The Centuries of Magic
Magic or magick, as some would prefer it spelled, has baffled many for years now. It is a subject deeply immersed in mysticism and mystery that it has captured the imaginations of millions and the interests of scholars as well. Stetoff defines magick (this form will be used throughout the text in order to differentiate it with the more common association of the word magic with tricks or illusionism) as the ability to influence people and events and control them in ways in which everyday science cannot explain. She goes on to say “magickal beliefs and practices may lack proof, but they have been part of human life since before the beginning of written history” (19). Indeed, magick is a phenomenon and concept that is deeply rooted in ancient history and is very widely spread throughout ancient practices dating as far back as ancient Sumerians. It can be seen as part of varying cultures, from the ancient and, to some extent, modern practices of the Chinese, the tribal rites of the aborigines, and the rain dances and spirit invocations of Native Americans.
Even modern scholars have admitted, though grudgingly, that the subject of magick is an elusive area of study. No definition ever presented for the concept of magick has ever been universally accepted – and the attempts at separating its relation with either religion or science have born relatively few, if any at all, fruits. As it was, the practice of magick in the days past was deeply intertwined in what are religion and/or science then.
This then brings us to the question why study ancient magick practice? Gideon Bohak of the The Michigan Society of Fellows and Department of Classical Studies answers that the study of ancient magick teaches about ancient society, human nature, and social structures in general as they relate to “the generation, accumulation, and transmission of knowledge about the powers above and the powers below. Magic, after all, is just another manifestation of the innate human desire for control—to control our natural environment, to control our social world, and eventually to control our own destiny. The techniques may have changed over the last fifteen centuries, but the goals remain the same.” To summarize, studying ancient magick practices is tantamount to studying human nature and behavior for the reason that the practice of magick opens a window into the driving psychosocial motivations and moral codes that existed in society then, allowing for the understanding of the very same motivations and codes existing in present society. Ultimately, the study of magick offers an insight into human mores both dark and noble and how this in combination influences world view.
In the exhibit “Traditions of Magic in Late Antiquity” organized by the University of Michigan, various artifacts and ancient texts revealed insights into the practice of magick within the mediterranean basin and the near east in the periods between 1st and 7th centuries AD. The exhibit highlights as well the Greco-Roman aspect of magick practice—finally giving it the much deserved and long due attention. Exploring this collection reveals that the period showed a merger of magickal traditions that can only be surmised as a “multicultural, international magical praxis” (Bohak). This melding of magickal cultures resulted in the development of new symbols, rituals, and voces magicae unique to the period. Voces magicae are non-Greek words derived from playful gibberish or transliterations of other languages such as Aramaic, Egyptian, and Hebrew that are considered to possess power. Samples from the “cook-book” section demonstrate this “merger” in magickal cultures as follows: “Great heavenly one who turns the universe, the God who is, Iaô, Lord, ruler of all, ablanathalaabla, grant, grant me favor. I shall have the name of the great God in this amulet; and protect me from every evil thing, me whom NN bore, NN begot” (Bohak).
The above (translated) lines were written on a piece of papyrus and was meant to be an amulet of protection (where NN is replaced by the name of the owner/benefactor). The jewish god Iaho appears as Iao together with voces magicae such as ablanathalaabla (a common palindrome) demonstrates how Jewish beliefs and the more pagan and earlier magickal tradition use of incantation spells are mixed together to create a totally new ritual. Another sample of such mixing of traditions in the exhibit is a 20-page Christian codex written wholly in coptic and contains two pages of voces magicae “chararn larouth rourouth outh êthith chôchôô” that also includes a spell invoking God, calling onto seven archangels and also details various ways in which to use the spell such as the following:
to cure reptile bites, recite it over some water and have him drink it; to relieve a headache, recite it over oil and anoint his temples; to treat insomnia, recite it over water and wash the area around the patient’s bed; to cure impotence, recite it over wine and have the patient drink it; to protect a house, recite it over water and sprinkle it throughout the house. (Bohak).
