Tuesday, February 27, 2018


Eleni Pachoumi, The Concepts of the Divine in the Greek Magical Papyri. Studien und Texte zu Antike und Christentum, 102. Tübingen​: Mohr Siebeck, 2017. Pp. xvi, 258. ISBN 9783161540189. €79.00 (pb).

Reviewed by Radcliffe G. Edmonds III, Bryn Mawr College (redmonds@brynmawr.edu)

Version at BMCR home site


Pachoumi's study of The Concepts of the Divine in the Greek Magical Papyri adds to the growing number of recent works that probe in detail the fascinating and mysterious collection of papyrus texts from Roman Egypt known (somewhat misleadingly) as the Greek Magical Papyri.1 Building upon a number of articles she has published in the last few years, Pachoumi assembles a set of analyses of specific spells within this collection of magical recipes that illuminate the underlying understanding of divinity within the ritual recipes. While Pachoumi claims that the overall picture reveals a basic consistency of ideas across the corpus, it is the rich diversity of concepts of the divine that emerges from her analysis that makes the study appealing. In the chapters of the book, Pachoumi analyzes three kinds of characterizations of divine figures within the Greek Magical Papyri: the personal daimon, the paredros divinity, and the assimilations of deities with one another. The book concludes with a wealth of appendices, indices, and bibliography, and Pachoumi provides an introductory treatment of the corpus of the Greek Magical Papyri and the study's approach to the concepts of the divine within the syncretic context of magical ritual practice. Like many recent scholars treating materials that have been considered magic, however, Pachoumi refuses to grapple with the knotty problem of defining magic. She provides a few brief remarks about the nature of magic and the contrast with religion, but the definition of magic Pachoumi actually applies in her study seems simply to be the things in the corpus of the Greek Magical Papyri, along with other things (curse tablets or amulets) that seem like them.

The first chapter deals with the personal daimon, described variously as ἴδιος δαίμων, οἰκεῖος δαίμων, or ὁ ἑαυτοῦ δαίμων, arguing that it is something internal to the magician performing the spell. Going text by text, Pachoumi analyzes each of the rituals found in the Greek Magical Papyri that mentions such a figure and links them with the ideas of the personal daimon found in Neoplatonic theurgy, seeing the underlying aim of such spells as achieving σύστασις, some kind of connection to or even union with the personal daimon. Pachoumi demonstrates the ways in which the magician must make contact with other daimonic figures (the astrological rulers of the particular day and hour as well as the daimon of the place) and with the ruler of the cosmos (variously identified in different spells) in order to secure the proper conditions for getting in touch with his own internal daimon. The peculiar paradox of making contact with something within oneself is sometimes, Pachoumi notes, portrayed as making contact with one's own shadow (PGM III.612-632). Throughout the chapter, Pachoumi seeks to identify 'influences' or 'parallels' of the concepts in the Greek Magical Papyri with Stoicism, Neoplatonism, Hermeticism, and other religious and philosophical movements, but the search for parallels is perhaps more apt, since Pachoumi makes no attempt to trace an actual chain of influence (nor would the evidence support it). Pachoumi might have delved further into the ideas of the personal daimon and the various arguments over its status within these philosophical contexts in order to show the significance of the differences in the way the personal daimon is portrayed, but the references to the various (and quite varied) texts are useful for scholars wishing to pursue such ideas further.

In the following chapter, Pachoumi explores the nature of the paredros, the assistant spirit, in the Greek Magical Papyri. After a brief excursus on the place of such assistant figures in Greek religion from the Minoan period onward, Pachoumi surveys the variety of ways the paredros appears in the Greek Magical Papyri, from nameless assistants to a major deity to Eros (as the Platonic paradigm of the mediating daimon) and all the way to the great Agathos Daimon itself. Pachoumi again treats each text in detail, analyzing how the paredros figure appears and the nature of its divinity in each spell. Most of these analyses are illuminating, providing careful attention to these difficult texts. Pachoumi argues, however, when discussing the paredros as the spirit of a dead person, that the spells aim not at the harnessing of the spirit itself as an assistant but rather at reanimating the deceased's body and creating a zombie assistant like the reanimated corpses that feature in some of the more extravagant depictions in Roman literature (Lucan, Apuleius, etc.). The speculation, although intriguing, is not convincing, even if some of her specific suggestions for textual emendations were to be accepted. Pachoumi argues, against Ogden, Faraone, and Johnston, that the use of the skull or other piece of the corpse (especially of one untimely or violently dead) enables the magician to reassemble and reanimate the whole body.2 Pachoumi admits that the spells involving the skull vessels do not actually explicitly mention bodily reanimation, but suggests that the reference in the Eighth Book of Moses (PGM XIII.277-283) of putting pneuma into a dead body and making it walk, as well as the reference in another spell (PGM IV 2145-2240) to inserting an inscribed lamella into a corpse so that it "will have his day again" (διημερεύσει 2216) imply that the other spells likewise involve reanimating the whole body. I would note, however, that both of these references come in long lists of amazing things that the magical preparation can do (e.g., wrecking chariots, restraining enemies, obtaining invisibility, or crossing the Nile on a crocodile), rather than, as with the skull spells, in rituals designed to bring up a dead spirit as an assistant from the underworld. Pachoumi's explanation of the lack of explicit reference to reanimation is even more problematic, "it was safer to retain the traditional form of paredroi as spirits of the dead and leave the new problem of bodily resurrection related to the issue of time to be solved by the new religion (e.g., Christianity)." (47) It would be preferable to explain the differences between the literary evidence and the Greek Magical Papyri as the difference between fantastic literature's emphasis on spectacle and the ritual recipe's emphasis on the process and results, rather than to rely on an account that seems to put Christianity in the role of the religion that comes to do away with the old excesses of pagan superstitious magic. Despite the problems of this section of the chapter, Pachoumi again provides useful specific analyses of individual spells, building upon earlier scholarship on the paredros.3

