Magic: Magic in Greco-Roman Antiquity

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From the beginning, magic was an essential part of Greco-Roman culture and religion. Over the course of history, however, it changed in appearance, scope, and importance from being an element of simple rituals to becoming highly complex systems claiming the status of science and philosophy. To the extent that magical ideas were presupposed in early agrarian and sacrificial rites, purifications, and burial customs, magic even preceded the culture of the Greeks. Later, magical beliefs and practices steadily grew in significance and diversity. In the Hellenistic period that followed Alexander the Great (d. 323 bce), magical material increased considerably. In Classical Greece of the sixth to fifth centuries bce, Thessaly and Egypt had already been known as the prime sources of magical knowledge; but only Hellenistic syncretism produced the abundance of material now available. Within the Greco-Roman world magic formed to some extent a common tradition, yet at the same time each cultural region put its own stamp on it. The main traditions were those of Greek, Greco-Egyptian, Roman, Jewish, and Christian magic. While clearly distinguishable, these cultural contexts also overlapped to a considerable degree and produced a variety of syncretic forms.


The material to be considered falls into two categories. First, there is an abundance of primary sources: amulets, magical gems (often with pictorial and verbal inscriptions), curse tablets, spells on papyrus and on strips or sheets of metal, inscriptions, symbols, drawings, paintings, small figurines and larger sculptures, tools, and finally handbooks of magicians that collect the materials they used (especially the Greek Magical Papyri). Second, there is also a vast amount of secondary source material. Almost every ancient author presents literary and artistic descriptions of magical beliefs and practices. There are also many short references to such beliefs and practices as they existed at the time. Philosophers discussed the matter from early on. Scholarly investigations from the Hellenistic and Roman periods are extant (Plutarch's On Superstition ; Pliny's Natural History 30). At that time the distinction between acceptable and unacceptable forms of magic became common, making it possible for even the educated to use magic in some positive way. Legal provisions had to be developed to deal with magic, especially with forms of it that were reputedly used to harm others.

Despite its reputation as illicit, fraudulent, and superstitious, magic was an essential part of daily life at all levels of society. The uses of magic seem to have been unlimited. In any case, they were also connected with legitimate forms of ritual, myth, symbol, and even language in general. Magic was presupposed in all forms of the miraculous, and in medicine, alchemy, astrology, and divination. Even so, magic retained its dubious reputation, and there were always those few who viewed it with total skepticism.


The phenomenon of magic is designated by several Greek terms, especially mageia, pharmakeia, and goēteia. The term mageia is derived from magos (pl., magoi ), originally a Persian word (magush ). Herodotus describes the Magoi (Magians) as a Median tribe. Later they were assumed to be priests and scholars of astrology, divination, and related subjects. Whereas Plato (Alcibiades 1.122) still speaks of mageia in a positive sense as referring to "the magian lore of Zarathushtra," Aristotle uses the term also in a negative sense as we do today (frag. 36; also Theophrastus, History of Plants 9.15.7). This negative meaning, which has little to do with the original meaning, becomes predominant in the Hellenistic period, when new words develop besides magos and mageia, as for instance mageuein and magikos. The positive meaning, however, is found in the writings of the magicians themselves, especially in the Greek Magical Papyri.

The negative meaning was taken over by the Romans; in Latin the terms are magia, magicus, and magus, as well as maleficium and maleficus. Modern English has inherited this negative meaning, with the exception of the Magi of Matthew 2:1.

Descriptions of Magic

What constitutes magic was already disputed in antiquity. Roman officials and intellectuals reflect the negative reputation that magic had acquired. Pliny (Natural History 30.12) points out its fraudulent and dangerous character and has a theory about its origins as a decadent mixture of elements from medicine, astronomy, and religion. Apuleius (Apology 26) sums up the view of it as being vulgar and making preposterous claims. By contrast, practitioners of magic provide favorable descriptions of the art (Apuleius, Apology 26; Greek Magical Papyri, passim), or they distinguish between lower and higher forms; goēteia became the lower, mageia the general, and theourgia the higher magic. This distinction allowed Neoplatonic philosophers, especially Iamblichus and Proclus, to accept theurgy as a form of philosophical magic.

Greek and Roman Magic

For reasons of methodology it is important to distinguish between primary (performative) and secondary (descriptive) material.

Primary sources

Primary sources for ancient magic consist of various kinds of artifacts, images, symbols, and written texts. Collections of such sources are today housed by public museums and libraries or with private collectors. The cataloging and publishing of these widely dispersed materials are still in progress.


