Ancient Near East

The stereotype of official state religion in stark contrast (if not open opposition) to popular religion and magic is not applicable to ancient Mesopotamia. Instead, there was a symbiosis between the official “religious” cult (šangūtu), designed to cater to the needs and wants of the divine world, and “magical” practices, designed to benefit individual human beings (āšipūtu). The official cult was meant to benefit the community as a whole and involved both passive and active public participation on festival days but did not extend to life-cycle rites, which were not matters of public performance. The official priestly establishment kept the divinity localized in his shrine or temple and generally in a good mood, allowing the great gods of the pantheon to serve as enforcers for legitimate private magical rites. Private rites served a wide variety of human needs, including healing from illness; avoiding misfortune; having success in business, love, and in courts of law; and resolving quarrels. The temple also provided expertise in the form of staff for the performance of private rites. Paid experts were available whenever needed, at minimal cost.

Hittite culture was similar but with a much larger pantheon (the “thousand gods of Hatti”), encompassing the religious and magical traditions not only of the Hittites themselves but also of Hattians, Luwians, and Hurrians. Both Hattians and Luwians seem to have relied on female magical experts. These women were highly respected by the Hittites and received employment even in the palace itself. Many of their names are recorded as the authors or transmitters of rituals.

Ancient Mesopotamian magical practices were, for the most part, ungendered. Magical rituals used to assist plant medicines in the healing of illness and disease were administered in or near the patient’s house by āšipus (physicians/magical experts) associated with the temples of major gods of the pantheon. Exclusively for the benefit of women were rituals to protect expectant mothers from the baleful attentions of a fever notorious for causing miscarriages and killing young children. This fever was laid at the door of a demoness named Lamaštu, an ancestress of the Jewish Lilith, who did her evil not out of any malice or ill will but because she was herself a frustrated mother. Too ugly and unloved to ever be able to have children of her own, she stole other women’s babies and attempted to suckle them with her poisonous milk. As with other diseases, magical and medical treatments were used together against Lamaštu.

Popular superstition was much concerned with lucky and unlucky days and with ill-omened events drawn from daily life. To help, the āšipu constructed hemerologies with recommendations for specific rituals to be performed and activities or foods that needed to be avoided on particular days. These seem generally to have served as much or more as an explanation for misfortune than as a guide for behavior.

Ill omens could be averted by ritual practices of the type known as NAM.BÚR.BIs. For example, one NAM.BÚR.BI ritual warded off the ill consequences of a man having had sex with a goat. The resulting bad luck was transferred from the goat to a beer merchant who was supposed to suffer a resulting decline in profits. A ritual in the āšipu’s arsenal to protect a house invaded by a katarru fungus (parallel to the biblical ritual for “leprosy” in houses—Lev 14.3–57) refers to household gods. The Mesopotamian assignment of divinities to specific parts of the house often reverses normal gender roles. While the Romans assigned the hearth, where the woman of the house spent much of her time, to a goddess (Vesta) and the doorposts, used by the man of the house to go about into the world, to a god (Janus), in Mesopotamia, the house itself and its grounds were under the protection of the goddess Gula. The hearth was the purview of Išum, a god, invoked to save the master of the household from harm. The grain storerooms, where the woman of the house kept her supplies, was overseen by the Pleiades, seven gods who were appeased to save the son and heir. Conversely, the doorposts were under the protection of Ištar, a goddess, who was understood to save the mistress of the household from harm.

On a more intimate scale, the libations poured at mealtimes benefited personal gods and goddesses, of which both men and women had one each. If these divinities became angry, ritual intervention could be initiated by the āšipu, who made up amulets and administered salves to control the stress of angina.

Women expected to give birth were attended exclusively by other women; with one exception, men were banned from the birth room in ancient Mesopotamia. In complicated births, a male doctor might assist in delivering the baby and/or saving the mother’s life. The latter was the priority of ancient physicians, and they did not hesitate to administer abortifacients to ensure it. As evidenced in recitations designed to magically aid in difficult births, the soon-to-be mother was imagined as “creating” the baby and endowing it with a soul brought by her during labor from the “quay of death” to the “quay of life” using the umbilical cord as a mooring rope. A Middle Assyrian recitation compares her to a hero on the field of battle, and a very old recitation still in use in Neo-Assyrian times enlisted the help of the moon god (the divine patron of childbirth presumably by virtue of the ten lunar months of a normal pregnancy). This includes what is apparently a popular myth in which the moon god fell in love with a particularly well-endowed (“richly adorned with adornments”) cow and subsequently had to intervene to ensure that the humanoid child that resulted was born safely.

In the Hurrian version of this myth (“The Sun God, the Cow, and the Fisherman”), the sun god became enamored of a sexy cow; the cow gave birth without a difficulty but was displeased by the two-legged offspring, a problem solved by giving the child to a childless fisherman. The fisherman promptly went home with his new son and instructed his wife to lie down on a bed and scream so that the neighbors would be fooled into thinking she had recently given birth and consequently would bring presents of bread and beer.

If all went well, the professional Mesopotamian midwife (šabsūtu) covered her head and girded her loins. Then, reciting blessings with a beaming, joyful face, she drew a circle of flour on which she laid an unbaked brick in commemoration of the first delivery of seven boys and seven girls from a giant oven/womb by the goddess Bēlet-ilī. Combining the information given in ancient Mesopotamian texts with similar customs observed in modern Iran, it is possible to reconstruct the birth-brick ritual. The baby was delivered onto the brick, followed by the afterbirth. Afterbirth and brick were left in the birth chamber for seven to nine days, and then both were buried (or otherwise disposed of) together by the midwife, thus giving the afterbirth a sort of baby analogue to keep it from molesting the real baby who had left it behind. The midwife was also responsible for cutting the umbilical cord with a knife or a sliver of cut reed and cleaning up both mother and baby. Cleaning the amniotic fluid out the baby’s nose and mouth was a mini-ritual with its own recitation. The baby was also turned upside down and smacked.

Childbirth was supervised by a variety of holy women who performed the essential magical rites of birth, which no man, apart from an attending doctor, was allowed to witness. Most prominent among these was the qadištu (biblical qadeshah) who acted as a sort of magical midwife’s assistant and arranged for wet-nursing. Forbidden from having children of her own by virtue of her dedication to a god, she cared for other women’s children—the good version of Lamaštu (who is often called a qadištu in recitations). Financially independent, she belonged to a class of “women without men” who, in many societies, are frequently charged with life-cycle rites. Of particular interest in this regard is another holy woman, the ištarītu, whose job it was to prevent her goddess (Ištar) playing tricks on humans. According to the Šarrat-Nippuri hymn, the goddess had the power to “turn men into women” or vice versa; the ištarītu-woman prevented this gender switch by handing the newborn child toys appropriate to his/her gender—a weapon for a boy and a spindle and kirissu (or crucible) for a girl. (In Akkadian, “crucible” is used as a synonym for “womb”.)

A variety of magical practices accompany weddings in all cultures. Hittite wedding jars were covered with figural representations depicting the wedding celebrations, the unveiling of the bride, and a curious magical rite consisting of a comical enactment of the wedding night by two male dancers—one of whom is dressed as a woman. The latter rite was designed to ensure that the groom was able to deflower the bride, a particularly pointed form of performance anxiety.

At Emar, the wedding of the entu priestess to the storm god outlines the basics of the local wedding ceremony, including the Emariot equivalent of throwing the bride’s garter to a bridesmaid to ensure her speedy marriage. The washbasin in which the bride’s sister washed her feet on her wedding night had a silver ring slipped into it, which she was allowed to keep as a good luck token for her future nuptials. Wedding rings were worn by women in Mesopotamia, allegedly in honor of Enkidu’s preventing Gilgamesh from exercising the right of the first night with Urukean brides. From Mesopotamia also come what may be wedding songs in the form of Ištar-Dumuzi poems. This type of literature is designed to enable young girls to safely make the transition from virgin girl to mother of a family and to magically ensure that the participants in an arranged marriage will end up delighted with one another.

In case harmony did not ensue, the Hittites could turn to a ritual authored by Maštigga, an “old woman” of Kizzuwatna. This directed a full-fledged magical attack on the tongues and hands of a quarreling duo, who could be father and son, husband and wife, or sister and brother, living or dead. In the course of the ritual, the quarrel was sucked off into fish, variously colored thread, wax, dough, and sunflowers. Figurines of tongues and hands were broken and thrown into the fire and pots were smashed, a universal folk magical rite designed to prevent the return of an unwelcome visitor. The couple was also encouraged to spit into the mouth of a variety of animals, which were then offered to the sun god. A white sheep was “lifted” over the couple and then killed and buried in a pit along with bread and wine. A black sheep was then “waved” over the couple and offered as a holocaust in a specially built hearth. As in Israel, the carcass of the holocaust sheep was dismembered and completely burnt, accompanied by offerings of oil, bread, and wine. In distinction to Israel, however, honey was included, and the bread was leavened. The addition of a piglet and a puppy to the buried “wave” offerings was also not kosher. To prevent escape, the Hittite “old woman” pegged these offerings into the earth with copper pegs. As at Yom Kippur in Israel, there was also a live sheep, which was designated as a scapegoat and consecrated to the sun god along with offerings of cheese, bread, and wine. This sheep was taken away with her by the “old woman” when she left, along with the rich garments worn by the participants. Most curiously, the “old woman” set up huwaši stones, the Hittite equivalent of bethel or masseboth, and the quarrelers were instructed to kick them over. Finally, the participants’ wash water was sealed into a bull’s horn that was to be opened only “when the ancient kings return to examine the land and customs.”

The Mesopotamian āšipu also had rituals meant to be performed by a wife to calm a husband’s anger. She had only to touch the mortal wound of a sheep with a magnet in the right hand and an iron boat in the left while reciting a prayer to Ištar. A man who found himself unable to perform sexually with his wife could choose from a variety of rituals to supplement medicines (including horse urine). In one ritual, the wife rubbed a salve on her husband’s penis and her own vulva and recited sexually explicit poetry to her husband. Prayers were addressed to Ištar, with the occasional inclusion of Šazu, a manifestation of Marduk and presumably the functional equivalent of the Greek god Ares, the Seducer.

