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Author Topic: Magic In Ancient Greece  (Read 4514 times)

FollowerofOdin

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Magic In Ancient Greece
« on: June 26, 2013, 11:03:43 pm »
Okay, I read in 'A Handbook To Life In Ancient Greece' that the Classical Hellenic period there were no magicians. Now what I would like to know is what was the view of the Hellenists about magic, witchcraft, stuff like that? I read that it wasn't considered okay to practice witchcraft. So what is your take on this?

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Re: Magic In Ancient Greece
« Reply #1 on: June 26, 2013, 11:22:14 pm »
Quote from: FollowerofOdin;113842
Okay, I read in 'A Handbook To Life In Ancient Greece' that the Classical Hellenic period there were no magicians. Now what I would like to know is what was the view of the Hellenists about magic, witchcraft, stuff like that? I read that it wasn't considered okay to practice witchcraft. So what is your take on this?

 
There are some Hellenics who claim magic wasn't practiced in Ancient Greece and say that it is hubris (probably as a way to distance themselves from Wicca and Wiccanesque religions).  My response is usually something along the lines of "Well, were did all those curse tablets come from?"

Magic was practiced in Ancient Greece, it just wasn't part of the "official" religious practice.


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Elani Temperance

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Re: Magic In Ancient Greece
« Reply #2 on: June 27, 2013, 05:59:55 am »
Quote from: FollowerofOdin;113842
Okay, I read in 'A Handbook To Life In Ancient Greece' that the Classical Hellenic period there were no magicians. Now what I would like to know is what was the view of the Hellenists about magic, witchcraft, stuff like that? I read that it wasn't considered okay to practice witchcraft. So what is your take on this?

 
Alright, let me give this a shot. Our modern word 'magic', was derived from the ancient Hellenic 'magikos', practiced by 'magos' and 'mageia'. Way back when, these terms were used to refer to the rites of Persian magi, and were not considered overtly negative. What these rites entailed isn't entirely clear, but we do know that 'magos' was soon connected to fraudulent behaviour, or other negatives like quacks and mercenary work. In the much later dated 'Papyri Graecae Magicae', the term seems to carry some authority again, and could be equated with the modern term 'wizard'.

The next part is very generalized, as nothing is so clear cut as I am about to state it, but in general, the ancient Hellenes did practice a form of magic, but it was linked to religion. The difference between religion and magic lies in intent and form of petitioning; where religion had a supplicatory character, and was aimed at making life better for a group of followers, magic had a manipulative character and was intended only to better the life of the practitioner.

The katadesmoi mentioned before are a good example: Katadesmoi are relatively small tablets, inscribed with a desire asked of the Theoi to fulfill. The Katadesmoi that have survived were generally made out of very thin sheets of lead, which were then rolled, folded or pierced with nails. Wax, papyrus, stone, precious metals, and precious minerals would also have been used as a medium. Some katadesmoi were accompanied by a small doll representing the intended victim or even a lock of their hair, especially in the case of love spells. In general, the katadesmoi always included the name of the intended victim and the name(s) of the appropriated Gods--most often Hades, Kharon, Hekate, and Persephone. Exceptions have been found, of course.

Magic was a known practice, and you could even buy pre-made katadesmoi. Still, many writers and philosophers describe the practice with disdain, contributing magic to superstition and impiety. A good example of what was (and even still is to some in modern Greece) an example of a superstition linked to magic was the 'evil eye' and the talismans made to protect against it.

So yes, magic occurred in ancient Hellas, but it was nothing like the modern equivalent, and didn't resemble anything Crowley published. It was a watered-down form of religion in which khthonic Theoi were forcedly requested to fix the problems of the petitioner. Some forms were considered dangerous, most forms were considered stupid. The ancient philosophers were generally against it. The modern Hellenistic opinion on magic is fueled largely by the words of the ancient philosophers.
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Re: Magic In Ancient Greece
« Reply #3 on: June 27, 2013, 09:39:30 am »
Quote from: FollowerofOdin;113842
I read that it wasn't considered okay to practice witchcraft. So what is your take on this?

