularly associated with the latter, the drawing-down of the moon, the iunx or "wryneck," and the hippomanes or "horse-madness" plant, gland, or secretion. This is also the place to consider some magical techniques ancillary to erotic magic, namely, those offering contraception or procuring abortion.
The next chapter, 12, turns to another category of magical document, kolossoi or voodoo dolls and similar magical images, and to the literary sources that bear upon them. These intriguing artifacts, it seems, preceded curse tablets, to which they are closely related and the functions of which they share for the most part. In chapter 13 consideration is given to a final category of magical document, amulets, and again the literary sources that bear upon them. Amulets afforded many forms of protection to their wearers and in particular were often curative or exorcistic. Many of them bestowed erotic attractiveness or general favor.
Finally, chapter 14 looks at some of the evidence for legislation against magic; this is surprisingly meager for Greek culture but more plentiful for Roman. The book closes with two forensic speeches on magical subjects. Apuleius's Apology is a defense against a series of charges of magical practice, chiefly erotic magic. Libanius's speech Against the Lying Mage is a fictitious speech based on an imaginary premise. Both speeches are interesting for the logical tricks they play with the concept of magic in a legal context.
Was this article helpful?