The “Sortes Astrampsychi” or “The lots of Astrampsychus” – an ancient fortune-telling manual

In the last few posts we’ve been looking at surviving 20-sided dice from antiquity.  From Pausanias we learn that dice, or knuckle-bones – astragalli – were used for oracles; throw the dice, pick the god’s answer from a list.  We do not have any testimony on how these particular dice, with 20-sides, were used, but it seems likely that they also were used for fortune-telling in this way.

Lists of questions and oracular answers were not always engraved in stone, although we’ve seen examples from Lycia that are.  Among the surviving texts from antiquity is a curious book, the “Sortes Astrampsychi” – the Lots of Astrampsychus – which was used for fortune-telling.

The book gives a list of questions, and then a set of 10 answers for each question.  The user chose his question.  He thought of a number between one and ten – or perhaps he used dice.  He then looked up that answer for that question.

In order to mystify the user, the answers have been mixed up together, and a look-up table prefixed.  The author also introduced a bunch of “answers” that match no question, again to confuse and mystify.

The preface explains how to use the book.  It begins:

From Astrampsychus the Egyptian to King Ptolemy concerning the foretelling of different questions.

And here are the questions.

12 Will I sail safely?
13 Is it a time to consult the oracle?
14 Will I serve in the army?
15 Will I have a share in the business?
16 Will I advance in office?
17 Will I go out of town?
18 Is it to my advantage to enter into an agreement?
19 Will I be successful?
20 Will I purchase what is offered?
21 Will I marry and will it be to my advantage?
22 Can I be harmed in the business affair?
23 Will I move from this place?
24 Is my wife having a baby?
25 Will I be able to borrow money?
26 Will I pay back what I owe?
27 Will the traveler return?
28 Will I soon give an accounting?
29 Am I safe from prosecution?
30 Will I rear the baby?
31 Will I be harmed in the business affair?
32 Will I be freed from servitude?
33 Will I inherit from my father?
34 Will I inherit from my mother?
35 Will I be an official in this matter?
36 Will I find the fugitive?
37 Will I have a good end?
38 Will I inherit from a friend?
39 Will I be an agoranomos?1
40 Will I find what I have lost?
41 Will I be a teacher?
41 Will I survive the sickness?
43 Will I open a workshop?
44 Will I have a long life?
45 Will I obtain the petition?
46 Will I come to terms with my masters?
47 Will I beget children?
48 Will I inherit from my parents?
49 Will I get the dowry?
50 Will I retain possession of my property?
51 Will I argue my case?
52 Will I inherit from my wife?
53 Will I be safe if informed against?
54 Will the one who is sick survive?
55 Will I get the woman I desire?
56 Will I be released from detention?
57 Will I sell my cargo?
58 If I lend money will I not lose it?
59 Is my wife going to miscarry?
60 Will I be an oikonomos?
61 Will I take a lease and will it benefit me?
62 Will I have an inheritance from someone?
63 Will I defeat my opponent in the trial?
64 Am I going to see a death?
65 Will I be a general?
66 Will I be made a cleric?
67 Will I get the call to office?
68 Will I have hope of trust?
69 Will I win if I put down a deposit for an appeal?
70 Am I going to marry my girlfriend?
71 Will I get my deposit back?
72 Will I get provisions?
73 Will I remain where I’m going?
74 Am I going to be sold?
75 Will I get some benefit from my friend?
76 Is it granted to me to have dealings with another?
77 Will I be restored to my place?
78 Will I get an escort?
79 Will I get the money?
80 Is the traveler alive?
81 Will I profit from the undertaking?
82 Are my belongings going to be sold at auction?
83 Will I find a way to sell?
84 Will I buy the thing I have in mind?
85 Will I be prosperous?
86 Will I be banished?
87 Will I be an ambassador?
88 Will I be a senator?
89 Will the fugitive escape my detection?
90 Will I be estranged from my wife?
91 Have I been poisoned?
92 Will I get a bequest?
93 Will I finish what I undertake?
94 Will I be able to see my homeland?
95 Will I become a decemvir?3
96 Will I get free from my lot?
97 Will my wife stay with me?
98 Will I remain an elder?
99 Will I buy land or a house?
100 Will I be caught as an adulterer presently?
101 Will I become a bishop?
102 Will I be estranged from my girlfriend?
103 Will the one who is detained be set free?

