ClassicsGreeceHistoryReligion

Ancient Greek Magic – An Overview

Ancient Greek magic is really hard to discuss. Not just because it’s as nebulous as Greek mythology. But also because it’s hard to extract from ancient greek religion in general. It’s not just that so many ritual practices read as ‘magic’ from a modern viewpoint; it’s that they in fact were quite similar.The basic ideas between Greek magic and religion were pretty similar: You’re asking a god to do something. The major difference is the execution – how it’s done, who does it, etc.

But let’s back up.

Table of Contents

Light Background and Caveat

The concept of magic in ancient Greece is a product of specific historical circumstances, significantly influencing the understanding of magic in Judaeo-Christian cultures (Dickie, 18). However, modern interpretations of ancient magic require sensitivity to the differences between contemporary and ancient perceptions. Our magic isn’t their magic. Without this effort, one risks labeling practices as magic that the ancients considered legitimate and unobjectionable (Dickie, 20). Magic in ancient Greece is a concept intertwined with religion and in fact not always distinct from it.

Where did it come from?

This is a simple question with no real answer. The term “magos” (plural: magoi) (Greek: μάγος) is itself a loan from Old Persian “magus,” which carries ambiguous semantics (Graf, 115). And its definition doesn’t really relate to what the concept later became in Greece. The Magoi were religious specialists in the Persian court, but the things that magoi did in a greek context are unrelated to the documented activities of Persian magoi. That said, there’s probably some Persian influence there, just from the nature of cultural exchanges.

As a concept, we know it was in Greece by at least the 7th century BCE, probably before. And Magic should be viewed as emerging from a unique set of circumstances where different religious practices came into conflict (Dickie, 26). Or at least into contact. As things meet and interact, syncretic forms emerge. And the absence of a single word for a magician—using terms like “goes,” (γόης) “epodos,” (ἐπῳδός) “magos,” and “pharmakeus” (φαρμακός) instead—indicates the merging of distinct forms of expertise. This process of merging, which was well underway by the latter part of the fifth century, points to a gradual evolution whose details remain obscure (Dickie, 27). And, I’d argue, origins.

How did it work?

We like to draw lines between magic and religion, but that doesn’t really work in a greek context. 

Formal religion in ancient Greece was a public affair of sacrifice and prayer, festivals and temples. Magic was a more hidden and transgressive form of appeal to the gods, often used for personal gain or to harm others. (DK, 52) 

Magic and religion were both rituals. We have to remember that. The rituals in magic went beyond the mainstream cultic or civic practices, but they often involved the same deities. 

What did practitioners do?

 The sixth and fifth-century texts depict the magos as an itinerant religious entrepreneur, often linked with Bacchic initiations that had an eschatological component (Graf, 121). This portrayal suggests that magoi played a significant role in religious and mystical practices that went beyond mainstream cultic activities. This was the start but it shifted over the centuries; the terms “magos” and “mageia” were gradually narrowed in their scope to specifically denote harmful secret rituals (Graf, 123). 

Their ritual activities spanned mystery cults, purification and healing rites, and acts such as making people disappear or pulling down the moon. The mystery cults part was at one point the biggest. Before the semantic evolution, textual depictions had magoi as initiators into mystery cults. 

Aside from magos, some common terms were ‘goes’, ‘epodos“, etc. There were several. Eventually they all sort of merged. See: next section for more discussion.

 But these magical terms, if taken separately, can give us some notion of what kind of thing was expected of magical practitioners: invocation of non-human entities; consultation of the dead; the manufacture of amulets, figurines, salve, simples, and cordials intended to answer an individual’s immediate or future needs . (oxford illustrated history, 19)

Then there are the so-called curse tablets. These were pretty much what they sound like: tablets inscribed with a curse, asking for divine intervention, often with a figure showing the desired results, all of which was then buried somewhere dark. They’ve been found in wells and graves. 

What were practices and practitioners called?

‘Magos’ or ‘magus’(transliterate as you will) is the term that shows up most in scholarship (and also where we get our word for magic) and eventually narrowed to specifically denote harmful secret rituals (Graf, 123). There were other words though. The Greek equivalents included “goes” and “goeteia,” which referred to practitioners and their arts, respectively (Graf, 125). Other related terms were “epodos,” indicating a singer of incantations, and “pharmakeus” or “pharmakides,” denoting those who with knowledge of powerful substances (Graf, 123). Often these words seemed to be used interchangeably, probably a bit like how we might use ‘sorcerer’, ‘wizard’, and ‘magician’ interchangeably, even if they did technically have different definitions.

Originally they were probably distinct.

Magic as a distinct concept and a discourse of alterity thus can be seen to emerge in Greece during the course of the fifth century BCE. Terminology that connoted magic at that time functioned neutrally in pre-classical literature; some practices, such as epōidos and pharmakeia, had a long history in Greece, during which, as far as texts reveal, they were regarded neutrally – like taking aspirin. What happens in the fifth century is that these same practices become conflated with others that were regarded negatively, such as katadesis, and terms for different practices were combined in such a way that they lost any technical meaning and came to denote aberrant ritual activities more generally.(Stratton, 91-92)

Interestingly, the Greek equivalent of the Persian-derived “magos” is “goes,” and the associated art is “goeteia” (Graf, 125). The goes had a different function in archaic Greek society compared to later periods when these terms were often used metaphorically (Graf, 125-126).

Who were the practitioners?

Again, we have a caveat. Without a clear understanding of the complex ideas and practices constituting magic for the ancients, there’s a risk of misidentifying individuals as magicians who would never have been considered such in their time (Dickie, 22). For example, Greek medicine from as early as the seventh century BC employed procedures that appear indistinguishable from sorcery to a modern viewpoint(Dickie, 24). 

That being said, Graf suggests that in fifth-century Athens, seers were likely the most visible and common religious free-lancers (Graf, 124). Classically, in literature, magic users were presented as female, and there was a common belief that Thracian women of the time were skilled in magic, being able to ‘draw down the moon’. Though the rituals, especially for curse tablets and the like, could theoretically be done by anyone.

Over time, the terms “magos” and “mageia” were gradually narrowed in their semantic scope to specifically denote harmful secret rituals (Graf, 123). This semantic evolution indicates a shift in societal attitudes toward these practitioners and their activities. The history of magoi and mageia from the sixth to the fourth centuries BCE places these terms within a broader network of free-lance religious specialists, including the mantis (seer), agurtes (begging priest), and goes (a practitioner of goeteia).Prominent among their ritual means were “epoidai” (incantations) and “pharmaka” (powerful substances) (Graf, 123).

Bibliography

Dickie, Matthew. Magic and Magicians in the Greco-Roman World. Routledge, 2001.

Maxwell-Stuart, Peter. “Magic in the Ancient World.” In The Oxford Illustrated History of Witchcraft and Magic, edited by Owen Davies, Oxford University Press, 2017.

Stratton, Kimberly B. “Early Greco-Roman Antiquity.” In The Cambridge History of Magic and Witchcraft in the West, edited by David J. Collins, Cambridge University Press, 2015, pp. 91-92.

A History of Magic, Witchcraft, & the Occult. DK Publishing, 2020.

Graf, Fritz. “Greece.” In A Guide to the Study of Ancient Magic, edited by David Frankfurter, Brill, 2019.

Subscribe
Notify of
guest
0 Comments
Inline Feedbacks
View all comments