Generally the concept of witchcraft universally is something taboo used by those on the fringes of society for uses dealing with spite and malice. In Europe the Church also played a big role in influencing folk traditions and low magics that would come to be known as 'witchcraft' as well.

Modern witchcraft, either dealing with the same traditions, or modern religious Witchcraft, is quite different from the practises of ancient Greece that can be labelled witchcraft, so it's not really the best comparison or distinction to make. If you practise modern witchcraft I think comparing your practises to attitudes from ancient Greek societies would be a bit problematic.

FollowerofOdin

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Re: Magic In Ancient Greece
« Reply #4 on: June 27, 2013, 12:12:33 pm »
Quote from: Melamphoros;113848
There are some Hellenics who claim magic wasn't practiced in Ancient Greece and say that it is hubris (probably as a way to distance themselves from Wicca and Wiccanesque religions).  My response is usually something along the lines of "Well, were did all those curse tablets come from?"

Magic was practiced in Ancient Greece, it just wasn't part of the "official" religious practice.

 
Thanks for answering my question. I do agree that Hellenists like to stay as far away from magic because of Wicca. Some of the books on Greek religion doesn't talk about magic. I know that it's been studied, due to the curse tablets, but I don't think that it's been deeply studied as the other parts of Greek religion. If I'm wrong, then please correct me.

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Re: Magic In Ancient Greece
« Reply #5 on: June 27, 2013, 12:21:10 pm »
Quote from: FollowerofOdin;113888
Thanks for answering my question. I do agree that Hellenists like to stay as far away from magic because of Wicca. Some of the books on Greek religion doesn't talk about magic. I know that it's been studied, due to the curse tablets, but I don't think that it's been deeply studied as the other parts of Greek religion. If I'm wrong, then please correct me.

 
I think scholars began to look at the magic practices of Ancient Greece relatively recently (like maybe a few decades).  So yeah, it hasn't been studied as deeply as other aspects of Ancient Greek life.


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FollowerofOdin

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Re: Magic In Ancient Greece
« Reply #6 on: June 27, 2013, 12:22:16 pm »
Quote from: Elani Temperance;113863
Alright, let me give this a shot. Our modern word 'magic', was derived from the ancient Hellenic 'magikos', practiced by 'magos' and 'mageia'. Way back when, these terms were used to refer to the rites of Persian magi, and were not considered overtly negative. What these rites entailed isn't entirely clear, but we do know that 'magos' was soon connected to fraudulent behaviour, or other negatives like quacks and mercenary work. In the much later dated 'Papyri Graecae Magicae', the term seems to carry some authority again, and could be equated with the modern term 'wizard'.

The next part is very generalized, as nothing is so clear cut as I am about to state it, but in general, the ancient Hellenes did practice a form of magic, but it was linked to religion. The difference between religion and magic lies in intent and form of petitioning; where religion had a supplicatory character, and was aimed at making life better for a group of followers, magic had a manipulative character and was intended only to better the life of the practitioner.

The katadesmoi mentioned before are a good example: Katadesmoi are relatively small tablets, inscribed with a desire asked of the Theoi to fulfill. The Katadesmoi that have survived were generally made out of very thin sheets of lead, which were then rolled, folded or pierced with nails. Wax, papyrus, stone, precious metals, and precious minerals would also have been used as a medium. Some katadesmoi were accompanied by a small doll representing the intended victim or even a lock of their hair, especially in the case of love spells. In general, the katadesmoi always included the name of the intended victim and the name(s) of the appropriated Gods--most often Hades, Kharon, Hekate, and Persephone. Exceptions have been found, of course.

Magic was a known practice, and you could even buy pre-made katadesmoi. Still, many writers and philosophers describe the practice with disdain, contributing magic to superstition and impiety. A good example of what was (and even still is to some in modern Greece) an example of a superstition linked to magic was the 'evil eye' and the talismans made to protect against it.

