Traditions of Magic in Late Antiquity


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1. PMich 3, 154 (=inv. 7) = PGM LXX

3rd or 4th century A.D.

Text: ... name ... a favor charm, a charm to dissolve a spell, an amulet, and a victory charm: "aa emptôkom basum, protect me."

Charm of Hekate Ereschigal against fear of punishment: If she comes forth, let her say: "I am Ereschigal," holding her thumbs, and not even one evil can befall her. But if she comes close to you, hold your right heel and say: "Ereschigal, virgin, dog, serpent, wreath, key, herald's wand, golden is the sandal of the Lady of Tartaros," and you will prevail upon her.

"Askei kataski erôn oreôn iôr mega semnuêr bauï," (three times), "Phobantia, remember, I have been initiated, and I went down into the chamber of the Dactyls, and I saw the other things down below, virgin, dog," etc. Say it at the crossroads, and turn around and flee, because it is at those places that she appears. Say it late at night, about what you wish, and it will reveal it in your sleep; and if you are led away to death, say these things while scattering seeds of sesame, and it will save you.

"Phorba phorba breimô azziebua." Take bran of first quality and sandalwood and vinegar of the sharpest sort and mold cakes. And write his name upon them, and so hide them, saying into the light the name of Hekate, and "Take away his sleep from so-and-so," and he will be sleepless and worried.

Against fear and to dissolve spells: Say, ...

A fragment of a larger collection of Greek recipes, whose original scope cannot be determined (note the broken column on the right). The recipes are separated by short horizontal strokes -- known in Greek as "paragraphoi," whence our "paragraph" -- at the beginning (left) of the column. The first recipe is a short, all-purpose spell; the second offers protection against Hekate, a chthonian goddess who haunted crossroads and frightened passers-by; the third invokes Hekate's help for divination and against a death penalty (?!); the fourth invokes Hekate's help for aggressive purposes; the fifth is a counter-spell, to dissolve an enemy's spell against oneself. The whole collection is thematically organized around the figure of Hekate, here equated with the Babylonian goddess Ereschigal. Note the lack of distinction between "protective magic" -- recipes 1, 2, 3, and 5 -- and the "aggressive magic" of the fourth recipe. Clearly, Hekate's power was there to be used -- whether it was used to protect oneself or to hurt another made little difference to the spells' owner.

Embedded in the invocations are voces magicae, "magic words," (i. e., non-Greek words and names which were considered to possess great power). The origins of most voces magicae remain obscure, but in some cases they must have been no more than playful gibberish (i.e., the "phorba phorba" in the fourth spell, for which cf. no. 20), while other voces have been identified as Greek transliterations of Egyptian, Hebrew, and Aramaic words. Regardless of their individual origins, the fact that numerous such "words" reappear time and again, in sources of varied date and provenance, clearly demonstrates how such esoteric knowledge was passed from one practitioner to the next, and from one culture to another, to become an almost international "language" of ritual power. In the third spell, for example, we find the words "askei kataski," part of a longer formula, of unknown provenance, known in antiquity as "Ephesian letters," and found in numerous magical sources.

Bibliography: PMich; PGM; GMPT.

2. PMich inv. 534 = PGM LVII

1st or 2nd century A.D.

Text: .. [...] These are the words: "[Accomplish] for so-and-so all that I have written you [...], and I will leave [the ea]st and the west [where] they were established [formerly], and [I will preserve] the flesh of Typhon [always] and I will not break [the] bonds with which you bound Osi[ris], and I will not call those who have died a violent death but will leave them alone, and I will not pour out the cedar-oil, [but] will leave it alone, and I will save Ammon and not kill him, and I will [not?] scatter the limbs of Osiris, and I will hide you [from the] giants, ei ei ei ei [ei ei] ei ei choin [...]uth chennoneu aphouth anou aôth ei ei ei peooe ... ôb mannoz arannouth chal... aph koulix noê n... k bornath loubeine aouêr oueire itin lotol. Recite the secrets of the many-named goddess, Isis."

[The] compulsive spell in order to show you whether the thing was done: Burn cypress with the strip of papyrus and say: "[Isis?], holy maiden, give me a sign of the things that are going to happen, reveal your holy veil, shake your black [...] and move the constellation of the bear, holy [...]ê pnoun gmoêrmendoumba great-named ia[kô] phthoêri, thermoêr, phthaô, great-named iothê [...]thouêr bôb helix, great-named iakô." When you have said this and at the same time have opened your hands, [...] of your hand from your breast. For you will see a star [...] by necessity, at which you are to look [intently], as it flashes [a picture] while rushing [toward you], so that you become god-stricken. Wear the above picture [for protection]. [...], it is a [...] of Kronos who encourages you. After you have received this sign, rejoice at [your fortune] and say once: "chaithrai." For when you have said it, she will cooperate with you [in whatever] you pray for. And say these words immediately, [lest] there occur a removal of the stars and your lucky day: "Tha... [ou]sir phnouch mellanchiô kerdô melibeu... kasp... nebenthtrichgarn... ô thraô sau trais trais basum; immediately (twice), accomplish this, do it within this hour. Very glorious Pronoia, make the one who yesterday was [un]lovable beautiful [to all], make....

