Even though the concept of “magic” has suffered severe criticism in academic discourse, the category continues to be used in many disciplines. During the last two decades, classicists in particular have engaged in a lively discussion over “magic” and have produced an impressive amount of written output. Given the impossibility of defining “magic” in a consistent and widely accepted manner, one cannot help but wonder what these scholars are actually talking about. Hence this paper purports (a) to critically review the recent debate on “magic” in Classical Studies, (b) to advocate for abandoning an abstract category of “magic” in favour of a proper analysis of ancient sources and (c) to historicize the term “magic” in Antiquity, that is, to muse on its ancient semantics, functions, and contexts. This methodological approach does not only overcome the major problems inherent in modern definitions of “magic,” but will also yield new insights into terminologies, modes of thought and speech strategies that underlie ancient religious discourses.
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Cf. de Jong1997:387: “These words derive from the Old Persian appellative for a priest magu- (nom. Maguš), etymologically related to Av. mogu- which appears to have meant ‘(member of a) tribe’.” For the early etymology see also Nock 1933; Bremmer 1999/2002.
Cf., among other texts, Aeschylus, Persae318; Sophocles, Oedipus Rex 387f.; Euripides, Orestes 1493f.; Euripides, Iphigeneia in Tauris 1327f.; Gorgias, Encomium of Helen 9–10; Hippocrates, De morbo sacro 1.1f.; Plato, Alcibiades 1 122a.
See, for example, Segal1981:369–70: “The most interesting question for scholarship, as I see it, is not whether the charge of magic against Jesus is true or not. Since he does not claim the title, there can be no possible demonstration or disproof of a charge which is a matter of interpretation in the Hellenistic world. The most interesting question for scholarship is to define the social and cultural conditions and presuppositions that allow such charges and counter-charges to be made”; Dickie (2001:19) claims “to understand the Greeks and the Romans in their own terms”; Graf 1996:23: “Statt also eine strenge, aber künstliche Terminologie zu schaffen, verfolgt man die antiken Bedeutungen der Terminologie als Teil eines Diskurses über die Beziehungen zwischen Menschen und Göttern.”; Busch 2006:17: “Die Fragestellung, die wir in dieser Studie an die antiken Texte richten, wird eine andere sein. Wir fragen nicht, ob die Handlungen und Worte Jesu und der frühen Christen ‘magisch’ sind. Wir fragen, inwieweit und warum diese als ‘magisch’ verstanden wurden. Hierbei kommen die antiken Texte selbst zu Wort.” See also Stratton 2007, who has offered the most consistent study of the ancient discourse on “magic” so far; see, e.g., p. 13: “Consequently, I emphasize attention to emic terminology in order to illuminate the ideological prejudices behind representations of magic. By focusing on ancient terminology, one can discern when and how magic was mobilized as a discourse in antiquity. This differs from approaches that impose a universal second-order definition of magic onto other cultures and concomitantly impose modern distinctions and categories as well.”
See Stratton2007:12f. See also Stratton 2013. The approach in this paper differs slightly from Stratton’s work as I do not speak of “magic” as ancient discourse (in the end, it is a term, not a discourse) but rather of µαγεία/magia as terms within ancient discourses.
Cf. Zinser1997:93f.; my translation.
Cf. Kippenberg & Stuckrad2003:155f.; my translation.
Cf. Phillips III1986:2711: “A charge of magic represented a persuasive way to denigrate one’s theological opposition: the opposition would have to ‘prove’ that its alleged powers derived from the ‘right’ cosmic forces.” Cf. also Gager 1994, 183: “When looked at from the perspective of the centre and its values, this negative use of mageía usually amounts to little more than the claim that what we do is religion and what they do is magic. And so the term has been used pretty much ever since.” See also Stratton 2007 and 2013.
