To any confused students:
With my Professor Morgan's recent retirement, there may be some slightly confusing references to her in the lesson. I solely serve as the temporary steward for this course as I am well versed in many of its topics. In the meantime, you may see some of the references disappear in order to diminish the amount of work the new professor will need to do.
If interested and qualified, see the application for the position here:
Lesson 2) Introduction to Greco-Roman Magic
Professor Morgan opens the doors to the classroom with a flourish. She is dressed in a black toga with crimson and gold trim, and has a sparkle of mischief in her eyes. Her cat, Isis, glances up from his spot in the sun and watches the students file in and take their seats. He yawns, stretches, and settles back down to continue his nap.
Welcome students! I did mention something about togas in our previous lesson, and since I’m sure your other professors might strongly question why you were running about the castle in bed sheets, I decided to do the dressing up for you.
Everyone ready? Let’s get on with today’s discussion.
The Greeks and the Romans
Now, I am certain that many of you are wondering why I have decided to combine the ancient Greeks and the Romans together into one topic. Indeed, they are two distinct groups with their own histories, however, when it comes to magic, they are more easily studied together.
The reason for this ease of study lies almost completely in the Roman camp, as the Romans had a tendency to absorb deities, beliefs, and traditions into their culture and practices. Given their comparatively early conquest of the Greeks, the parallels between the two cultures are so tight as to be almost inseparable. For example, the Greek god Zeus is equated to the Roman god Jupiter. All of their stories are interchangeable, as you will learn at some point during Mythology class, if you have chosen to take it as one of your electives. The Romans adopted these other religions and beliefs simply to avoid offending any of the gods that resided or ruled over the lands that they conquered.
As you can see, the Romans - intentionally - blended ancient Greek culture and practice into their empire. So much so that the two simply cannot be unbound when examining their history. It is to that history that we now turn!
Greek Magic Before the Romans
Where are my magic charms? Wreathe the bowl with fine crimson wool so that I may bind a spell upon my love, who treats me so badly… Tomorrow I will go to Timagetus’ wrestling school to see him, and will reproach him for treating me so; but now I will bind him with fire spells… Hail, grim Hecate, and to the end attend me, and make these drugs of mine as potent as those of Circe or Medea or golden-haired Perimede.
- Idyll 2 by Theocritus. Hellenistic Poem
The ancient Greek civilization did exist for many, many years before they were conquered by the Romans. The period of time that we are most likely to think of as the “height” of the Greek civilization would be between the years of approximately 500 and 146 BCE, which encompass the Classical and Hellenistic periods of ancient Greece.
To the Greeks, magic was a power that some people possessed. It was not, as was quite a popular belief in contemporary cultures outside of Greece, the same thing as the supernatural power that a deity would be considered to have. In fact, in their religious beliefs, they thought that every place, object, or process could have its own spirit (or god), and that these spirits had very little to do with the magic they themselves practiced. These gods were limitless and most were nameless. In this aspect the Greeks were in fact one of the first civilizations to intentionally separate magic from religion.
The ancient Greeks practiced several forms of magic, such as herbology, transfiguration, potions, divination, and charms. They were also some of the first and greatest astronomers. Remember our discussion on the city of Alexandria and its inhabitants last year? While the city is in modern-day Egypt, its founder, Alexander the Great, was one of the greatest Greek leaders - if not one of the world’s greatest - of all time. Alexandria was originally a Greek city.
Many of history’s greatest witches and wizards lived and worked in ancient Greece - but we will learn a bit more about them in our next lesson.
As no doubt you have surmised, the great Greek Empire ended officially with its defeat at the Battle of Corinth in 146 BCE, after which Greece and its territories became part of the ever-expanding Roman Empire.
The Romans themselves emerged as a civilization in approximately 753 BCE, with the Republic of Rome being founded in 509 BCE. The Roman Empire lasted as a whole until 410 CE when Rome was sacked and the western half of the Empire dissolved, once again separating the Greek and Roman peoples, and bringing us much closer to modern history.
