- Making Amulets Christian: Artefacts, Scribes, and Contexts by Theodore de Bruyn
Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2017
Pp. 312. $85.00.
In Making Amulets Christian, Theodore de Bruyn offers the first comprehensive study of “Christian” amulets in Greek from late antique Egypt, although he incorporates evidence from the wider Mediterranean. Since Egypt in late antiquity was a bilingual society, a study that focuses on Greek remains limited; further study of Coptic amulets remains a desideratum.
De Bruyn poses three questions. First, how did “incantations and amulets change as the Christian church became the prevailing religious institution in Egypt?” Second, “what can we learn from incantations and amulets containing Christian elements about the cultural and social location of the people who wrote them?” Third, “how were incantations and amulets indebted to the rituals and ritualizing behavior of Christians?” (2). De Bruyn’s methodical, artifact-centered approach offers significant insights in answer to all three.
The argument unfolds in six chapters with a brief introduction and conclusion. In the introduction, de Bruyn situates amulets and other ritual texts in relation to both broader cultural formations and individual religious actors. The introduction also surveys the major relevant corpora of ancient materials.
Chapter One addresses “Normative Christian Discourse” about “magic.” De Bruyn reserves “magic” for discussion of normative discourses; elsewhere he uses more precise language for practices and artifacts, e.g., “formularies,” “incantations,” “amulets.” He discusses literary sources from the second to fifth centuries, which draw sharp distinctions between Christian practice—based on prayer, wearing “the gospel,” and the use of water or oil—and “pagan” use of mysterious symbols, secret names, and elaborate formulae. In practice, matters were not so clear-cut; even Christian clergy participated in textual and ritual practices condemned by normative discourses.
Chapter Two (“Materials, Format, and Writing”) describes physical and inscriptional features of amulets and formularies. This reader looked, however, for a more substantive discussion of how the materiality of artifacts contributed to their efficacy.
Chapter Three (“Manuals of Procedures and Incantations”) engages “formularies,” whether “recipe books” for amulets or scholarly collections. We discover that practitioners acted with individuality within established repertoires of incantations and techniques. We also find occasional Christian elements; these elements reflect a repertoire of powerful names and phrases rather than Christian affiliation on the part of the practitioners who compiled the extant formularies, most from the third and fourth centuries c.e.
Chapters Four, Five, and Six each focus on a category of amulets. Numerous examples fit into more than one category, but this approach is clarifying. All three chapters continue to engage the tension between individuality and the repertoire of available texts and techniques. Chapter Four (“Scribal Features of Customary Amulets”) discusses amulets with charakteres; voces magicae; the names of Greek, [End Page 680] Egyptian, or Mesopotamian deities or daemones; or historiolae derived from Greek or Egyptian mythology. De Bruyn calls these elements “customary.” Yet in the context of late ancient Egyptian Christianity, are these features “customary” in a different way than elements derived from Christian scriptures or institutional contexts? The problematic notion of “pagan survivals” continues to lurk in the background. De Bruyn focuses on juxtapositions of “customary” elements with explicitly Christian ones. Sometimes Christian elements are incorporated into amulets which do not otherwise indicate a Christian milieu or a Christian practitioner or user. In other cases, “customary” elements appear in texts with a primarily Christian idiom. The hands employed in generating these amulets (as in the next two chapters) vary from practiced and even professional writers to those who could only copy one letter after another (“slow writers”), indicating a wide range of social contexts for both production and use.
Chapter Five (“Scribal Features of Scriptural Amulets”) discusses amulets that employ Christian literary works. There are occasional intersections with “customary” elements, but more often these amulets reflect Christian scribal practices (e.g., beginning with a cross or staurogram). Gospel incipits, psalms, the correspondence between Jesus and Abgar, gospel healing narratives, and the Lord’s Prayer are the most common. De Bruyn suggests that these texts were often inscribed from memory, reflecting liturgical use. Yet while orthography, like handwriting, indicates...