This project began with a series of conversations between Henk Versnel and myself about what should constitute a “Guide to Ancient Magic” in a world full of Companions, Handbooks, and Guides that rarely do more than replicate their fields’ traditional nomenclature and assumptions. How—we thought—might such a Guide rearrange the way this subject has been studied over the past century? While one of us (Versnel) had written extensively about a real sense of “magic” versus “religion” in ancient Greece and the other (Frankfurter) alternately shunned and reclaimed “magic” on a five-year cycle, we agreed that a Guide that moved beyond the standard overview of what magic seemed to mean in one or another culture had to be an improvement, since the very category had become highly contested.
What we envisioned was a new starting point for future investigations, essays, and dissertations in “magic,” where authors could no longer get away with “using magic the way the ancient authors did,” since ancient authors never used (our term) magic anyway. If the terms that magic has traditionally covered in ancient languages tended to evaluate ritual acts (or experts) as either ambiguous or illegitimate, then why not look at the terms and the evaluations as indigenous strategies to evaluate, censure, render exotic—that is, as emic discourses in various ancient cultures? And then the texts that we label magic and from which we build our concepts of magic—what are these texts on their own terms? Consequently does the term magic have any real utility? Many scholars have come to reject it as inevitably deviant and exoticizing; but there may be some specific areas where the term may be less harmful or alien as description—may even hold up aspects of language or materiality for critical attention. It is, after all, up to scholars, not their sources, to decide on the value and meaning of a modern category.
From the beginning the particular challenge for the authors we signed onto this project was to internalize the mandate we laid on them: to eliminate entirely the use of the English term “magic” in Part 2, and to avoid it as a predetermined category in Part 3. As the reader will see, some authors embraced the challenge; others tried to meet us half-way; others were able, over a couple of drafts, to streamline their vocabularies; and a few could not escape the seductive convenience of the term magic to designate something under discussion.
In the almost fifteen years since this project began, a number of authors had to abandon their assignments while most others hung on, dutifully adjusting their manuscripts when called upon. I convey my deep gratitude to all the authors in this volume for their extraordinary patience and commitment to the project. Gaps in coverage will be inevitable—the neglect of Arabic, Syriac, and Ethiopic sources being most glaring—but what we have produced is a start in sharpening the study of ancient magic.
This project would not have seen the light of day without the initial encouragement of E.J. Brill’s Loes Schouten and the final, indefatigable copyediting and indexing of Scott Possiel. I am also grateful to John Chase’s excellent translation of one article from the French; and, in the final year, regular consultations with Jacco Dieleman. Of course, the inspiration and commitment of Henk Versnel, who helped guide authors for several years, shine over this volume in every way, and I still think of GSAM as a collaborative work.
I have dedicated this Guide to Marvin Meyer, whose enthusiasm for this subject first inspired many of us and whose Coptic Magical Texts Project produced one of the most important publications in the field for its “de-exoticizing” of magical texts and the activities they guided: Ancient Christian Magic: Coptic Texts of Ritual Power (San Francisco, 1994). Marvin was taken much too early from this life—indeed, in the midst of revisions of his article for this volume—and he is still mourned by everyone in this field.