During the height of the Roman Empire, however, the vast influence of the Greek people cannot be underestimated. As has already been mentioned, the Greek and Roman pantheons were almost direct reflections of each other.
And what about the Greeks and their magic? It is thought that the Greek understanding of magic actually tempered some of the Roman superstition and religion, as much of Roman experimentation with real magic at that time was limited solely to healing with herbology. I must emphasize real magic at this point, as it seems that early Rome was rife with men and women who fraudulently sold charms and potions that promised to win legal cases, hobble opponents horses in chariot races, and other such malicious and vindictive fallacies.
Why is it that the Romans believed in these dime-a-dozen charlatans? That is a very good question. Up until the influence of other cultures, Roman beliefs were based on superstition - that is they were based on fear. The Roman people would do anything to spare themselves and their loved ones from death, illness, suffering, poverty, slander, and more. Their fear-based society was an easy target for charlatans.
What the Greeks then introduced to Roman civilization was an already fairly advanced system of magic users who influenced Roman religion and superstition, as well as actually started to help the Roman people with their magical knowledge in healing, etc.
Magical Practice in Greco-Roman Times
Magic in Everyday Use
The Greco-Roman people used magic - whether by performing the work themselves or purchasing the services from a witch or wizard - mostly for self-protection and self-assertion, that is to protect themselves and make themselves “better” in terms of societal position, riches, etc.
Witches and wizards, for the most part, intermingled freely with the Muggles in the community. Magic was accepted, if somewhat hidden behind parlour tricks and false promises of charlatans (but more on that later). It was widely used by private individuals, not specifically by any ruling parties, etc. As you may recall from your first year in History of Magic, over time, magical use was less accepted as the influence of Christianity spread throughout the Empire until it was ultimately banned.
There were, of course, exceptions to the acceptance of magic in even the earlier Greco-Roman years. Necromancy, and any other form of Dark magic, while occasionally practised, was illegal under Roman law. The penalties for being convicted of using necromancy or Dark magic were quite severe - banishment was considered a mercy.
Magic use covered many traditional aspects, including significant work in charms (and curses), divination, and medicine/healing. Let’s take a closer look at each of these aspects:
The world of charms, more specifically charmed objects, in Greco-Roman times was rather foggy as it is one area where the line between superstition and religion was often blurred, and adding magic to the mix created a rather significant amount of confusion and opportunities for people to be swindled. Many people purchased items in the hopes that they would protect them, for example, but their purchases were nothing more than bits of rock and paper.
Much of the actual magic performed during this period focussed on things that could be purchased in a spell shop; charms, amulets, curse tablets (more on those in a future class!), and herbs. The charms mostly came in the form of rings or pendants with magical inscriptions and symbols cut into them. The purpose of these charms was mostly to protect against evil or to bring good luck to the wearer.
A typical charm worn by a person would be contained within a small bag on a string. The contents of the bag would include magic formulas, words, and anagrams. Not surprisingly, most of these “charms” were completely fake. At best, one of the words or symbols inscribed on the contents would actually be a charmed object that would have some affect on the bearer.
A second type of charm was a ring or other piece of jewellry engraved with the image of a god or goddess. It was thought that wearing the image of these gods and goddesses would help protect, strengthen, or increase the luck of the bearer. For example, Hercules (aka Heracles) was quite often referred to as the “Averter of Evil”. Wearing his image - perhaps on a ring - would help the bearer avoid any evil curses or tricks.
Some charms were meant to protect not a person, but a possession. It was quite common to find amulets attached to buildings to protect them and bring good luck to the inhabitants or to the business inside.