Women played a key role in funerals. In ancient Mesopotamia, a dying person was moved to a special deathbed and the soul was released from the body by the recitation of a ritual formula. The body was then washed, anointed with perfumed oil, and dressed for the wake. During this period, the dead was considered still present and was wailed over, praised, and fed with offerings left on a special chair lit by a lamp that served to contain the soul. Finally, the body, accompanied by its lamp, was carried to the grave site, which was often conveniently located in a family tomb under the floor of the house. Grave goods consisting of personal items were left with the corpse as the first installment of a series of funerary offerings provided by the family. Offerings consisted of bread, water, hot soup, and, if the family could afford it, ribs, and were accompanied by a simple ritual involving the invocation of the name of the deceased and the pouring out of a libation. Ghosts were among the potential causers of illness and were placated with special magical rituals designed around their wants and needs.

Ancient Mesopotamian kings had longer mourning periods and more splendid grave goods and funerary offerings than ordinary mortals, but otherwise the rituals were more or less the same. Among the Hittites, since the king and queen actually became gods after death, a special supplementary ritual had to be performed. This took a full fourteen days and involved cremation of the body. As with the funerals described in Homer, the pyre was extinguished with wine and the bones gathered up by the women. They took them up with silver tongs and dipped them into oil in silver vessels and finally wrapped them in cloth. At this point the “old woman” emancipated the dead king’s soul from the body through means of a ritual, and the bones were then moved to a stone house, where they remained. Meanwhile the soul of the deceased took up residence in a statue that was transported in a seating chariot and seated on the silver throne (for a king) or gold bench (for a queen) to receive several days’ worth of offerings, part of which were imagined as a shared banquet with the sun goddess of the earth, the sun goddess of heaven, and the grandmothers and grandfathers (his ancestors). The dead king also received the livers and hearts of sacrificed animals in order to calm his anger and was magically sent by the “old woman” vast numbers of sheep and oxen, horses and mules, grapevines, and fruit trees full of birds. Finally, he was honored with a wish: “May thy kingdom be eternal down all generations!” All of this was accompanied by lamentations performed by mourning women accompanied by Ištar’s balag instrument.

Women may have been prominently involved in the composition and performance of Mesopotamian funeral laments. Surviving texts include a heartfelt Neo-Assyrian lament in which a wife who died in childbirth speaks with her own voice to converse with the living:

"On the day I bore fruit, how happy I was! I was happy; happy my husband. On the day of my labor pains, my face was overcast; on the day I gave birth, my eyes were clouded. With my hands opened (in supplication), I prayed to Bēlet-ilī (saying): “You are the mother of those who give birth, save my life!” (But) when Bēlet-ilī heard me, she veiled her face (saying): “…Why do you keep praying to me?”…[In] those days (when) I was with my husband, (when) I lived with him who was my lover, death slunk stealthily into my bedroom. He made me leave my house; he separated me from my husband (and) set my feet to a land from which I will never return."

In ancient Mesopotamia, men were not forbidden to weep and beat their breasts, but more extreme mourning practices such as tearing out hair and clawing faces were only considered appropriate for women.

Another job of the āšipu was regulating magical practices considered borderline or illegal.

One class of quasi-legitimate magic was designed to help people get through legal troubles and to protect those appointed to high office by the king from slander. Although women could sue in court and men were well-known for their talents at slander, the texts envisage a masculine performer warding off sorcerous attack by a male opponent at law and/or magically incapacitating a female slanderer. Given the context, the female slanderer was likely to be the man’s opponent in a court of law or that opponent’s wife. In other words, it was men rather than women who were more typically suspected of using mechanical sorcery to harm other men.

Although either sex might practice sorcery, there were types of witchcraft only directed by women against other women. One type inflicted venereal disease on the victim. Another was designed to cause other women to have miscarriages or, conversely, to be bound fast so that the baby could not emerge. More violent sorcery was contemplated among the Hittites. A Luwio-Hittite birth ritual invokes the storm god to roar to the rescue of a mother and newborn under attack by a sorceress who has “brought the moon down from the sky” to produce hemorrhage and death, first of the mother and then of the child.




  • Abusch, Tzvi, and Daniel Schwemer. Corpus of Mesopotamian Anti-Witchcraft Rituals. Ancient Magic and Divination 8/1. Leiden, The Netherlands: Brill, 2011.
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  • Miller, Jared L. Studies in the Origins, Development, and Interpretation of the Kizzuwatna Rituals. Studien zu den Boğazköy-Texten 46. Wiesbaden, Germany: Harrassowitz, 2004.
  • Scurlock, Jo-Ann. “Baby-Snatching Demons, Restless Souls, and the Dangers of Childbirth: Medico-Magical Means of Dealing with Some of the Perils of Motherhood in Ancient Mesopotamia.” Incognita 2 (1991): 135–183.
  • Scurlock, Jo-Ann. “Death and the Afterlife in Mesopotamian Thought.” In Civilizations of the Ancient Near East, edited by Jack M. Sasson, pp. 1886–1993. New York: Scribner, 1995.
  • Scurlock, Jo-Ann. “Soul Emplacements in Ancient Mesopotamian Funerary Rituals.” In Magic and Divination in the Ancient World, edited by Leda Ciraolo and Jonathan Seidel, pp. 1–6. Leiden, The Netherlands: Brill, 2002.
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  • Scurlock, Jo-Ann. “The Interplay of ‘Magic,’ ‘Religion,’ and ‘Science’ in Ancient Mesopotamian Medicine.” In A Companion to the Ancient Near East, edited by Daniel C. Snell, 302–315. Malden, Mass.: Blackwell, 2005.
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Jo-Ann Scurlock

Hebrew Bible

The place and function of women in ancient Israelite religion has been summed up by J. B. Segal as follows: “Women took no part in formal religious ceremonial in Israel; but in Israel, as elsewhere in the ancient world, they were supposed to have close relations with the realm of magic” (Segal, 1976, p. 6). This statement associates magic, rather than “traditional” religious practices, with women’s popular religion. The association of women, popular religion, and magic is unfortunate and was later reevaluated. Feminist interpretation, noting a symbolic worldview controlled by patriarchal voices and shaped by male experiences, challenges the assumption that women’s religious experiences can be subsumed under that of men. When we glimpse ancient Israelite women’s religious practices, they are more often than not assessed negatively and viewed as outside “the norm.” Phyllis Bird’s view that “women’s practice cannot simply be identified with magic or mediums or local cults because it transgresses their boundaries” (Bird, 1976, p. 103) is a plea to reconfigure the place of women’s religious life and bring it from the margins to a more central position in ancient Israelite religion (p. 98).

General Overview of Gendered Dynamics of Popular Religion and Magic: Methodological Issues.

Although there is textual evidence of the explicit participation of women in religious events (e.g., Lev 2:1, 5:1–2; Deut 16:11–14; 1 Sam 1:3–4), the capacity in which they were involved and the manner of their participation has not been fully recorded. In order to present a full picture one must tackle a number of methodological issues.

“Popular” versus “official” religion.

The concept of “popular” religion has often been defined in terms of exclusion, that is, in contrast to “official” religion (Ackerman, 1992, p. 1; Zevit, 2003, p. 124; Albertz, 2008, p. 91). This negative definition has its origins in the polemic between Roman Catholic authorities and other forms of religions in medieval times (Zevit, 2003, p. 129) and carries with it notions of dominance. While there is no consensus as to what the definition, sources, nature, and terminology might be (Gomes, 2003, p. 32), it is becoming clear that the concept of “popular” religion needs to be reevaluated along more fluid lines. A more sociologically complex model based either on a three-tier system of national, tribal, and household/family piety (Albertz, 2008, p. 89) or a “nested” system (Zevit, 2003, p. 231) seems to be emerging. Francesca Stavrakopoulou calls for abandoning the traditional categories for a distinction between what is portrayed in the Bible and “the likely religious realities” of ancient life in Israel and Judah (Stavrakopoulou, 2010, p. 50).

“Foreign” versus “native” religious forms.

This dichotomy also needs reassessment. Popular religion and magic are pitted against one another in the Hebrew Bible, with “magic” being seen as part of Canaanite practices. Both a critical assessment of the Bible and recourse to archaeology show that there is continuity between the two (Jeffers, 2007).

“Public” versus “private.”

The distinction between public and private spheres is rooted in eighteenth-century Western life and may not be useful when dealing with an ancient Near Eastern environment (Meyers, 2003, p. 434). One of the difficulties encountered by theoreticians of popular religion is that the boundaries between the use of “private” and “public” space are often blurred. Space is used by individuals and groups of both sexes. If we understand the household to be the main economic unit in ancient Israel, assessing the religious practices of its members as they interact throughout the seasons is a complex task. Distinguishing them along gender lines is also fraught with difficulties.

Time and space.

Time and space also have to be taken into consideration. It is no longer satisfactory to say that there was a clear cutting point between the establishment of a normative, national Yahwism/monotheism and the heterodoxy, religious diversity, and pluralism that existed before (Edelman, 1995, p. 19). This has implications for women’s religious practices: there may be stronger arguments for the continuity of women’s involvement and leadership in religious life across historical periods. Apart from women’s religious participation in rituals determined by the yearly seasons, there are rituals connected to the important phases in a woman’s life. Space is also important insofar as religious practices are influenced by their occurring in the northern or southern kingdoms, urban or rural space, or in household compounds or other locations, such as the high places.

“Religion” and “magic.”

Approaches to the differentiation between religion and magic have shifted, from a clear demarcation and opposition between the two concepts (often following an evolutionary model that assigns “primitive” to magic and a more “evolved” form to “religion” proper) to a more nuanced model that highlights the ideological nature of the distinction (Jeffers, 2007). The collapse of this distinction between magic and religion has powerful implications for women: it takes seriously the polemic nature of the Hebrew Bible, which condemns a range of diverse religious practices often labeled “magic” to distinguish them from the religious practices of a powerful male elite minority. As Carol Meyers observes, “Magic should be acknowledged as a valuable and important aspect of religious life. If women are particularly implicated in the use of practice that is deemed magic, then their practices must be understood as religious in nature and must be accordingly recognized and evaluated” (Meyers, 2005 p. 22). A reassessment of texts associating women with magic is essential to placing women at the center of religious life rather than in its margins.

Patriarchal bias.

