Tuesday, November 24, 2015


Andrea Jördens (ed.), Ägyptische Magie und ihre Umwelt. Philippika, 80. Wiesbaden: Harrassowitz Verlag, 2015. Pp. 379. ISBN 9783447103169. €48.00.

Reviewed by Árpád M. Nagy, Budapest Museum of Fine Arts, Collection of Classical Antiquities (amnagy8@gmail.com)

Version at BMCR home site

Table of Contents

It has become a commonplace that research on ancient magic is one of the success stories of contemporary classical studies. The key to this success was a turn that started around thirty years ago: magika that was traditionally deemed as „Wissenschaft des nicht Wissenswerten" has been transformed into a scholarly field that is jointly investigated by researchers from a number of disciplines (Egyptology, classical archaeology and philology, the ancient Near East and Jewish Studies), which had traditionally worked completely separately. An old-school professor would ask his student to decide between classical archaeology and Egyptology. Contemporary research on ancient magic offers a third solution: to study both. It is in this context that the title of the book is to be understood: although its principal subject is Ägyptische Magie, its horizon is the Umwelt, the ancient Mediterranean — which also explains why the book is reviewed by a researcher of Graeco-Roman magic.

The research projects outlined in the volume imply an enviable setting. As attested by the foreword, the book has developed from works connected to an exhibition, and is related to at least four large research projects spanning different disciplines, cultures and historical periods (VII-VIII; 1). It is worth perusing the brief presentation of the fifteen authors of the book (377-379). There are six university professors; four authors represent the middle generation; five authors were still awaiting promotion at the time the manuscript was closed; and representatives of the next generation also appear.1 This span is an exemplary realization of researchers' synergy across generations. The extent to which the disciplines here integrated differ, is clearly shown by the scientific activities outlined in the author lemmata. All this highlights the potential of Heidelberg as one of the main international centers of research on ancient magic.

The material basis for the work conducted in the 'Heidelberg school' is the large Papyrussammlung of the university.2 Out of the 10600 papyri there are 81 that can be classified within the sphere of magika,3 as outlined by the editor, Andrea Jördens in the introduction (Magisches und Verwandtes in der Heidelberger Papyrussammlung, 1-29). Besides information on provenience and a critical overview of the principal publications, Jördens also presents the 31 unpublished papyri (16-20). Her analysis reinforces the formerly formulated important hypothesis on the Coptic material „daß wir „in the Heidelberg collection a 'library,' 'portfolio,' or 'hoard' of texts and spells of ritual power" vor uns haben" (26-27; see also below).

The title creates a double structure for the entire volume. The Umwelt is illustrated by only four studies (Magie in den Nachbarkulturen, 33-98). The main subject is Ägyptische Magie with the second and third chapters (Magie im alten Ägypten, 101-187; Magie in der ägyptischen Spätzeit, 191-375). These proportions clearly show that the book is much more a reflection of the present stage of research in Heidelberg than a comprehensive presentation of the enormous subject referred to in the title.

The study of Nils P. Heebel (Magie in Mesopotamien, 33-53) examines the primary characteristics of Mesopotamian magic with examples from the sphere of healing, protective magic, and love. „Religion und Magie sind im Alten Orient weder antagonistisch strukturiert noch komplementär zueinander, sondern fallen vollkommen in eins zusammen." (35). Rüdiger Schmitt aims to span infinite horizons in his summary of barely ten pages (Magie in Syrien und Palästina/Israel im 2. und 1. Jtsd. v. Chr., 54-68). It is surprising to see that Gideon Bohak's handbook on ancient Jewish magic, already a classic, does not appear in the bibliography.4 The study of Peter Busch summarizes the relationship of magic and Christianity based on the papyri, and from a witty perspective: how may a contemporary magos (ritual expert) have read the New Testament (Magie und das Neue Testament, 69-81). The fourth paper gives an excellent overview of a magical technique: Rodney Ast and Julia Lougovaya, The Art of Isopsephisme in the Greco-Roman World (82-98). This is not much, but the correlations of Egyptian magic and Mediterranean Umwelt get emphasis in the later chapters as well. It is in the later part of the book that we read about how the characteristics of magical protection for Egyptian tombs fit into the context of cultures in the Greek and Syro-Palestinian regions (154-156), and it is also here that the features of Graeco-Egyptian love magic common with the Mesopotamian and pharaonic traditions become apparent (especially 250-255).

