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’.

The implications of such discoveries for understanding ancient gender relations are highly significant. Where the texts of high literature, and especially moral treatises, recognise female desire only as transgressive, and demand passivity as a norm of proper female conduct, this evidence shows men desperate to excite women’s sexual feelings and activity, worrying about the opportunities and scope of autonomous female desire, trying through ritual and recipe to assert control in an exchange that is evidently and disturbingly beyond male authority. In Jack Winkler’s words, these performances are a ‘sneak attack waged in the normal warfare of Mediterranean social life’. Covert erotic rites are part of the complex game of eliciting desire and sexual action within the power relations and protocols of ancient society. Looking at spells should change our sense of the normal in Greek culture.

This is all comfortably anthropological. The apparently wacky is explained (and revelled in) as a fully functioning part of a different culture, in order to avoid exercising our ethnocentric prejudices; and, at the same time, our ethnocentric prejudices are revealed by discovering how the apparently wacky can be seen as normal in other societies. Such analyses have been hugely influential and instructive, as a way of making us think about the relations between high/literary culture and low/material culture, and, tellingly, about our investment in particular images of gender and of Greece. Similarly, accounts exist of witchcraft in modern Britain – stating how normal and widely spread throughout society its practitioners are and how it can be seen as one of a range of responses to the conflicts of modern life.

The difficulties start to mount up, however, when the object of study shifts from the delimited corpus of erotic spells, say, to magic itself. Throughout this century an increasing number of attempts have been made to define ‘magic’ cross-culturally, and the debate has become increasingly passionate and confused. There is a strong set of vested interests involved in any modern definition. This is most clearly seen when magic is opposed to religion. When Moses appears before Pharaoh in Exodus and has Aaron instigate the plague of frogs, the Egyptian court magicians promptly do the same trick. What is at stake is the true power of God. As the plagues progress, the magicians are humbled and defeated, since they cannot match the increasingly extreme displays of the outstretched hand and strong arm of God. The challenge is not to confuse magic and miracle. So, lest there be any awkwardness for the reader, the great medieval Jewish commentator Abraham ibn Ezra insists that whereas Aaron brought frogs from all die waters of Egypt, the magicians brought forth frogs ‘only from smaller ponds’.

This battle has been played out repeatedly on different fields: as Keith Thomas showed in his magisterial Religion and the Decline of Magic, there is a long history of engagement between magic and religion as definitional categories. In exemplary fashion, the classical scholar and Catholic priest, AndréJean Festugière, writing shortly before the Second World War, argued that we should see only magic and no religion in ancient ‘magical’ liturgies, even when they combine cosmology, mystery cult and ritual. For, he claims, magic compels divinity to act, whereas religion prays or beseeches. Where Frazer can sweepingly declare magic to be a sign of primitive cosmology, and absence of magic thus a sign of advanced civilisation, religious writers necessarily engage in a more detailed border war. Festugière’s Church can accommodate exorcism, but not magic.

There is, on the other hand, an equally strong set of vested interests in the ancient definitions of magic. The Greek word ‘magic’ itself is derived from the name of the Persian priests, the ‘magi’ – as in the three wise men of the Christian Bible – and is usually used in a pejorative sense to imply something foreign and not part of the civic world. One who practises ‘magic’ in a Greek sense is not merely a sorcerer, but also an expert in initiatory and other cultic rites. Most of our examples of the term come from philosophers, scientists and other ‘masters of truth’ in the course of attacking opponents. Although it is clear that at least some citizens of classical Athens made use of the practices denigrated by Plato as ‘magic’, it is far from clear if they would have used such denigratory language to describe what they were doing. Consider these two recipes:

Take old urine and slag iron in handful-size bits. Sit the woman on a seat, cover the body and head, put a footpan below and throw in the red-hot iron bits in threes. There will be a pitcher of urine and do the vapour bath up to thirty bits; when you have fumigated, wash the head in the urine used for the fumigation, quenching the stones again and again heating up the vapour bath. After that, wash down from the head with as much water as possible, boiling hulwort and as much ‘chaste tree’ as possible in the water. Do this for seven days.

Take as many bittervetch seeds as you want for the number of years in which you wish to remain sterile. Steep them in the menses of a menstruating woman. Let her steep them in her own genitals. Take a frog that is alive and throw the seeds into its mouth so that it swallows them, and release the frog alive at the place you captured him.

