Ancient spellcasting

Magic was widely practised in the ancient world; archaeology and written texts provide considerable evidence for it. And what is fascinating about examining the many and varied rituals that constitute magic in Greece and Rome is the startling dichotomy between the real practitioners and the literary stereotypes of the same: so much documentation and archaeological evidence on actual magic indicate that it was essentially practised by men, yet the literary depictions almost always show women as the witches, the hags, the magical experts. From Homer’s sorceress par excellence, Circe, who is expert in the transformation of others – as illustrated by the metamorphosis of Odysseus’ men into pigs in Odyssey Book 10 – to the extravagant poisoner, Medea, as well as the horrid hags of Horace, witches in ancient literature are female.


This dichotomy is clearly the partial result of the ancients’ attitudes towards women; women are seen as deceptive, treacherous, the weaker sex, as being prone to participating in unorthodox activities. In contrast, men were seen as the upholders of both public and private values and traditions, as intellectually and morally superior, as the defenders of hearth and home. Nevertheless, to practise magic in antiquity, one had to have – to varying degrees – a relative sound grasp of literacy as spells needed to be written in many instances and instructions had to be read, and this reality suggests the dominance of male practitioners. Additionally, besides the low level of literacy among women, women’s mobility in antiquity was strictly limited, which meant that their ability to move freely to meet with clients, to deposit spells in specific locations (curse tablets were left in graveyards, wells and crossroads) would not have been an easy process. Women from the lower end of the social scale, particularly courtesans, as well as older women who were widows (and therefore in no position to embarrass their husbands or families through attracting gossip by moving outside the boundaries of their home) were the most likely candidates for female practitioners. Yet very little evidence (besides literature) survives to prove that even these women were witches. Therefore, unless we take the literature at face-value, and believe that the texts reflect the society, which would be akin to taking the heroines of Greek tragedy as realistic role models, we are left with great literature and great literary witches and that’s about that!


While the real practitioners were not anywhere near as exciting as Circe or Medea, their activities are nonetheless fascinating. One of the most common forms of magic in Greece, Rome and Græco-Roman Egypt was the curse tablet / binding spell. In the ancient world curse tablets were called katadesmoi in Greek and defixiones in Latin. The etymological explanation of the term katadesmoi is helpful in explaining the connection between the curse tablet and binding spell: a katadesmos was a metal strip inscribed with a spell directed against an individual. This word is derived from the verb katadein, meaning ‘to bind up’ or ‘to tie down’. Similarly, in Latin, defixio comes from the verb defigere, ‘to fasten’ or ‘to nail down.’ And, in fact, the inscription on the tablet was intended to bind up or to fasten the object of the spell. The psychological meaning is straightforward: the subject or spell-caster aims to immobilise or control the object or spell-recipient in some form or another – be it in an emotional way (as in the case of erotic spells) or even in a legal way (as in the case of judicial spells).


The material most commonly used for curse tablets was lead (although archaeologists have also uncovered tablets in the form of ostraca, seashells and papyri). According to John Gager, there was a preference for lead because of its low cost and easy availability: in Greece it came as a by-product of silver mining and in Rome it could be taken from water pipes (Gager: 4). In addition to its cheapness and availability, lead was an excellent product with which to work; it was easy to make a lead tablet: hot lead was poured into a mould and then rolled, hammered or scraped to fashion a smooth sheet on which to inscribe a curse; after this process, the sheet could be easily cut (if so desired). The number of extant letters ‘written’ on lead tablets evidences the practicality of the material. Certain features of lead also had appeal: it was cold, heavy and ordinary and these came to be seen “as particularly suitable for the specific task of conveying spells to the underworld” (Gager: 4). Lindsay Watson, in his Arae: The Curse Poetry of Antiquity, writes: “by its weight, chill, and pallor, it is suggestive of the death which … [the tablets] regularly invoked upon an enemy” (Watson: 195). The latter two points, however, must be regarded as secondary considerations for the choice of material, “a later stage of reflection” (Gager: 4). I should also point out at this juncture, that some scholars working in this field, would regard Watson’s claim regarding death as a generalisation (there is little direct evidence that curse tablets aimed at killing the object of the spell; immobilisation of some sort [other than death] was the usual intent). In later tablets, the spell-caster would also refer to the physical features of the material; for example, one tablet from the Athenian agora reads: “just as these names are cold, so may the name of Alkidamos be cold” (Gager: 4). Other tablets seek to render the personal enemy of the spell-caster, whose name would have been inscribed on the tablet, ‘heavy as lead.’ Such aspects of the inscribed spell suggest the movement away from mere practicality into symbolic usuage.


One final point on the physical appearance of the tablet: it was often pierced with a nail or nails. This process was a further expression of the concept of fastening or nailing down – what can be defined loosely as a form of sympathetic magic (like affecting like): as the nail pierced the tablet, so too was the free will of the victim – hence the spell-caster established a magical ‘sympathy’ between two objects or beings separated by distance – in this instance the tablet and the spell-recipient.


