What happened to the later neoplatonists – a quotation from Damascius

A passage in Damascius’ commentary on the Phaedo sheds an interesting light on the later neoplatonist philosophers and their involvement in theurgy – the art of invoking the gods by magic:

Some honour philosophy more highly, as do Porphyry and Plotinus and many other philosophers; others honour more highly the hieratic art [=theurgy] as do Iamblichus and Syrianus and Proclus and all the theurgists [=hieratists].[1]

The rise in superstition in late antiquity, and still more in the post-Roman world, is a deplorable feature of the Roman decline and fall.  Sometimes this rise is attributed to the rise of Christianity, which occurs in the same period.  Nor is this allegation always without merit.

We are all familiar with the story of Justinian closing the philosophy schools.  There are not lacking writers who rage against Christianity for this event, supposing that the successors of Proclus and Marinus and the like were pure intellectuals.  But as we see from this excerpt from Damascius, they were in fact seriously involved in something not notably different from witchcraft.

Why did the neoplatonists lose contact with philosophy?

  1. [1]L.G. Westerink, The Greek commentaries on Plato’s Phaedo, 1977, ii.I.172.1-3, via Anne Shepherd, “Proclus’Attitude to Theurgy”, Classical Quarterly N.S. 32, 212-224. JSTOR.

Julian the apostate and the magician

From Eunapius, Lives of the Philosophers and Sophists, on Maximus the theurgist:

But Eusebius [of Myndus], at least when Maximus was present, used to avoid precise and exact divisions of a disputation and dialectical devices and subtleties; though when Maximus was not there he would shine out like a bright star, with a light like the sun’s; such was the facility and charm that flowered in his discourses. Chrysanthius too was there to applaud and assent, while Julian [the apostate] actually reverenced Eusebius. At the close of his exposition Eusebius would add that these are the only true realities, whereas the impostures of witchcraft and magic that cheat the senses are the works of conjurors who are insane men led astray into the exercise of earthly and material powers. …

 … when the next lecture took place, Eusebius ended with the same words as before, and Julian boldly asked him what was the meaning of the epilogue that he perpetually recited. Thereupon Eusebius spread the sails of the eloquence that was his by nature, and giving free rein to his powers of speech said:

“Maximus is one of the older and more learned students, who, because of his lofty genius and superabundant eloquence scorned all logical proof in these subjects and impetuously resorted to the acts of a madman. Not long since, he invited us to the temple of Hecate and summoned many witnesses of his folly. When we had arrived there and had saluted the goddess: ‘Be seated,’ said he, ‘my well-beloved friends, and observe what shall come to pass, and how greatly I surpass the common herd.’ When he had said this, and we had all sat down, he burned a grain of incense and recited to himself the whole of some hymn or other, and was so highly successful in his demonstration that the image of the goddess first began to smile, then even seemed to laugh aloud. We were all much disturbed by this sight, but he said: ‘Let none of you be terrified by these things, for presently even the torches which the goddess holds in her hands shall kindle into flame.’ And before he could finish speaking the torches burst into a blaze of light.

Now for the moment we came away amazed by that theatrical miracle-worker. But you must not marvel at any of these things, even as I marvel not, but rather believe that the thing of the highest importance is that purification of the soul which is attained by reason.”

However, when the sainted Julian heard this, he said: “Nay, farewell and devote yourself to your books. You have shown me the man I was in search of.”

And off he went to find Maximus instead, to learn as much as he could about magic and theurgy.  Soon afterwards (letter 2 in Wright’s version) he is found writing to Priscus, one of his friends for a copy of the commentary of Iamblichus on Julianus the theurgist.

Julian the Apostate had the good fortune to have his reign recorded by Ammianus Marcellinus, a first-rate historian and one sympathetic to him, in terms that appeal strongly to modern readers.  But it is worth remembering that Julian was not a 19th century rationalist, as some modern accounts might lead the reader to suppose.


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?


  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.

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

Mithras and Ormazd in Britain

I have continued to add material to the new Mithras pages.  In particular I am trying to track down photographs, drawings, anything on the monuments. I’m having quite a bit of luck in doing so, although I can see that I might have to do some photography trips.

