Take old urine and slag iron

Simon Goldhill

  • Magic in the Ancient World by Fritz Graf
    Harvard, 318 pp, £23.50, February 1998, ISBN 0 674 54151 0

Greece has its canonical witches. There is Medea, barbarian and jilted lover, with her flaming poisons. Homer’s Circe, often allegorised as a figure of lust, who turns Odysseus’ men into pigs and takes him to bed for a year. In the Alexandrian poet, Theocritus, the deserted Simaetha, a petit-bourgeois woman, is desperate to enchant her lover back to her bed. This list makes the association of magic with women, sex and the foreign inevitable – and easily seen as the defining negative of the rational Greek man, proud in his selfcontrol, reason and political display. The Greek (male) hero of both Victorian and Foucauldian imagination is the victim of sexually motivated females, his body and mind lacerated by drugs, misled by spells and baffled by lures. When Plato accuses rhetoricians and sophists of witchcraft, it is these threats and values he seems to be appropriating to bolster the discipline of philosophy, and it has become a set of values with which it is hard not to feel complicit.

It was something of a scandal, then, when scholars looked seriously at the material evidence from the ancient Greek world and it revealed a quite different story. There are innumerable papyrus and lead sheets, inscribed with spells, dropped into wells, buried in graves and folded into other ritual objects, which, together with spell books, make up a significant corpus. This reveals that the vast majority of the spells were cast by men; many were designed to win over women sexually, many aimed at gaining professional advantage over other professional men. It was not possible to denigrate these men as ignorant, lower-class or foreign; even the experts in magic were not the crones found in literature but respected men. Behind the image of rational Greek man – an image promoted by élite Greek literature as well as its later élite commentators – was a culture that embraced, along with political philosophy and medicine, the practice of sticking pins into dolls and burning toenails. The ‘irrationality’ of Dionysiac cult may have a certain Nietzschean panache: burying a spell on a lead tablet in order to strike a group of doctors with unemployment is a more embarrassing (self-) image.

The erotic spells can be vivid:

I bind you, Theodotis daughter of Eus, by the tail of the snake and by the mouth of the crocodile and by the horns of the ram, and by the venom of the asp and by the whiskers of the cat and by the penis of the god, that you may not be able to screw ever with another man, neither frontally nor anally, nor to suck off, nor to take pleasure with another man, except me, Ammonion Hermitoris.

This tablet from the Greek-speaking community of Egypt is paradigmatic in that it is part of a rite aimed at constraining a woman sexually to a particular man; that it names both parties; that it lists a series of marginal, rare or bizarre elements – you could be asked to boil a mouse in liquid, collect bat blood, baboon droppings or the like. It goes on to hope that the girl will come flying to him ‘subservient, obedient, eager ... in unending intercourse for all the time of her life’.

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