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  • Charming Children:The Use of the Child in Ancient Divination
  • Sarah Iles Johnston

In Memoriam William M. Brashear

In the 1982 film Poltergeist, the arrival of spirits in a suburban neighborhood first manifests itself to a little girl who is watching TV in a darkened living room: "They're here," she announces, gazing at images that only she can see on the glowing screen. The director, Tobe Hooper, represents the television as a window through which the inhabitants of another world can be seen. The little girl is our medium-a human agent who has a special ability to look through that window and tell us what she sees.

What makes the incident especially intriguing is not just the possibility of stealing glimpses into this other world but the nature of the medium who does so. Using a child in such a role, to quote Henry James, gives the effect another "Turn of the Screw." Both James' tale and Hooper's film, however, build on quite a tradition: in many cultures around the world, both modern and ancient, children have been credited with a special ability to see spirits, either spontaneously or when induced by a spell.1 [End Page 97]

Ancient Greece and Rome were no exceptions. Beginning in the first century B.C.E., we hear about the use of children2 in mediumistic divinatory processes during which they were able to see gods, demons, and ghosts that other people could not. The earliest descriptions of these processes are little more than allusive because they are embedded in discussions of other matters by the authors who use them,3 but, not much later, we find a veritable treasury of spells to induce mediumistic trances in children in the documents known collectively as the magical papyri. In this essay, I will interpret these rituals from the papyri, supplementing them on occasion with remarks made by other late antique authors who discuss the phenomenon. I will suggest why it was that children came to be used as mediums and what such a choice can tell us about the way children were viewed in antiquity and the ways in which divination worked.

Ritual Innovation in the Papyri

Before I do that, however, some general comments on the nature of the rituals we find in the papyri are in order. As I have shown in another article (Johnston forthcoming), most rituals in the papyri represent not intentional inversions, reversals, or perversions of mainstream rituals, as [End Page 98] some scholars have argued,4 but rather innovations based on older rituals, developed by the practitioners who copied and used these papyri. The practitioners innovated for several reasons. First, they thought that they knew more about the manner in which the divine world worked than the average person did.5 Second, because of this greater knowledge, they felt capable of extending traditional practices in new directions to accomplish new goals for which there were no existing rituals. This does not mean, I hasten to add, that the practitioners innovated unreservedly, without any guidelines at all: rather, they improvised upon existing rituals in much the same way that the bards of archaic Greece improvised upon existing myths. Each bard drew on the same body of traditional myths when constructing his poems, but each adapted those myths to suit particular occasions or themes. A bard who changed a story too significantly would surely have been censured (Hector cannot be allowed to survive the Trojan War), but skillful changes within the proper limits enhanced his story and its ability to convey meaning.6 So, too, for practitioners of the papyri: they altered rituals with both definite purposes in mind and an awareness of the limits beyond which they could not go.

Third, and perhaps most important for the purposes of this essay, the practitioners improvised because the nature of their business required it. The practitioners whom we glimpse behind the spells of the papyri fell into two types (which were not necessarily mutually exclusive). One was the "freelance" ritual specialist who was called in to help with quotidian problems of various kinds: arousing love, curing illnesses, cursing enemies, and divining the future. This type of practitioner was...


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