One item today caught my eye.  It’s CIMRM 827.  It’s a silver denarius, found at St. Albans in Hertfordshire in the UK, the site of Verulamium.  But it’s been tampered with.  It was found in a layer of debris from 150-200 AD.

Originally it showed Tarpeia on one side.  This is the Roman woman who betrayed Rome to the Gauls in return for money.  The contemptuous Gauls then killed her by throwing their heavy shields onto her in a pile.  Here’s an example:

But now it looks like this:

Or better this:

(Isn’t it curious how Vermaseren’s photograph, the first one, doesn’t look right?)

The inscription has been removed from the reverse, leaving just a picture of someone buried under shields.  This looks very like Mithras rock-born.

But the obverse has been smoothed down, and an inscription added: MITHRAS OROMASDES, in a circle.  In the centre is the word PHREN.

Oromazdes is, of course, the Greek form of Ormazd, Ahura Mazda, the chief deity of Zoroastrianism, who appears under that name at the peculiar hierotheseon at Nemrud Dag, built by Antiochus I of Commagene to honour both Greek and Persian gods (and himself).  “Phren” is apparently a solar name from Graeco-Roman magic – Phre, equivalent to Re, the Egyptian term for the sun[1].  So this item — an amulet, a pass to the Mithraic meeting, whatever it may have been — ties together some very interesting ideas.  I don’t know of another genuine Mithraic item that mentions Ormazd.  And the link to magical material may be relevant to the appearance of Mithras in the Greek Magical Papyri.

So … not an afternoon wasted, in any sense.

  1. [1]H. D. Betz, The Greek magical papyri in translation, vol. 1., p.338: “Phre: See Ra.” “Ra (Re, Phrē): The Egyptian god of the sun (P)rē, without the definite article. Re means simply ‘sun’, while Prē, the form of the god’s name from the New Kingdom onward, means ‘the sun’. See Bonnet, RARG 626-30, s.v. ‘Re’.”

More on Jesus in the Greek Magical Papyri

Further to my post last week, I thought that people might like to see the texts.  I think that they were published long ago in Deissmann, Light from the Ancient East, but this is not before me.  Instead let’s quote from a very useful modern collection of the magical texts.  The bits in bold and italics are rubrics in the manuscript.  I don’t guarantee that I have transcribed the strings of nonsense words exactly, however.

PGM IV. 1227-64.[1]

Excellent rite for driving out daimons: Formula to be spoken over his head: Place olive branches before him, and stand behind him and say: “Hail, God of Abraham; hail, God of Isaac; hail, God of Jacob; Jesus Chrestos, the Holy Spirit, the Son of the Father, who is above the Seven, who is within the Seven. Bring Iao Sabaoth; may your power issue forth from him, NN, until you drive away this unclean daimon Satan, who is in him. I conjure you, daimon, whoever you are, by this god, SABARBARBATHIOTH SABARBARBATHIOUTH SABARBARBATHIONETH SABARBARBAPHAI. Come out, daimon, whoever you are, and stay away from him, NN, now, now; immediately, immediately. Come out, daimon, since I bind you with unbreakable adamantine fetters, and I deliver you into the black chaos in perdition.”

Preparation: take 7 olive branches; for six of them tie together the two ends of each one, but for the remaining one use it like a whip as you utter the conjuration. Keep it secret; it is proven.

After driving out the daimon, hang around him, NN, a phylactery, which the patient puts on after the expulsion of the daimon –a phylactery with these things [written] on a tin metal leaf: ” BOR PHOR PHORBA PHOR PHORBA BES CHARIN BAUBO TE PHOR BORPHORBA PHORBABOR BAPHORBA PHABRAIE PHARBA PHARBA PHORPHOR PHORBA BOPHOR PHORBA PHORPHOR PHORBA BOBORBORBA PAMPHORBA PHORPHOR PHORBA, protect him, NN.” But another version has a phylactery on which this sign occurs: @

*Tr: M. W. Meyer. This Greek and Coptic exorcistic spell is discussed by Tamboruino, RGVVVII 3, 9; 10. For additional literature, see Preisendanz, PGM vol. I, 114 and idem, APF 8 (1927) : 115. 

Is it me, or is there something of an attempt by the translator and the editor to disassociate this from Jesus Christ?  It seems clear enough that the latter is meant here, however.  Later in the same volume is another spell which mentions Jesus.