The second part of the book treats Egyptian magic before the Ptolemaic Period and contains three studies. Traditionally, the demon was believed to be the harmful force in magical praxeis, and the deity the benevolent character. How different this could be is nicely illustrated by the study of Joachim Friedrich Quack (Dämonen und andere höhere Wesen in der Magie als Feinde und Helfer, 101-118). „ … Götter in Ägypten weit mehr noch als die niederen Hierarchien der höheren Wesen dem Menschen gefährlich werden konnten" (110). The observation that in Egyptian magic, instead of separating 'medizinische' and 'magische Texte', it would be more proper if „eine übergreifende Textgruppe der prophylaktischen und kurativen Techniken definiert wird, in denen sowohl Drogen als auch Rezitationen zum Einsatz kommen, nicht selten sogar beides kombiniert" (108, n. 34) also deserves special attention. The paper of Christoffer Theis gives an overview of the magical protection of tombs through sources spanning more than two millennia (Defensive Magie im Alten Ägypten. Der Schutz der Grabstätte, 119-170). It is interesting to note that magical texts used in the pyramids of Old Kingdom pharaohs resurface in the Saite Period. They may have used handbooks, but it is also possible that they opened old tombs and directly copied the inscriptions found there (153, n. 195). Ildikó Maaßen gives a thorough synopsis of the different methods of protection against snakes and scorpions (Schlangen- und Skorpionbeschwörung über die Jahrtausende, 171-187). She also emphasises that there is no clear boundary between "magical" and "natural" praxeis.

The third part of the volume focuses on magic after the Hellenistic Period. Franziska Naether provides an excellent summary of Greek and Demotic magical papyri (Griechisch-Ägyptische Magie nach den Papyri Graecae et Demoticae Magicae, 191-217). Just a selection of her analytical perspectives: How did the corpus itself change? (Magisch oder nicht magisch?) In what quantity were magical texts discovered in different regions of Egypt? What are the most important units of finds? (Archiven) Chronology, dating, content types, an overview of the structure of the praxeis, and so on. This is probably the best contemporary synthesis of this subject. The longest study in the book was written by Svenja Nagel (with the cooperation of Fabian Wespi): Ägypter, Griechen und Römer im Liebesbann – Antiker 'Liebeszauber' im Wandel der Zeiten (218-280). The traditional division of Greek sources of "love magic" along the assumption that men in antiquity chiefly wanted sex, whereas women aimed at ensuring emotional bonding, 5 is strongly questionable from the perspective of Demotic papyri as well (218-219). The article offers an excellent starting point for further research, since it treats the sources of Egyptian, Greek and Imperial Period magic, including the literary sources, as a unity. From the material here presented I will only highlight pars pro toto the so-called Cyprian magical handbook. The author who assumes the character of the Christian bishop Cyprian, relates that he himself had been a magos before he converted. Then follows the praxis of 'love magic' for attracting a woman — with the help of the archangel Gabriel, but using centuries old 'pagan' techniques. Finally, a Christian prayer closes the text (245-247, cf. 337).6 Laura Willer gives a meticulous analysis of Graeco-Egyptian magical medicine (Iatromagie: Magie und Medizin im griechisch-römischen Ägypten, 281-301). The closing study of the volume presents the 25 Coptic amulets and magical handbooks preserved in Heidelberg from the 7th to 11th centuries, giving a detailed analysis of nine of them and a re-translation of one (Tamara Mößner and Claudia Nauerth, Koptische Texte und ihre Bilder, 302-375). It is a characteristic of the Coptic magical texts in Heidelberg that almost all recipes are accompanied with images; image and text are thus both constitutive elements of the praxeis, which is an extremely rare feature in the entire Graeco-Egyptian corpus (PGM-PDM). As mentioned before (26–27), the Coptic material in Heidelberg can be traced back to some kind of a common source. It is thus possible that a unique school of ancient and medieval Egyptian magic is being outlined here.