The first is from the Hippocratic medical treatise On the Disease of Women and is part of a doctor’s advice on how to encourage a woman to conceive. The second is part of a spell from the magic papyri on how to prevent conception. Both suggest a mixture of bodily and herbal ingredients which must be prepared and applied in particular (numerical) ways over a period of time. Both are private, unpleasant and authoritative. It is hard to define a secure boundary here between medicine and magic: the writers’ self-definitions, the disciplinary interest of doctors (ancient and modern), a modern commitment to scientific method and a modern hesitation before cultural appropriation, provide conflicting criteria. It is perhaps not surprising, then, that some people have concluded that ‘magic’ has value only in the context of the person making use of it, and cannot be regarded as a discrete socio-cultural category.

What, then, is the subject of a book called Magic in the Ancient World? The title of the French original is Idéologie et pratique de la magie dans I’antiquité Gréco-Romaine: both the specificity of the Greco-Roman frame and the space opened by the term ‘ideology’ have been tellingly lost for its Anglo-American audience. Should astrology be included in a synoptic account? (It gets only the barest of mentions in Graf.) Should sophisticated literary games about witchcraft, spells and mystery be allowed space as formulating the discourse of magic, or excluded because of their tenuous connection with any actual ritual behaviour? (Graf again barely touches on this material, using it mainly to mark the difference between what literature and material remains reveal to be normal practice.) What place for the other Mediterranean cultures with, which the Greco-Roman world interacts? What should be the guiding principles of exclusion and inclusion?

One fascinating case will show the difficulties. In the fourth century BCE, the people of the colony of Cyrene set up an inscription recording a ritual undertaken to mark their oath never to return to the mother city, Thera. It reads: ‘After making figures of wax, they burned them, uttering together an oath and performing together a sacrifice, men, women, boys and girls: “Let him who breaks this oath and commits contrary acts, let him melt and be liquefied like these figures, him and his descendants and his fortune.” ’ Many, as Graf notes, would not regard this melting of wax figures as magic; indeed, according to Graf’s own arguments, it is not ‘magic’. It is civic rather than anticivic, inclusive rather than exclusive, warning rather than binding; it has no expert, and invokes no divine powers. So is this effigy-melting simply not magic? Or is it civic symbolism appropriating the forms of magic? Or does it show magic silently incorporated within the city’s rituals?

It is to Graf’s credit that he is prepared to include such material and to let the problem stand as a threat to his project. His combination of scholarly knowledge, caution and a willingness to test the boundaries of his arguments (this third is rarely combined with the first two) makes this the most successful general introduction to the problems and scope of Greco-Roman magical practices, and it is good to have had it translated so swiftly. He provides much intelligent solidity where the subject has often prompted an over-sympathetic ob-sessiveness and wildness.

The discourse of magic – the ideology, if you will – is less well treated, however. If magic is to be thought of as deviance within the culture of civic religion, it would be interesting to consider further what difference the shifts between polytheism and monotheism make. It is not clear whether monotheistic orthodoxy, with its more restrictive legislation, makes deviance easier and yet more punishable; but it is likely that the nature of the norms with which magic is compared will affect the sense of its transgressiveness. Graf’s use of literary texts, furthermore, is perhaps the weakest part of the book. He looks only at the very bestknown examples, and without enough exposition of how such discussions of magic have a social and intellectual effect. He points out that the ritual performed by Theocritus’ Simaetha to win back her man follows no known example of ancient ritual, but he fails even to note that the second half of the poem is an extended love song, which acts as a parallel to the ritual, and thus that the whole poem explores different responses to controlling and eliciting desire. As such, it shows a more self-conscious and complicated engagement on the part of an élite Alexandrian writer with the aims of (erotic) magic, an involvement which finds no place in Graf’s view of magic in society.

Similarly intriguing – and ignored – is Julius Africanus, a Christian writer of the third century who tells us in his Kestoi of a version of Homer which includes in the famous passage of Odysseus in the Underworld the precise words of the spells the hero made to summon the ghosts of the dead (none of this, of course, is in the canonical texts of Homer). Julius Africanus tells us in which libraries he found the manuscripts and quotes the verses. His scholarly glee in having discovered such spells recorded in a text of the epic poet again betokens an intricate literate engagement with magic. Or take the hero of Achilles Tatius’ marvellous novel Leucippe and Cleitophon, who pretends he is stung on the lip by a bee, so that his girl can whisper a curing magic spell over it, which turns into a first stolen kiss – a knowing literary game with the performance of magic, the sickness of love, and the erotics of a flirtatious story. It is a pity that in redressing the balance of old-fashioned accounts, Graf has not given due place to the sophistication of the cultivated, literate response to magical practice, and its role in the complex discourse of the supernatural.