So yes, magic occurred in ancient Hellas, but it was nothing like the modern equivalent, and didn't resemble anything Crowley published. It was a watered-down form of religion in which khthonic Theoi were forcedly requested to fix the problems of the petitioner. Some forms were considered dangerous, most forms were considered stupid. The ancient philosophers were generally against it. The modern Hellenistic opinion on magic is fueled largely by the words of the ancient philosophers.

 
Thanks for the response and I'm so happy that your finally finished with school

Elani Temperance

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Magic In Ancient Greece
« Reply #7 on: June 27, 2013, 03:29:46 pm »
Quote from: FollowerofOdin;113891
Thanks for the response and I'm so happy that your finally finished with school

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FollowerofOdin

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Re: Magic In Ancient Greece
« Reply #8 on: June 27, 2013, 07:31:27 pm »
Quote from: Elani Temperance;113931
By the Gods, me too! XD

 
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catja6

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Re: Magic In Ancient Greece
« Reply #9 on: June 27, 2013, 07:32:10 pm »
Quote from: Melamphoros;113890
I think scholars began to look at the magic practices of Ancient Greece relatively recently (like maybe a few decades).  So yeah, it hasn't been studied as deeply as other aspects of Ancient Greek life.

 
It is recent--about 30-ish? years or so, which compared to the rest of the field of classical studies makes it practically an infant. :)  Which makes it a very hot field of study for scholars today: because magic was considered beneath notice for a most of the history of the field (for reasons I'll talk about below), there's huge scope for analysis and discussion and creating new knowledge--and in a field as saturated as Classics, this kind of new vein to mine is awesome.

Standard-issue Hellenic Recons can get very snippy about magic, but it's actually one of the best examples on hand of why Reconstructionism is not scholarship, and why many of the goals of Reconstructionism are actively antithetical to those of the scholarship they claim to prize, so.

Basically (and I'm oversimplifying here), what was considered "magic" in ancient Greece was very strongly linked to not just what was being done, but who was doing it.  "Authorized personnel" could do all kinds of things that would get an old peasant woman out in the sticks all kinds of unpleasant attention. One example is the goes, a kinda-sorta necromancer figure who held official status in certain mystery cults (like Orphism); another example is so-called "natural philosophy," which is pretty much plant/rock/animal parts magic gussied up for educated urbanites who were claiming to be exploring the ~mysteries of the universe~ (unlike the aforesaid peasant woman).  Magic in ancient Greece was defined as an unauthorized, disruptive power that messes with the "natural order of things," which means that a) people who were in positions of power/authority by definition weren't doing "magic"; b) magic was a weapon for people who didn't have access to other forms of power; and c) magic was both derided and feared as inherently subversive. Peasants or women or slaves doing things to improve their lot was an affront to the social structure, and therefore Bad and Impious.

An analogue to these types of attitudes shows up in Europe during the witch craze: priests in various times and places used Communion wafers as a sort of catch-all folk physical/spiritual remedy, which was fine--but of course the folk narratives of witches insisted that they also used wafers for purposes that were by definition Bad and Unclean, even those who used wafers for healing purposes. In those places with those understandings of magic, there's a clear demarcation between who's allowed to do what with what--and they fall along existing social hierarchies of class, gender, education, etc.

The vast majority of our written documents concerning magic are coming from educated upper-class urban men, and therefore the definitions/attitudes about magic that are most easy to demonstrate are from groups of people who had a vested interest in portraying magic as stupid, impious, dangerous, rank superstition, etc., while defining their own related activities as proper and justified. But archaeological evidence--as well as evidence within the texts themselves--indicates that the situation was a lot more nuanced and complex. Because magic intersects so crucially with with these issues of gender, race, and class, it's only been quite recently considered worthy of study, and again only fairly recently have scholars had the conceptual tools to make sense of the material--and it's become super-hot as a result. (Not just in Classics, either--magic studies have gotten a lot more prevalent in arenas outside of folkloristics, which is AWESOME.) I recommend the works of Fritz Graf, Sarah Iles Johnston, and the Angkarloo and Clark series "Witchcraft and Magic in Europe."