PGM IV. 3007-86.[2]

A tested charm of Pibechis for those possessed by daimons: Take oil of unripe olives with the herb mastigia and the fruit pulp of the lotus, and boil them with colorless marjoram while saying, “IOEL SARTHIOMI EMORI THEOCHIPSOITH SITHEMEOCH SOTHE IOE MIMIPSOTHIOOPH PHERSOTHI AEEIOYO IOE EO CHARI PHTHA, come out from NN” (add the usual). The phylactery:On a tin lamella write “IAEO ABRAOTH IOCH PHTHA MESENPSIN IAO PHEOCH IAEO CHARSOK,” and hang it on the patient. It is terrifying to every daimon, a thing he fears. After placing [the patient] opposite [to you], conjure. This is the conjuration: “I conjure you by the god of the Hebrews, Jesus, IABA IAE ABRAOTH AIA THOTH ELE ELO AEO IIIBAECH ABARMAS IABARAOU ABELBEL LONA ABRA MAROIA BRAKION, who appears in fire, who is in the midst of land, snow, and fog, TANNETIS; let your angel, the implacable, descend and let him assign the daimon flying around this form, which god formed in his holy paradise, because I pray to the holy god, [calling] upon AMMON IPSENTANCHO (formula). I conjure you, LABRIA IAKOUTH ABLANATHANALBA AKRAMM (formula) AOTH IATHABATHRA CHACHTHABRATHA CHAMYN CHEL ABROOTH OUABRASILOTH HALLELOU IELOSAI IAEL . I conjure you by the one who appeared to Osrael in a shining pillar and a cloud by day, who saved his people from the Pharaoh and brought upon Pharaoh the ten plagues because of his disobedience. I conjure you, every daimonic spirit, to tell whatever sort you may be, because I conjure you by the seal which Solomon placed on the tongue of Jeremiah, and he told. You also tell whatever sort you may be, heavenly or aerial, whether terrestrial or subterranean, or netherworldly or Ebousacus or Cherseus or Pharisaeus, tell whatever sort you may be, because I conjure you by god, light-bearing, unconquerable, who knows what is in the heart of every living being, the one who formed of dust the race of humans, the one who, after bringing them out from obscurity, packs together the clouds, waters the earth with rain and blesses its fruit, [the one] whom every heavenly power of angels and of archangels praises. I conjure you by the great god SABAOTH, through whom the Jordan River drew back and the Red Sea, which Israel crossed, became impassable, because I conjure you by the one who introduced the one hundred forty languages and distributed them by his own command. I conjure you by the one who burned up the stubborn giants with lightning, whom the heaven of heavens praises, whom the wings of the cherubim praise. I conjure you by the one who put the mountains around the sea [or] a wall of sand and commanded the sea not to overflow. The abyss obeyed; and you obey, every daimonic spirit, because I conjure you by the one who causes the four winds to move together from the holy aions, [the] skylike, sealike, cloudlike, light-bringing, unconquerable [one]. I conjure [you] by the one in holy Jerusalem, before whom the unquenchable fire bums for all time, with his holy name, IAEOBAPHRENEMOUN (formula), the one before whom the fiery Gehenna trembles, flames surround, iron bursts asunder and every mountain is afraid from its foundation.  I conjure you, every daimonic spirit, by the one who oversees the earth and makes its foundations tremble, [the one] who made all things which are not into that which is.”

And I adjure you, the one who receives this conjuration, not to eat pork, and every spirit and daimon, whatever sort it may be, will be subject to you. And while conjuring, blow once, blowing air from the tips of the feet up to the face, and it will be assigned. Keep yourself pure, for this charm is Hebraic and is preserved among pure men.

*Tr.: W. C. Grese.

The biblical connections are given squarely here, although “daimon” grates — the spell-writer surely means “demon”, just as the New Testament does. 

The editor adds:

On the peculiar epithet “Jesus the god of the Hebrews,” see Reitzenstein, Poimandres14, nn. 1-2; Deissmann, Light from the Ancient East 260, n. 4; Knox, “Jewish Liturgical Exorcism,” 193-94; H. Chadwick, Origen, Contra Celsum(Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2 1965) 210 (on c. Cels. 4. 34); Smith, Jesus the Magician113; A. A. Rarb, ‘Three Elusive Amulets,” JWCI 27 (1964) : 7-9. Cf.  PGM XXIIb. 18. 