Greco-Roman antiquity has left us a large number of amulets of different kinds and purposes. The word amuletum occurs in Pliny and corresponds to the Greek phulaktērion. Amulets were magically potent objects that averted evil or increased a person's or a deity's divine power. They were worn around the neck or on the head, or arm, or were posted in various places in the house (on doors, at thresholds, etc.). Amulets come in many shapes and forms. Best known are the Egyptian scarab, the hand showing the fica (the obscene gesture called "the fig"), the phallus, the eye. Other forms are divine symbols and figurines, replicas of other parts of the human body, animals, and plants. Precious and semiprecious gems engraved with images of deities, inscriptions, and magical symbols were very popular. Often amulets were placed in capsules (bullae ). While Egypt was the classical land of amulets, they were known in all parts of the ancient world. Among Jews the tefillin and the mezuzah should be mentioned, and among Christians the cross and the fish.

Curse tablets

Curse tablets, or defixiones (from Lat. defixio, "binding spell"; Gr., katadesmos ), are known from Greece since the time of Homer. A large number of lead lamellae are extant from fifth-century Greece, but curse tablets exist also in the form of ostraca, seashells, and papyri, upon which the curse formulas were inscribed, often with the names of the cursed and the curser. The tablets were deposited in the ground near places where the spirits of the dead were believed to be or in such places as houses, baths, and sports arenas, so as to be communicated to avenging underworld deities (especially Hermes, Hekate, Persephone, and Typhon). Curse tablets were used for a variety of purposes, especially in erotic magic, court trials, political intrigues, and sports (gladiators, horse races). From the earlier and simpler curse developed the later, more elaborate, syncretistic forms of the Hellenistic and Roman eras; besides the magical formulas, inscriptions often included so-called voces magicae, characters, or drawings. A special form was the magical letter to the underworld deities.

Curse figurines

Curse figurines, of which several examples and descriptions have survived, were also widely used. To curse someone, one made a wax or clay figurine of the person and then stuck needles or nails into the figurine or mutilated it, while curse formulas were spoken over it. Like curse tablets, the figurines were deposited in the ground. This form of curse was apparently popular in erotic magic.


Drawings have magical power in themselves, as extant magical papyri show. The subjects of the drawings can be deities, persons, or animals.


Magical tools are known to have existed and have in fact been found (nails, disks, etc.). The most important discovery was a set of tools found in Pergamum.


A large number of magical signs and symbols appear on amulets, gems, and tablets. Although seemingly in use since Pythagoras (see Lucian, Pro lapsu 5), most of them are still unexplained today. The magicians called them charactēres. In Gnosticism they were also taken over by Christian magic (Book of Jeu, Pistis Sophia ).


Incantations belong to the magic of the word. They consist of magical formulas, prayers, and chants. The term comes from the Latin incantamentum, "incantation, spell" (Gr., epoide ). Many examples of incantamenta are found in inscriptions, papyri, and literature, where they are quoted or described. They were widely used in medicine (healings, exorcisms), weather magic, cultic invocations of gods and demons, and erotic magic. Their significance for philosophy and rhetoric was recognized by the Sophists and Plato. They also appear as literary motifs in sagas, novels, myths, aretalogies, mystery cults, and collections of oracles.


Hymns to the gods are closely related to incantations. In terms of poetry and religion, hymns are more and even highly developed forms. They were composed metrically and sung, with accompanying cithara and dance. Their basic form included the invocation of the gods, the gods' names and epithets (expressed in relative clauses, participles, adjectives, etc.), and the petition. Hymns existed from Archaic times on. Major extant collections include the Homeric Hymns (mainly from the eighth to the sixth centuries bce), the Orphic Hymns (probably from the second century ce), and the hymn fragments inserted in the Greek Magical Papyri, some of which may be ancient.

Magical handbooks

Magicians collected the material they needed in handbooks, some of which are extant, as for example the great magical papyri of Berlin, Leiden, London, and Paris. Such handbooks include a wide variety of spells to be used by the magicians themselves or to be sold to customers. There are also rituals for acquiring assistant demons (paredroi daimones ), initiation rituals, deification rituals, invocations for oracular séances with deities, and procedural matters (preparation of ingredients, instructions about when various procedures can be undertaken, etc.). Among the spells, those designed to attract a lover, harm an enemy, or restrain anger are most numerous. Other spells have to do with various illnesses, bedbugs, business problems, catching thieves, and horse races. To find out what the future holds, a host of mantic spells and longer rituals are provided. Outstanding among all these collections are the so-called Mithraic Liturgy, which exhibits yet unexplained relationships to the Mithraic cult, and the "Eighth Book of Moses," which contains three different versions of an initiation ritual. In addition to collecting magical material, the handbooks told magicians how to make and use amulets, curse tablets, figurines, and drawings, and how to use tools.