And here are the first 10 answers:

1 You won’t have hope of trust.
2 You won’t get the call to office just now.
3 You’ll be made a cleric, but late.
4 You’ll be a general, you’ll thrive, and you’ll be distinguished.
5 You’re going to see a death and to rejoice presently.
6 You’ll have satisfaction. You’ll win. Do battle.
7 You’ll have an inheritance with another trial.
8 If you take a lease, you’ll suffer a great loss.
9 You’ll be an oikonomos and you’ll be envied by someone.
10 She’ll miscarry with peril, but she’ll be safe.

The numbers are in the original.  The preface makes clear that some numbers are in black, and some in red.

The Sortes Astrampsychi as it reached us has been Christianised.  The text contains references to clergy and bishops.  This is what we would expect, as tastes changed in late antiquity.  The vendors of these kinds of books found it expedient to modify their wares for their changed audience.  Suggestions that the customer ask some pagan deity were turned into “Ask Noah” or “Ask Gabriel”, etc.  More explicit material was omitted also.

The work is in truth anonymous.  The name “Astrampsychus” is bogus, as is the dedication to Ptolemy, and an attribution to Pythagoras and use by Alexander the Great.  The name is a nod to the reputation of the Egyptians as magicians, and is used for other anonymous magical works as well.  The text perhaps originates in the 2nd century AD.

In fact the Sortes might be called a “folk book”.  Like jokes, that pass down the years and mutate and change, the basic concept travels down the years and is modified for use in many circumstances.  Other fortune-telling books draw on it, and so we have a trail of material which appears in various forms in very many languages right down to compilations made in the present day.

Two versions of the text have reached us.  The first, known as the ecdosis prior is contained in only one manuscript from the 13th century, the Ambrosianus A 45 sup., ff. 59r, 64v-94v (known as “A”).  The other, the ecdosis altera, is found in at least 8 papyri from the 3rd to the 5th cent. (5 of them from Oxyrrhynchus) and 11 manuscripts from the 14th to 16th cent.  Both versions display christianising influence.

I was able to find online one of the papyri at Berlin: P. 21358 here, 3rd century AD, found in Luxor, and containing some of the “answers” material.

Berlin Papyrus 21358, recto. Sortes Astrampsychi.

Let me end with a little bibliography of this curious item.

The two versions have been edited by Gerald M. Browne and Randall Stewart for the Teubner series in two volumes (Bryn Mawr review here).  The old 1863 Hercher edition of the text is here.

There is also a useful article on the transmission of the text: Randall Stewart, “The textual transmission of the Sortes Astrampsychi“, in Illinois Classical Studies 20 (1995), 135-147 (JSTOR).  From this I learn that there is endless scholarship on this work, although it must be pretty much unknown other than to specialists.

There is a complete English translation by Randall Stewart and Kenneth Morrell in William Hansen, Anthology of Ancient Greek Popular Literature, Indiana University Press (1998), 285-326.  This is based on the second version, omitting some of the more obvious “Christian” interpolations.  A German translation also exists: Kai Brodersen, Astrampsychos: Das Pythagoras-Orakel, Darmstadt (2006).

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Throwing dice to generate oracles in Roman times

My last post here looked at some examples of Roman 20-sided dice with numerals on them, almost certainly used to create oracles, to discover the future.  There is some literary evidence of this sort of practice, and I want to review it here.

In Pausanias’ Description of Greece 7.25.10, written in the 2nd century AD, we have an account of how a temple would use a random number generator, plus a list of oracular replies, to allow an enquiry of the god.  Here is the passage, which I take from F. Graf, “Rolling the dice for an answer” in S. I. Johnston & P. T. Struck, Mantikê: Studies in Ancient Divination, Brill (2005), p.51-97; p.62.  Graf rightly observes that this approach cannot have been all that common, because Pausanias has to explain the procedure:

When one descends from Bura [in Achaea] towards the sea, there is the Buraikos river and a not large image of Herakles in a grotto; he too is called Buraikos, and he offers an oracle from a list (pinax) and from astragaloi. Whoever intends to consult the divinity, prays in front of the image, and after the prayer, he takes up four astragaloi (plenty of them are lying around Herakles) and rolls them on the table. For any combination of the astragaloi, the inscription in the list gives an easily accessible explanation of the combination.

astragali are literally knucklebones, perhaps with numbers inscribed on the sides, but no doubt dice could be and were used in the same way.  The astragalos was thrown, and a number from 1 to 6 produced.  Graf adds:

This description contains the two main elements that make this type of oracle function: astragaloi, and a list of answers.