In addition to curse tablets / binding spells, the ancients practiced magic via the use of ‘dolls’ or ‘poppets.’ The dolls used in ancient magic usually possess two or more of the following characteristics that indicate the similarity in material used to create them and the intent behind their construction compared to curse tablets / binding spells: for example, the figurines were made of lead, wax or clay; some or all of the limbs were bound or twisted (indicating the ‘binding’ of the individual represented by the doll); the use of nails, inserted into the doll (again to symbolise binding); the inscription on the doll (the name of the victim); the deposit in a grave, body of water or a temple or crossroads. Sometimes, these little poppets were also placed in a container, some of which resembled coffins, in order to further ‘trap’ them or, more specifically, the person they represented.


Clearly the use of such magic as these dolls, tablets and binding spells was the last recourse of the desperate – those who were in dire need socially, economically, financially, emotionally or psychologically. The inscriptions on the artefacts indicate that they were used for revenge, for success (particularly in court cases), to win a particular lover, to win money at the horse races – to generally get-ahead when the odds are stacked against you.


A less nasty form of popular magic in antiquity was the use of amulets. These were worn on the body, attached to dwellings and public buildings as well as adorning gardens. According to Rosemary Ellen Guiley: “Originally, amulets were natural objects whose unusual shapes or colors attracted attention. The magical properties of such objects were presumed to be inherent. As civilization advanced, amulets became more diverse. They were fashioned into animal shapes, symbols, rings, seals and plaques, and were imbued with magical power with inscriptions or spells.” (9) Georg Luck explains that the word amulet is probably derived from amolitum, suggesting as it does the idea of averting, and goes on to explain that “Any devotee of magic, whether gentile, Jew, or Christian, could wear amulets, with their mixture of Babylonian, Egyptian, Greek, and cabalistic elements, regardless of … faith or affiliation” (19). Considering the widespread use of curse tablets, binding spells and poppets in the ancient world, it is hardly surprising that amulets were so extensive, as the ancients were determined to protect themselves and their children from sorcery.


Two of the most common amulet images or shapes were eyes and phallic symbols (and remain so in many cultures worldwide). As Guiley explains: “Eyes protect against evil spirits and are found on many tombs and walls, and on utensils and jewellery.” (10) In modern Turkey, there is still a proliferation of the ‘evil eye’ amulet that takes the form of wall plaques, jewellery, baby pins, cradle protectors, even key-rings. The idea behind the use of the ‘eye’ amulet is that a spirit, demon, witch or general evil-doer would see their own reflection in the eye and be driven off. The phallic symbol, very popular in Italy as the excavations of Pompeii attest, is an aggressive symbol of threat – the phallus acting as a weapon almost, warding away anyone or anything that comes too close to a person or place with evil intent. The famous wall plaque at Pompeii that shows a phallus with the words hic habitat felicitas (“here dwells good luck”) found outside a bakery and dating to the 1st Century AD maybe a talisman to bring luck (as the penis was also a symbol of fertility), although it is, very likely, also an amulet as the penis in Roman culture was very much a symbol of aggressive, threatening power.


Recipes for amulets are to be found in the Greek Magical Papyri, a lengthy and detailed book of collected spells, defined by Hans Dieter Betz as “a body of papyri from Greco-Roman Egypt containing a variety of magical spells and formulae, hymns and rituals. The extant texts are mainly from the second century B.C. to the fifth century A.D.” (xli). One of the original collectors of some of the material in the Greek Magical Papyri was a man from Thebes and while he remains unknown to us, Betz suggests that “we may suppose that he collected the magical material for his own use” (xlii). At his death the material – the collection – may have been buried with him in his tomb sometime in the 4th Century CE – possibly, Luck suggests, “to provide him with magical knowledge in the other world” (17). In addition to amulet recipes, the collection contains instructions for making curse tablets, dolls and potions. The levels of literacy vary throughout, indicative of the fact that the collection varies in authorship as well as chronology.


The preservation of the Greek Magical Papyri is astonishing in view of the public attitude towards magic (even though numerous public figures, especially in Rome, practised some form of it). Overt bureaucratic attitudes contributed to the underground approach to magic and also led to the burning of books like the Greek Magical Papyri. According to Suetonius (Aug. 31.1), for example, Augustus ordered 2,000 magical texts to be burned in 13 BCE and, in addition to this, the Christian era was also characterised by many book burnings, often spell books, and, as Betz states “not a few burnings that included the magicians themselves.” (xli).


Archaeology has revealed thousands of artefacts that attest to the widespread practise of magic that lasted thousands of years – from the earliest of times down to the Christian era. While the early Christians persecuted magicians and destroyed their books, they themselves were not adverse to dabbling ... but this is a story for another time.