Lastly, I would like to finish with four appreciative remarks concerning the volume as a whole. The first: no attempt is made at defining a unified concept of magic. Even though the emphasis given by the authors naturally differ, there is no serious dissonance among them about the subject of the book. As also shown by the examples above, it is becoming more and more evident that ancient magic eludes definition. The second is the presence of the older scholarly literature. 7 Secondary literature that appeared prior to the last third of the 20th century is rarely quoted in contemporary classical studies. For researchers of ancient magic, however, much can be learned from the great scholars of the previous generations. The 1898 handbook of Mark Lidzbarski (165), Theodor Hopfner's fundamental, two-volume work that appeared in 1921-1924 (113, n. 54), Samson Eitrem's studies published in 1924 (115, n. 60; 260, n. 241), or Campbell Bonner's synthesis of magical gems from 1950 (264, n. 265) form a natural part of this 2015 volume. The third appealing feature of the book is that a number of authors aim to interpret ancient magic with the help of modern parallels. To list but a few: isopsephism in Leo Tolstoy's War and Peace (96-97); ancient motives in the Arab practice of snake charming in the 20th century (177-182); present-day analogies of ancient oracles (194, n. 15).

The fourth comment takes us a little further. The book outlines a number of magical technologies that appeared in quite distant periods and media, but still, their structural similarities are noteworthy. Just one example: as we have seen, image and text are both constitutive elements of the Coptic papyrus amulets in Heidelberg. The same applied to another source group of magika half a millenium earlier: incised gem amulets. A frequent type of these magical gems commands the demon to be defeated in the name of the deities represented on the stone, with an incised inscription in the imperative (e.g. pepte! – digest!). A similar structural type can also be noted among pharaonic Egyptian amulets (115-118). Despite all their differences then, there are structural similarities between these amulet types. It is perhaps worth examining whether this is sheer coincidence, or a nice example of longue durée spanning several cultures.

The book, as said before, was carefully edited; the number of typographical errors is minimal. Apart from the shortcoming mentioned in note 6, a further critical comment: bibliographical references are cited in three different ways throughout the book (e.g. 1sq.; 33sq.; 69sq.). It is a pity that only the Coptic magical texts are accompanied with photos (355-373).

To sum up: the book is an 'interim report' on the research ongoing in the inspired Heidelberg school, with all the papers belonging to the upper registers of the rite – cum laude – summa cum laude spectrum. The work is, hopefully, to be continued.8


1.   See the comment „in Bearbeitung" accompanying items in the list of unpublished papyri (305).
2.   See 3–4. It mostly contains Greek (c. 5300 – for an exact number, see 22, n. 120), Arabic (3200), Coptic (1370) and Demotic (600) papyri, as well as 138 items of Hieratic, Latin, Hebrew, Syrian, Aramean ands Pahlavi text.
3.   The material is accessible in the Trismegistos database of ancient papyri TM_Magic, s.v. Inventory: Heidelberg.
4.   Ancient Jewish Magic. Cambridge 2011.
5.   See especially Chris A. Faraone, Ancient Greek Love Magic. Cambridge 1999.
6.   The Cyprian magical handbook is mentioned in another paper as well (311, 336-338), without the two authors referencing each other. This is the only striking shortcoming of the otherwise carefully edited book.
7.   Just one example: more than half of the 23-item bibliography of the R. Ast–J. Lougovaya article (14 titles) appeared before 1990 (98).
8.   This review was translated by Kata Endreffy.

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