Finally, any methodological endeavor will have to take into account the patriarchal culture in which women’s religious functions are embedded, as well as centuries of patriarchal interpretation. While patriarchal ideology is a serious impediment to a full recovery of women’s practices, a number of attempts have been made using textual data from the Hebrew Bible (Bird, 1991; Meyers, 2001; Ackerman, 2003). Any reconstruction needs to acknowledge the “muted” nature of women’s religious experiences (van Dijk-Hemmes, 1993, p. 27): the final form of the Hebrew Bible is the product of a dominant male voice, expressing a patriarchal worldview, driven by the Yahwist-alone movement whose aim is to establish an exclusive monotheism (Edelman, 1995; Smith, 2002). So when a number of texts record the presence of the people in the religious sphere, these may include women. The androcentric nature of the Hebrew language, which uses masculine pronouns when both males and females are concerned, complicates the issue. If we take a “maximalist” approach, however, the presence of women is assumed and the picture we get of women’s participation in “mainstream” religion is more rounded than previously believed. The lack of reference to women’s participation suggests that women’s religious experiences may have been ignored (intentionally or not), distorted, or forgotten.

These problems of language and power have been studied by anthropologists who developed models of women’s culture. The idea of a “muted culture” of women, with its double discourse of “dominant” and “muted,” is a useful tool for uncovering women’s religious culture (van Dijk-Hemmes, 1993, pp. 26–27). Although the task seems daunting, feminist scholarship suggests that we can get a glimpse of the religious practices of women. If we take seriously the collapse of dichotomies sketched above, and listen to the “double voice” behind women’s narratives, their participation becomes manifest throughout social classes, “official” or “popular” cultic participation, and “public” and “private” spheres of religious activities. Archaeological and iconographic finds, as well as the use of comparative material, contribute to a fuller picture of women’s religion.

Key Documents/Sources for Information.

Along with the Hebrew Bible, archaeology has brought to light findings relevant to women’s magico-religious life.

The Hebrew Bible.

The material can be classified under a number of headings. First there are laws forbidding magical practices. Prohibitions can be found explicitly referring to women (Exod 22:17; Isa 57:3), to men and women (Lev 19:31; 20:6, 27), and to men but most likely inclusive of women (Deut 18:9–14). There are similar prohibitions in the narratives composed by Deuteronomistic historians in the context of Josiah’s reform (2 Kgs 23:24). In the prophetic corpus, a number of texts denounce magico-religious practices among women. Some examples can be found in Isaiah 8:3, 57:3; Jeremiah 7:18; 44:15–19, 25; and Ezekiel 8:14, 13:17–23. The only other narrative describing divinatory practices is that of the woman of Endor in 1 Samuel 28:3–25.

If we take a maximalist view of religion and magic, that is, a view that takes an inclusive view of women’s acting in the religious sphere, such texts as Genesis 31:19–35 (the case of Rachel’s theft of the tĕrāpîm), Exodus 4:24–26 (Zipporah’s apotropaic ritual of circumcision), and 1 Samuel 1—2 (Hannah’s participation in yearly festivals, independent praying, and vow making) need to be considered. Further texts relating to the magico-religious involvement of women may be classified into narratives relating to (in)fertility (Gen 30:14–15; 1 Sam 1; Prov 31:2), birth and health care (Gen 35:17, 38:28; Ezek 13:17–23), naming (Gen 29:32–34, 30:6), blessing (1 Sam 2:1–10; Judg 17:2; Ruth 4:14–15), menarche (Judg 11:34–40), cursing (Judg 17:2), death and mourning (Ezek 8:14), and special occasions in times of crisis (Exod 4:24–26; 1 Sam 28:4–25). Women are seen “inquiring” (Gen 25:22), praying (1 Sam 1:10–12, 26–27; Ps 131), having a religious experience (Gen 16:7; Judg 13:7), or leading worship songs of thanksgiving in times of military victory (Exod 15:20–21).

Other women playing magico-cultic roles may include Micah’s unnamed mother, who is associated with the ephod and tĕrāpîm, both used as mode of inquiry of the divine, in her son’s household (Judg 17:2–4). In the Temple the role of the qĕdēša may need to be reassessed (Deut 23:17; Hos 4:14), as well as that of weavers for Asherah (2 Kgs 23:7) and women serving “at the entrance” of a sanctuary (Exod 38:8; 1 Sam 2:22). In political life, queen mothers (1 Kgs 15:13; 2 Chr 15:16), a female judge (Judg 4:4–5), and prophetesses (Exod 15:20; Judg 4:4; 2 Kgs 22:14; 2 Chr 34:22; Isa 8:3; Ezra 13:17; Neh 6:14) appear. These texts tell a “double voiced” story about the magico-religious life of women: all hint at specific functions, often hidden beneath intentional or unintentional patriarchal ideology.

Archaeological data.

Archaeological data are of various kinds. Inscriptions yielded by the sites of Kuntillet Ajrud in the eastern Sinai Peninsula and Kirbet el-Qom in the southwest of Jerusalem (Dever, 2005) are putting the goddess Asherah at the center of religious life. Small terracotta pillar figurines often representing women holding their breasts, found throughout ancient Israel and Judah in both urban and rural contexts, also bear witness to women’s religious life. Numerous amulets have been found in many places; they were understood to have apotropaic powers (Albertz, 2008, p. 101). Finally, other archaeological findings have brought to light anepigraphic evidence (Dever and Gitin, 2003, p. 282) in the form of portable altars, incense burners, and lamps. The interpretation of this data is often difficult; but when combined with textual data, it fills in the complex picture of women’s magico-religious life.

Pertinent Ancient Vocabulary.

We take the maximalist view that many words used in connection to specific magical activities may include women (see Deut 18:9–11). However, it is noteworthy that the only feminine form of a word designating a woman magician (NRSV “sorceress”) in Hebrew is mӗkaššӗpâ (Exod 22:17). Because of the ideological distortion of the text concerning these women, it is difficult to know exactly what their religious functions were. However, they may have assumed a cultic role as religious intermediary. Their explicit condemnation in Exodus must mark a shift in their status, meaning their function is redundant; power now rests with the monotheists.

Others, “medium and wizards,” can be either male or female (Lev 20:27). These words are also used in 1 Samuel 28:4–25, the story of the baălāt-ôb, literally, the mistress of a spirit, which can best be translated as “the voice of the ancestors” (Jeffers, 2013; see also Leviticus 19:31; 20:6, 27 where the same words are used). The seekers of the dead (dōrēš el-hammētîm) belong to the same category. In Isaiah 57:3, ʿōnĕnāh also translated as “sorceress,” is closer to the function of oracle giver (Jeffers, 1996, p. 81), possibly pointing to a cultic role.

A term associated with prophecy, nĕbîʾāh (“prophetess”) occurs only six times in the Hebrew Bible. The most interesting figures in this context are the prophesying women of Ezekiel 13:17. The actions described in this passage may be a distortion of midwives’ apotropaic healthcare (Meyers, 2001, p. 34).

Another woman closely associated with the Temple is the qĕdēša (Deut 23:17; Hos 4:13–14), usually translated as “temple prostitute” but best understood as a cultic professional. Gĕbîrâ or “queen mother” seems to have cultic duties (see below). Hăkāmôt are “skilled women” or wise women (Jer 9:17).

The wide range of vocabulary used to designate female religious intermediaries suggests a complex network of practitioners, possibly organized in guilds whose roles have been downgraded by new power structures introduced by Josiah’s reforms.

Religious Practices Not Sanctioned by Canonical Writers Illustrating “Women’s Religion.”

There is a great variety of expressions of “women’s religion” in all areas of women’s lives, from birth to death. A number of topics may be highlighted.


The association of women with tĕrāpîm is shown in the stories of Rachel (Gen 31:19–34) and Michal (1 Sam 19:13). Karel van der Toorn’s suggestion that they are “ancestor figurines” (van der Toorn, 1996, p. 206) has gained scholarly consensus. While their function is variously associated with divination (Ezek 21:21; Zech 10:2) and ancestral worship (or a combination of the two, as in the story of Micah and his mother’s sanctuary in Judges 17—18), the mode of consultation might include consultation of dead ancestors (van der Toorn, 1996, p. 215). Their presence in the bedchamber makes their consultation accessible to the women of the house (Ackerman, 2008, p. 132).


A classic case of distortion and mutedness is found in the numerous references to Asherah/asherah (either as goddess or cultic object). Athirat is a well-known goddess from the Ugaritic pantheon, El’s consort and mother of the gods. She has roles as a fertility goddess and wet-nurse and is often represented by a tree. Her identification with Asherah is undisputed (Day, 2000, p. 42). The goddess’s presence is well-attested in the Bible, both positively (the asherah stood in the temple at Bethel [2 Kgs 23:15], Samaria [1 Kgs 16:33], and “on every high hill and under every green tree” [1 Kgs 14:23, 2 Kgs 17:10]; vessels were used for making offerings to Asherah’s statue [2 Kgs 23:7]; women wove vestments for Asherah’s statue [2 Kgs 23:7]) and negatively (associated with foreign practices [Judg 6:25–26, 28, 30] and apostasy [Exod 34:13; Deut 7:5, 12:3]).

The office of the queen mother provides another example of the importance of Asherah’s cult in Israel. While Jezebel is the only queen mother in the North associated with Asherah (1 Kgs 18:19), the office appears more often in the South. In the story told in 1 King 15:13, Maacah, mother of Asa, was removed from her position because she made an abominable image of Asherah. Ackerman suggests that Asherah’s position in the Canaanite pantheon makes her a fitting symbol for women’s lives (Ackerman, 2003, p. 460).

Archaeological discoveries underpin the importance of Asherah’s cult. The evidence is threefold. Firstly, plaques found in Kuntillet Ajrud and Khirbet el-Qom show a close association between Yahweh and “His” Asherah (a relationship equivalent to that of El and Asherah, his consort in the West Semitic pantheon). Secondly, hundreds of pillar figurines, mostly of women, have been uncovered in urban and in rural households. These may be connected with Asherah’s cult (Ackerman, 2003, p. 463). Thirdly, iconography attests the wide use of stylized trees (Keel and Uehlinger, 1998, p. 219). Clearly, worship of female deities or female representations of a deity does not necessarily imply an exclusively female following. However, the large-breasted figurines might point to a cultic function for women related to fertility and lactation (Bloch-Smith, 1992, p. 219).

Asherah’s cult gives us insight into the continuity of cultic practices in the West Semitic world and provides us with an example of distortion and “whitewashing” (Edelman, 1995, p. 18). It is present in both “official” and “popular” settings, and its condemnation attests to the continuity of the cult throughout much of the Iron Age. It also gives credence to the theory of women’s mutedness by tracing how the magico-religious practices of women became muted. By recovering women’s beliefs in life-giving powers, beliefs that are scarcely recorded in the Hebrew Bible, we may catch a trace of women’s “double voice.”

Queen of Heaven.

