restricted access Magic in the Ancient Greek World (review)
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Reviewed by
Derek Collins. Magic in the Ancient Greek World. Maldon, MA/Oxford/Victoria: Blackwell Publishing, 2008. Pp. xiv + 207. US $99.95. ISBN 978-1-4051-3238-1 (hb).

It is difficult to get a handle on magic, a problem that Derek Collins openly acknowledges in his lively new book. And if one’s brief is to write a book that could serve as a general introduction to the topic, which is the premise behind the Blackwell Ancient Religions series to which this volume belongs, that difficulty becomes all the more acute. Collins has met it in part by not attempting a comprehensive and systematic survey. What he offers instead is a set of five chapters that each explores a particular issue. Although the individual chapters to some extent constitute stand-alone studies, and could for example be effectively assigned as separate course readings, they also all work together to support the author’s central argument that magical practices “were operative within the same understandings of causality and agency that informed daily ancient life” (169). (For the sake of full disclosure, I should point out that the author thanks me in his preface, but that my chief contribution lay in providing him with a copy of an article in advance of publication.)

Chapter 1 provides a survey of the major modern anthropological theories of magic, from Tylor and Frazer to Tambiah. Such surveys are common enough, but Collins constructs this one to call particular attention to what he later calls the “key notions of sympathy, analogy, agency, and participation” (166) that we must employ in trying to understand magical practices as the actual practitioners might have understood them. Turning from the general to the specific, in Chapter 2 he explores the conceptual framework of ancient Greek magic in particular. He begins by demonstrating that early Greek depictions of the gods credit them with practices that are indistinguishable from magic, moves on to the critiques of magic found in the Hippocratic treatise On the Sacred Disease and in Plato’s [End Page 89] Laws, and closes with a survey of the Greek terminology for magic. The centrepiece of this chapter is an analysis of Greek ideas of causality (based on his excellent earlier article “Nature, Cause and Agency in Greek Magic,” TAPA 133 [2003] 17–49); these, he emphasizes, allowed for multiple and overlapping causes, so that the identification of specific physical causes did not preclude a search for intentional causes as well, such as the ill will of a personal enemy.

Collins develops his approach further in Chapter 3, on binding magic and erotic figurines. His argument here is that ancient Greeks tended to accept a much wider range of social actors than we do, including various sorts of superhuman beings on the one hand and statues and figurines on the other. Chapter 4 addresses the use of Homeric verses as charms and spells; Collins convincingly demonstrates that although in the earliest examples the context of the verse is important, the logic of the later examples, insofar as we can recreate it, ignores context altogether. He closes this chapter by suggesting that the Neoplatonic understanding of Homer may provide a clue to why his poems in particular were mined for charms; his argument is intriguing, although not to my mind fully convincing. In the fifth and final chapter Collins turns from the analysis of particular practices to an examination of the way such practices were conceptualized and criminalized in legal systems. Here too he builds on a valuable earlier paper (“Theories of Lemnos and the Criminalization of Magic in Fourth-Century Athens,” CQ 51 [2001] 477–93), expanding it to survey the much richer body of evidence for the legal treatment of magic in the Roman tradition. Although there are occasional problems with details (his account of the Corpus Iuris Civilis on p. 164 is a bit garbled, for example), it is useful to have a treatment of this topic that brings together both the Greek and the Roman material.

As a general study of ancient Greek magic, the great contribution of Collins’ book is to set it firmly within the wider context of Greek ideas...