Friday, October 7, 2016


Magali De Haro Sanchez (ed.), Écrire la magie dans l'antiquité. Actes du colloque international (Liège, 13-15 octobre 2011). Papyrologica Leodiensia, 5​. Liège​: Presses Universitaires de Liège​, 2015. Pp. 360; xv p. of plates. ISBN 9782875620651. €42.00 (pb).

Reviewed by David Frankfurter, Boston University (

Version at BMCR home site

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[Authors and titles are listed below.]

Thankfully, in recent decades, scholarship on early Christianity, Judaism, and other ancient religions has begun to confront texts and textuality as material phenomena, not simply ways of transmitting records, literature, or ideas. Biblical fragments are being discussed in terms of their utility as amulets; the codex is discussed as a living object in Christian or Manichaean material worlds; inscriptions and even graffiti are discussed as iconic, apotropaic, or otherwise forceful media in landscapes brimming with potent things.1 In this way, studies of ancient textuality are coming to embrace the issue of "magic" as a function of materiality itself, even of the act of writing,2 rather than simply an umbrella term for proscribed rituals, magical papyri, and legendary miracle-workers. It is to this larger issue of textuality and magic that this conference volume offers some important, thoughtful, and authoritative contributions, even though many of the papers revolve around objects and procedures classically designated "magic," like the PGM (Papyri graecae magicae, the scholarly corpus of Greco-Egyptian ritual manuals first edited by Karl Preisendanz in 1928). The title, "Writing Magic," comprises three dimensions: "magic" that is written (i.e., specific magical texts); genres or expressions of "magic" in written form; and—most theoretically compelling—the notion of writing versus speaking "magic" in a world that (in many classicists' perspectives) privileged the power of the spoken word. The volume includes English abstracts of each paper as well as a concordance to discussions of PGM and other published magical texts and some excellent photos of artifacts discussed in individual papers.

Part 1, "Écrire la magie: supports et mise en texte," covers a range of texts that might be called "magical." More prosaic discussions of specific PGM texts—Anna Monte on the need for a new edition of PGM II; Raquel Martin Hernandez on the Bes dream-oracles in PGM VII and VIII—are followed by Diletta Minutoli's intriguing report on magically inscribed artifacts from the fifth/sixth centuries, found in the Antinoë excavations: a "vegetal object" inscribed with charakteres, a lead binding tablet inscribed with Abrasax (as well as Coptic letters), and most interesting for social historians: an apotropaic amulet meant to "guard this house . . . from evil mouths."

The most provocative essays in this section are those of Nathan Carlig and Magali De Haro Sanchez, T. Sebastian Richter, and Anne Van den Kerchove. Carlig and De Haro Sanchez seek to develop a "typologie précis" to distinguish amulets from school exercises (that amulets can resemble in their uses of letters), using both paleographical indicators and scribes' efforts to write or list in a practiced manner. They proceed to go through a number of examples, from scriptural papyri to a miniature codex and a wooden tablet, each noted in prior publications as having talismanic functions. As the authors carefully assign a number of these examples to the category "school exercise" and others to the category "personal copy," what emerges from their discussion is a new ambiguity around both of these "non-magic" alternatives. That is, if copying scripture involved some intrinsic magical or ritual element in inscribing holy words on some medium,3 and if the private ownership of many of these texts assumed more than a "reference" function in the lives of the owners, then we should probably recognize some element of magic in all these texts. Miniature codices in particular are gaining more and more attention by early Christian manuscript scholars and certainly seem to hover in nature between convenience, concealability, virtuosity in bookbinding, and (as John Chrysostom attested for fourth-century Antioch) amuletic power.4

In her essay on the mysterious fourth/fifth-century Coptic "Books of Ieou" Van den Kerchove has certainly contributed the most interesting study of these texts that I have seen. Taking seriously the combination of magical names and invocations, charakteres, and instructional details, she categorizes the texts not as "Gnostic ascent treatises," as is customary among the specialists who have tackled them, but as a "florilège de recettes" (120, after Tardieu), much like the Greco-Egyptian magical papyri. Then she discovers a shift over the course of the text, from imitating ascent through ritual instructions that include the writing of sacred names and symbols—that is, as an extension of ritual—to writing as actually constituting the ritual: where each page offers little more than instructions to inscribe charakteres and sacred names.