Secondary sources

Whereas primary sources present magical practices and beliefs directly, secondary sources presuppose, describe, or discuss them. The literature of Greek and Roman antiquity contains innumerable examples of such secondary sources, but careful distinctions must be made: while many authors have real knowledge of popular magic or even access to primary sources of magical literature, there is at the same time a purely literary tradition in which the same themes, motifs, and terms show up again and again. Therefore some authors simply imitate the descriptions of magical acts found in earlier authors or attempt to supersede them. While both kinds of authors may flourish simultaneously, some authors may have received their information from secondary sources exclusively.

Literary texts

Magic is a common literary motif in both Greek and Latin literature. Homer's Iliad and Odyssey contain many allusions to and descriptions of magical acts. Pliny (Natural History 30.1) states that the Odyssey in particular was recognized simply as a book of magic. In fact, Homeric verses were used later as magical formulas. Magic plays a role in Odysseus's encounter with the witch Circe (Odyssey 10.274ff.) and his descent into Hades and consultation with the seer Teiresias (Odyssey 11.14ff.). The Homeric Hymns have numerous references to magic, some of which (depending on whether the hymns actually were used in the cult) may be primary rather than merely secondary sources. The Hymn to Demeter 228230 is especially important because of its reference in the Demophon episode to a ritual baptism of fire. From the beginning, literary interests were focused not only on erotic magic but also on death and the underworld with its deities, especially Hekate and Persephone (e.g., Hesiod's Hekate episode in Theogony 411452). There is also, of course, a close relationship between the literary and the pictorial art. Greek drama took to the subject as well, expressing it either in episodes (e.g., the calling up of the ghost of Darius in Aeschylus's Persae 619842) or in whole tragedies (e.g., Euripides' Medea, treating one of the great witches of antiquity). Ancient comedy used magic for its own purposes, as in the description of a goēs ("quack") in Aristophanes' Plutus (649747) or Menander's Deisidaimon and Theophoroumene. Theocritus's second idyll, entitled Pharmakeutria (The Witch), became a literary prototype for many later poets.

The superstitious man as a literary and ethical type was described by Theophrastus (Characters 16). The hymnic tradition was continued by the third-century bce poet Callimachus (Hymn to Demeter 36; On the Bath of Pallas 9) and his pupil Apollonius of Rhodes, whose Argonautica included several magical sections (3.7ff., invocation to Erato; 744911, Medea's preparation of magical drugs; 11631224, Jason's nocturnal sacrifice to Hekate; 12251407, Jason's magical defeat of the giants). Especially popular were descriptions of scenes of necromancy. In the Roman period the second-century Greek satirist Lucian of Samosata provides an almost complete inventory of magical beliefs and practices, as did the Greek novels.

In Roman literature the tradition continues with an increasing interest in the dramatic and the bizarre. Vergil's eighth eclogue (64110) describes a magical ritual performed by a deserted lover that shows exact knowledge of magical details, although it is based upon Theocritus's second idyll. In the Aeneid, dramatic magical scenes are connected with the death of Dido (4.504676). Horace's fifth epode has a macabre scene of the abduction and murder of a child.

Philosophical and scientific investigations

According to ancient tradition, philosophers have been preoccupied with magic since pre-Socratic times. The names of Heraclitus, Pythagoras, Empedocles, and Democritus appear several times in connection with magic, and spells under the names of Pythagoras and Democritus are found in the Greek Magical Papyri. Although the historical value of these references is doubtful, philosophers seem to have investigated magical phenomena since Pythagoras, who also may have been the first to make a positive use of it.

Greek philosophy in general rejected magic. The Skeptics, Epicureans, and Cynics produced an entire literature combating magic. But the attitude gradually changed with the development of demonology, mantic, and astrology. The Hermetic writings and the Neoplatonic philosophers Iamblichus and Proclus (and probably even Plotinus) accepted forms of magic and integrated them into their systems.

Scientific compendia of magical beliefs and practices are extant from the Roman period. Pliny's Natural History contains a history and theory of what he calls the magicae vanitates (30.118) and a large collection of remedies (see also book 28). Although written as an apology, Apuleius's Apologia (De magia ) is in fact a compendium of magic. Apuleius's other works are also valuable sources for the magical beliefs of his time (see especially the Metamorphoses ).