Pausanias’ list is lost, but in the Anatolian inscriptions, we possess an entire set of them; we just have to add the several astragaloi that were thrown, the combination of which led to the answer.

The monuments referred to by Graf are the main subject of his excellent if rather dense paper.  They is a set of 17 “large and impressive” inscriptions on stone blocks, about six-foot tall and two-foot wide, in Lycia.  The ruins of Termessos contain a number of these texts.  The inscriptions consist of lists of answers, arranged in ascending order.  Graf gives one example.  The enquirer asks about a voyage that he is intending.  The priest throws the astragalos 5 times.  Here is one of the possible results:

Three “chians” and a six and the fifth a four: Sail wherever you wish; you will return full of joy, for you have found and accomplished everything that you are cherishing in your mind. Cypris likes you, the daughter of Zeus who likes to smile.

The “chios” is the technical term for throwing a “1” with an astragalos, so the text means that, if you throw three ones, a six, and a four, then this answer is the one.

Graf’s paper includes an appendix with a translation of the main text preserved on these inscriptions.  There are various resources around the web on astragalomancy.

So these two sources indicate the approach: throw the dice, or knucklebones, and look up the result in the tables of answers.  A table, perhaps of stone, with the knucklebones on it sat in front of the stones with the answers.

A further literary source for this is a scholion on Pindar, Pythian Odes, poem 4, line 337.[1]  Mopsus is “drawing lots” to find out the “will of heaven”.  Here is the text of the ode, for context:

But, when the flower of the seamen came down to the shore of Iolcus, Jason numbered them and praised them, every one; and, to aid him, Mopsus, after inquiring the will of heaven by noting the flight of birds and by drawing lots (κλάροισιν), right gladly gave the host the signal to set forth.

The scholia are at Perseus here.  As with Pausanias, this refers to a “holy table” in the temple, on which the astragali lay, ready to be used.  Graf again helpfully gives a translation of the key bits:

a. …καὶ ἐν τοῖς ἱεροῖς ἀστράγαλοι κεῖνται, οἷς διαμαντεύονται βάλλοντες αὐτούς.

there are astragaloi in the sanctuaries with which they take oracles by throwing them

b. κλάροισιν: ἰστέον ὅτι κλήροις τοπρὶν ἐμαντεύοντο, καὶ ἦσαν ἐπὶ τῶν ἱερῶν τραπεζῶν ἀστράγαλοι, οἷς ῥίπτοντες ἐμαντεύοντο.

… “there were astragaloi on the sacred tables with which they used to take oracles by throwing them”;

So this confirms the picture that we have already formed.

The inscriptions from Lycia make clear that several throws of the dice or knucklebones are combined in order to get the god’s answer.  The 20-sided Roman dice in the last post would look much more impressive than a few knucklebones, while providing the same function.  The large size and impressive appearance of these dice may be important.  Divination is a form of charlatanry, aimed at convincing the client of something that the diviner knows that he does not know.  So it is important for the diviner to appear impressive.  In the same way the use of 20-sided dice in modern Dungeons and Dragons is not just for convenience; the same end could be produced by several 6-sided ordinary dice. But using these unusual dice does give an air of something special and different.

This is not just my imagination.  The divination process could indeed be deliberately dressed up to be more complex than it needed to be, as is clear from the way that another ancient oracle handbook, the Sortes Astrampyschi is structured.  There the name of a deity is associated with the outcome, but by an unnecessarily complex series of dice throws.

Impressive-seeming objects from Egypt, used to communicate with the gods, immediately reminds us of the magical papyri.  It may be asked whether there is any connection.

A collection of papyrus books, some in demotic, some in Greek, containing magic spells and rituals was uncovered somehow at Luxor in the 1820s and passed into the hands of an Armenian adventurer calling himself Jean d’Anastasi.  No doubt the books came from the tomb of some Graeco-Egyptian priest.  Egypt was famous in antiquity for its magicians.  The existence of dice, also in both languages, combined with our literary testimony above, suggests that the 20-sided dice were not made for games of chance, but rather for use as tools in  ancient magical procedures, such as divination.