Tonio Sebastian Richter's essay on "Markedness and Unmarkedness in Coptic Magical Writing" is ostensibly but a series of criteria for recognizing a magical text in Coptic but actually is a tremendously sophisticated discussion of how this novel (post-third-century) Egyptian writing system, Coptic, itself could shift into a more performative or ritual mode through forms of "marking" texts. Richter lists the use of "writing supports" (the choice of medium, from papyrus to bone or lead); writing styles (from charakteres to sloping uncial); cryptography; and the importation of legal terminology to empower an adjuration. Richter's essay includes an invaluable list of all published Coptic magical texts.

Part 2, "Écrire et transmettre la magie: genres et traditions," includes papers on a wide range of ritual texts traditional to ancient near eastern and mediterranean cultures that might be categorized as "magic." Sidney Aufrère discusses the magical functions of hieroglyphic spells and images representing the various serpents hunted by the god Shed. Pierre Koemoth argues that the original depictions of the psychostasia (weighing of the soul) in Egyptian mortuary books underwent a decline—an "infiltration by magic" (149)—when later scribes began to adjust the iconography of the scale to force a felicitous weight and judgment for their clients. This romantic assumption of an original, pure religious tradition unpolluted by "magic" (or whatever) has underlain many twentieth-century studies of religious materials from the Persian period onwards (and especially the post-apostolic developments in Christianity), and it has been hard to dislodge in contemporary scholarship. Lucia Tissi discusses the types and metrical structures of hymns in the PGM, proposing a distinct group of carmina magica. Salvatore Costanza discusses forms of divination in the PGM, including observations of the body and of water in vessels. M. Erica Couto-Ferreira discusses the evidence for ritual specialists and their oral healing rites—in this case, for keeping the fetus in the womb—in cuneiform texts from ancient Babylonia. Her paper touches on a perennial problem for historians of religions who work with ritual manuals like the PGM: how much systematization did elite scribes impose on the oral rites and folk practices from which they collected and edited their materials?

Finally, in an essay of considerable subtlety, the historian of science Patricia Gaillard-Seux examines how ancient authors writing on medicine excluded a domain of "magic" from acceptable practices. While most of these authors condemned the amulets and remedies of "old women," they nevertheless drew on assumptions of therapeutic "sympathies" between substances and ailments. These sympathies invariably extended to stones and other materials that, to the modern scholar, would appear superstitious or magical but, to the ancient authors, nevertheless worked according to a rational system. From Galen through Augustine, Gaillard-Seux shows, authors sought to balance an adherence to a system of natural sympathies that (as far as they believed) worked rationally with a rejection of (often quite similar) materials and practices they deemed illegitimate. It would have been helpful if the author had considered the nature of the caricatures (often female) these authors deployed to reject illegitimate forms of healing.

Part 3, "Écrire et prononcer la magie: mise en contexte," offers some of the more theoretically provocative essays in this volume, focusing on the interface between orality and inscription in ritual. Michaël Martin's essay affirms the priority of the oral incantation, the epoidai over the written text, with the development of voces magicae signifying a shift in medium and conception of language to writing. Martin is most interested in the cultural phenomenon behind the ritual instructions in the PGM, in which sacred names and sounds from many different priesthoods and mythologies of the ancient world, especially Egypt, get brought together and deployed in a kind of phonic (and often graphic) game.

In a particularly illuminating contribution, however, Fritz Graf seeks to get away from the priority of oral incantation, given so many written media in ancient Greek magic, to integrate writing more centrally in the description of ancient magical practice. But Graf also wants to move the concept of writing itself in ancient cultures away from its communicative function, observing that many uses of writing in magical texts create potent combinations that are seldom for reading: charakteres and voces magicae (that is, "letter combinations with no reference to spoken language," 230), written materials meant for eating or drinking, drawn images, amulets, and text meant to stimulate oracles. Rather than communicating words and ideas, writing grants a kind of permanence (and, one might say, materiality) to ritual elements. Graf proposes a new component of ritual in the Greco-Roman world: along with "things said" and" things done," he recommends we consider "things written."

In another excellent contribution, Sabina Crippa focuses on the diverse functions of the voces magicae, those strings of vowels, sounds, archaic names and pseudo-names that drive so many PGM, Coptic, and Hebrew texts, amulets, and binding spells. She argues that the voces magicae involve "a highly complex communicative strategy" (243). Rather than endowing magical texts and performance with a "coefficient of weirdness," an idea that many of us have appropriated from Bronislaw Malinowski's analysis of Trobriand ritual language,5 Crippa argues that voces magicae highlight the power of the voice itself to create various types of communication. The various sequences of sounds show "an effort to exploit the phonic resources of language" (245). Ritual instructions to imitate the sounds of animals in PGM V and XIII can be understood in the context of ethnolinguistics—ancient theories of sound and language that considered animal calls as types of communication that humans might imitate.