The consensus on the identification of the Queen of Heaven points to a syncretistic goddess with astral and fertility features from the Mesopotamian goddess Ishtar and the Ugaritic Astarte (Day, 2000, p. 148; Ackerman, 2008, p. 142). Its popularity among women is attested in Jeremiah 7:16–20 and 44:15–19, 25. The polemic tenor of the text must not blind us to the ritual actions performed by the whole family under the leadership of women. While Jeremiah 7:16–20 focuses on three main parts of the ritual, namely, making cakes, pouring out libations, and burning incense to the Queen of Heaven, the apotropaic nature of the ritual is articulated in Jeremiah 44. These rituals give expression to survival strategies for the women’s families and the land they inhabit.

As food production is connected with the activities of women in the household, it serves several functions, from the feeding of the family to ritual purposes, such as feeding the ancestors. The continuity between food production as mainly controlled by women and ritual is also illustrated by archaeological findings such as “cult corners” in rooms at Megiddo (Ackerman, 2008, pp. 142, 144).

Women weeping for Tammuz.

The reference in Ezekiel 8:14 to women “weeping for Tammuz” is set in the context of Ezekiel’s visionary denunciations of the people’s behavior. It is the third of four “abominations” taking place in or near the Temple in Jerusalem (Ezek 4–11). The reference to “weeping for Tammuz” harks back to an Eastern Semitic myth celebrating the cycle of death and renewal of nature’s fertility. As Kathryn Pfisterer Darr observes, this ritual “must be seen in context of rites practiced for millennia throughout the Ancient Near East as part of women’s religious observances related to childbirth and fertility” (Darr, 2000, p. 335).

Ancestor worship.

There is little doubt that rituals associated with the dead were familiar to ancient Israelites. Erecting burial stones (Gen 28:22, 35:20; 2 Sam 18:18), consulting the dead (Deut 18:11; 1 Sam 28:4–25; Isa 8:19, 29:4), feeding them (Gen 28:17–18, 22; Gen 31:53–54; Deut 26:14; Isa 57:8), and lamenting them (1 Kgs 13:20; Jer 22:18; Lev 19:28) were all common practices in ancient Israel. They are also attested by archaeological remains (Bloch-Smith, 1992, pp. 213–219). Van der Toorn’s suggestion that the cult of the dead should be seen as a part of ancestral religion practiced in the family (van der Toorn, 1996, p. 233) needs to be extended to the wider community (Bloch-Smith, 1992, p. 222). Mourning and lamenting the dead is also an important way in which women participate in religious life as professionals (2 Sam 14:2; Jer 9:17) or as part of yearly rituals (Ezek 8:14).

The ancestral dead were also consulted, most famously in the story of the woman of Endor in 1 Samuel 28:4–25. While acknowledging necromancy, the final editors of the Hebrew Bible present it as part of forbidden practices. Women are not included in monotheism’s new leadership, and consulting the deity is now only permitted through prophetic channels (Jeffers, 2013).

Finally, it is noteworthy that archaeology’s discovery of bench tombs, food remains, and pillar figurines in tombs (Bloch-Smith, 1992, p. 218) seems to give credence to a wide and continuous practice.

Making vows.

Vow making is another example of magico-religious action by women. While it is part of officially sanctioned religion (all women can make vows: Num 6:2–21, 30:3–15), it is striking that in the cases of Hannah (1 Sam 1:11), Lemuel’s mother (Prov 31:2), and the women worshipping the Queen of Heaven (Jer 44:25), the aim of the vow is to remedy women’s fertility. This practice collapses the distinction between “public” and “private,” “official” and “popular,” “magic” and “religion.” While we do not have many examples of the mechanism of vow making, it pertains to the magico-religious sphere. It expresses a desire to communicate with the divine and to avail oneself of the bountiful forces of life. While there may not be an automatic connection between vow making and fertility, making vows in order to bear children was probably a practice prevalent among seemingly infertile women in Israel.


The emerging picture of the religious/magical participation of women in ancient Israelite society is more complex than previously thought. As scholarship revises and reassesses its methodological presuppositions, taking into account the forgotten and the distorted, we can recover a female presence in these texts. Future research will need to work beyond Western dichotomies and adopt a more fluid model that takes seriously internal religious pluralisms.




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Ann Jeffers

Greek World

The fifth-century B.C.E. historian Thucydides begins to close Pericles’s funerary oration for the Athenian war dead with the sentence, “The greatest honour of a woman is to be least discussed amongst men, whether for praise or blame” (History of the Peloponnesian War 2.45.2). Silent and unnoticed, with little to no legal or political rights and utterly dependent on male relatives: these are the markers of an ancient Greek—or at least Athenian—woman. Furthermore, if we turn to the fourth-century B.C.E. philosophers Xenophon and Aristotle, we hear how women and men are biologically different: Xenophon tells us how the different sexes were created according to their functions, women for a life indoors spent rearing children and men for a life outdoors spent protecting the household, city, and state (Oeconomicus 7.22–28), whereas Aristotle talks of women—and boys—as unformed men whose physical states reflect their inability to produce semen (On the Generation of Animals I.728a). Indeed, for Aristotle it is these physical differences that explain typical gender characteristics: the female of the species is passive, emotional, and a departure from the norm, whereas the male of the species is active, rational, and normal. These views see a world that is genderized, genderized according to space (women/feminine: inside; men/masculine: outside), according to activity (women/feminine: rearing children; men/masculine: protection of the state), and according to psychology (women/feminine: emotional; men/masculine: self-controlled).

There was, however, one realm in which these gendered cultural norms are said to be disrupted: that of popular religion and magic. As Plato tells us in his fourth-century B.C.E. philosophical treatise Laws, women were especially active in traditional religious activity (909e–910a). Through dedicatory practices, acting as priestesses and their role in ritual, ancient Greek women appeared to transcend gendered spheres of activity so as to be vocal and present in the traditionally male public realm. However, “appear” is the critical term. This entry will indicate how although male and female norms were seemingly disrupted through religious and magical activity, these so-called disruptions operated within the traditional ancient constructs of masculinity and femininity.

Religion, Genderization, and Gender Norms.

First, however, we must acknowledge that the genderization of space, activity, and psychology so ubiquitous to Greek society was indeed reflected and reinforced through Greek religious activity. We only need think, for the genderization of space, of the Classical Athenian wedding rites. These rites see, inter alia, the unveiling of the bride and the procession from the bridal home to that of the groom’s, or more particularly, to the groom’s hearth, the center of the home. It is this movement from natal to marital hearth, a movement ritually effected by male relatives, that marks the marriage and the movement of the bride from her father’s protection to that of her husband’s. Thus, through ritual movement and control, we are reminded of the feminine space—the inner hearth—and a masculine motion between spaces.

For the genderization of spheres of activity, we need only consider rituals for the young. Let us take as examples the Arrephoria and Brauronia rituals. The former sees select young girls serving the goddess Athena on the Athenian Acropolis for a year during their prepubescence. Debate rages as to the symbolic purposes of the central Arrephoria rite, which comprises a ritual descent and testing (see Parker, 2005, pp. 221–223); however, what can be agreed upon is that these young girls commence the annual weaving of the goddess’s peplos. In the Brauronia we see young girls chosen to “play the bear” at the sanctuary of Artemis at Brauron in Attica, during which time they partake in premarriage activities while ritually enacting, and experiencing, a taming of feminine wildness (Parker, 2005, pp. 228–248). Hence, through ritual activity, young girls are immersed within, allocated to, and prepared for normative feminine spheres of activity (weaving, serving the house, and being a wife). Similarly, many of the rituals for young boys focus on their introduction and training into the normative male spheres of political and warrior activity. Consider the Apatouria, which included the ritual introduction of boys into their respective phratries (hereditary and social groups central to Athenian citizenship), or the Ephebia, which combined military and political training with religious observances. Not just for preparing young Athenians for their adult lives, these rituals, in the separation of genders and the corollary ritual enactment of gender identity, continually re-created and reinforced a genderization of activity and, ultimately, of ancient Greek society itself.

Of course, not all rituals were separated according to gender. However, when genders do intermix, they often do so according to this genderization of society. This can best be seen in the ubiquitous ritual activity of sacrifice. Ancient Greek sacrifice was the mode by which communication between mortals and nonmortals was opened; hence, it was central to Greek religious life. Both genders partook of sacrificial activity, although they often adopted different roles within this communal activity. The central sacrificial act—when presupposing normative animal sacrifice—of the killing of the sacrifice was traditionally performed by men (although there are exceptions: Connelly, 2007, pp. 182–184; Dillon, 2002, pp. 245–246). The role of women was to carry the basket in which the sacrificial accoutrements were placed, to prepare sacrificial offerings, and to raise the ololyge, the sacrificial cry. This cry, like the funerary lament that is also traditionally placed in the mouths of women, is particularly feminine in its supposed emotionality. That is, because of its central characteristic of lacking emotional control, it belongs to the feminine realm of emotion as opposed to the masculine realm of self-control (Clay, 2009). Hence, in sacrifice different genders perform different roles according with Greek preconceptions of masculine and feminine spheres of activity.

Religion and the Disruption of Gender Norms.

It is, nevertheless, commonplace to note that it is through religious activity that women can physically and metaphorically transcend their normative modes of being and activity. By conducting their duties as priestesses, women are seen as active rather than passive, and by participation in dedicatory practices and communal rituals, women operate in the public, rather than the private, realm. However, when we examine these practices more closely we still find a genderization of activity.

Consider the role of priestesses in the ancient world. While acting as priestesses, citizen women were seen publicly through their roles in sacrifice and other acts. However, such women were still under the control of their male guardians and were still portrayed in a feminine manner. Dillon (2002, pp. 80–83) has explored representations of priests and priestesses on gravestones. He shows how priestesses were often depicted carrying keys or holding cult images, whereas priests were shown holding sacrificial knives: priestesses were associated with caring for the house and its occupants, in contrast to priests, who were associated with the central act of ritual communication. Consider also the act of dedication. Although we do see instances of women—often priestesses—dedicating temples and altars, it is more common to see dedications of smaller, domestic items such as spindles, clothing, mirrors, and other typically feminine gifts (Dillon, 2002, pp. 9–25). Furthermore, when we find dedications of larger items, like the famous korai (large, stylized female statues, approximately 10 percent of which were dedicated by women), attendant inscriptions betray the commonality of identifying female dedicators through male relatives. Take as an example the seventh-century B.C.E. dedication by Nikandre of Naxos now housed in the National Archaeological Museum at Athens (NM 1). The inscription on this kore reads, “Nikandre dedicated me to the far-shooter of arrows, excellent daughter of Deinodikes of Naxos, sister of Deinomenes, wife of Phraxos n(ow?).”