We do not possess any oracle book that expects the use of one or more 20-sided dice.  But we have seen at the Anatolian temple an example where the oracles needed to combine one or more dice to get a wider range of results.  Twenty-sided dice are another way to achieve the same end.

Other books of divination using lots or random numbers also exist.  In his 1913 book, Greek divination; a study of its methods and principles, (online here) W. Halliday discusses a great number of them, running into the middle ages.  I won’t go into any of these here.

It is interesting to reflect that these oracular books, and these 20-sided dice, may have been part of the professional equipment of a temple, or possibly the toolkit of an ancient magician.

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  1. [1]In the Loeb this is p.218-9 – find it at Loebolus here.

More on the Homeromanteion

Yesterday I mentioned the Homeromanteion.  This work consists of an introduction, followed by a list of oracular extracts from Homer.  Using three 6-sided dice, you can get a random extract.

The work is extant in three papyri, P.Bon. 3, P.Oxy. 3831, and PGM VII.  One of these, P.London 1, 121 is a six foot long roll.  It is mentioned in this excellent British Library Manuscripts blog post post, by Federica Micucci, which also gives this image of the end of it.  The three numerals are at the start of each line.

The end of the translation given in Betz, Greek Magical Papyri, PGM VII, is as follows:

The left-most numbers are modern, as we can see.

I should have liked to give the instructions at the start of the work, but these were only preserved in P.Oxy. 3831.  There is a translation apparently by P.J. Parsons, in the original publication in The Oxyrhynchus Papyri, vol. 56 (1989), p.44-48, but this does not seem to be online.  The BL blog gives an extract:

First, you must know the days on which to use the Oracle; second, you must pray and speak the incantation of the god and pray inwardly for what you want; third, you must take the dice and throw it three times.

There is an excellent article by Raquel Martin-Hernandez – whose Academia.edu site contains a great deal of material about sortilege, the art of divining using dice – on using Homer for divination, with special reference to the Homeromanteion. It may be found here.

Similar methods could be used with biblical texts, of course; and so they duly were.  Both Augustine and Jerome refer to these, according to Martin-Hernandez, who gives two interesting footnotes:

[4] Augustine, Epist. 55.20.37. Jerome, Epistula ad Paulinum Nolanum 53, 7 (CSEL 54, 453). See Klingshirn 2002: 82-84.

[5] The use of the Bible for divination was not only conducted by secular people, but also by members of the clergy on the light of Canon 16 of the council of Vannes, dated to the 462 and 468 CE: aliquanti clerici student auguriis et sub nomine confictae religionis quas sanctorum sortes vocant…hoc quicumque clericus detectus fuerit vel consulere vel docere ab ecclesia habeatur extraneus. “Some clergy are devoted to the interpretation of signs, and under the label of what pretends to be religion, what they call Saints’ Lots…any cleric found either to have consulted or expounded this should be considered estranged from the church” (Concilia Galliae, A. 314-A. 506 [CCSL 148:156]). Text provided by Klingshirn 2005: 100. For the use of the Bible for divination see Klingshirn 2005.

In the decay of the church in the late 4th century, it is perhaps unsurprising that such superstitions should take hold.

They are not really very different from opening the bible at random; a practice not unknown even today.

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A Roman rock-crystal icosahedron (20-sided dice) in the Louvre

Here’s a pretty image that floats around the web:

It’s ancient, and an icosahedron – a 20-sided dice.[1] The Musée du Louvre twitter account (@MuseeLouvre) posted further images of what is plainly the same item (click to enlarge).

The inventory number seems to be MNC882.[2]  It is a pity that the Louvre is not as advanced as the British Museum in placing its collections online.

The Louvre account tells us that it is 1cm high, rock crystal – “en cristal de roche” – and Roman empire period.

Each face has a Latin letter on it, and also the corresponding Roman numeral.  The ten lateral faces bear the letters A to K, and the numerals 1 to 10.  The upper five triangles bear the letters L to P and the numbers 11 to 15.  The lower five triangles bear the letters Q to V, and the numbers 16-20.[3]

The inscriptions on the Louvre rock-crystal icosahedron.

This item is by no means unique.  A considerable number of polyhedral dice have been recovered from all over the Roman empire.  The majority are inscribed with Greek or Latin numbers or letters.

One unique example was an icosahedron – 20 sided dice – found in Egypt, which had the name of a different Egyptian god on each side.[4]

What were these things used for?  Obviously they were intended to be thrown, and to give a random result.  But what then?