Recon communities are, by and large, made up of people who are not professional academics, and who therefore rely on those scholarly texts which are easily accessible, which aren't always the texts that are the most important and useful for academics. That's not a problem in and of itself--academia=/=creating a religion, after all!--but it can lead to other issues.  First, they're not likely to be up on the latest research. But more crucially, they're not really participants in the scholarly community, and so don't have much sense of the types of conversations that actually happen within those spaces--and more generally how scholars read and use texts. That type of situation leads to a vast overvaluing of the authority of some academic texts (usually older and/or more generalized texts), and a corresponding dogmatism and resistance to other interpretations. It's one of the reasons I have extremely little patience with the Hellenic Recon community, and don't engage with them much at all.

FollowerofOdin

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Re: Magic In Ancient Greece
« Reply #10 on: June 27, 2013, 07:37:47 pm »
Quote from: catja6;113961
It is recent--about 30-ish? years or so, which compared to the rest of the field of classical studies makes it practically an infant. :)  Which makes it a very hot field of study for scholars today: because magic was considered beneath notice for a most of the history of the field (for reasons I'll talk about below), there's huge scope for analysis and discussion and creating new knowledge--and in a field as saturated as Classics, this kind of new vein to mine is awesome.

Standard-issue Hellenic Recons can get very snippy about magic, but it's actually one of the best examples on hand of why Reconstructionism is not scholarship, and why many of the goals of Reconstructionism are actively antithetical to those of the scholarship they claim to prize, so.

Basically (and I'm oversimplifying here), what was considered "magic" in ancient Greece was very strongly linked to not just what was being done, but who was doing it.  "Authorized personnel" could do all kinds of things that would get an old peasant woman out in the sticks all kinds of unpleasant attention. One example is the goes, a kinda-sorta necromancer figure who held official status in certain mystery cults (like Orphism); another example is so-called "natural philosophy," which is pretty much plant/rock/animal parts magic gussied up for educated urbanites who were claiming to be exploring the ~mysteries of the universe~ (unlike the aforesaid peasant woman).  Magic in ancient Greece was defined as an unauthorized, disruptive power that messes with the "natural order of things," which means that a) people who were in positions of power/authority by definition weren't doing "magic"; b) magic was a weapon for people who didn't have access to other forms of power; and c) magic was both derided and feared as inherently subversive. Peasants or women or slaves doing things to improve their lot was an affront to the social structure, and therefore Bad and Impious.

An analogue to these types of attitudes shows up in Europe during the witch craze: priests in various times and places used Communion wafers as a sort of catch-all folk physical/spiritual remedy, which was fine--but of course the folk narratives of witches insisted that they also used wafers for purposes that were by definition Bad and Unclean, even those who used wafers for healing purposes. In those places with those understandings of magic, there's a clear demarcation between who's allowed to do what with what--and they fall along existing social hierarchies of class, gender, education, etc.

The vast majority of our written documents concerning magic are coming from educated upper-class urban men, and therefore the definitions/attitudes about magic that are most easy to demonstrate are from groups of people who had a vested interest in portraying magic as stupid, impious, dangerous, rank superstition, etc., while defining their own related activities as proper and justified. But archaeological evidence--as well as evidence within the texts themselves--indicates that the situation was a lot more nuanced and complex. Because magic intersects so crucially with with these issues of gender, race, and class, it's only been quite recently considered worthy of study, and again only fairly recently have scholars had the conceptual tools to make sense of the material--and it's become super-hot as a result. (Not just in Classics, either--magic studies have gotten a lot more prevalent in arenas outside of folkloristics, which is AWESOME.) I recommend the works of Fritz Graf, Sarah Iles Johnston, and the Angkarloo and Clark series "Witchcraft and Magic in Europe."

Recon communities are, by and large, made up of people who are not professional academics, and who therefore rely on those scholarly texts which are easily accessible, which aren't always the texts that are the most important and useful for academics. That's not a problem in and of itself--academia=/=creating a religion, after all!--but it can lead to other issues.  First, they're not likely to be up on the latest research. But more crucially, they're not really participants in the scholarly community, and so don't have much sense of the types of conversations that actually happen within those spaces--and more generally how scholars read and use texts. That type of situation leads to a vast overvaluing of the authority of some academic texts (usually older and/or more generalized texts), and a corresponding dogmatism and resistance to other interpretations. It's one of the reasons I have extremely little patience with the Hellenic Recon community, and don't engage with them much at all.

