Sunday, July 8, 2012


Michaël Martin, La magie dans l'Antiquité. Hors collection. Paris: Ellipses, 2012. Pp. 159. ISBN 9782729873042. €15.00 (pb).

Reviewed by Radcliffe G. Edmonds III, Bryn Mawr College (

Version at BMCR home site

Table of Contents

This little volume provides a nice, brief, French overview of magic in the ancient Greco-Roman world. As the author notes, there has been a resurgence of interest in ancient magic in recent years, and the scholarship has been proliferating rapidly, which makes the need for a good introductory survey all the more pressing. This survey, covering evidence from around the Greco-Roman world in the broadest sense (not just the Mediterranean, but Roman Britain and Gaul) over nearly a millennium, does not aim at depth, but rather provides a quick glimpse into the range of materials and ideas that fall under the rubric of ancient magic.

The structure of the book is not particularly clear; the chapters treat various topics pertaining to ancient magic, but there is no logical structure that ties them to one another. The introductory chapter sets out the scope of the book, both in time and in space, and provides a summary of the types of evidence to be surveyed, but it never actually tackles the thorny problem of what magic is or how to define it. At various points in the volume, Martin relates magic to religion, medicine, and philosophy, but it would be helpful to understand from the outset where he sees the boundaries of the categories or even what issues are at stake in drawing the boundaries.

The second chapter, entitled "How to become a Magician" ("Comment devenir magicien") wanders over the issue of whether men or women practiced magic more in reality (rather than in literature), the social location of magic, and the way magic is imagined as coming from a geographical 'Other', before turning to the topics of the magician's initiation and the transmission of the magician's lore. These first three topics are indeed crucial for understanding the social construction of the category of magic, since they raise the question of subjective labeling – 'what they do over there is magic', whether 'they' means women or outsiders or distant foreigners. Martin does make the important point that this process of 'othering' never means that magic is actually not a part of the social system (p. 12), but it would be helpful to do more to emphasize the different types of evidence involved, especially the distinction between sources that engage in this kind of 'othering' and sources that describe how a magician learns his trade.

Two chapters follow that describe the entities and things involved in magic, providing brief glances at the gods and other powers invoked, the substances and formulae employed in spells, and the magical objects employed and produced. In the section on gods invoked, Martin mentions that, in addition to Hekate, Hermes, and a few other traditional Greco-Roman gods, various Egyptian and 'Oriental' gods appear, along with local deities, but he does not explain how dependent these variations are upon the sources – the Egyptian and other 'Oriental' gods are most prevalent in the collection of Greek Magical Papyri from cosmopolitan 4th century CE Egypt, while local deities are invoked on curse tablets deposited in sanctuaries with a smaller scope. Martin makes the misleading claim (p. 38) that the magician develops his own pantheon, ranging from a supreme god to lesser demons and spirits of the dead, as if magicians developed a systematic theology with divinities who were, in his terms, "originales et bien propre au monde magique", rather than engaging in theological bricolage, with different magicians combining various elements from local and exotic sources in innovative ways. The survey of materials (animal, vegetable, and mineral) employed in magic picks some nice examples to illustrate the range, but the section on magic words and formulae, while briefly treating the nomina barbara and characteres, has little to offer on the poetics of the magic charm. The section on magical objects touches briefly on amulets, figurines, and tablets of various sorts, from curse tablets to the so-called 'Orphic' gold lamellae with instructions for the underworld. While brevity is a necessity in such a survey, this material seems to be given very short shrift, especially the rich corpus of defixiones, which can provide such fascinating insights into the social dynamics of Greco-Roman cultures.

The following long chapter (nearly one third of the whole book) treats various magical rituals, ranging from magico-medical procedures, both curative and apotropaic, to enchantments (envoûtements) – primarily erotic charms, and even to divination. Despite the neglect of curse tablets from other social situations, erotic curses, billed as "le rituel magique par excellence" (p. 78) receive some detailed attention, and Martin makes use of Faraone's distinction between different types of erotic magic. Martin also includes a section on what Versnel has termed 'judicial prayers', as well as tomb curses.1 The remainder of the chapter discusses divination, drawing the distinction between direct and indirect forms. Although necromancy is marked as clearly magical, Martin never raises the issue of how other forms of divination might be understood within Greek and Roman societies as magical or not. He notes that "le frontier entre magie et religion peut être mince" (p. 86), but then proceeds to give examples from the Greek Magical Papyri without touching on the question of what makes these magical examples different from other forms of divination that were seen as normal religious practice.

In "La magie devant ses juges", Martin returns to the place of magic in society, but the different sections of the chapter don't really cohere. Martin examines how three particular authors – Plato, Pliny, and Libanius – present magic, then surveys evidence for the legal views of magic in Greek and Roman societies, concluding with a look at Apuleius' Apologia. There is no real synthesis or even contextualization of the three disparate views presented, nor is the detailed treatment of Apuleius' trial connected with the contrasting Greek and Roman legal strictures on magic or with the Platonic tradition within which Apuleius is working.