One often-heard explanation is that they were used in conjunction with divination handbooks.  There is a 2nd/3rd century Greek oracle book, the Homeromanteion, preserved in three papyri, which refers to throwing lots to obtain a number, which can be used to look up ready-prepared oracle questions and answers.[5]  It is amusing to discover a website that allows the reader to throw the three dice and looks up the answer!  It’s at http://www.homeromanteion.com/.

 Likewise an inscription at Olympus gives another such a set of prophecies, one per letter/number of the Greek alphabet.  (There is an online version of it here.)  The Metropolitan Museum in New York has an icosahedron from Egypt, either Ptolemaic or Roman, with Greek numbers (online here).

But of course we cannot know for sure precisely what our dice was used for.

For those who wish to know more about ancient dice, there is a wonderful bibliography in this forum thread “Random Facets from the History of Dice” at boardgamegeek.com (!)

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  1. [1]Strictly we should say “die”, plural “dice” in English, but I have never ever heard anybody refer to a single die as anything but “throw the dice”.
  2. [2]Listed at a website called Réunion des Musées Nationaux here, giving the date only as “Roman Empire”.  This seems to be the source of our original photograph.
  3. [3]This description and illustration from Minas-Nerpel; another transcription appears in F. N. David, Games, Gods, and Gambling: A History of Probability and Statistical Ideas, (1998) p.12.  Google Books Preview.
  4. [4]Martina Minas-Nerpel, “A demotic inscribed icosahedron from Dakleh oasis”, Journal of Egyptian Archaeology 93 (2007), 137-148.  Online at https://core.ac.uk/download/pdf/160449173.pdf.
  5. [5]More information here.

Fire in the sky: a piece of ancient sorcery explained in Hippolytus

The article by Dodds on theurgy and Neoplatonism mentions[1]

Compare … Hippolytus’ receipe for simulating a fiery apparition of Hecate by natural if somewhat dangerous means (Ref. Haer. 4, 36).

The magician casts his spell, and … suddenly a flame is seen ascending in the sky nearby!

The Refutation of Heresies IV, chapters 35-6 is online in English here:

And that a fiery Hecate seems to career through air, he contrives in the mode following.

Concealing a certain accomplice in a place which he wishes, (and) taking aside his dupes, he persuades them (to believe himself), alleging that he will exhibit a flaming demon riding through the air. Now he exhorts them immediately to keep their eyes fixed until they see the flame in the air, and that (then), veiling themselves, they should fall on their face until he himself should call them; and after having given them these instructions, he, on a moonless night, in verses speaks thus:-

“Infernal, and earthy, and supernal Bombo, come!
Saint of streets, and brilliant one, that strays by night;
Foe of radiance, but friend and mate of gloom;
In howl of dogs rejoicing, and in crimson gore,
Wading ‘mid corpses through tombs of lifeless dust,
Panting for blood; with fear convulsing men.
Gorgo, and Mormo, and Luna, and of many shapes,
Come, propitious, to our sacrificial rites!”

And while speaking these words, fire is seen borne through the air; but the (spectators) being horrified at the strange apparition, (and) covering their eyes, fling themselves speechless to earth.

But the success of the artifice is enhanced by the following contrivance.

The accomplice whom I have spoken of as being concealed [underneath a cauldron], when he hears the incantation ceasing, holding a kite or hawk enveloped with tow, sets fire to it and releases it. The bird, however, frightened by the flame, is borne aloft, and makes a (proportionably) quicker flight, which these deluded persons beholding, conceal themselves, as if they had seen something divine.

The winged creature, however, being whirled round by the fire, is borne whithersoever chance may have it, and burns now the houses, and now the courtyards.

Such is the divination of the sorcerers.

I wonder from where Hippolytus obtained these details?  In particular the verse chanted?

 

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  1. [1]E. R. Dodds, “Theurgy and its relationship to Neoplatonism”, Journal of Roman Studies 37 (1947), 55-69; p.68.  On JSTOR.

More from Mango on ancient statues in Byzantium

I’m still looking at Cyril Mango’s marvellous paper on the fate of ancient statues in medieval Byzantium[1], and looking up references from it.  I learn something from every one of these.