 
Oh dear gods, thanks for all the cool info. I didn't know half of that about the recon community. On my blog I'm a Independent Hellenist, meaning that I don't really communicate with the larger Hellenic community, as they like to tell me what they think that I should do. Even if I'm doing things the way that I'm suppose to. Thanks for the info.

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Re: Magic In Ancient Greece
« Reply #11 on: June 27, 2013, 08:32:24 pm »
Quote from: catja6;113961
In those places with those understandings of magic, there's a clear demarcation between who's allowed to do what with what--and they fall along existing social hierarchies of class, gender, education, etc.


It also, for general info purposes, continues into the Renaissance: I did a paper in college looking at the court records in Florence in the 15th century around magic, and the thing that's fascinating there is that the stuff that gets charged and convicted is the stuff that undermines society.

Young man and young woman of about the same social class and a love spell? Not a big deal. Woman using love spell on man to get him to leave his wife and take up entirely with her? Huge issue. (Because that destroyed the family unit.) And - it's been a while since that paper - but it was true in other ways. Magic to help your business was fine, magic to undermine someone else's business got punished heavily.

And that had the same issues with academic discussion versus popular understanding (Plus the fact that Italy at that point is a whole bunch of little city-states *barely* connected by something that might or might not be a common language, so you can't reliably extrapolate from one place to another and assume everything's the same. I leave the parallels to the Hellenic world to the reader.)
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Re: Magic In Ancient Greece
« Reply #12 on: June 27, 2013, 11:59:49 pm »
Quote from: Jenett;113976
It also, for general info purposes, continues into the Renaissance: I did a paper in college looking at the court records in Florence in the 15th century around magic, and the thing that's fascinating there is that the stuff that gets charged and convicted is the stuff that undermines society.

Young man and young woman of about the same social class and a love spell? Not a big deal. Woman using love spell on man to get him to leave his wife and take up entirely with her? Huge issue. (Because that destroyed the family unit.) And - it's been a while since that paper - but it was true in other ways. Magic to help your business was fine, magic to undermine someone else's business got punished heavily.

And that had the same issues with academic discussion versus popular understanding (Plus the fact that Italy at that point is a whole bunch of little city-states *barely* connected by something that might or might not be a common language, so you can't reliably extrapolate from one place to another and assume everything's the same. I leave the parallels to the Hellenic world to the reader.)

 
That's really interesting! It illustrates further the general principles of how concepts of magic tend to function within societies: the stuff that's most likely to be condemned is the stuff that plays upon/illustrates/highlights existing social tensions and anxieties, and how that's articulated within that culture's definition of what "magic" even is, and how it connects with concepts of authority and entitlement.

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Re: Magic In Ancient Greece
« Reply #13 on: June 28, 2013, 10:23:43 am »
Quote from: catja6;113961
Recon communities are, by and large, made up of people who are not professional academics, and who therefore rely on those scholarly texts which are easily accessible, which aren't always the texts that are the most important and useful for academics. That's not a problem in and of itself--academia=/=creating a religion, after all!--but it can lead to other issues.  First, they're not likely to be up on the latest research.

 
Completely eliding that 'not up on current understandings of history' is exactly how early neoPaganism came to have the Bad History issues that's one of the main things many reconstructionists strive so hard to distance themselves from. (Now, what was that about those who don't pay attention to history being doomed to repeat it?)

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Re: Magic In Ancient Greece
« Reply #14 on: June 28, 2013, 05:09:21 pm »
Quote from: SunflowerP;114028
Completely eliding that 'not up on current understandings of history' is exactly how early neoPaganism came to have the Bad History issues that's one of the main things many reconstructionists strive so hard to distance themselves from. (Now, what was that about those who don't pay attention to history being doomed to repeat it?)

Sunflower

 
What do you mean? Could you clarify what you said.

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