Magic in Ancient Greece

(This is a piece from around 2016 and previously posted on a now defunct blog.)

This post is meant to be a very brief introduction to the magical practices of early Greece. This is a huge subject, not easily covered by a single blog post. If you are interested in looking further into the history and general practices of magic in Greece please take a look at the further reading list provided at the end of the post. I will also be expanding on certain practices in future posts.

Magic in Ancient Greece
To understand what Greek magic might have looked like and comprised of, we first have to understand how the Greeks viewed magic. This is tricky. There is no single unifying definition of magic that can hold true for all Greek peoples living in all areas of Greece from between the Greek Bronze Age up to the Byzantine Empire. We also have the barrier of cultural and historical differences to consider; what the ancients saw as magical may be different to what we would define as magic.

It’s likely that early Greek religion and magic were entwined, and not considered separate practices. These included initiations into various mystery cults, necromancy, purification rites, private religious practices that were not part of any civic cults, and trance ecstasy. The historian Fritz Graf is of the view that these practices were hived off from socially acceptable religious practices due to two factors; philosophical musings about the nature of the divine, and the growth of natural science. On the side of philosophy this lead to a concept of deity as pure from all mortal imperfection and thus incorruptible, placing it at odds with those who sought to obtain divine favour. On the side of science, medicine was looking at the natural world as a closed system, without divine intervention, and as sickness to be attributed, and therefore cured, by physical means only. This caused an altered concept between the realm of the divine and the realm of men, and the practices utilised by religious specialists operating outside of the official city cults were now categorised as magic. The concept of magic at first differed from how we would define it, and was essentially a term for describing the difference between acceptable and unacceptable religious practices. We don’t know when or how the concept of magic was stripped of its association with mystery rites. Nor do we know when or how the concept of magic that was shared between a few philosophers and doctors became widely accepted. Certainly by Classical Greece, the 5th and 4th Centuries BCE, our definition of what constitutes magical practice, and that of the Greeks, was more or less the same.

Types of Magical Practices
Daniel Ogden in his book Magic, Witchcraft and Ghosts in the Greek and Roman Worlds suggests that the earliest form of Greek magician would have been shamanic in nature, goetes, a term that is likely derived from the verb goan, meaning to lament over the dead. A goes is a practitioner who detaches his or her soul from their body by a method of ecstatic trance, entreats the gods and spirits for help in curing the sick, calls animals to the hunt and goes into the Otherworld on voyages of discovery. Little written evidence for this kind of practice exists in later Greece, and these skills were possibly adopted into Mystery Cultus. Some other practices include epodos, singing incantations, especially healing charms over the sick, pharmakeia, the use of herbs, poisons, philtres and drugs, rhizotomia, rootwork, katadesmoi, curses and binding spells (and by the 4th Century BCE also erotic binding spells) and nekromanteia, consulting with the spirits of the dead. While these would have been specialist practices initially, it’s probable that they all became merged into the general heading of magic or sorcery later, and that practitioners employed several of these techniques in their work.

Elements of Greek Magic
From what texts and archaeological evidence that has survived there appear to be several elements that make up magical practices in Ancient Greece;

1) Appeal to a supernatural power. Surviving magical texts contain incantations that call upon the presence and blessing of a supernatural being, be it a God or a spirit. Some of these evocations threaten or command the entity, while others read more like devotional prayers.

2) Physical components. Spells and charms usually mention some kind of physical component to be working upon. For example PGM I. 262-347, an invocation to the god Apollon, calls for a sprig of laurel, a lamp, a special robe, an ebony staff, various resins and herbs to be burnt on coals, libations and other materials for the rite to work.

3) A spoken incantation. Most magical workings appear to require the practitioner speaks, or usually sings, an incantation to call up the supernatural powers and to work the sorcerer’s will. The practice of epodai is especially connected to singing and chanting, usually healing charms over a sick person.

A Note on Divination
Divination was not included in the general collection of practices that were considered magical and was an acceptable religious practice. Many ancient Greek peoples would have encountered some form of divination every few days, usually as part of a sacrifice. Divination determined the will of the gods and asked Their counsel through oracular speech, dream interpretation, reading of entrails, casting knucklebones, reading of bird flight patterns and other methods.

Further Reading

Magika Hiera: Ancient Greek Magic and Religion
By Christopher A. Faraone
ISBN: 978-0195111408

Greek Necromancy
By W. R. Halliday
ISBN: 978-1163022887

Ancient Greek Love Magic
By Christopher A. Faraone
ISBN: 978-0674006966

Ancient Greek Divination
By Sarah Isles Johnston
ISBN: 978-1405115728

Magic in the Ancient World
By Fritz Graf
ISBN: 978-0674541535

The Seer in Ancient Greece
By Michael Flower
ISBN: 978-0520259935

Curse Tablets and Binding Spells from the Ancient World
By John G. Gager
ISBN: 978-0195134827

Greek and Roman Necromancy
By Daniel Ogden
ISBN: 978-0691119687

Magic, Witchcraft and Ghosts in the Greek and Roman Worlds
By Daniel Ogden
ISBN: 978-0195385205

The Greek Magical Papyri in Translation: Including the Demotic Spells
By Hanz Dieter Betz
ISBN: 978-0226044477

Arcana Mundi: Magic and the Occult in Greek and Roman Worlds
By Georg Luck
ISBN: 978-0850305890

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