Friday, August 28, 2009


Version at BMCR home site
Derek Collins, Magic in the Ancient Greek World. Blackwell Ancient Religions. Malden, MA: Blackwell, 2008. Pp. xiv, 207. ISBN 9781405132398. $28.00 (pb).
Reviewed by D. Felton, University of Massachusetts Amherst

Table of Contents

Collins' book joins the ever-burgeoning number of works produced in the last two decades on magic in ancient Greece and Rome. The immediate question that springs to mind then is, what does this new study add to the discussion? Collins' five main chapters cover, respectively, anthropological theories of magical behavior, the development of Greek concepts of magic, binding magic, Homeric verses as incantations, and Greek and Roman legislation against magic. His work thus appears to overlap to a large extent with others'--notably Ogden's sourcebook Magic, Witchcraft, and Ghosts in the Greek and Roman Worlds,1 Dickie's Magic and Magicians in the Greco-Roman World,2 Johnston's Restless Dead,3 Gager's Curse Tablets and Binding Spells from the Ancient World,4 Graf's Magic in the Ancient World,5 and any number of works by Faraone,6 all of which Collins includes in his bibliography. Unlike these detailed studies, however, Collins' aims to introduce non-specialists to several main areas of Greek magic, and he thus uses a somewhat less complex style than most other studies to draw his readers in and guide them through his arguments. He also indicates early on that he does not intend to cover every category of Greek magical practice; the use of amulets, and protracted discussion of literary depictions of magic, for example, are purposely not included (p. xi). But Collins' most important contribution is his methodological approach, through which he seeks to offer a new interpretive framework for understanding certain Greek magical practices: What cultural constructs in ancient Greece allowed magic to exist, that is, allowed people to believe in the efficacy of magic? To this end, Collins' approach focuses more on anthropological concerns and delves more into psychological explanations than other scholarly studies to date.

Collins somewhat deceptively titles his first chapter, "Magic: What Is It and How Does It Work?" But rather than joining the ongoing debate about how to define "magic," particularly when the surviving ancient Greek texts have not left any clear definition, Collins instead reviews the major 19th and 20th century anthropological theorists of magic with the intent of examining performative and ritual contexts for the practice of magic. He presents, for example, Frazer's theory that magic is a type of false science: that the practitioner reasons wrongly from cause to effect (p. 3). Collins also notes Frazer's most significant contribution to the study of magic, the concept of cosmic "sympathy" (p. 14). Also included in this chapter are Malinowski's observations about the role of individual memory in the perceived success of magic (p. 5); Lévy-Bruhl's "law of participation," which in the case of Greece (and other societies) posits that the living interact with the dead as if they were living presences (p. 9); and the work of several other anthropological theorists such as Evans-Pritchard and Tambiah, all of which addresses the fundamental question of agency, that is, what makes magic effective (p. 24).

In his second chapter, "A Framework for Greek Magic," Collins attempts to provide an intellectual framework for Greek magic in the fifth and fourth centuries B.C.E. that will provide "a theological and causal basis for understanding how it was perceived to work" (p. 27). Here his examples are perhaps too limited--the Hippocratic treatise On the Sacred Disease (pp. 33-42), which is not necessarily easily generalized to common magical practices, comes to mind--and much of his discussion, such as the comparisons among terms for magical practitioners (magoi, kathartai, agurtai, manteis, alazones) covers material already admirably investigated by others, such as Dickie (as Collins himself acknowledges, p. 43). Overall, however, this chapter provides a reasonable introduction to the subject, if one keeps in mind one of Collins' main goals. For example, Collins' observation that the Greeks were inconsistent in their use of terms such as mageia will not come as a surprise to anyone who has read Ogden or Johnston, but will be a useful point for anyone who has not. Additionally, Collins places more emphasis on Plato's psychological theory concerning the efficacy of magic than most other works on the subject (p. 42 ff.).

The third chapter, "Binding Magic and Erotic Figurines," does not break much new ground, but rather presents a lot of the same material as Gager and Faraone, to whom he frequently refers, explaining that binding magic was among the most widely employed types of magic, and that it usually consisted of both a binding spell and a bound figurine (p. 64). He does on several occasions take his discussion in different directions from previous scholars, however. His speculation as to whether there was a magical dimension to ostracism proves interesting (and comes with the necessary caveat, pp. 65-66); his extended discussion of kharakteres provides much more information than, say, Ogden; and his argument that we must contextualize the use of figurines in binding spells with the broader Greek attitudes toward statuary more generally is quite engaging and convincing (pp. 92-102).