This fragment from a Greek recipe-book is written in a unique cryptic alphabet, probably intended to add to the spells' mystique and to prevent them from falling into the wrong hands. The preserved section contains a spell, and a ritual to verify its efficacy. Note how the practitioner threatens the god(s) and alludes to familiar events of Egyptian mythology, such as the scattering of the body of the good god Osiris by Seth, the god of chaos and destruction. Such language was considered normal in Egyptian religious utterances, which is one reason why non-Egyptians viewed Egypt as the land of magic par excellence.

Bibl.: A.S. Hunt, "A Greek Cryptogram," Proceedings of the British Academy 25 (1929), pp. 4-10; PGM; GMPT.

3. PMich 3, 156 (=inv. 1463) = PGM LXIX

2nd century A.D.

Text: "Phnounebeê (2 times), give me your strength, iô Abras[ax,] give me your strength, for I am Abrasax." Say it 7 times while holding your two thumbs.

This short Greek spell, written on a piece of scrap-papyrus, may have been copied out of a larger recipe book -- presumably, one practitioner was sharing spells with another, or providing a spell for a client in need. We do not know what exactly the spell was meant to achieve, and this information probably was transmitted orally. The spell invokes Abrasax, a deity who appears often in every sphere of ancient magic (see nos. 21, 40, etc.), and whose origins remain obscure.

Bibl.: PMich; PGM; GMPT.

4. PMich 3, 155 (=inv. 193) = PGM LXXI

2nd or 3rd century A.D.

Text: An amulet: Great heavenly one who turns the universe, the God who is, Iaô, Lord, ruler of all, ablanathalaabla, grant, grant me favor. I shall have the name of the great God in this amulet; and protect me from every evil thing, me whom NN bore, NN begot.

This individual Greek spell was to be written on an amulet (Gk. "phylaktêrion," whence our "phylactery"), and the client's identity would have been specified in place of the NN. It was an all-purpose amulet. Note the appeal to Iaô (probably pronounced Iaho), the Jewish God, as well as the (misspelled) "ablanathanalba" palindrome (a word which reads the same forwards and backwards), one of the commonest voces magicae in late antique magic -- see nos. 5, 7, and 40.

Bibl.: PMich; PGM; GMPT.

5. PMich inv. 593

4th to 7th century A.D.

Text: chararn larouth rourouth outh êthith chôchôô ...
(2 pages of voces magicae).

Pages 18 and 19 of a well-preserved, 20-page codex (i.e., booklet, not scroll), written in Coptic. This codex is one of several Coptic magical texts which came from one "workshop" and provide an interesting example of one text being copied and used by several different practitioners -- note, for example, the change on p. 19, line 3, with a different handwriting and different word-divisions. The text itself begins with a spell, including an invocation of God and of the seven archangels, after which the practitioner introduces himself as Seth, the son of Adam, and performs a purification ritual. Next comes a long list of instructions on the various ways to use the spell -- to cure reptile bites, recite it over some water and have him drink it; to relieve a headache, recite it over oil and anoint his temples; to treat insomnia, recite it over water and wash the area around the patient's bed; to cure impotence, recite it over wine and have the patient drink it; to protect a house, recite it over water and sprinkle it throughout the house; to protect a ship at sea, write it on a clean papyrus sheet and tie it to the tip of the mast; to help a woman whose milk does not flow, recite it over something sweet and let her eat it when she comes out of the bath; etc. Next comes a second spell, which begins with a prayer to God and quickly moves on to a long string of voces magicae, including the ones shown here, after which the spell, and the text as a whole, come to an end.

Although this is a Christian text, it incorporates many practices and motifs of pre-Christian magical traditions, such as the practitioner's self-presentation as someone else (in this case, Seth the son of the biblical Adam; cf. no. 3: "I am Abrasax"), as well as many of the older voces magicae, such as the mutilated "sesengenbarpharangês" formula (for which see no. 40) at the second and third lines of p. 19, or the misspelled "ablanathanalba" (cf. no. 4, etc.) at the end of p. 19 and the beginning of p. 20. All the voces magicae on these two pages contain none of those Coptic letters which find no parallel in the Greek alphabet, and must have been copied literatim from a Greek original.

Bibl.: Paul Mirecki, "The Coptic Wizard's Hoard," Harvard Theological Review 87 (1994), pp. 435-460.

Go on to Protective Magic 1: Amulets and Gems

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