A few things to look at in that, but perhaps another time.  Note that PGM XXIIb, line 18 merely is another Jewish charm, this time invoking “O Lord God of the Hebrews”.  It is curious to see “God of the Hebrews” capitalized, but not “Jesus the god of the Hebrews”.  But since Dr Betz was a “Professor of New Testament” and the translators both held the title of “Professor of Religion”, perhaps it merely indicates the emotional climate in US universities at the time.

  1. [1]H. D. Betz (ed), The Greek Magical Papyri in translation, Chicago, 1986, p.62.
  2. [2]H. D. Betz (ed), The Greek Magical Papyri in translation, Chicago, 1986, p.96.

Jesus in the Greek Magical Papyri

An email this morning asks about the probable date of the exorcism spell in the Paris magical codex (PGM IV, lines 3007-86 and 1227-64) which references Jesus, and quoting a 2006 article on Hypotyposeis by Andrew Criddle (which itself seems to have been replicated around the web).

…lines 1227-64 of this papyrus [contain] another Exorcism with the invocation Hail God of Abraham Hail God of Isaac Hail God of Jacob; Jesus Chrestos the Holy Spirit the Son of the Father who is above the Seven who is within the Seven. Bring Iao Sabaoth may your power issue forth from him NN until you drive away this unclean daimon Satan who is in him.

 I find in Twelftree, In the name of Jesus: exorcism among early Christians, p.263, n.172, a statement:

Although it is generally agreed that this papyrus dates from the fourth century CE, its contents are more likely to come from the second century CE.[172]

The author cites Andre Jean Festugiere, La revelation de Hermes Trismegiste, (1949-54), vol. 1, p.303, n.1 in support of this, but he also refers to Eugene N. Lane, On the date of PGM IV, Second Century 4 (1984), p.25-7, who argues from the presence of menoturanne on line 2664 that this is a reference to Attis Menotyrannus.  The title (of unknown meaning) Menotyrannus appears only in inscriptions, and these date between 374 and 390, and therefore argues that PGM IV must have been composed after ca. 380.  

My own, amateur, opinion on Lane’s argument is that since the title is of unknown meaning, we cannot say with certainty that it is intended to refer to Attis only — what if it means something like Invictus? or Almighty?

It seems to me that the magical texts are not the kind of text that is transmitted unchanged.  It is entirely possible that a copyist would lace the text with new “names of power”.  These are not literary texts, after all — the owners and copyists are people in search of concrete results.  The texts range in date from the 2nd century BC to the 4th century AD, and the copies we have seem to have belonged to a 4th century priest in Thebes (modern Luxor).

When would “Jesus” be considered a name of power?  The New Testament refers in Acts to Jewish magicians trying to use his name in this way, and coming unstuck!  But in general Jesus was a disreputable figure in the Roman world.  The vicious attack on him by the pagan Caecilius in the Octavius of Minucius Felix indicates that a crucified lower-class fakir was not someone that a reputable Roman took seriously.  The same attitude may be seen indirectly in the early heresies, which all invented stories that Jesus was not really crucified, but was replaced by a phantasm or something like that.  This is the heresy known as Docetism.  Indeed Tertullian in De Carne Christi 5, 4 also attests the problem, addressing Marcion — a docetist — when he says that it is precisely because the death of Christ is disreputable that  it must be true, rather than a made-up story.

This attitude wanes, however.  By the fourth century the Christians are so numerous, and their character so well known, that pagan attacks of this kind become perfunctory.  But on the other hand Christianity was so well known, and so much a solid threat to all magic and paganism, that it is a little hard to see “Jesus” being tossed into a syncretistic stew as a random power-name.

Some may remember the famous passage in the Historia Augusta (Life of Alexander Severus, 29), where syncretism is described, and the emperor has a chapel containing statues of the gods, and Moses and Jesus.  The HA is a fake; but a fake with earlier sources, and the attitude described is just that of the early 3rd century.

I would myself, therefore, tend to suggest that the text in its current form perhaps dates from that time.


Preisendanz’ edition of the Papyri Graecae Magicae

An email this evening asks where the Greek text of the Greek Magical Papyri might be found.  The wikipedia article tells me that Karl Preisendanz published them between 1928-31, and that a revised edition came out in the 70’s.