Legal provisions

Ancient law had no provisions for prosecuting magicians for the practice of magic. However, there are numerous accounts of trials in which magic played a role. These were trials not only of magicians and witches but also of philosophers (e.g., Anaxagoras, Socrates, Apollonius of Tyana, and Apuleius of Madaura). According to ancient writers, these persons were accused of murder by poisoning (pharmakōn ) or of failure to honor the gods properly (asebeia ), accusations broad enough to add emotional furor to a wide range of charges. If magic as such was not a reason for prosecution, harming a person by means of magic was. Plato included legal provisions against such injury in his Laws (11.933. D). The Romans went further and included property damages caused by weather or agricultural magic in the Tabulae XII.

Jewish Magic

Magic played a somewhat different role in Judaism as compared with neighboring religions. The Old Testament shows that Israelite religion was well aware of the importance of magic in the religions of Egypt and Babylon, but on the whole it viewed magic negatively. For the Old Testament, magic is either foreign or marginal. Magicians are called in by Pharaoh (Ex. 710) or Nebuchadrezzar (Dn. 2:2); they serve Jezebel (2 Kgs. 9:22) and Manasseh (2 Chr. 33:6). The prophets warn against magic (Is. 47:915, Jer. 27:9, Ez. 13:1719, Na. 3:4, Mal. 3:5, Mi. 5:1112). The religion of Israel is believed to be more powerful than all magic, which is excluded by law (Ex. 22:18; Lv. 19:26, 19:31, 20:6, 20:27; Dt. 18:922). Especially important is the necromancy in the story of the witch of Endor (1 Sm. 28).

This picture, however, is deceptive. Pre-Israelite religions, most of them saturated with magic, have left numerous traces in Israelite religion; furthermore, popular Israelite religion must not be confused with what the Old Testament conveys. In this popular religion, magic has a firm place that was often approved of even by "official" religion (e.g., Moses' and Elijah's magical wands in Ex. 4:20, 17:813; 2 Kgs. 4:29, 4:31; Urim and Tummim, ephod and terafim in 1 Sm. 2:18, 14:3, 14:18; Jgs. 1718; Dt. 33:8). More important than amulets and rituals was the magic of the word, especially curses and blessings and above all the name of Yahveh (see especially Jgs. 13:6, 13:1718; Ex. 3:14). The name of Yahveh became the most important magical element in Judaism and, beyond it, in Hellenistic syncretism. Therefore the God Iao plays an enormous role in the Greek Magical Papyri, and on the magical gems and amulets of the Hellenistic and Roman period.

These various developments persist on a far broader scale in rabbinic Judaism. The official rejection of magic in rabbinic literature must be seen against the background of popular religion and the whole mystical tradition (Merkavah, Qabbalah), both of which were very open to magical beliefs and practices.

Christian Magic

For early Christianity, magic presented difficulties. On the one hand, Christians had inherited Judaism's negative attitude toward magic (see Gal. 5:20, and the typical attitudes expressed in Acts 8:924, 13:612, 19:1319). On the other hand, the emphasis on miracles and sacraments implied approval of some forms of magic. Jesus' activities as a miracle worker were soon attacked as being the work of a magician possessed by Beelzebub (Mk. 3:2227 and parallels). Beginning with the presynoptic sources of the Gospels, New Testament apologetics was increasingly preoccupied with defending Jesus against classification with the magicians. Since his exorcisms and miracle work could not be ignored, distinctions were introduced to separate miracles from magic. Similarly, miracles worked by Christian healers had to be separated from those of non-Christians. This was accomplished by treating the latter as acts done by magicians.

Problems arose also because of the close affinities between the epiphanies of the crucified and resurrected Christ and the magical concept of the return as demons of persons who had died of violence (biaiothanatoi ) (see especially Lk. 24:3643, Jn. 20:1923). Moreover, magical presuppositions in the rituals of baptism and the Eucharist led to practices approved by some and disapproved by others (see especially Paul, who tried to correct misuse in 1 Cor. 1:1016, 8:111:1, 11:1734, and in Rom. 6:310). Paul first distinguished between abuse (magical misconceptions) and proper use (sacraments) of these rituals. The fundamental theological problems stated or implied in these early texts continued to assert themselves throughout the history of Christianity and have led to ever new conceptualizations.

