The Paris magical codex

In the Bibliothèque Nationale in Paris is an early fourth century papyrus codex (ms. supplement grec 574) which contains a variety of texts, spells, hymns, etc.   It is 36 folios in length – large for a papyrus, and contains 3274 lines.

The manuscript was acquired in Egypt by the collector Giovanni Anastasi (# 1073 in his collection) and bought at auction in Paris by the BNF in 1857.  It probably comes from Thebes (=Luxor).  Apparently Anastasi was told that his papyri were found in a grave there, perhaps sometime around 1825, although we cannot be sure of this.  Anastasi certainly sold a larger collection of papyri to the Dutch archaeologist C. J. C. Reuvens, the founder and first director of the Oudheidkundig Museum in Leiden, sometime after 1825.1

The codex seems to be the working handbook for an Egyptian magician, compiled from many sources.  It contains more than 50 documents, doubtless acquired from various sources, and is the single most comprehensive handbook of magic known from the ancient world.  The documents contained in it must all be 4th century or earlier — possibly much earlier — and each document has its own history prior to being copied into the codex. 

The text was printed by Karl Preisendanz, Papyri Graecae Magicae, vol. 1, Leipzig, 1928, rev. 1973, as item IV (hence PGM IV).  Various online versions of this seem to exist.  An English translation was made by H.-D.Betz, The Greek Magical Papyri in translation, 1986.  There is an enormous secondary literature.

The best known of these texts is on lines 475- 834, the so-called Mithras liturgy, a series of prayers which begins by invoking Sol Mithras and may — or may not — have some connection to the mysteries of Mithras.

Other parts show Jewish influence, and one spell, an exorcism ending with the words — Come out of NN — on line 3019, contains the words:

I adjure you by the God of the Hebrews, Jesus, Jaba, Jae, Abraoth, Aia, Thoth, Ele, …. 2

and ends with Ptah, which shows how magicians were willing to tap into supposed names of power in just the way recorded in Acts.  It also contains a string of the seven vowels of the Greek alphabet (a, e, h, i, o, u, w) which Eusebius tells us in the Praeparatio Evangelica 11.6.36 was treated by the pagans as a name of power equivalent to the Hebrew Tetragrammaton.  Its presence in the spell shows that he was right.  The same series are also used in the Mithras liturgy.

1 Pieter Willem van der Horst, Jews and Christians in their Graeco-Roman context, p. 269. Here.
2. A. Deismann, Light from the ancient East, pp.258-260 prints the full text of a two leaf spell with English translation, online here.

10 thoughts on “The Paris magical codex

  1. The codex is also a sign of the religious syncretism of the Hellenistic and Graeco-Roman eras. Just like we have finds of Orpheus crucified or the previously mentioned virgin birth of Mithras, we have that codex that mixes all kinds of religious and occult mumbo-jumbo to give power to the magician. I do not find surprising the Jewish and Christian stuff mixed in. After all all those psychics advertising their dubious services do the same thing today…

  2. I agree; it is in the nature of syncretistic cults to borrow whatever they will gives them something.

    There is no ancient record of a virgin birth of Mithras, tho; and apparently that Orpheus gem is a fake.

  3. Thank you for your kind words! I was reading about Mithras and the Mithras liturgy, saw the words “the great Paris magical codex” and thought, “I need to know what this is, specifically.”

    I was reading your adventures in Jordan last night. Tourist-farming is understandable, of course. But I went to Petra in 1993, and it gave me quite a different feeling. I’d love to go back.

  4. If you liked Petra, dear Roger, you better not go back, because it would be quite disappointing, I am afraid. You might like Palmyra or Persepolis better. On the other hand, travel and food are better in Jordan.

  5. I certainly want to go to Palmyra. But I get the impression that visiting Syria is best done in the Spring or the Autumn, and I’ve never had both time and money at those times, since they coincide with the start and middle of the financial year, the peak trading period for people in my line of work. One day, maybe.

  6. I was in Palmyra in early August 2002. Sure it was rather hot but being Greek I could withstand it. The trick was staying in the airconditioned room during the hottest hours of the day. Tudmor is a big tourist village, my parents compared it to Delphi or Olympia in the 50’s, you will manage to buy food in English (something you can’t easily do in Lattakia or Aleppo) but you won’t find lots of variety, in the midweek only falafel joints and bakeries where open. None of the restaurants were open though they existed

  7. Thanks for this! But of course if I am hunkered down in one’s air-conditioned room, I’m not out stomping around the city. And walking around is what you go for, I’d have thought.

  8. Tadmor is not a city. It is a big village. In about 1 hour you have seen all of the “city” you would want to see, minus the archaeological sites of course. Avoid the Cham hotel, it is outside the “city”, in the middle of the desert and you need a cab to go to civilisation. In Palmyra it is simple: You wake up early at sunrise at watch the beautifull sunrise, then sleep again, wake up a few hours later, get breakfast and go see the Temple of Baal and the theater (same archaeological site). Then (no more than an hour later, it is not THAT big a site) go to the museum which has the advantage of being rather cool (I don’t remember if it is airconditioned) then go get lunch. Pass a few hours in your room (doing the siesta perhaps) then go out by 5 or 6 that it has cooled down and see whatever of the “city” is worth seeing and get dinner. At night there is nothing to do there (generally there is no night life in Syria) so you might as well sleep. In a second day you could go to the castle and the above groung graves near where you enter the city, but it requires some form of motorised transportation, not that hard to find considering there are freelance tour guides hanging around the city that have a car and for a negotiated price are willing to take you everywhere of importance. Palmyra is a wonderfull place but I doubt it is worth more than 3 days time, this is Syria after all outside the archaeological sites there is very little to see and do…

  9. Thank you very much for this! This is really helpful, and it is useful to know what there is (and isn’t) in Tadmor.

    By the “city” I meant the ruins of Palmyra, actually. I’d want to have plenty of time there.

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