Interestingly someone has placed the first edition online here.  I wonder whether they are indeed out of copyright?


An online translation of the Greek magical papyri

At Abnormal Interests there is an interesting poston the find of the Greek magical papyri.  The anecdote is taken from H. D. Betz translation of all these papyri, which someone has uploaded to ScribD (Hans Dieter Betz, ed., The Greek Magical Papyri in Translation, Including the Demotic Spells, Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1986.)   

This is fortunate in many ways, for so obscure a subject would otherwise hardly escape the confines of major academic libraries.  The papyri themselves were discovered in the 19th century by an adventurer.

… the discovery of the Greek magical papyri was often still is the outcome of sheer luck and almost incredible coincidences. In the case of the major portion of the collection, the so-called Anastasi collection, the discovery and rescue is owed to the efforts (and, if one may use the term, cooperation) of two individuals separated by more than a thousand years: the modern collector d’Anastasi and the original collector at Thebes.

In the nineteenth century, there was among the “diplomatic” representatives at the court in Alexandria a man who called himself Jean d’Anastasi (17801-1857). Believed to be Armenian by birth, he ingratiated himself enough with the pasha to become the consular representative of Sweden. It was a time when diplomats and military men often were passionate collectors of antiquities, and M. d’Anastasi happened to be at the right place at the right time. He succeeded in bringing together large collections of papyri from Egypt, among them sizable magical books, some of which he said he had obtained in Thebes. These collections he shipped to Europe, where they were auctioned off and bought by various libraries: the British Museum in London, the Bibliotheque Nationale and the Louvre in Paris, the Staatliche Museen in Berlin, and the Rijksmuseum in Leiden. Another papyrus was acquired by Jean Francois Mimaut (1774-1837), also a diplomat, whose acquisition ended up in the Bibliotheque Nationale (PGM III). Unfortunately, we know almost nothing about the circumstances of the actual findings. But it is highly likely that many of the papyri from the Anastasi collection came from the same place, perhaps a tomb or a temple library. If this assumption is correct, about half a dozen of the best-preserved and largest extant papyri may havc come from the collection of one man in Thebes. He is of course unknown to us, but we may suppose that he collected the magical material for his own use. Perhaps he was more than a magician. We may attribute his almost systematic collcctions of magica to a man who was also a scholar, probably philosophically inclined, as well as a bibliophile and archivist concerned about the preservation of this material.

The references for these statements may be read in Betz.  They are to works that few have seen; but which, perhaps, may now be online and accessible to us all.


Roman attitudes to magic

There were three sets of Roman legislation relating to magic.[1]  There was an edict in the Twelve Tables (ca. 451 BC); the laws of Sulla (81 BC); and the legislation of Constantine and other Christian emperors (after 312 AD).

Table VIII.9 made it a crime to move crops from someone else’s field to one’s own by magic.  There is another possible prohibition of a carmen causing insult to another, where carmen may mean a spell.  The emphasis is on injury to another.  A trial  under this law took place before the curule aedile, Spurius Albinus, in 157 BC according to Pliny the Elder NH 18-41-43.  Further actions against magicians, usually their expulsion, took place during the republic.[2]

The Lex Cornelia de sicariis et veneficis (=assassins and poisoners) is quoted in the so-called Sentences of Paulus 5.23.15-18 (ostensibly ca. 210 AD; probably actually late 3rd century AD; does not seem to be online).  This reads:

Persons who celebrate or cause to be celebrated impious or noctural rites so as to enchant, bewitch or bind anyone, shall be crucified or thrown to wild beasts… Anyone who sacrifices a man, or attempts to obtain auspices by means of his blood, or pollutes a shrine or a temple, shall be thrown to wild beasts, or, if he is of superior rank, shall be punished with death. … It has been decided that persons who are addicted to the art of magic shall suffer extreme punishment; that is to say, they shall be thrown to wild beasts or crucified.  Magicians themselves shall be burned alive. … No-one shall be permitted to have books of magic in his possession, and when they are found with anyone they shall be publicly burned and those who have them, after being deprived of his property, if they are of superior rank shall be deported to an island, and if they are of inferior station shall be put to death; for not only is the practice of this art prohibited, but also knowledge of the same.