Hence, although public and so transcending one aspect of gender norms, the roles of priestess and dedicator still operated within ancient Greek gendered spheres of activity and gendered identities. The same can be said for the two key rituals in ancient Athens that are often used as examples for the disruption of gender norms: the Adonia and the Thesmophoria.

The Adonia was celebrated by all classes of women. It comprised a lamenting for the god Adonis and the growing of temporary gardens in his honor on the roofs of private houses. Often satirized for the loudness of its celebrations and for the spectacle it created, it was a time when women were seen in an ecstasy of grief. Note, however, the activities of lamenting and emotional grieving—activities that are attributed in the ancient Greek world to the feminine realm. Note also the location of the activities: as Morgan (2007, p. 300) argues, the roof remains within the boundary of the house. Therefore, although visible and audible, and therefore public, this disruption of the gender norm of “women: inside/passive” is still bounded physically in a normative feminine space and symbolically in normative feminine emotionality.

The Thesmophoria can similarly be seen as a disruption that takes place within bounded norms. This women-only festival consisted of a three-day celebration of the goddess Demeter Thesmophoros centering on the myth of Demeter’s mourning for the loss of her daughter, Kore. This festival saw the movement of citizen women outside of their homes to a public space that, at this time, excluded men. We should note, however, the purpose of this rite, which was to promote fertility, human and agricultural, and to reinforce the community of citizen women (Morgan, 2007, pp. 304–305; Parker, 2005, pp. 275–283). We should also note the relationship between Demeter’s epithet in this rite (Thesmophoros: Law-bringer) and its activities. Faraone (2011) has shown that the Thesmophoria provided a forum through which its female participants could raise accusations of injustice—traditionally the remit of men—both orally and then later through the use of curses/prayers for justice. This method of seeking justice was, however, peculiarly nonnormative. This is reflected in the fact that the day for such accusations of injustice coincided with the closing of the normal, male-dominated, courts. Hence, the Thesmophoria too sees a bounding of the disruption of gender norms through its concentration first on the traditional feminine realm of fertility and second through the highlighting of the nonnormative nature of its adaptation of the masculine realm of legal justice.

Therefore, although ancient Greek gender norms may appear to be transcended by female religious activity, we can see how this activity still operates within a genderization of society: priestesses are identified according to gender attributes, dedicatory practices reveal gendered spheres of activity and male control of female public life, and when ritual activities do push gender boundaries they do so while—paradoxically—remaining within, and reinforcing, the boundaries themselves. Significantly, when women are seen to break into a traditionally male sphere of activity—obtaining justice—they do so through curse tablets (thin metal tablets on which binding spells are inscribed). This use of the accoutrements of ancient Greek magic by women again reinforces gender stereotypes.

Magic, Gender Stereotypes, and Reality.

Before discussing ancient Greek magic in detail, it should be stressed that the separation between religion and magic is artificial. Magic is an aspect of Greek religion, rather than separate to it, in that it is formed out of the same religious beliefs and practices as that of nonmagical ritual activity. Magic itself is said to have come into force as a concept in the fifth century B.C.E. as a paradigm of alterity; that is, it became a category of religion that was supposedly practiced by “others”: nonmales, non-Greeks, noncitizens (Dickie, 2001, pp. 18–46; Stratton, 2007, pp. 39–70). This is best illustrated on the Athenian tragic stage. Here we find Deianeira, the wife of Heracles, accidentally killing her husband with what she thought was a love potion in Sophocles’s mid-fifth-century B.C.E. production of the Trachiniae. Or we hear, in Euripides’s Hippolytus of 428 B.C.E., how it is women who create incantations and words that charm (ll. 478–481). Or we are confronted with effeminate oriental magic-workers in the form of Dionysos in Euripides’s Bacchae of 405 B.C.E. or the nameless Persian necromancers of Aeschylus’s Persae of 472 B.C.E.

Further, we cannot deny that this is reflected somewhat in the nonliterary evidence. We find, for example, in a speech of Demosthenes against Aristogeiton of approximately 330 B.C.E. the mention of Theoris, who is named as a witch and who passed on drugs and incantations to her maid. Indeed, the presence of such women is reflected in a fictional legal speech by Antiphon in the late fifth century B.C.E. In this, we hear how, like Deianeira, the concubine of one Philoneos is tricked into killing her lover with what she believes is a love spell. However, the picture portrayed by literature—of the dominance of female and non-Greek magic-workers—cannot hold up to scrutiny. Many men too used magic (Dillon, 2002, pp. 46–76) and it is these that we find criticized by our ancient Greek philosophers and physicians. Consider Plato’s censure in his fourth-century B.C.E. Republic of itinerant beggar priests (male) who claim a power over the gods by charms and bindings or Hippocrates’s attacks, in the Classical On the Sacred Disease, on magic-workers and beggar priests who use purifications and incantations in the supposed healing of epilepsy. Indeed, as Gager (1992) has shown in his exploration of ancient curse tablets and binding spells, the physical remnants of magic reveal little gender (or ethnic) disjunction in its use. Hence, whereas Greek literature uses magic as a form of alterity and so others its practices onto marginalized figures, the practical use of magic, like the practical uses of religion, is for all.

We cannot ignore, however, the language used in relation to magic-workers. Female magic-workers tend to be called (in the plural) pharmakeutriae and pharmakides, whereas male magic-workers tend to be called (again in the plural) epaoidoi, goetes, and magoi. Although there is occasional overlap in these categorizations (Dillon, 2002, p. 12), the gender differentiation is significant enough to be called commonplace. Pharmakeutriae and pharmakides derive from the Greek noun pharmakos. This noun can be translated either as drugs or as spells, suggesting a drug/potion/herbal nature to the spells used by female magic-workers. Epaoidoi and goetes, however, stem from singing (epoide: song; goetes: wailer). Here then, at the linguistic level, we can see a gender disjunction between female magic-workers who are associated with nature and the passive application of spells (cf. the often secretive nature of potion/drug use) and male magic-workers whose magic is associated with their own strength of voice and the active application of spells (they wield the magic power in their own bodies). “Magoi” does not fit in this gendered language because it is based instead in an ethnic othering, derived as it is from the Persian magos (priest).

Gender, Love Magic, and Genderization.

Such differentiation is also seen in the stereotypical allocation of female magic-workers to love magic. This can be detected in our examples above: Deianeira and Philoneos’s concubine attempt love spells and Euripides in his Hippolytus is talking predominantly about love spells. This stereotype is best seen in the third-century B.C.E. idyll by the poet Theocritus (Idyll 2). This poem depicts a girl named Simaetha conducting a love spell aimed at Delphis, her neglectful lover. While calling upon the goddesses Artemis and Hecate, Simaetha attempts to draw Delphis back to her side. This is a powerful poem that shows a female lover attempting to gain dominance (physical and mental) over her male beloved. Such a love spell seems to contradict others that we hear of in the ancient world, which portray a male agent attempting physical and mental dominance over a female victim. These can be found in the Greek Magical Papyri (PGM), a collection of spell books dating from the fourth century B.C.E. to the fifth century C.E., and the corollary curse tablets.

Love spells and other spells concerning matters of the heart form a significant bulk of the PGM and curse tablets (1/4 curse tablets: Gager [1992, p. 78]; approximately 27 percent of the PGM). Faraone (2002) divides these into eros spells—violent spells used mainly by men to instill passion in women—and philia spells—gentle spells used mainly by women to instill affection in men. This differentiation suggests a genderization of love magic whereby violent active spells are masculine and mostly performed by men, whereas gentle, less active spells are feminine and performed by women or men in subservient roles.

However, the key word here is “mostly.” Although the violent eros spells are mostly orientated toward male agents and female victims (83 percent; Faraone, 1999, p. 43), many are orientated elsewhere. Gager (1992, p. 80) highlights eight PGM spells and six tablets that contain alternative relationships: women in pursuit of women, men in pursuit of men, and women in pursuit of men. In actuality, we can go further in arguing that many of the so-called eros spells found in the PGM can be orientated to both a male and a female agent.

Our first inkling of this can be found in the fact that those spells and tablets that do suppose different gender relationships use the same language as the male-agent/female-victim spells. Consider the late oval-shape lead tablet from Hermoupolis Magna in Egypt (Brooten, 1996, pp. 81–90), which talks of inflaming the heart, liver, and spirit of one Gorgonia (female), of binding her and forcing her to “surrender like a slave” to a certain Sophia (female). Or consider PGM XVI.1–75, which talks of inflaming the heart and sucking out the blood of one Sarapion (male) so that he feels love, passion, and pain for a certain Dioskorous (female). These can be compared to the male-agent/female-victim type such as is found in PGM XIXa.1–54, which talks of inflaming one Karosa (female) and of causing her to yearn for Apalos (male), or PGM IV.1496–1595, which talks of inflaming the bodily organs and spirit of NN (female) and of sucking out her blood until she comes to NN (male). The similarity between these spells suggests that the users of the PGM are adapting the same spells no matter their gender or sexual orientation.

Furthermore, we must remember that many of the male-agent/female-victim type are generalized. Rather than being geared toward named individuals, they use pronouns that can be adapted for each user. See, for example, PGM VII.467–477, which demands “bring me NN (female) who NN bore.” Although these spells use the masculine pronoun for the agent and the feminine for the victim, they do not assume the same gender differentiation in their practical application. This can be best witnessed through PGM XXXVI.69–101. This spell begins by claiming that “it attracts men to women and women to men” and yet the spell proper talks only of inflaming “the soul, the heart of her, NN, whom NN bore.” This confusion between the gender of pronouns and the actual gender of users is not unique to the PGM. Consider the so-called Orphic Gold Tablets that were found in tombs scattered throughout the ancient world. These tablets detailed the deceased’s journey through the underworld and guided them to a better afterlife. Let us take as an example the earliest extant tablet (ca. 400 B.C.E.), which was found in the grave of a woman in Hipponion in Southern Italy. This tablet talks not of its female user but instead uses the masculine pronoun when it tells the user to claim “I (masculine) am parched with thirst.”

