Magic in the Ancient Greek World
Ancient magic has long been a popular and fruitful subject of historical study, and understanding of it has been variously deepened, finessed, and problematized by scholars in recent decades. As the study of classical languages has waned in the Anglophone academy, so the publication of translated magical texts has broadened the audience for work on ancient magic far beyond the philologically adept. These translations include Hans Dieter Betz's magisterial The Greek Magical Papyri in Translation (University of Chicago Press, 1986), John Gager's Curse Tablets and Binding Spells (Oxford University Press, 1992), and Roy Kotansky's Greek Magical Amulets (Westdeutscher Verlag, 1994). These are complemented by more general sourcebooks that collate a broad range of magical texts and texts about magic, such as Georg Luck's Arcana Mundi (Johns Hopkins University Press, 1985) and Daniel Ogden's Magic, Witchcraft and Ghosts (Oxford University Press, 2009).
There have also been plenty of historical commentaries to choose from, of which Fritz Graf 's Magie dans l'antiquité gréco-romaine: Idéologie et pratique (Les Belles Lettres, 1994), translated as Magic in the Ancient World in 1997, is a particularly influential single-author work that both explores a range of magical practices over a long antiquity and sets them and their practitioners in a broad social context. For one writer to approach such an enormous field offers obvious benefits in a singular controlling intelligence sustaining the address of particular problems and approaches. But in such a broad and complex field, multiauthor volumes also have much to offer in command of detail and expertise. In this respect, Christopher Faraone and Dirk Obbink's Magika Hiera: Ancient Greek Magic and Religion (Oxford University Press, 1991) collects valuable expert-witness introductions to subjects ranging from different kinds of curses to perceptions of plants' properties and the place of dreams in magic ritual. Their title declares clearly an interest in addressing the long-running debate about the nature and validity of labels of "magic" and "religion" and the relationship between them, and the contributors address this problematic dichotomy from different angles. [End Page 152]
A number of other edited books have been crucial in shaping thought about ancient magic. Ancient Magic and Ritual Power (Brill, 1995), coedited by Martin Meyer and Paul Mirecki, suggests that "ritual power" is a more helpful and less loaded term than "magic." The individual chapters in this volume all seek to challenge received approaches to and definitions of magic. It also extends the geographical and cultural reach of the study of magic, both with the inclusion of essays on the ancient Near East, Judaism, and Christianity, and also, crucially, in the willingness shown by its contributors to examine the cross-cultural influences exerted on and by Greco-Roman magic-for example, in Kotansky's study of Greek and Jewish exorcisms, and in Faraone's examination of the Egyptian and Mesopotamian sources of a Greek spell. A second coedited volume by Meyer and Mirecki, Magic and Ritual in the Ancient World (Brill, 2000), further broadened cultural and geographical horizons with chapters on Coptic and Islamic Egypt, and also included a dedicated section of essays on theoretical matters of definition and description. Even more recently, Noegel, Walker, and Wheeler's Prayer, Magic, and the Stars in the Ancient and Late Antique World (Pennsylvania State University Press, 2003) collects essays that range similarly widely in space and time, and explicitly relates itself to the new wave of scholarship on Greco-Roman magic that addresses the "cross-cultural and international dimensions of magic in the Mediterranean world" (2).
Besides the interdisciplinary advances of recent historical scholarship, any scholar of ancient magic must also understand how a long history of anthropological inquiry has shaped both the very questions we ask of magic, and the ways of explaining how it worked and what its functions were. The academic study of magic in any period and any place is fraught with problems of definition, approach, and perspective. The geographical and chronological distances between the observing anthropologist or historian and his chosen society may vary, but both are confronted with comparable difficulties in gathering data on magical beliefs and practices, and then, indeed especially, in interpreting such data. Examining magic can provoke a hermeneutical crisis: which interpretative frameworks to apply to which phenomena?
Derek Collins, in his stimulating introduction to magic in the ancient Greek world, manifests just such doubts about producing a single, overarching explanation of his material, but capitalizes on this uncertainty to rich effect by taking a multiplicity of angles on a complex and elusive subject. Collins foregrounds the vexed question of approach and methodology in his opening chapter by surveying some of the most influential approaches of social anthropology, deftly moving between Frazer, Tylor, Malinowski, Lévy-Bruhl, Evans-Pritchard, [End Page 153] and Tambiah. His depiction of this marketplace of competing methodologies and hermeneutics will undoubtedly be novel and valuable for the beginning undergraduate, although the reading list could of course be infinitely expanded, and the reader misses a strong sense of the influence of important thinkers and their schools and approaches, beyond Collins's necessarily select pick.
In Chapter 2, Collins moves on to provide an intellectual framework for Greek magic, covering matters mythological-theological, philosophical, medical, and psychological. He relates hostile descriptions of magic in On the Sacred Disease and by Plato to their authors' resistance to the apparent claims of practitioners to control the gods, while also showing that this "implied errant theology" was a misunderstanding. Collins provides taxonomies of magical practitioners and practices, but properly warns of a disjuncture between the apparent clarity of terminology and the messy realities of actual ritual practices.