Unsurprisingly, not all charms were directed towards a positive or beneficial end. Curses were a fact of life in Greco-Roman times, and were used much more frequently than you may at first suspect. Curses were quite often used for revenge against an enemy or to protect a grave against violation (something that the Greco-Romans picked up from their ancient Egyptian neighbours). Curses were spoken at times, but more often were written on papyrus, lead tablets, - also known as curse tablets, which we will discuss in a future class - and engraved on or contained in amulets.
The most organized of magical practitioners in Greco-Roman times - even before the two cultures merged - were the diviners: the seers and their followers. This particular practice of magic was much more intertwined with the gods and religion than any other practice. Within the priesthood of diviners, the practitioners were divided up into three categories: the augures, the haruspex, and the fulgurators.
The augures, that is those priests who practiced auspicium were officially authorized to read and interpret signs from the gods - and the only ones who were allowed to do so. This form of divination did not focus on divining future events so much as finding out if a specific choice or course of action had divine approval.
Similar, if not identical to other ancient civilizations, the haruspex practiced haruspicy with the intent of interpreting the will of the gods - that is, divining what choice the gods wanted them to make. While similar to the intent of auspicium, haruspicy focussed on figuring out what to do, whereas auspicium focussed on finding out if the choice that had already been made was approved by the gods.
Lastly, the fulgurators focussed on interpreting the will of the gods through the interpretation of lightning. That is, they examined both the frequency of lightning flashes as well as the region of the sky in which it appeared. This branch of divination is not one practiced widely around the globe, and its merit is up for debate, however it is not a surprising practice to have developed in this culture as the head of the Greco-Roman pantheon was Zeus (aka Jupiter). He controlled the sky, and used a thunderbolt to punish his enemies. As such it is not surprising that the Greco-Romans believed that lightning was a way in which the gods communicated their desires to humans.
The practice of medicine during this point in history in Europe followed a three-tiered approach, wherein each civilization of the time practiced one or more of these forms. The first and most common tier was prayers and magic - keeping in mind that the common people (namely Muggles) did not make a large distinction between magic and religion at that time.
The second tier (surgery) and third tier (herbology) were not quite as common, but evidence of these practices is found throughout ancient Europe in various concentrations. The Greeks led the ancient world in these two areas, especially in terms of surgical knowledge and use, whereas the Romans practiced more in the first tier of prayers and magic.
When these two cultures merged, the scientific aspect of medicine continued to advance rapidly. For example, surgery became even more advanced during that time, as there was a higher focus on science as opposed to magic.
The Romans did, however, have a strong influence on the development of healing practices, and as such the magic use blended together with the scientific method, creating a practice of medicine that was not unlike how the ancient Egyptians treated their patients.
And that concludes our brief foray into the magic of the Greco-Roman people. We will discuss several of the most famous witches and wizards of this culture during our next class. Lesson Four will then cover some of the more interesting pieces of magic used during that time, including more information on curse tablets, duelling arenas, and the use of what we call “voodoo dolls”.
Today you will have a short essay and a quiz to complete. Please remember to take your time, and be sure to contact either me or one of the PAs for this class if you have any questions.
Auspicium: Divination by omens, especially by the observation of birds.
Haruspicy: Divination by examining the entrails of animals.
Adkins, Lesley, Roy Adkins. Handbook to Life in Ancient Greece. 1997. Facts On File, Inc. New York.
Adkins, Lesley, Roy Adkins. Handbook to Life in Ancient Rome. 1994. Facts On File, Inc. New York.
Cartledge, Paul. Editor. Cambridge Illustrated History of Ancient Greece. Cambridge University Press, U.K.
De Haas, Ingrid. Roman Magic: Control in an Uncertain World. Retrieved online from The Ultimate History Projecthttp://www.ultimatehistoryproject.com/roman-magic-amulets-bullae-lunulae.html
Hammond, Nicolas G. L. Editor. Atlas of the Greek and Roman World in Antiquity. 1981. Noyes Press, New Jersey.
The Role of Women in the Art of Ancient Greece: Magic in Ancient Greece. Retrieved online from: http://www.rwaag.org/magic