The last few posts concerned references to Christians smashing pagan statues:

The deliberate assembling of ancient statues in Constantinople constitutes something of a paradox. We must not forget that paganism was very much of a live issue, not only in the fourth century, but until about the year 600.  Statues of pagan divinities were, of course, an essential part in the celebration of pagan rites. The lives of the saints are full of references to the destruction of pagan statues. A few examples must suffice.

After which Mango (my first post is here) gives the three examples we have already looked at: the Life of S. Porphyry of Gaza, the Life of Severus of Antioch, the Acts of S. Abramius, and the Life of S. Symeon Stylites the Younger (on which I shall have more to say in a future post).

Mango then goes on to say:

These are a few examples chosen at random. We must also remember that, whereas some Christian thinkers rightly believed that the idols were inanimate, the general opinion prevalent at the time-as we have seen from the incident at Gaza-was that they were inhabited by maleficent demons.[7]

7. Conversely, in the eyes of fourth-century Neoplatonists, idols were animated with divine presence: see E. R. Dodds, “Theurgy and its Relationship to Neoplatonism,” Journal of Roman Studies, XXXVII (1947), p.63 f.

The Dodds article is in JSTOR and is itself a fascinating work, although full of untranslated Greek.  I’m not quite certain that it entirely endorses Mango’s view: for, rather than the “general opinion”, Dodds discusses magical statues and statuettes.  The context of this is theurgy — magic designed to compel the gods to grant favours by rituals — so some of the statues are indeed of pagan deities.  But we’re not really discussing the same thing.

The details given about the infection of Neo-Platonism by theurgy are fascinating, all the same.  Plotinus may have stoutly rejected all the hocus-pocus of magic and theurgy; but his disciple, Porphyry, admitted some of it, and Iamblichus far more, to the point of rejecting reason.  Dodds quotes a fascinating passage from the latter’s De mysteriis, introducing it thus:

The de mysteriis is a manifesto of irrationalism, an assertion that the road to salvation is found not in reason but in ritual:

‘It is not thought that links the theurgists with the gods: else what should hinder theoretical philosophers from enjoying theurgic union with them? The case is not so. Theurgic union is attained only by the efficacy of the unspeakable acts performed in the appropriate manner, acts which are beyond all comprehension, and by the potency of the unutterable symbols which are comprehended only by the gods . . . Without intellectual effort on our part the tokens by their own virtue accomplish their proper work.’ (de myst. 96, 13 Parthey).

To the discouraged minds of fourth-century pagans such a message offered a seductive comfort. The ‘theoretical philosophers’ had now been arguing for some nine centuries, and what had come of it? Only a visibly declining culture, and the creeping growth of that Christian atheotes which was too plainly sucking the life-blood of Hellenism.

Such an attitude among such pagans would explain much of the fate of the later Neo-Platonists in Athens.  In the 5th century Proclus himself saw ‘Hecatic’ visions and was “great at rain-making”.  No wonder Justinian felt a strong urge to close down the philosophical schools, if they were training magicians!

But let’s return to what Dodds says about statues.

Of these two branches of theurgy, the first appears to have been known as telestikh/, and to have been concerned mainly with the consecrating (telei=n, Procl. in Tim. III, 6, 13), and animating of magic statues in order to obtain oracles from them.

Then follows a quote from Proclus’ commentary on the Timaeus III, 155, 18, referencing symbola; and further references given but not quoted from the Theol. Plat. I, 28, p.70; and In Tim. I, 51, 25; III, 6, 12 f.; In Crat. 19, 12.

Proclus gives a list of magical herbs, stones, animals and scents which are usable for various purposes.  Each god has  a “sympathetic” representative in the animal, vegetable and mineral world, which either is or contains a symbolon of its divine cause, and is therefore connected to it by sympatheia (references to Proclus in the CMAG VI, 148 f. and 151 f. is given).  Indeed the same idea underlies the practice of making effigies of people as a way to cast spells upon them, or indeed to stick pins in them, in voodoo.  The symbola were placed inside the hollow statue, so that they were known only to the spell-caster.

The 3rd century theurgists do not originate this idea, of course.  The idea is instead based on Egyptian religion, diffusing ideas into the syncretic Graeco-Roman world.

This contained the idea of producing statues, inside which the souls of demons might be trapped by means of these kinds of gems, herbs, etc.