Why then is the feminine pronoun so ubiquitously used to designate the victim in the PGM’s nameless love spells? Here we must turn to language. The physical binding of the intended victims, the inflaming of their spirit and organs, and the metaphorical aligning of them to the status of slaves cannot but suggest a language of dominance and submission. Such a language is underlined in some of the rituals that accompany the spells that call for the piercing of poppets as a representation of the binding of the victims (e.g., PGM IV.296–246). Gager (1992, p. 81) suggests that this piercing is not indicative of intended harming but rather is therapeutic for the spell-doer. Brooten (1996, pp. 97–102) assumes instead that this piercing, and the accompanying slavery imagery, should be taken literally: the spells are expected to physically affect the victims and so effect the dominance of the agents. Brooten’s argument gains credence when we turn to PGM CXXIV, which details a charm to inflict illness. This charm involves creating a poppet and piercing its eyes: the piercing is clearly supposed to result in the harming of the victim. One might argue, then, that the gendered language of the spells can be explained not by recourse to the intended gender of the user but rather by recourse to the genderization of society noted at the beginning of this entry that aligns the masculine to dominance and action and the feminine to submission and passivity.

Therefore, just as in Greek religion, we find that ancient Greek magic provides a forum within which men and women can operate outside their normative gender roles while, at the same time, ensuring operation within the traditional ancient constructs of masculine and feminine activity. It is in this way that popular religion and magic in the ancient Greek world can be said to both reflect and reinforce gender constructs and genderizations of society while allowing for a transcendence of gender norms.

Where Next?

Of course, this entry has comprised quite a general overview of what is a hugely complex and broadly temporal, geographical, and cultural topic. We have been led by the extant evidence, which forces a focus on Classical Athens and Greco-Roman Egypt. Explorations of different cultures and times within ancient Greece would likely throw some interesting nuances on the tale. Much good work has been conducted in this area—especially in relation to Sparta—and these can be explored through the bibliography below.




  • Betz, Hans Dieter. The Greek Magical Papyrii in Translation: Including the Demotic Spells: Texts. Vol. 1. Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1986.
  • Brooten, Bernadette J. Love between Women: Early Christian Responses to Female Homoeroticism. Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1996.
  • Burkert, Walter. Greek Religion: Archaic and Classical. Cambridge, Mass.: Harvard University Press, 1985.
  • Clay, Christina A. “To Kneel or Not to Kneel: Gendered Nonverbal Behavior in Greek Ritual.” In Women, Gender and Religion, edited by Susan Calef and Ronald A. Simkins, pp. 6–20. Omaha, Neb.: Kripke Center, 2009.
  • Connelly, Joan Breton. Portrait of a Priestess: Women and Ritual in Ancient Greece. Princeton, N.J.: Princeton University Press, 2007.
  • Dickie, Matthew W. Magic and Magicians in the Greco-Roman World. London: Routledge, 2001.
  • Dillon, Matthew. Girls and Women in Classical Greek Religion. London: Routledge, 2002.
  • Faraone, Christopher A. “Agents and Victims: Constructions of Gender and Desire in Ancient Greek Love Magic.” In The Sleep of Reason: Erotic Experience and Sexual Ethics in Ancient Greece and Rome, edited by Martha C. Nussbaum and Juha Sihvola, pp. 400–426. Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2002.
  • Faraone, Christopher A. “Curses, Crime Detection and Conflict Resolution at the Festival of Demeter Thesmophoros.” Journal of Hellenic Studies 131 (2011): 25–44.
  • Gager, John G. Curse Tablets and Binding Spells from the Ancient World. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1992.
  • Morgan, Janett. “Women, Religion, and the Home.” In A Companion to Greek Religion, edited by Daniel Ogden, pp. 297–311. Malden, Mass., and Oxford: Blackwell, 2007.
  • Ogden, Daniel. Magic, Witchcraft and Ghosts in the Greek and Roman Worlds. A Sourcebook. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2002.
  • Parker, Robert. Polytheism and Society in Ancient Athens. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2005.
  • Stratton, Kimberly B. Naming the Witch: Magic, Ideology and Stereotype in the Ancient World. New York: Columbia University Press, 2007.

Pauline Hanesworth

Roman World

The term “popular religion” generally refers to the religious activities of ordinary people, especially those rituals, beliefs, and behaviors that are unsanctioned by religious authorities. The term popular religion as applied to the Roman world fits only imperfectly. It can be misleading, in that Roman religion was not generally “sanctioned.” Those holding religious offices were not responsible for, and neither dictated nor authorized, the religious activities of ordinary people. Popular religion in the Roman world can be better understood, therefore, as “religion on the ground”—rites, actions, and beliefs that could be either traditional (i.e., passed down from generation to generation) or improvised to suit a particular situation. The forum for these rites, actions, or beliefs might be public (as in pilgrimages or the public celebration of festivals) or private (as in domestic or household religion). These sacred rites of individuals, the so-called sacra privata, were considered a fundamental, lawful, and crucial Roman right and responsibility (Cicero, On the Laws 2.22).

Popular religion has often been subjected to a two-tier system of evaluation, denigrated or dismissed as the unschooled, misdirected, superstitious activities of common people; hence the negative connotations of the associated term “folk religion.” As such, popular religion has also been perceived as alternately quaint or threatening, charming or dangerously unauthorized and misguided. However, it should be emphasized that in the Roman world, informal or quotidian religious acts (or even beliefs) were not necessarily different for people of different social classes. Public religion was, for the most part during the first and second centuries C.E., driven by the demands and traditions of the Roman state; that is, it was primarily civic in nature. Although formal religious offices were restricted, in the main, to the elites (and almost exclusively to elite men), those of lower social status were not free to define the contours of their own religious experience but actively participated in public, civic ritual. These religious behaviors were frequently set out on public noticeboards (the fasti) and although “popular” on the one hand—in that they were the rites and practices “of the people”—they were also carefully controlled by Roman elites (Cicero, On the Laws 2.19). Whether it was the celebration of a local festival, the propitiation of a specific deity, or a pilgrimage to a sacred site, these forms of popular devotion tended to cross social hierarchies. The term “popular religion” here, therefore, is not meant to be synonymous with erroneous and outdated concepts such as the “religion of the masses.”

“Magic” is no less problematic a term than popular religion. It too invites misconceptions and negative connotations, which are often unwarranted and which cannot be sustained from the ancient evidence. The term itself derives from the ancient Greek mageia or magos (Sophocles, Oedipus Rex 387–389; On the Sacred Disease, 2; Aeschylus, Persians, 317); the term goës (“sorcerer”), always pejorative, also appears in Greek literature of the Roman period. We find magos already as a term of abuse as early as Athenian sources from the 420s B.C.E. Common to modern understandings of the term is that magic tends to be driven by individual action, seeks to manipulate powers or deities, can be improvised, and is generally unauthorized by established religious structures of power. Magic is “illicit” where religion—even popular religion—is licit. In the Roman world, however, magic and religion were never juxtaposed. Magic, at least in contemporary parlance, also often connotes the manipulation of forces and powers for malevolent purposes and ends; a prime case (and one well attested in Roman literary sources) is necromancy, the reanimation of corpses or their use for purposes of divining knowledge, or so-called aggressive magic such as curses and abjurations.

Contemporary scholarship recognizes the problematic and arbitrary use of the term “magic” to classify forms of social behavior that defy easy categorization. The subjectivity of such classification is evident when we consider behaviors often linked to magic, such as prayer, exorcism, healing, or medicine, which carry no such negative connotations. What Romans termed magic (specifically the practice of magic) was associated with liminal places, including thresholds, crossroads, or cemeteries—all places where, in the literature, we find mention of witches (Lat. striga). Noteworthy is the connection between Roman magic, a set of liminal practices, and women, as often socially liminal beings, all the more so when they are at significant thresholds of social status; hence, the consistently negative valence of elderly women or girls who die unmarried. Roman literature often draws upon the trope of women exercising power through illicit channels such as magic, given that other sanctioned forms of religious power were unavailable to them. However, critical studies of magic in the Roman world reveal no particular correlation between women and the practice of magic.

Ritual and Practice.

In the public domain, Romans honored their gods in an extensive and expanding pantheon. The deities (and attendant practices) of colonized peoples were assimilated into Roman religion, which already built on the two central conceptual foundations of native Italic and Etruscan traditions on the one hand and on Greek religions on the other. According to the statesman and rhetor Cicero (106–43 B.C.E.; On the Nature of the Gods 2.8), the very definition of Roman religion was the cultus deorum—the care and cultivation of the gods. Although animal sacrifices, sometimes enacted on an impressive scale, were the chief public ways to honor the gods, these were usually the impresario acts of priests and attendants who specialized in offering sacrifices. People participated through attending these sacrifices, performed outside the temples on the altars that formed the focal point of a god’s cult, and through the public feasts that followed. Like the sacrifices, the temples were restricted, in the main, to priestly officials. Nevertheless, the gods were accessible to all people; they could be petitioned through private prayer and supplications; celebrated at parades (pompa), festivals, games (ludi), circuses, and theaters; and thanked with acts as grand as the staging of public events or as modest as an anatomical terracotta votive deposited in gratitude for a healing or successful delivery of a child. Religious devotion to the gods was both pragmatic and contractual, accessible, and omnipresent.

A separate class of gods, the Lares and Penates, was associated with the Roman home (domus) and honored with private rites and devotional acts generally directed by the paterfamilias. These were performed for the benefit of members of the extended household, including its slaves. These gods—figured as statuettes kept in painted shrines (lararia) in the house—received small gifts, including incense, wine, and garlands, in exchange for keeping the house and its inhabitants safe. These “bloodless” sacrifices were every bit as essential for the successful spiritual economy of the empire as a whole as large, staged public rituals directed to Rome’s chief gods. Within the household, the paterfamilias also led rites associated with birth, marriage, and death. Outside the home but within the confines of a private property, the paterfamilias oversaw rites dedicated to various tutelary deities, including Silvanus, Mars, Diana, and Flora, the goddess of blossoming plants (Martial, Epigram 10.92). Although less common, women, too, could make offerings to any and all of these gods (Plautus, Pot of God, 23–25; Merchant 678–680).

Not all Roman deities had formal cults. Often not anthropomorphized, some were associated with woods, streams, and places within the physical environment. Others were associated with specific days or the turning of the year, like Anna Perenna. Still others were abstractions, like Fortuna or Concordia. They were nonetheless perceived as puissant forces that needed to be respected, appeased, avoided, or celebrated. Neither was Roman religion necessarily oriented solely around deities; there was a strong sense of things, days, places, and actions as auspicious or inauspicious. Things could be polluted or pure; figures or actions could be taboo. The fear of the evil eye or generalized malum was widespread and could be offset by ritual actions or by apotropaic objects.