From the second century on, popular Christian religion showed greater interest in amulets, relics, symbols, and signs (see the apocryphal gospels and Acts ). The gnostics also made positive use of magic (see especially the Book of Jeu, the Pistis Sophia, and the writings found at Nag Hammadi, Egypt). The official church, through its bishops, synods, and the writings of the church fathers, was forced to combat and suppress new Christian forms of magic and superstition. The extant wealth of amulets, spells, relics, holy places, symbols, and images indicates that complete suppression was impossible. Still, Christian theology was able to contain and restrain the lower forms of magic by accepting some forms of christianized magic while eliminating other, unwanted forms. Liturgy and sacramental theology developed special kinds of magic thought to be compatible with the doctrines of the church. By the end of antiquity, the church had become the home of many forms of magic that coexisted in an uneasy and tenuous symbiosis. Some magic was banned, some was tolerated, some was approved, but none achieved dom-ination.

See Also

Amulets and Talismans; Cursing; Incantation; Theurgy.


No complete collection of the vast remains of ancient magic exists, but there are useful editions and translations, indices, and surveys of literature. For new publications, see the annual bibliography in Marouzeau, L'annee philologique, section on "Magica."

Texts and Translations

Betz, Hans Dieter, ed. The Greek Magical Papyri in Translation, Including the Demotic Spells. 2 vols. Chicago, 1986.

Kropp, Angelicus M. Ausgewählte koptische Zaubertexte. 3 vols. Brussels, 19301932. Volume 1 has the edition of Coptic texts; volume 2 has their German translation; volume 3 is introductory.

Preisendanz, Karl. Papyri Graecae Magicae: Die griechischen Zauberpapyri. 2 vols. Edited by Albert Henrichs. 2d ed. Stuttgart, 19731974. Edition of Greek texts, with German translation, notes, and bibliography.


Abt, Adam. Die Apologie des Apuleius von Madaura und die antike Zauberei. Giessen, 1908.

Aune, David E. "Magic in Early Christianity." In Aufstieg und Niedergang der römischen Welt, vol. 2.23.2 (Berlin and New York, 1969), pp. 15071557. A comprehensive bibliographical report.

Bonner, Campbell. Studies in Magical Amulets, Chiefly Graeco-Egyptian. Ann Arbor, 1950.

Burkert, Walter. Griechische Religion der archaischen und klassischen Epoche. Stuttgart, 1977. Translated as Greek Religion (Cambridge, Mass., 1985). Important and up-to-date comments on various aspects of magic in the archaic and classical periods of Greek religion.

Grant, Robert M. Miracle and Natural Law in Graeco-Roman and Early Christian Thought. Amsterdam, 1952.

Herzig, Otto. Lukian als Quelle für die antike Zauberei. Würzburg, 1940.

Hopfner, Theodor. Griechisch-ägyptischer Offenbarungszauber. 2 vols. Leipzig, 19211924. Still the best survey of the entire range of material.

Hopfner, Theodor. "Mageia." In Real-Encyclopädie der classischen Altertumswissenschaft, vol. 14 (Stuttgart, 1928), pp. 301393. Mostly a summary of the former work.

Luck, Georg. Arcana Mundi. Magic and the Occult in the Greek and Roman Worlds. Baltimore and London, 1985. A useful collection of sources in translation, with brief introductions and notes.

Nilsson, Martin P. Geschichte der griechischen Religion. 3d ed. 2 vols. Munich, 19671974. Has important sections on magic at the various stages of development in Greek religion.

Scholem, Gershom. "Der Name Gottes und die Sprachtheorie der Kabbala." Eranos-Jahrbuch 39 (1970): 243297.

Thee, Francis C. R. Julius Africanus and the Early Christian View of Magic. Tübingen, 1984. The volume contains the Kestoi of Julius Africanus (c. 160240 ce) in translation, together with commentary, extensive introduction, and a survey of the early Christian views on magic.

Thorndike, Lynn. A History of Magic and Experimental Science, vols. 12, The First Thirteen Centuries of Our Era. New York, 1923. Written from the perspective of the history of science; incomplete series of studies.

Trachtenberg, Joshua. Jewish Magic and Superstition (1939). Reprint, New York, 1982.

Trumpf, Jürgen. "Fluchtafel und Rachepuppe." Mitteilungen des Deutschen Archäologischen Instituts, Athenische Abteilung, 73 (1958): 94102.

Widengren, Geo. Religionsphänomenologie. Berlin, 1969. References on various aspects of magic can be found in the index, s. v. v. Magie, Magier.

Hans Dieter Betz (1987)