Cf. Phillips III,1994: 109–10: “These ancient distinctions have entered the scholarly traditions, the more so since empiricist-dominated classical studies were wont to privilege ancient views of their own phenomena. A.A. Barb spoke of the ‘syncretistic, rotting refuse-heap of the dead and dying religion’ in late antiquity, noting of the resultant ‘empty shell’ that ‘the masses filled it with all the refuse of superstitions, questionable white magic, and an apparently alarming amount of goêteía, that is to say unequivocal black sorcery’. Peter Salway observed that ‘ghosts, black magic and curses were taken seriously in the Classical world, and are part of that darker side of Classical religion . . .’, while H.H. Scullard on Roman religion of the Republic noted ‘the dark forest surrounded the minds of their ancestors’. And why did this occur? The socio-economic elite of ancient authors speaking directly to the socio-economic elite of modern scholars.”
Kippenberg1998:86; my translation.
Cf., among others, Radcliffe-Brown1952:138; Pettersson 1957:119; Peel 1969:83–4; Pocock 1972:2; Leach 1982:133; etc. The “rationality debate” can be studied in more detail in Wilson 1970; Horton & Finnegan 1973; Kippenberg & Luchesi 1995.
Kippenberg1998:95; my translation.
Pettersson1957:119: “Summing up, we may say that the scientific debate over the relation between ‘magic’ and ‘religion’ is a discussion of an artificial problem created by defining religion on the ideal pattern of Christianity. The elements of man’s beliefs and ceremonies concerning the supernatural powers which did not coincide with this ideal type of religion was — and is — called ‘magic’. There is always a tendency to mock the unfamiliar in other man’s faith and worship. ‘Magic’ became — and still becomes — a refuse-heap for the elements which are not sufficiently ‘valuable’ to get a place within ‘religion’. The study of comparative religion would win clearness, honesty and stringency, the aspects of valuation would be avoided etc. if the term ‘magic’ were ‘given a decent burial — to quote Doctor E. Smith — in the scientific debate of the nature of religion.”; italics Pettersson.
Styers2004:223. See also Styers 2013. Other recent critics of a substantive category of “magic” are Pasi 2008; Otto 2011; Hanegraaff 2012, esp. 164–77; Stuckrad forthcoming. See for a potential solution of the problem (“patterns of magicity”) Otto & Stausberg 2013:10f.
See Hoffman2002:188f., 193f.
See Smith1995:16–17: “I see little merit in continuing the use of the substantive term ‘magic’ in second-order, theoretical, academic discourse. We have better and more precise scholarly taxa for each of the phenomena commonly denotated by ‘magic’ which, among other benefits, create more useful categories for comparison. For any culture I am familiar with, we can trade places between the corpus of materials conventionally labeled ‘magical’ and corpora designated by other generic terms (e.g., healing, divining, execrative) with no cognitive loss.”
Cf. Tylor 1994 (1871), e.g. p. 383.
On this aspect see Kropp2004:94–7; Kropp 2010. Cf. also Faraone’s notion of the “direct binding formula” (1991:10f.).
Cf. Gager1992:25: “The sentence ‘X is/was a magician!’ tells us nothing about the beliefs and practices of X; the only solid information that can be derived from it concerns the speaker’s attitude toward X and their relative social relationship — that X is viewed by the speaker as powerful, peripheral, and dangerous. [. . .] Thus our treatment of ancient defixiones does not locate them in the category of magic, for in our view no such category exists” (italics Gager). Irritatingly, Gager’s highly progressive approach seems to have been swept under the table by the majority of scholars dealing with curse tablets in the last two decades.
On this point see also Gager1992:20f.
Cf. Blänsdorf 2010; Piranomonte2010.
Cf. Graf 1996:144f.; Smith1983:253n.8.
Cf. Gager1992:4f. and 123 n.11.
Cf. Pliny, Historia Naturalis30.1f.; See the implicit opposition to Roman religious institutions, such as the Quindecimviri Sacris Faciundis, in HN 28.13; here, Pliny claims that ritually spoken words can have an effect (a fact proven by 830 years of Roman history), while, in many other passages, he refutes the efficacy of words when spoken by the magi.