The final chapter surveys the literary treatments of the figure of the sorceress, from Homer's Circe to Vergil's Dido and the super-witches of Horace and Lucan. Despite raising the issue in the introduction, Martin does not really pursue the question of the relation of these literary depictions to actual practices, instead providing a series of brief glimpses from the literary sources of different types of sorceresses. The conclusion points to magic in the Christian era and on into the Middle Ages.

On the whole, the volume provides a reasonable starting point for someone interested in magic in antiquity, serving as a more abridged version of Graf's fundamental study, which indeed underlies much of the book.2 Quotations from primary sources appear in cute little text boxes throughout, a helpful way of introducing these texts to audiences unfamiliar with them. There is, however, never any in-depth analysis of any particular source; they all remain fragments with little contextualization, even the sort of basic explanation of authors, characters, and periods that would be needed by the student or interested member of the general public for whom the book is intended. References to scholarship are incorporated into the text, and there is a brief list of works at the end of each chapter, another handy resource for the beginner. The works cited are almost entirely in French, perhaps because of the intended audience, with a few references to older German works and one or two in English. However, very few works, even in French, are later than the 1999 Montpellier conference on magic.3

This gap in the bibliography is detrimental to the treatment of the topic, since many important studies in the last decades have changed the understanding of magic in the ancient world.4 Beyond a grounding in Marcel Mauss (which is indeed not such a bad foundation), Martin's theoretical apparatus appears limited to passing references to Frazer's laws of sympathy (explained as if it were the same as the Stoic sympatheia) and contagion (not explained). Martin still refers to an imaginary past period of shamanistic practices that filtered down into historical times, despite Bremmer's decisive debunking of the idea.5 Indeed, the overview of the periods starts (pp. 4-5) with a description of this time in which magic is integrated with religion, science, and philosophy through such shamanistic practice, with a rupture from this idyllic past coming in the archaic period – that is to say, when the evidence actually starts. Such weak and outdated theory is particularly unfortunate in a work intended as an introduction to students of a topic that is becoming increasingly popular in recent years. Nevertheless, despite these flaws, this little volume can serve to whet the appetite of such an audience for a deeper understanding of the fascinating topic of magic in the ancient Greco-Roman world.


1.   Faraone, C. 2006. Philtres d'amour et sortilèges en Grèce ancienne. Payot. Paris. Versnel, Hendrik S. 1991. Beyond cursing: The appeal to justice in judicial prayers. In Magika hiera: Ancient Greek Magic and Religion. Edited by Christopher A. Faraone and Dirk Obbink, 60–106. New York: Oxford Univ. Press.
2.   The debt to Graf is especially clear in the treatments of the magician's initiation and of the law and Apuleius. The influence of Bernand 1991 is also apparent throughout. Graf, F. 1994. La Magie dans l'Antiquité greco-romaine. Paris, Les Belles Lettres. Bernand, A. 1991. Sorciers grecs. Paris: Fayard.
3.   Moreau, Alain M., and Jean-Claude Turpin, eds. 2000. La Magie: Actes Du Colloque International De Montpellier, 25–27 Mars 1999. Montpellier, France: Université Paul Valéry, Montpellier III.
4.   In particular, just to provide a few examples to start with, Johnston's studies on divination and the restless dead would have greatly improved the relevant sections of this work, as would Stratton's treatment of the changing figure of the witch. Gordon's studies of the place of magic in the Greco-Roman imagination could bring some social context for the evidence cited, while Bailliot's study of Roman magic would help with the material contexts. Johnston, Sarah Iles. 1999. The Restless Dead: Encounters between the living and the dead in ancient Greece. Berkeley and Los Angeles: Univ. of California Press. Johnston, Sarah I. 2008. Ancient Greek Divination. Malden, MA: Wiley- Blackwell Pub. Stratton, Kimberly B. 2007. Naming the Witch: Magic, Ideology, and Stereotype in the Ancient World. New York: Columbia Univ. Press. Gordon, R. L. 1987. Aelian's peony: The location of magic in Graeco- roman tradition. In Comparative Criticism: A yearbook. Edited by E. Shaffer, 59–95. Cambridge, UK: Cambridge Univ. Press. Gordon, Richard. 1999. Imagining Greek and Roman magic. In Magic and Witchcraft in Europe: Greece and Rome. Edited by Bengt Ankarloo and Stuart Clark, 159–276. Philadelphia: Univ. of Pennsylvania Press. Bailliot, Magali. 2010. Magie et sortilèges dans l'Antiquité romaine: archéologie des rituels et des images. Paris: Hermann.
5.   Bremmer 2002: 27-40 traces the history of the idea in scholarship and shows the distortions it creates in the evidence for Greek religion. Bremmer, J. N. (2002). The rise and fall of the afterlife: The 1995 Read-Tuckwell lectures at the University of Bristol. London; New York: Routledge.

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