Women, in particular, recognized, honored, or invoked a broad spectrum of minor deities involved with life-cycle rituals such as marriage and with pregnancy and childbirth. Iugatinus, Subigus, and Cinxia were symbolically present during the marriage ritual; Cinxia, whose name comes from a bride’s cingulum, or belt, was also associated with various tying and untying rituals during labor. Mena (or Dea Mena) and Fluonia were both associated with menstrual flow and its retention during pregnancy. According to Augustine (City of God 7.2–3), Sentinus, Alemona, and Vitumnus nourished the embryo in the womb. Juno Lucina presided over childbirth; the triple Nixi Di oversaw elements of labor, and Egeria was propitiated by pregnant women to safely push out (egerere) newborns. Postverta and Prosa might prevent breech births. After birth, the newborn was carefully protected from the baleful influences of demons who specialized in infant mortality. The poet Ovid mentions, for instance, that people hung Rhamnus (buckthorn) branches in the doorway of their home to ward off striges, winged witches who lived on the blood of newborns (Fast. 6.101ff).

Since they were not officially regulated, funerals and commemoration of the dead also fall under the rubric of popular religion. The dead were honored with prayers and small gifts such as a sprinkling of grain, some violets, or bread soaked in wine (Cicero, On the Laws 2.22; Ovid, Fast. 2.533–542); At the Parentalia and Feralia festivals (18–21 February), people brought gifts to the tombs of their family and ancestors and feasted in honor of the dead—practices that carried over into the early Christian era. People of all social classes participated in these rituals, although we can see in the accounts of Cicero and Ovid attempts by the Roman upper class to curtail displays and behaviors around funerals and commemoration that they found vulgar or ostentatious.

Changes in Popular Religion during the Roman Empire.

Beyond the state system of priestly offices, the first century C.E. witnessed a growing corps of independent religious specialists who offered particular services, including various types of divination, astrology, and magic. Although attested as early as the second century B.C.E. (Plautus, Braggart Soldier, 692–694; Cicero, De Div. 1.132), the rise of these specialists in the first century C.E. marked both a type of “privatization” of Roman religion in the empire and a new entrepreneurial spirit that made novel religious options both available and attractive for the first time. These more improvised and unstructured religious specialists are not to be confused with the rise of other more organized religious options to emerge at the same time—notably Mithraism—but shared with these cults both audience and philosophy, that is, that certain kinds of privileged knowledge or experience could be accessed through innovative religious techniques that were hitherto restricted to a small number of elite practitioners.

These types of popular religious or magical practices that religious practitioners employed were often met by derision or ridicule in Latin literary sources. The Roman author Lucian (125–180 C.E.), for example, lampoons miracle-workers who claimed to heal people through what amounted to quackery, such as tying the tooth of a weasel picked up from the ground with the left hand to one’s feet to cure rheumatism (Lover of Lies 7–8, 12, 16). In Lucian’s Life of Alexander of Abonoteichus, the magician Alexander sets up shop in Bithynia to take advantage of gullible but wealthy women. Although these examples of religious behavior survive as satire, they reveal the widespread and essentially fungible nature of magical and popular religious practices in the Roman world.

Women could also find an audience as independent religious specialists, although again, an accurate picture needs to be read through the distorting lens of Latin literature. The Roman satirist Petronius writes of Quartilla, who presides over extravagant rites to the ithyphallic god Priapus, and the “priestess” Oenothea who cures another character’s impotence (Satyricon 16–26; 131.1–7; 136–137). Although these women are fictional, there is no question that women could, and did, find roles as religious entrepreneurs.

Popular Religion and Magic in Roman Literature.

In Roman literature, women are frequently the practitioners of magic, particularly as necromancers. In Latin literature, we find the first instances of the word maga in the first century B.C.E. (e.g., Aesop 117). The Roman author Lucan (39–65 C.E.) features the witch Erictho, who lives among tombs and violates human corpses (Pharasalia 6). Erictho’s horrifying activities include necromancy, both for the purpose of gaining information about the outcome of a distant war and for sending information to the shades trapped in the underworld below. Erictho’s most abominable crime is child sacrifice, where she tears a fetus from the womb and throws it on an altar (6.558–559). Seneca’s tragedy Medea features the witch pouring her own blood on an altar as a libation to Hecate (797–810). Another popular writer, Horace (65–8 B.C.E.), gives a satirical account of two hags on Rome’s Esquiline Hill who excavate corpses for necromantic purposes (Satire 1.8). Among Roman writers of the second century C.E., Lucius Apuleius (125–180 C.E.) includes in his satire The Golden Ass the character Pamphile, a witch who draws upon a stable of conventional objects drawn from corpses and cemeteries: crucifixion nails, body parts, even the pulsating entrails drawn from a still-living human being (3.15–18; cf. the witch Meroe in 1.8–10; 2.28–50). The witches of Horace’s Epode 5 starve a boy to use his liver for a love potion.

Women witches in Latin literature have other specialties as well. Some employ magical potions that have the power to transform human bodies into animal bodies. In The Golden Ass, Pamphile transforms into a bird (Golden Ass 3.21); another witch turns her enemies into a frog and a beaver (1.8, 9; cf. Circe in Odyssey 10.212). In Ovid’s Fasti 2.533–638, a repulsive hag appears in the home on a particular festival, making an odd ritual of closing a fish’s mouth as an offering to the goddess Tacita: apparently this was a binding spell. Trimalchio in Petronius’s Satyricon warns of nocturnal witches who “turn everything upside down” (63.9).

It must be remembered, in all these instances, that literature teaches us about attitudes, biases, and tendencies among Roman male elites, but not about gender and witchcraft in the Roman world. These cases of so-called witches and witchcraft point to the Roman devaluation of women through identifying them closely with sources of pollution, such as corpses or tombs, or through social marginalization. Simultaneously, Roman literature excises men from the domain of magical practices, where they ought not to be, since “real men” did not have to resort to magic to exercise influence (Graf, 1999).

Although Roman literature presents magic as the exclusive domain of women practitioners, modern scholarship suggests otherwise. Spell books and curse tablets (defixiones) reveal that men requested magical intervention more frequently than women (Dickie, 2000, pp. 563, 571). The strong erotic attractions of magical spells may have been necessary to sever women’s ties from the close bonds of family in which they were locked in the Greek and Roman worlds; they may also have “excused” young women from behaving in ways that were socially unacceptable, such as engaging in sexual activity before marriage or prematurely leaving the familial unit (Gager, 1992). Love spells may have brought social advantage to both men and women by helping to secure advantageous marriage, thus playing a competitive, rather than strictly erotic, function (Graf, 1999). However, the specific and explicit language of erotic spells, along with the frequent demand that women remain faithful to only one lover, helps modern scholars to reconstruct a picture of sexual activity in the Roman world that showed women to be independent sexual beings rather than innocent virgins who were kept protected by their families (Dickie, 2000, p. 571).

Material Culture: Votives, Lamellae and Defixiones, and Amulets.

The popular religion of the Roman world is most clearly perceived through substantial material deposits: votive offerings and inscriptions; “aggressive” magical objects including engraved sheets of metal (lamellae), curse tablets (defixiones), and other magical objects, the goal of which was to actively curse the recipient; apotropaic objects including amulets and other small finds of the same nature (i.e., bullae and crepundia); magical bowls; and occasionally biological material including animal and human bone or teeth or human fetuses.


Large numbers of anatomical votives gathered from cult sites in the Roman world reveal the widespread practice of fulfilling vows as thanks to various deities for healings. Some of these were associated with healing shrines such as those dedicated to Aesculapius; others, however, had no such universally recognized cult, such as the Ponte di Nona site nine miles east of Rome, which yielded over 8,000 votives in modern excavations, or the Laghetto del Monsignore in Latium, Italy, with 11,400 pieces of pottery, metal, or bone deposited in the lake over the course of at least four centuries. The nature of these votives indicates that both men and women engaged in this ritual practice.

Lamellae and defixiones.

Lamellae are thin sheets of metal that are inscribed and then folded and placed inside a capsule to be worn, usually around the neck. The inscriptions were prayers or invocations, calling upon the protection of the wearer. In some cases, the lamella was not worn but deposited in graves or springs and contained curses (defixiones) drawing upon the power of maleficent forces to harm an opponent or enemy. Both men and women commissioned these objects.


The Roman use of amulets was widespread and taken for granted. These were crafted from a variety of materials known to have magical or apotropaic powers, including amber, rock crystal, lead, and tin (Pliny, Natural History 37.9ff). Some amulets were connected to both gender and life stages; Roman boys wore bullae amulets around their necks; girls often carried small objects known as crepundia in pockets or pouches. Both types of amulets were used in life, but are also found in funerary contexts. Inscribed rings and other pieces of jewelry called for good luck for their wearers, who were almost always male. “Good luck” and “good health” formulae directed at the (male) wearer also appear on helmets, shoes, and textiles. These objects and their adjurations transcend pat categorization into “pagan,” “Jewish,” or “Christian,” especially when their language (i.e., “Lord, help!”) is general and found in a variety of possible contexts.

A number of amulets aimed to protect wearers from disease, particularly fevers, pains in the stomach, and digestive ailments. A large corpus of amulets is associated with female reproduction: to ensure fertility, retain pregnancies, or ensure a good birth. Many amulets feature depictions of uteri figured as large-mouth kettles and, on occasion, entreat the uterus to contract or the fetus to hasten downward (i.e., through the birth canal). However, many uterine amulets are concerned with its closing (i.e., the sealing during pregnancy, but also stopping a hemorrhage) or opening (bringing menstruation or miscarriage). Most amulets are crafted of hematite (“blood stone”), which was believed in antiquity to staunch or slow blood flow. These amulets demonstrate the interconnection of magic and medicine.

A third category of amulet was explicitly apotropaic. We find amulets against snakes, scorpions, and other creeping things or “evil eye” spells used to ward off demonic interest, especially interest in infants. A number of demons appear in the sources to be associated with child mortality: Gello (perhaps associated with the Hebrew Lilith), Abyzou, Petasia (“she who strikes”), and Paedopniktria (“child suffocator”). It is not clear, however, that women were the chief practitioners of magical healing or apotropaic spells or the principal commissioners of amulets.