These clearly show the mixing of Christian texts with pre-Christian magickal traditions. In addition, it can be clearly noted that these two samples from the “cook book” bear a striking resemblance to how modern western Jews and Christians perform rituals and prayers, reinforcing the very close ties of magick practice has with religion.
Note how the above sampled incantations (or prayers) parallel the practice of “prayer” in Christian or Jewish belief in the way that these incantations are meant to evoke help and protection from a higher being. However, older and other samples of such incantations show “recipes” of both the protective and of the agonistic nature – an obvious depiction of “duality” in early magickal practice. Samples of such, as translated, are presented below:
Charm of Hekate Ereschigal against fear of punishment: If she comes forth, let her say: “I am Ereschigal,” holding her thumbs, and not even one evil can befall her. But if she comes close to you, hold your right heel and say: “Ereschigal, virgin, dog, serpent, wreath, key, herald’s wand, golden is the sandal of the Lady of Tartaros” and you will prevail upon her […] Take bran of first quality and sandalwood and vinegar
of the sharpest sort and mold cakes. And write his name upon them, and so hide them, saying into the light the name of Hekate, and “Take away his sleep from so-and-so,” and he will be sleepless and worried. (Bohak)
Early hybrids of Judeo-Christian influenced incantations also reflect this in the form of defixiones – written curses and binding spells – where the “curser” invokes the wrath of God on the “cursee” through incantations and invocations of the holy books.
These are clear indications that early beliefs follow the concept of a “light” and “dark” side to (human) nature. The invocation to these two facets of nature proves the fact that in the early practice of magick “dualism permeates all […] spirituality and actually […] the basis for most of it” (Day) However, dualism in its earlier use “should not be confused with the dualistic good against evil beliefs of the Christian religion” (Day). Instead, it should be seen in the context of complimentary opposites such as male and female, light and dark, and yin and yang. Earlier beliefs (in gods) were not bound to the same notions as modern Christian beliefs of good and evil, but instead acknowledge that things (gods) in nature (for magick is the manipulation of nature) have innate dualities that can either harm or be of benefit. Therefore, it can be surmised that by “knowing” that there is a duality in everything, man as part of his nature will try to bend this to his will regardless of good or ill motivations. The need to control is possibly one of the aspects of human nature that the practice of ancient magick alludes to.
This thought is further supported upon venturing into the Amulets and Gems section of the exhibit. These relics are concrete examples of how ancient practitioners try to bend (natural) forces towards bestowing boone, the light side of magick practice by invoking protection, and certain blessings through these objects.
Here, the amulets and gems reflected a repetitive use of various symbols from differing cultures. Symbols such as the ouroboros, ankh, and was (Egyptian) can be seen mixed with Greek letters and/or Roman figures and Judeo-Christian terminologies – a sign that the makers of these relics imbibed these blessings through the use and manipulation of these regarded powerful symbols. This is an indicator of how ancient magick practitioners try to control the “light side” of nature (gods).
The purposes of the gems and amulets are varied. Samples that are of interest for recreation include:
[ia]rbath agrammê fiblô chnêmeô
[a e]e êêê iiii ooooo uuuuuu ôôôôôô[ô]
Lord Gods, heal Helena, daughter of […]
from every illness and every shivering and [fever],
ephemeral, quotidian, tertian, quar[tan],
iarbath agrammê fiblô chnêmeô
The above amulet appears written on a piece of papyrus rolled into a small metallic tube. Its main purpose was to protect its bearer from bouts of fever. This amulet bears a representation of “The Reaper” and was meant to protect against hip and back pains. The symbolism here is the result of the perceived immunity of agricultural laborers to hip and back ache.
Lastly, this is the amulet containing the symbols “Ouroboros enclosing uterine symbol, with Khnoum, the ram-headed god touching the knob of the key. Above, Isis and Nephthys flanking Anubis and an unidentified figure” is an amulet supposed to have contraceptive properties (Bohak). These amulets were of particular interest due to their intended effects and the fact that these demonstrate how the ancient practice of magick can encompass different facets of daily living. If these were to be recreated today, it would not be surprising that these would fall under alternative medicine and would probably have placebo functions.