The third chapter is nearly as long as the other two together, and it provides a survey of the deities within the Greek Magical Papyri who are identified with or assimilated to one another (Helios, Eros, Aion, Chrestos, Dionysus-Osiris, Hekate-Selene-Artemis, Typhon-Seth, Sarapis, Isis, Aphrodite, Bes), seeking to answer the question of "what religious tendencies do these religious assimilations reveal?" (63) Pachoumi discusses various epithets and descriptions of the deities and suggests parallels, some of which have been suggested previously in various studies, but it is nevertheless helpful to have them gathered together in a single study (Pachoumi also often cites parallels from the Derveni Papyrus, which has not entered into discussions in the scholarship before). While not all these references are particularly valid or useful, some are quite thought-provoking and helpful in showing the early date at which some of these ideas appear in the religious tradition. Pachoumi's rationale for which deities to group together for analysis is not transparent, however, in contrast to the recent study of Bortolani, who groups all the deities addressed in the hymns in the Greek Magical Papyri in two main groups that correspond to gender (male solar figures and female lunar and chthonic figures).4 The puzzling appearance of the Babylonian underworld goddess Ereschigal, for example, is discussed only under the assimilation to Aphrodite as Aktiophis, but that same name appears assimilated to Selene (along with Hekate, Artemis, and, I would add, Persephone). Nor does Pachoumi explain the logic behind the assimilations in the texts she is analyzing; her analysis is again mostly limited to seeking influences (or, rather, parallels) from Neoplatonic, Hermetic, Egyptian, or other sources. When Pachoumi does theorize about why a particular element or connection was deployed in a specific spell, she seems to imagine "that the magician who compiled the spell was a skilled syncretist", selecting elements from (apparently pure) streams of religious or philosophical thought. "This compilation technique of accumulating various religious currents in one spell often occurs." (115) The idea of the magician as a self-conscious bricoleur, patching together a workable spell from a variety of elements, is certainly plausible, but problem with such a model is rather the idea that there was in the third century CE a clear Jewish or Christian or Egyptian or Greek tradition (much less a clear 'Gnostic' or 'Orphic' tradition) upon which the magician could draw, rather than a variety of hybrid traditions formed from centuries of cross-cultural bricolage. Pachoumi seems to present a Greek tradition into which other elements have been introduced, a model that accounts for the rather short shrift Egyptian names such as Isis, Osiris, Bes, Thoth, and Sarapis receive. Pachoumi praises the ingenuity of the syncretic magicians and argues that their syncretism was not haphazard but consistent and functionally supportive of "a magical interreligious system, which supported diversity, coexistence, and unity." (174) It is not clear, however, whose coexistence and unity is at stake here, perhaps those believers in "formal religious systems" (169) who populated the larger cities of Egypt in the period.

Despite the problems with the broader theoretical models, Pachoumi provides a wealth of information and analysis in this slim volume, which includes seven appendices in addition to the chapter studies. The most useful appendices are perhaps Six and Seven, the lists of epithets in the Greek Magical Papyri mentioned in LSJ and the ones not mentioned in LSJ, although appendix Four of Homeric verses quoted and the list of names of famous magicians (appendix Five) could both be of service for further explorations of these texts. Pachoumi's attention to detail in her analysis of individual texts provides a number of insights into the ways the creators of these texts conceptualized the divine forces they were attempting to make use of, and her study will illuminate the work of future scholars exploring the intriguing corpus of the Greek Magical Papyri.


1.   E.g., Bortolani, Ljuba. 2016. Magical Hymns from Roman Egypt: A Study of Greek and Egyptian Traditions of Divinity. New York: Cambridge University Press; Love, Edward O. D. 2016. Code-Switching with the Gods: The Bilingual (Old Coptic-Greek) Spells of PGM IV (P. Bibliothèque Nationale Supplément Grec. 574) and Their Linguistic, Religious, and Socio-Cultural Context in Late Roman Egypt. Berlin; Boston: De Gruyter; and, earlier, Dieleman, Jacco. 2005. Priests, Tongues, and Rites: The London-Leiden Magical Manuscripts and Translation in Egyptian Ritual (100-300 CE). Religions in the Graeco-Roman World 153. Leiden: Brill. Consider also the thesis of Dosoo, Korshi. 2014. Rituals of Apparition in the Theban Magical Library. Macquarie University, Sydney: dissertation.
2.   Ogden, Daniel. 2001. Greek and Roman Necromancy. Princeton: Princeton University Press; Faraone, Christopher A. 2005. "Necromancy Goes Underground: The Disguise of Skull- and Corpse-Divination in the Paris Magical Papyri (PGM IV 1928-2144)." In Mantikê: Studies in Ancient Divination, edited by Sarah Iles Johnston and Peter T. Struck, 255–82. Leiden: Brill; Johnston, Sarah Iles. 2008. Ancient Greek Divination. Malden, MA: Blackwell Publishing.
3.   Ciraolo, Leda Jean. 1995. "Supernatural Assistants in the Greek Magical Papyri." In Ancient Magic and Ritual Power, edited by Marvin W. Meyer and Paul Allan Mirecki, 279–95. Leiden and New York: E. J. Brill; Scibilia, Anna. 2002. "Supernatural Assistance in the Greek Magical Papyri: The Figure of the Parhedros." In J. Bremmer and J. Veenstra (eds.), The Metamorphosis of Magic from Late Antiquity to the Early Modern Period, 71–86. Leuven: Peeters.
4.   Cp. Bortolani 2016: 53, "the male or female gender corresponds to a solar/creative or lunar/chthonic basic nature of the deity invoked." ​

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