Athanassia Zografou's contribution on the implications of horkizein ("adjure"), promises more than it delivers. Adjuring a god or spirit usually means to summon it; yet, as we know from the similar exorkizein, it can also mean to separate or "exorcise." Its meaning does not seem to depend on the nature of the spirit addressed, nor does its judicial use have much bearing on "adjure" in magical texts. Zografou finds particular illumination for this topic in Jewish traditions of adjuring divine beings by their names as a way of ascending through the heavens, although she does not effectively bring this model back to the PGM's ritual manuals.

Like all conference volumes, this one has both more and less provocative components. But the particular topic that these authors address—writing, textuality, and incantation in ancient magical texts—makes this book overall an important contribution to a lively area of research. The particularly intriguing essays of Richter, Graf, and Crippa should certainly stimulate discussion.

Table of Contents

Anna Monte, Un manuale di magia greco a Berlino: il Papyrus Berolinensis Inv. 5026
Raquel Martin Hernandez, Two Requests for a Dream Oracle. Two Different Kinds of Magical Handbook
Diletta Minutoli, Exempla di vari supporti scrittori contenenti testi magici provenienti da Antinoupolis
Nathan Carlig & Magali De Haro Sanchez, Amulettes ou exercices scolaires : sur les difficultés de la catégorisation des papyrus chrétiens
Tonio Sebastian Richter, Markedness and Unmarkedness in Coptic Magical Writing
Anne Van Den Kerchove, Le Livre du grand traité initiatique (Deux livres de Ieou) : dessins et rites
Sydney Aufrère, Ched à la chasse aux serpents. Noms magiques d'ophidiens sur un groupe de cippes d'Horus de l'Époque libyenne
Pierre Koemoth, Écrits et écritures magiques dans les scènes de psychostasie du Livre des Morts égyptien
Luccia Maddalena Tissi, L'innologia magica: per una puntualizzazione tassonomica
Salvatore Costanza, Manuali su papiro di observationes divinatorie e diffusione del sapere magico
Erica Couto-Ferreira, Agency, Performance and Recitations as Textual Tradition in Mesopotamia. An Akkadian Text of the Late Babylonian Period to Make a Woman Conceive
Patricia Gaillard-Seux, Sur la distinction entre médecine et magie dans les textes médicaux antiques (Ier-VIe siècles)
Fritz Graf, Magie et écriture : quelques réflexions
Sabina Crippa, Le savoir des voix magiques. Réflexions sur la catégorie du rite
Michaël Martin, « Parler la langue des oiseaux » : les écritures « barbares » et mystérieuses des tablettes de défixion
Athanassia Zografou, Les formules d'adjuration dans les Papyrus Grecs Magiques


1.   See, e.g., E. A. Judge, "The Magical Use of Scripture in the Papyri," Perspectives on Language and Text , ed. Edgar W. Conrad and Edward G. Newing (Winona Lake, IN: Eisenbrauns, 1987), 339-49; Joseph E. Sanzo, Scriptural Incipits on Amulets from Late Antique Egypt (Tübingen: Mohr Siebeck, 2014); and Brice T. Jones, New Testament Texts on Greek Amulets from Late Antiquity (London: Bloomsbury, 2016).
2.   See David Frankfurter, "The Magic of Writing and the Writing of Magic: The Power of the Word in Egyptian and Greek Traditions," Helios 21 (1994): 189-221; Jacco Dieleman, Priests, Tongues, and Rites: The London-Leiden Magical Manuscripts and Translation in Egyptian Ritual (Leiden: Brill, 2005); and Andrew T. Wilburn, Material Magica: The Archaeology of Magic in Roman Egypt, Cyprus, and Spain (Ann Arbor: University of Michigan Press, 2012).
3.   See my review of Scott Bucking, ,Practice Makes Perfect: P. Cotsen-Princeton 1 and the Training of Scribes in Byzantine Egypt (Los Angeles, 2011)], Journal of Roman Archaeology 26 (2013): 929-32.
4.   John Chrysostom, Hom. Matt. 72.2. See Thomas J. Kraus, "Miniature Codices in Late Antiquity: Preliminary Remarks and Tendencies about a Specific Book Format," Early Christianity 7 (2016): 134-52.
5.   Bronislaw Malinowski, Coral Gardens and Their Magic (London: Allen & Unwin, 1935), 2: 213-50. ​

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