Collins' fourth chapter, "Homeric Incantations," discusses how Homeric verses were excised from their poems and used as incantations to solve practical problems such as diseases. It is not entirely clear why Collins chooses to focus on incantations from Homeric verses to the exclusion of other types of incantation; it may be because the earliest examples of magic in Greek literature occur in Homeric epic. In any case, Collins notes that "the majority of Homeric verses used in magic were employed either to protect or to heal," though the origin of their usage is not known (pp. 105-6). Collins discusses Homeric incantations in more detail than previous studies, and he does a particularly good job of exploring possible relationships between their original Homeric contexts and their use as magic spells. Although some verses seem to have been selected indifferently to their narrative contexts (p. 109), more of them can, in fact, be shown to have taken their narrative contexts into consideration. For example, Iamblichus tells a story about the seer Empedocles, who was said to have quelled the anger of a youth with a Homeric incantation:

the youth had drawn a sword against Empedocles' host. . . and in a rage the youth rushed forward with a sword to strike him. According to the account, Empedocles was already engaged in playing the lyre for Anchitus when he saw that the youth was about to attack him, so he suddenly changed the musical mode to one that was sedate and soothing, and straightaway recited Odyssey 4.221: "soothing sorrow and angerless, causing forgetfulness of all ills." Once he recited this line the youth calmed down and Anchitus was saved from death" (p. 107).
As Collins points out, the line comes from the scene where Helen slips a pharmakon into the wine to make Telemachus, Melelaus, and company forget their sorrows. This verse, then, was clearly chosen because it occurs in a narrative context in which "soothing" effects are at work (p. 107). In general, Collins finds, Homeric verses were applied with metaphorical interpretations.

In the fifth chapter, "Magic in Greek and Roman Law," Collins again presents material already covered in detail by others such as Ogden, Dickie, and, to a certain extent, Luck (strangely not cited anywhere by Collins).7 That Greek law showed little concern about the practice of magic (p. 133); that the Teians had a law against manufacturing harmful drugs (p. 134); that Theoris, a "witch" from Lemnos was executed along with her entire family for her involvement with incantations and drugs (pp. 136-138); that the ambiguity of the Lex Cornelia de sicariis et veneficiis allowed the law to be applied to magical activity (pp. 145-148)--all of these appear in detail in Ogden, as does the observation that Roman law showed an increasingly sustained interest in the regulation of magical activities (p. 141). At the same time, Collins also explains more clearly than Ogden and others that the legal basis for the prosecution of medieval and early modern witchcraft had its origin in Roman law, which itself tended to draw on Greek magical practices (p. 132). Collins ends with an extended discussion about the trial of the author Apuleius, who was charged--almost certainly under the Lex Cornelia--with being a magus who had used erotic magic to make an older woman, the wealthy widow Pudentilla, fall in love and marry him. Collins' explains that in his Apologia Apuleius did not actually deny the charges, but rather offered non-magical explanations for the alleged magical acts he was accused of (p. 151), and that these explanations, although they won him acquittal, were not particularly convincing to later authors, Augustine among them, who believed that Apuleius indeed practiced magicae artes (p. 159). Overall, although this last chapter delves more into Roman law and Roman examples than one might expect in a book on magic in the ancient Greek world, Collins is careful to show the ongoing connection between Greek magical practices, Roman law, and their importance to and influence on early and medieval Christian definitions of magical practices and legislation to protect the integrity of citizens and states from what was eventually defined as "demonic magic" (p. 165).

Given that Collins' material overlaps in many instances with the work of several other scholars I, personally, would have liked to see a literature review as part of his introduction (pp. xi-xiv). This might have been helpful to his target audience of non-specialists as well. As it is, references to Dickie, Johnston, et al. instead appear sporadically within the text itself as well as frequently in the footnotes. Collins' writing style does make the book accessible to non-specialists, though one wishes he would temper his very earnest tone with occasional bits of humor. These quibbles aside, overall, as Collins explains in his conclusion, in his book he has tried to answer the questions of what the practitioners of magic thought it was and how people in ancient Greece (and other places and times) could believe magic to be true (p. 166). He emphasizes, among other things, the importance of focusing on specific ritual practices rather than on terminology, and is consistent in trying to apply anthropological observations to ancient magical performative contexts. Collins' observation that "the particulars of a given cultural context will always be definitive in any interpretation of magic" may seem obvious (p. 26), but by the end of his book he has shown the importance of his methodological approach, which tries to appreciate magic's connection to basic cultural metaphors and how such a context changes with time and circumstances.


1.   Daniel Ogden, Magic, Witchcraft, and Ghosts in the Greek and Roman Worlds. Oxford University Press, 2002; 2nd edition 2009.
2.   Matthew W. Dickie, Magic and Magicians in the Greco-Roman World. Routledge, 2001.
3.   Sarah Iles Johnston, Restless Dead: Encounters between the Living and the Dead in Ancient Greece. University of California Press, 1999.
4.   John G. Gager, Curse Tablets and Binding Spells from the Ancient World. Oxford University Press, 1992.
5.   Fritz Graf, Magic in the Ancient World. Translated by Franklin Philip. Harvard University Press, 1997.
6.   E.g., Christopher A. Farone, "Binding and burying the forces of evil: The defensive use of 'voodoo' dolls in ancient Greece." Classical Antiquity 10 (1991): 165-205.
7.   Georg Luck, Arcana Mundi: Magic and the Occult in the Greek and Roman Worlds. The Johns Hopkins University Press, 1985; 2nd edition 2006.

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