Regardless of whether these amulets are functional or not, these are concrete examples of how ancient magick practice utilizes the “light side” of the practice. In stark contrast to the protective application of magick in ancient practices through the use of amulets and gems is the practice of katadesmoi (Greek) or defixiones (Latin) – cursing and binding spells designed for more “aggressive” purposes. Early forms involved simple pieces of lead, engraved with the intended victim’s name, while later elaborate forms involved “long texts and elaborate designs, and their preparation often entailed complex rituals, including the binding, piercing, or burning of wax, clay, or lead voodoo dolls, representing the spell’s intended victim” (Bohak). Below is an example of a defixio:
Upon Alo shall (the) curse (of) God come. May the darkness take her, Alo daughter of Aese. From afar…The curses of the Law and Deuteronomy will descend upon Alo daughter of Aese. May hunger and misery rule the body of Alo and Phibamon. May their eyes […] May furnace flame(s) come from the mouth of Alo daughter of Aese. May (the) curse (of) God descend upon Alo and her entire house(hold). (Bohak)
Note the vengeful tone of the incantation. Though the reason for the defixio is unknown, it is obvious that this defixio was a result of spite. Defixios offer a rare glimpse into the “dark side” of ancient magick practice and a reflection of the social tension and everyday conflicts of ancient society.
Lastly, a collection of relics called Babylonian Demon Bowls offers a unique insight into the ancient traditional magick practices in the region of Iran and Iraq. These earthenware vessels are not seen outside of the said region and are normally inscribed in one of three Aramaic dialects (Jewish-Aramaic, Syriac, and Mandaic) with a few known to be inscribed in Persian. The inscriptions are typically written starting from the rim in a variety of directions (usually spiral) and are said to display the “motif” of international magick – that is, the use of common divine names, voces magicae, and popular symbols (such as the ouroboros and characteres). Though classified under the wide category of “protective magic,” Babylonian demon bowls are unique due to its duality – an aspect separating them from amulets (primarily protective) and defixiones (primarily aggressive).
As protective spells, Babylonian demon bowls are positioned in situ at room corners and are meant as traps for demons that bring harm and bad luck. On the other hand, as an aggressive spell, these bowls are used as a form of ancient homing device for demons to “attack” intended victims. As such, these “offensive” bowls are instead buried in cemeteries and near the house of its intended target. A good example of this “duality” in Babylonian demon bowls is below:
In this Babylonian demon bowl, its inscriptions include protective counter-curses meant to protect the person named in the bowl (in this case Negray) from ill intentions and curses of those who wish Negray harm. However, the inscriptions in the bowl also referred to a separate bowl that has been created to send back “the curses of those who cursed Negray, daughter of Denday” (Bohak). Here, it is clear that these bowls are “practical” magickal devices used to address what seem to be two predominating social concerns: self preservation and (eye-for-an-eye) justice. Therefore, as it seems, Babylonian demon bowls are the ultimate representation of the “duality” in the practice of ancient magick – a tangible representation of complementary opposites (boone and curse), thereby effectively representing the thesis that magick can offer an insight into human mores and motivations both selfish (dark) and noble (light) and that these in combination can influence world view and practice.
Bohak, Gideon. “Traditions of Magic in Late Antiquity.” The Michigan Society of Fellows and Department of Classical Studies. December 1995. 28 November 2008 <http://www.lib.umich.edu/pap/exhibits/magic/>.
Day. “Mythology”. Magic of the Ages. 30 July 2008. 28 November 2008 <http://www.seachain-aroon.com/index.php?option=com_content&view=category&layout=blog&id=52&Itemid=70>.
Stetoff, Rebecca. Magic: Secrets of the Supernatural. Marshall Cavendish, 2007.