Digest 48.8 deals with the Cornelian law, and quotes the opinions of later jurists on it.[1]  Interestingly they include (48.8.4) a quotation from book 7 of Ulpian’s De officiis proconsularis [4].  Lactantius tells us that this same volume of this same book by Ulpian contained edicts against the Christians:

Moreover, most wicked murderers have invented impious laws against the pious. For both sacrilegious ordinances and unjust disputations of jurists are read. Domitius, in his seventh book, concerning the office of the proconsul, has collected wicked rescripts of princes, that he might show by what punishments they ought to be visited who confessed themselves to be worshippers of God. – Lactantius, Div. Inst. 5, 11.

It’s interesting to see that Christianity was grouped together with magicians by Ulpian.  It may be relevant that Christians were sometimes accused of practising magic; perhaps the edicts were gathered together for this reason.

Augustus as pontifex maximus ordered all books on occult subjects to be burned, which were 2,000 in number, according to Suetonius (Aug. 31).  In AD 16 yet another expulsion of magicians and astrologers from Italy took place; and further expulsions occurred during the first century.

The legislation of the Christian emperors against magic is in the Codex Justinianus 9:18 and in the Codex Theodosianus 9:16.  In 312 Constantine banned a haruspex from visiting another; in 321 banned magical arts that injured others, while exempting those used for medicinal purposes or the general welfare.  In 357 Constantius banned magic altogether (CJ. 9.18.5):

Chaldaei ac magi et ceteri, quos maleficos ob facinorum magnitudinem vulgus appellat, nec ad hanc partem aliquid moliantur.

Chaldeans, magicians, and others who are commonly called malefactors on account of the enormity of their crimes shall no longer practice their arts.[5]

A law of 358 called magicians “the enemies of the human race” and classified those who used magic verses, sorcerors, haruspices, soothsayers, augurs, diviners, and interpreters of dreams as magicians.

Although the Lex Cornelia involved a general prohibition, cases such as that of Apuleius show that only when harm was supposed was the law likely to become involved, and otherwise was not strictly enforced.  Apuleius was accused of using magic to cause a boy to fall sick, and also to induce a wealthy widow to marry him (to the fury of her family, who raised the allegation).  In his defence, Apuleius acknowledges the illegality of magic (Apology 47):

You have demanded fifteen slaves to support an accusation of magic; how many would you be demanding if it were a charge of violence? The inference is that fifteen slaves know something, and that something is still a mystery.  Or is it nothing mysterious and yet something connected with magic? You must admit one of these two alternatives: either the proceeding to which I admitted so many witnesses had nothing improper about it, or, if it had, it should not have been witnessed by so many.

Now this magic of which you accuse me is, I am told, a crime in the eyes of the law, and was forbidden in remote antiquity by the Twelve Tables because in some incredible manner crops had been charmed away from one field to another. It is then as mysterious an art as it is loathly and horrible; it needs as a rule night-watches and concealing darkness, solitude absolute and murmured incantations, to hear which few free men are admitted, not to speak of slaves.

And yet you will have it that there were fifteen slaves present on this occasion. Was it a marriage? Or any other crowded ceremony? Or a seasonable banquet? Fifteen slaves take part in a magic rite as though they had been created quindecimvirs for the performance of sacrifice! Is it likely that I should have permitted so large a number to be present on such an occasion, if they were too many to be accomplices? [3]

 Magic, then, was always something secret and illegal; if, in practice, tolerated so long as no scandal occurred.

1. Stephen Benko, Pagan Rome and the Early Christians, p. 128f.
2. Eugene Tavenner, Studies in magic from Latin Literature, p.13 f, usefully reviews all the data with references, and also lists Roman writers on the occult.
3. Apuleius, Apology, 47.
4.  The Digest is online in Latin here.
5. Codex Justinianus 9.18.5, ed. P. Krueger, Berlin: Weidmann (1877), p.837.  Online here.  The Codex Justinianus is online in Latin here as part of the Corpus Juris Civilis

Update 20 May 2024: The second reference to the “Digest” should have been to the Codex Justinianus, part of the Corpus Juris Civilis, and in vol. 2 of the Krueger edition of 1877.  Slight revisions for clarity.