The late Hermetic dialogue, To Asclepius III, 24, may be referenced here:

Trismegistos: [I mean their] statues, O Asclepius, … statues, ensouled with sense, and filled with spirit, which work such mighty and such [strange] results,—statues which can foresee what is to come, and which perchance can prophesy, foretelling things by dreams and many other ways,—[statues] that take their strength away from men, or cure their sorrow, if they do so deserve.

And 37:

2. Since, then, our earliest progenitors were in great error,—seeing they had no rational faith about the Gods, and that they paid no heed unto their cult and holy worship,—they chanced upon an art whereby they made Gods [for themselves].

To this invention they conjoined a power that suited it, [derived] from cosmic nature; and blending these together, since souls they could not make, [they set about] evoking daimons’ souls or those of angels; [and thus] attached them to their sacred images and holy mysteries, so that the statues should, by means of these, possess the powers of doing good and the reverse.

Apparently receipes for constructing such statues are to be found among the magical papyri.  They appear in the Roman world in the 1st century AD and onwards.

But the real promoter of the idea is Iamblichus, who perhaps saw a way to defuse the Christian argument that idols are merely lumps of wood and stone.  He asserts ‘that idols are divine and filled with divine presence’.  His disciples did more, so Dodds tells us:

His disciples habitually sought omens from the statues, and were not slow to contribute apithana of their own: Maximus makes a statue of Hecate laugh and causes the torches in her hands to light up automatically;[95] Heraiscus has so sensitive an intuition that he can at once distinguish the ‘animate’ from the ‘inanimate’ statue by the sensations it gives him.[96]

95. Eunapius, Vit. Soph. 475.
96. The Suda under that name.

All this degenerate paganism must have shaped the attitude of the Christians of the same period towards statuary.  It is likely enough that a statue by Phidias or Praxiteles could be readily distinguished even by the simplest from a magical statue or talisman.

But then again you didn’t have to be a pagan to create a magical statue.  Magic outlived paganism.  Statues standing in the streets of Antioch and Constantinople in the middle ages were sometimes supposed to be talismans, protecting the city against snakes and the like.  Often they were supposed to be the work of Apollonius of Tyana, or some other ancient magician, by then legendary.

It is in this way, perhaps, through the activities of the theurgists in late antiquity, that statues of the pagan gods can be thought of as containing demons; or of being magical in nature; and eventually of becoming protective talismans, rather than pagan idols.

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  1. [1]Cyril Mango, Antique statuary and the Byzantine beholder, Dumbarton Oaks Papers 17, 1963, p.53+55-75.  Online here.

Some notes on the Great Paris spell-book

I’m looking at Preisendanz’ edition of the Greek magical papyri.  I thought some notes on one of them, PGM IV, also known as the great magical book, or the great spell-book, might be useful.  This is the codex that contains the so-called Mithras liturgy — in reality merely a spell-ritual.

The so-called “great Paris magical papyrus”, Bibl. nat. suppl. gr. 574.  A papyrus book of 36 leaves, written on both sides.  Foll. 1r, 3v, 16 and 36r are blank, described in the auction “Catalogue d’une collection d’antiquites egyptiennes par M. Francois Lenormant (Paris, Moulde et Renou 1857) Pap. IV” under No. 1073 as “manuscrit sur feuilles de papyrus pliees en livre, formant 33 feuillets ecrits de deux cotes.”  The auction catalogue number is still written on fol. 1r, together with the Anastasi number 1073.

The manufacturer of the book had 18 double sheets, which he folded in order to make the book.  The small Coptic item on page 1 may be a later addition.  [The sheets have become disarranged].  The leaves vary in size between 30.5cm and 27cm high, 13 and 9.5cm wide.  Margins have been left on all sides.

C. Wessely suggests that the copyist wrote during the fourth century AD, and more towards 300 than 400 AD, when the technology to make such papyrus codices was available.  See also Wiener Studien 8, 1886, p.189, which suggests the period of Tertullian, an origin of Upper Egypt, in Herakleopolis.  Dieterich felt the time of Diocletian was the terminus ante quem, and that the “liturgy” must belong to the period when Mithras was most in vogue.  Adolf Deissmann in Light from the ancient East 217-225 placed the composition of lines 2993-3086 before the fall of Jerusalem and the reference to the emperor in 2448 as referring to Hadrian.

E. Miller published some portions of the hymns: Melanges de Litterature grecque (1868),437-458.

It would be nice to know more up-to-date information on this subject.

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