Cf. Apuleius, Apologia, 25.9ff; first, he quotes Plato’s statement in Alcibiades 1 (122a) that µαγεία refers to the worship of the gods (θεῶν θεραπεία) among the Persians; thus, Apuleius asks ironically, why is it regarded as a crime to know the laws of ceremony, the order of sacrifice, and the norms of religion (leges cerimoniarum, fas sacrorum, ius religionum). Shortly later (26.6f.), he refers to the ordinary convention (more vulgari) that refers to the magus as someone who has incredible powers through his communion with the gods (communione loquendi cum deis) and, especially, through powerful invocations (incredibilia quadam ui cantaminum); however, he refutes the latter image by proving it to be absurd. Finally, Apuleius more than once suggests that the whole court case against him is a compensatory farce (this implies Apuleius’ generally critical evaluation of the crimen magiae), driven by nothing more than the envy and greed of his accusers (e.g. Apologia 28.6f.; 54.5f.; 67.1f.; 99–103). Here, the philosopher even outlines the main arguments of the thesis of deviance. See in more detail Otto 2011, ch. 7.
Cf., in more detail, Brashear1995:3401ff. See also Betz 1986, especially XLII–XLIV.
See in more detail Otto2011:169f. and Otto & Stausberg 2013:19f.
Ogden2002:44: “One of the most important aspects of this discussion is its explicit unification within the same category — whatever that category is — of figures of very different varieties [. . .]. Compared, explicitly or implicitly, to the mages (of Persia, Medea, Babylon, Assyria, and even Armenia, all closely identified [. . .] are: Circe, the Sirens, Proteus, Thessalian witches, Carian Telmessus (known for various forms of divination), Orpheus, Pythagoras, Empedocles, and Democritus, as well as Jewish, Cypriot (Cyprus is identified as a particular home for magic in later sources), Latin, and Gallic sorcerers. For all that magic spread over the entire world, it is presented as fundamentally external and antithetical to Roman Culture.”
Mathew Dickie (1999) rightly claims that Pliny referred to earlier texts (which had been for the most part lost) while compiling his work such as a book attributed to Bolos of Mendes on sympathy and antipathy, a book of Zachalias on stones, a book of Pseudo-Pythagoras on plants, and the cheiromecta of (Pseudo-) Democritus. My argument does therefore not imply that the material presented by Pliny is based on pure fantasy or creativity — the fact is that he participated in an ongoing textual discourse in Antiquity. However, Dickie’s construction of a consistent “magical lore” fails at one central point: did the authors of these earlier works really subsume under the ancient concept of “magic” the idea that stones, plants or animals have an effect on human affairs? Although this question cannot be answered with certainty, it seems rather doubtful that µαγεία/magia operated as the general framework for this idea before Pliny. From the viewpoint of ancient terminology, it is more likely that these books were tagged (by their authors) as being scientific (that is, philosophical/peripatetic) or medical. In his Historia Naturalis, Pliny might have changed this pattern of classification and subsumed a vast variety of strange or uncertain beliefs under the umbrella term magia, thereby significantly broadening its semantic range.
See in more detail Otto2011:225f. and Otto & Stausberg 2013:23f.
Cf., explicitly, De civitate dei9.23 referring to Psalms 95–96. See also De civitate Dei 1.29; 8.24; 19.23; etc. In a similar vein, De doctrina christiana 2.XX.30.74 reveals Augustine’s equation of idolatria (that is, Graeco-Roman deity cults) and magia.
See in more detail Otto2011:309f. and Otto & Stausberg 2013:33f.
Betz1986:XLVI: “For these magicians, there was no longer any cultural difference between the Egyptian and the Greek gods, or between them and the Jewish God and the Jewish angels, and even Jesus was occasionally assimilated into this truly ‘ecumenical’ religious syncretism of the Hellenistic world culture.”
Further on this see Otto2011:403f.
See on this point also Johnston2002.
See, e.g., Rüpke2007:149f.
Jacco Dieleman (2011) convincingly shows that at least the scribes of some of the (Demotic) papyri must have been educated in a traditional Egyptian scriptorium, thereby following classical rules of Egyptian “scribal practices.”
See Ritner 1995; Frankfurter1998, esp. ch. 5; Quack 2011 with further references.
See Ritner1993:14f.; for a critical discussion see Otto 2012.
In more detail see Stratton2007, ch. 2. See also Otto 2011, ch. 6.