Chapters 3 and 4 contain the most dense and sophisticated material of this volume. Binding magic, a hoary but important topic, is addressed in Chapter 3, and Collins here both acknowledges the boundaries of his own and others' scholarly endeavors, and points out numerous instances where more work is to be done, such as exploring further the relationship between binding magic, disability, and votives in the increasingly lengthy and specific enumeration over time of body parts in curses. He uses Alfred Gell's work fruitfully to show how kharaktēres in magical texts might be seen as social agents. In his conclusion to this chapter, he makes a bold argument for the move away from a symbolic to a more literal use of metaphor in magic, which resonates with the material in this chapter as a whole.
In Chapter 4, on Homeric incantations, Collins demonstrates his literary credentials as he explores the magical deployment and resonance of Homeric verses, demonstrating the increasing tendency over time to deploy such verses irrespective of their narrative context. His judgment of scholarly register and presentation is, here as elsewhere, acute. He analyzes texts in translation with just enough transliterated Greek that the Greekless might appreciate the complexity and ambiguity of particular philological points, from the different resonances of agonos and agamos in Homeric and magical contexts, to the exploration of punning and scrambled wordplay between podagra and d'agorē hupo. His is not merely an eye for detail, however, for he also expounds the cumulative significance of the combination of Homeric verses in spells with particular panache.
Collins moves in his fifth chapter to Greek and Roman law and beyond, gesturing to what he sees as the long afterlife of Greek magic in the Roman [End Page 154] Empire, Christian late antiquity, and the European Middle Ages. This chapter is probably the most ambitious and the least satisfactory. The argument for going so far into Roman territory and history is made forcefully but skates over rupture and difference, something to which Collins is in general very alert, particularly that produced by the increasing Christianization of Roman law and politics from the fourth century onward. In this context, Augustine, though undeniably important, cannot be the sole or summary spokesman for the Christian "demonization" of magic. Although individual sections on Athenian law, Plato, the twelve tables, Lex Cornelia, Apuleius, and third-century Roman jurists are individually well done, they hang together uneasily, and the envoi of the last few pages of this chapter is positively sketchy. By going so far, Collins also makes one wish he had gone further, for his discussion of new attitudes to divination in the third century begs some kind of follow-up study of the well-documented magic and treason trials in Rome in the 370s, in which we see worked out many of the implications of developing political and legal attitudes toward magic.
Collins's book is part of the Blackwell Ancient Religions series, and markets itself primarily as an "introduction" rather than an exhaustive compendium. Indeed, as the body of the text (excluding notes and back matter) weighs in at a modest 169 pages, it is perhaps best approached as a selective introductory essay of the kind now enshrined by the Oxford Very Short Introduction series, in which the author's take on the subject reflects his own prevailing interests and expertise. Collins himself admits that this study is not comprehensive, acknowledging for instance the omission of amulets and literary depictions of magical activity. It might, then, seem unfair to cavil about omissions in a consciously and necessarily selective introduction, but Collins's stated aim is to produce a discussion that is both "accessible to non-specialists and challenging to specialists" and covers "the high points of scholarly consensus and to offer new interpretive frameworks for understanding select Greek magical practices" (xi). As such, there is an important aspect of Greek, and indeed ancient, magic that both types of reader would miss in this book.
An important development in recent scholarship, as epitomized by the two volumes edited by Mirecki and Meyer, is the understanding of the eclectic nature of ancient magic. Thus many of the Greek magical papyri include appeals to powerful angels and archetypal magicians like Solomon, both drawn from Jewish tradition; exorcism in Greco-Roman antiquity drew on Jewish and eventually Christian practices; and late antique Coptic Christian texts use both Greek and Coptic alphabets and blend near Eastern, Egyptian, Jewish, and Christian formulae, as powerfully demonstrated in Meyer and Smith's Ancient [End Page 155] Christian Magic: Coptic Texts of Ritual Power (Princeton University Press, 1994). Collins's Greco-Roman focus in this book thus marginalizes the rich variety of cultures one finds blended or accumulated in Greek texts like the magical papyri. This would not matter so much if Collins had not extended his work to the Roman Empire and late antiquity, appealing in Chapter 5 for a reading of Roman magical practices as essentially "an absorption and adaptation" of Greek ones-that is, arguing for just the kind of contiguities and borrowings that characterized ancient magic of earlier periods. Further, his suggestion that the stereotype among Romans was that the Greeks were adept at magic could usefully be refined by considering how far the suspicion of Greek magic was in fact of Hellenistic Jewish, or "other," magic.
This quibble aside, there is much to be commended and enjoyed in this book. Collins is alert to the manifold problems of approaching a subject whose meaning has all but been exploded by scholars. Despite tantalizingly titling his first chapter "Magic: What Is It and How Does It Work?," Collins sensibly refuses to offer a single comprehensive and crude answer to the first question and focuses on the second. He also avoids being sucked into the ongoing debate over the distinction between magic and religion, which he characterizes damningly as "largely effete," by commandingly relegating it to a different historiography altogether. In offering an array of perspectives on, and ways of reading, magical texts and objects, he goes a long way to fulfilling an ambitious twofold claim to offer something to beginners and periti alike.