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Reviewed by:
  • Magic in the Ancient Greek World
  • Werner Riess
Derek Collins . Magic in the Ancient Greek World. Blackwell Ancient Religions. Malden, Mass.: Blackwell, 2008. Pp. xiv, 207. $89.95 (hb.). ISBN 978-1-4051-3238-1; $28.00 (pb.). ISBN 978-1-4051-3239-8.

Despite the recent surge of studies on ancient magic, a concise overview of ancient Greek magic has remained a desideratum. Collins fills this gap with admirable success. His study is more than a mere overview or introduction. Collins has digested a plethora of sources, which he presents with insight and due caution, and he strives to look beyond what has already been achieved by pointing to future areas of research.

The book contains six parts. The introduction states Collins' aims with laudable clarity and successfully appeals to two different readerships: newcomers [End Page 271] to the field and more advanced students of Greek magic. Chapter 1 (1–26) outlines the research on magic since the nineteenth century and its many pitfalls. Through a condensed synopsis, the major stages in our understanding of ancient magic become clear: from Frazer to Malinowski, Lévy-Bruhl, Evans-Pritchard, and finally Tambiah. In chapter 2 (27–63), Collins offers a framework for Greek magic. He discusses the complex relationship between the Greek practitioners of magic and nature, conceived of as divine. Epilepsy serves as a case study to show how the lack of a clear division between magic and divinity hampered the criticism of magic by Plato and the author of the Hippocratic work On the Sacred Disease, who shared basic Presocratic tenets with the magicians. The part on "Magic and Causality" is central not only to this chapter, but to the whole book. Collins then circumscribes the often-overlapping meanings of the words magoi, goetes, kathartai, agurtai, manteis, and alazones. Chapter 3 treats binding magic and figurines, including those used as images of Eros (erotes) for erotic magic (64–103). Collins addresses the question of why the Greeks used the binding metaphor (67–68). He also draws an intriguing parallel between anatomical curses and body part ex-votos (86).

Homeric verses torn out of their original context are dealt with in chapter 4 (104–31); they were employed in obstetrics and gynecology, put to use against intoxication, choking, and gout, and also served divinatory purposes. These ritual usages were subsequently reinforced by neoplatonic theurgy. A final chapter looks at how society reacted to magic by means of legislation (132–65). Collins traces the repercussions of Greek magic through later epochs and should be congratulated for including the developments brought by Roman lawgivers. As far as we know, Athenians only cracked down on magic that entailed murder; the Romans were deeply influenced by Greek practices, but felt differently about magic. From the Twelve Tables' narrow concept of what constituted black magic, the definition was broadened and increasingly criminalized to the point that, from Apuleius on, magic could be equated with maleficium (wicked deed, p. 152). With the rediscovery of the Digests in the eleventh century, maleficium and its cognates came to denote witchcraft in medieval and early modern Europe. A conclusion summarizes the results of the book.

Collins is at his best where he bases his statements on his own previous research. His bold ideas on social agency are provocative yet welcome, are plausible within the Greek mental framework, and allow us to the see the Greeks as rational human beings who well understood the principles of causality (pace Frazer). Yet the reader must decide how far to follow Collins. He vehemently resents the idea of "voodoo dolls" representing or symbolizing a victim. But even if we concede that the Greeks perceived statues and figurines as animate objects, the question still remains of how the effigies (e.g., 96–97) would harm a human being, the actual target that the curser had in mind. Has the problem not just shifted? The question of agency (dare we still say representation?) remains thorny and will occupy future researchers of magic.

Throughout the book Collins points to future research topics, including the relationship between divine agents and the dead (71), the meaning and function of kharakteres (77), the connection between binding...


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pp. 271-273
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