Traditions of Magic in Late Antiquity

Aggressive Magic

Of all issues connected with ancient magic, none has evoked more fascination, attraction, or revulsion than the image of the lone magician, closed in his or her room, manipulating voodoo dolls and chanting hymns of violence and destruction. From ancient literature to modern scholarship, this aspect of the magical praxis -- often labeled "Black Magic" -- has received more attention than any other type of magical activity, apparently because it is here that the practitioners' otherwise innocuous activities acquire a very sinister tone. For the ancient, practitioners themselves, however, the distinction between "protective" and "aggressive" magic seems to have made very little difference, as can be seen from the intermingling of both types of recipes in the extant recipe-books (cf. no. 1), and from the many similarities between both types of praxis.

Aggressive magic could take many different forms, the commonest one -- of those that were committed to writing -- being the lead tablets known in Greek as katadesmoi and in Latin as defixiones. These cursing and binding tablets seem to be a specifically Greek invention, known in Greece from the 5th century B.C. and spreading from there throughout the Mediterranean world. The earliest ones consist merely of the victim's name, scratched on a thin sheet of lead and thrown into graves, pits, or wells, thus handing the victim over to the care of the chthonian demons and the ghosts of the dead. As time went on, such tablets became more elaborate, with long texts and elaborate designs, and their preparation often entailed complex rituals, including the binding, piercing, or burning of wax, clay, or lead voodoo dolls, representing the spell's intended victim.

Defixiones appear in many different social contexts, from the disgruntled lover who wishes to coerce the object of his or her desire, to the chariot-races, theaters, courtrooms, and business transactions, where one participant would try to ensure his or her victory by "binding" or "fixing" a rival. Thus, such texts not only provide us with valuable information on ancient magical practices and beliefs, they also allow rare glimpses of the social tensions and everyday conflicts of ancient society.

While defixiones -- written on lead, a non-perishable material -- are common, they certainly were not the only form of cursing practiced in late antiquity, and examples are also known of curses being written on gems, papyri, wooden tablets, and Babylonian demon bowls (cf. above).

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Recipe-Books | Amulets and Gems | Babylonian Demon Bowls | Aggressive Magic
Introduction | Acknowledgements | Abbreviations | Further Reading