The ancient Romans engaged in a wide range of religious behaviors, both privately and publicly, directed both toward gods and toward nonanthropomorphic forces, both traditional and improvised. Popular religion cannot be simplistically drawn as the religion of the masses in contradistinction to religion of the elite; Romans participated in the cultus deorum together, feared unseen malevolent forces together, and attempted to control and understand their world together, whether elite or subelite. Women fare worse than men in the negative pictures of witches and sorceresses drawn in Latin literature, but these negative evaluations of the female religious practitioner masked a social reality wherein men were as likely to participate in magic as women and where independent female experts could find an audience for their particular religious specialties, whatever these might have been.




  • Beard, Mary, John North, and Simon Price. Religions of Rome. 2 vols. New York: Cambridge University Press, 1998.
  • Betz, Hans Dieter, ed. The Greek Magical Papyri in Translation. Vol. 1. Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1986.
  • Bremmer, Jan N. “The Birth of the Term ‘Magic.’” Zeitschrift für Papyrologie und Epigraphik, 126 (1999): 1–12.
  • Dickie, Matthew W. “Who Practised Love Magic in Classical Antiquity and the Late Roman World??” Classical Quarterly 50, no. 2 (2000): 563–583.
  • Faraone, Christopher. “A Greek Curse against a Thief from the Koutsongila Cemetery at Roman Kenchreai.” Zeitschrift für Papyrologie und Epigrafik 160 (2007): 141–157.
  • Gager, John. Curse Tablets and Binding Spells in the Ancient World. New York: Oxford University Press, 1992.
  • Graf, Fritz. Magic in the Ancient World. Translated by Franklin Philip. Cambridge, Mass.: Harvard University Press, 1999.
  • Stratton, Kimberly. Naming the Witch: Magic, Ideology, and Stereotype in the Ancient World. New York: Columbia University Press, 2007.
  • Warrior, Valerie. M. Roman Religion. New York: Cambridge University Press, 2006.

Nicola Denzey Lewis

New Testament

As a concept, magic has been constructed and deconstructed so many times that, like a sandcastle recently submerged under a wave, its delineations can no longer be determined with the confidence of scholarship from a century ago. Some think the term should be ditched altogether, the binary oppositions between magic and religion, science, and modernity all being modern biases rather than ancient understandings. Others seek to explore its rhetorical usage, since its terminology is quite old even if its meanings have changed throughout time. A socially contextual approach, however, that demonstrates how the terminology developed, was deployed, and sometimes was claimed under particular social conditions is a prominent direction forward in current scholarship. So what does it mean when someone claims that Jesus—or another early Christian—was a magician? Is it a statement of fact? Is it a matter of perception and representation? Is it merely name-calling, applying stereotypes and literary tropes to fill in one’s account; or, even if polemical, do such accusations have content?

In the preface to his 1978 study, Jesus the Magician, Morton Smith wrote, “‘Jesus the magician’ was the figure seen by most ancient opponents of Jesus; ‘Jesus the Son of God’ was the figure seen by that party of his followers which eventually triumphed; the real Jesus was the man whose words and actions gave rise to these contradictory interpretations” (p. vii). Although Smith sought to determine whether Jesus was a magician by ancient definitions, these opening lines express the problem of magic in not only ancient discourse, but also medieval and modern. With some important exceptions in which people have claimed the title “magician,” it has been a discourse of alterity applied to those on the margins who were perceived as a threat to social order—lower classes, women, foreigners, and colonial subjects—to regulate society according to the definers’ norms and values.

Although Smith might have been correct that Jesus’s words and actions often resemble those who were called magician in antiquity, the differences among magicians, sorcerers, witches, prophets, and miracle workers were in fact blurry. The question is not whether Jesus or any of his followers were magicians. Rather, one must situate Jesus’s and his followers’ activities into broader social frameworks and trajectories of reading to see how and why accusations of magic operated among early Christians as they were charged, eluded such charges, and charged others with magic.

Ancient Greek Terminology.

Unlike many other problematic terms debated in modern biblical scholarship (e.g., religion, Gnosticism), the terms “magic” and “magician” circulated widely in ancient Mediterranean discourses. The terminology of magic (mageia) and magician (magos, magoi) originated among the Magi, the priestly tribe of Medo-Persians; nonetheless, starting in the fifth century B.C.E. in Greek sources the term had already been reappropriated in the Mediterranean world as one of denigration. Although occasionally used technically to refer to such a Median and sometimes as a self-designation, it was mostly employed as a polemical term.

A more common term used was goës, goëtes, goëteia—often translated as “sorcerer” and “sorcery.” This term was not as ambivalent as magos, but had a decidedly more negative connotation to it. Women, additionally, were more often accused of pharmakeia, the mixing of herbs, which is often useful for medicinal healing, but also for harmful effects of potions for love and death.

In the weight of ancient evidence, Greeks, Romans, the Hebrew Bible, Second Temple Judaism, and Rabbinic Judaism all tended to charge women more often than men with magic, forms of which—through love and death—undermined male sexual privilege, although, significantly, the preponderant material evidence for surviving love spells instruct men how to attract a woman. Early Christians in the first centuries C.E., however, tended to portray magicians as men who victimized women.

The Charge of Magic in the New Testament and Beyond.

There are no explicit charges of magic against Jesus and his disciples in the New Testament. Although magos and related terms appear, they never cling to members of the early Jesus movement. Famously, the Magi—positively represented—come from the East at Jesus’s birth in Matthew 2:1–2. Acts and Revelation level the accusations against outsiders, competitors, and figures of traditional institutional authority. Nonetheless, the Synoptic Gospel accounts portray a series of accusations that in its local context would have been understood as relating to magic even if they do not use the terminology. Whereas in Greek, Roman, and Rabbinic sources the charge of magic was primarily made against women, in the New Testament sources men are the primary objects, feminizing and exoticizing them by placing them in a series of conceptually overlapping alterities of illegitimate channels of numinous power.

Miracle workers, including Jesus and many of his early followers, drew indictments of magic and leveled such charges at others. The gospel narratives acknowledge such accusations and represent Jesus and his earlier disciples in the Gospels and Acts in such a way to elude them. Garrett (1989) argues, in fact, that on the surface there may be little difference in the activities of magicians and those of the emergent Jesus movement in Luke–Acts, that Luke–Acts may even rely upon the similarities, but the rhetoric of Luke–Acts demonstrates that Jesus’s power comes from God rather than the devil; therefore, from its own perspective, Jesus was not a magician.

First let us look at the charges of magic in the New Testament and oppositional literature (e.g., Rabbinic literature) and then consider the broader social conditions that allow and disallow such a labeling to occur.

The charge of magic in the New Testament.

Charges of magic relate to Jesus’s miracles, particularly his exorcisms and his healings. But did Jesus have help? From where did he receive his power?

The first potential accusation is subtle. It is easy to miss in the Synoptic Gospel narratives. It circulates as rumor rather than a direct accusation, but its implications for perceptions of Jesus are significant. If one reads Mark 6:14–16 (par. Matt 14:1–2; cf. Luke 9:7–9), one notices it is not about Jesus’s identity, but about the source of Jesus’s power: “Some were saying, ‘John the baptizer has been raised from the dead; and for this reason these powers are at work in him [Jesus]’” (Mark 6:14B). It never says Jesus is John the Baptist, except insofar as John may possess Jesus, but receives his power from John being raised from the dead. The charge is that Jesus was a necromancer; John became his spirit helper. The disagreement is which spirit is helping him: John the Baptist, Elijah, one of the prophets of old, etc. Herod Antipas decides it must be John the Baptist getting his revenge for having his head cut off. The spirit of one who had an especially violent death like John—or Jesus for that matter—fits the broader view of possible sources of a spirit helper.

On a related note, in the Gospels and Acts people not immediately associated with Jesus’s group exorcise demons in Jesus’s name. In the Gospels (Mark 9:38–41; Luke 9:49–50; dropped by Matthew), this is encouraged by Jesus since “whoever is not against us is for us” (Mark 9:40). Yet, in Acts such an action is discouraged. There the seven sons of Sceva are itinerant exorcists who try and fail to cast out demons in Jesus’s name (19:13–16). Why is this allowed in the Synoptic Gospels and not in Acts? One difference is that in the Gospels, Jesus is alive; in Acts, he had already experienced death but, having died a violent death, would be seen as useful for a magician to use him as a familiar spirit (Garrett, 1989, p. 3; Smith, 1978, pp. 35–36).

Better known is the pericope where scribes or Pharisees from Jerusalem (that is, those closer to traditional institutional power) charge Jesus directly (and not as rumor) of casting out demons by Beelzebul (Mark 3:22–30; cf. Matt 12:22–37; Luke 11:14–23), that is, the prince of demons. Jesus’s power is acknowledged—even his enemies claim he can heal or exorcise demons—but it is a corrupt source. Jesus retorts that “if a house is divided against itself, that house will not be able to stand,” indicating that the source of his power is, in fact, legitimate. He turns the tables on his accusers, claiming that they blaspheme the Holy Spirit by claiming that the Spirit’s works are that of an unclean spirit. That is, Jesus’s source is divine rather than demonic; his miracles, moreover, are evidence that Satan’s kingdom is coming to an end (Mark 3:26).

Even as New Testament accounts present Jesus similar to magicians, but largely defend Jesus against accusations of magic, New Testament works also level such charges against others. Revelation employs such language occasionally. Conjuring the name of “Jezebel” (Rev 2:20) as an emblem of a false prophetess, John of Patmos engages the overlapping stereotypes of foreign, female, and dangerous—and, from the Hebrew Bible, Jezebel practices “sorceries” (2 Kgs 9:22).). Rome, moreover, is depicted as a whore who deceived by her sorcery (pharmakeia) ((18:23).). Although not a human woman, a feminized Rome stands accused of the magic most associated with women (pharmakeia).

Acts works through a series of comparisons and contrasts between proper miracles and magic, usually depicting any competitors among the apostles as practicing magic, derived from the devil, instead of miracles from God. Most famously, Simon “Magus” performed “magical works” (Acts 8:11; trans. author). After Philip converts him to Christianity, he attempts to purchase the power of the Holy Spirit. It is the portrayal of a buy-and-sell attitude that brings his activities into the stereotypes of ancient magicians as charlatans trying to make a buck. The charge of magic is also leveled at Elymas bar Jesus (Acts 13:4–12), the seven sons of Sceva (19:13–16), who “adjured” in Jesus’s name and others, seeing their failures, gave up their magical books (19:19), and the female slave with the Pythian spirit (16:16–18).

The charge of magic against Jesus beyond the New Testament.

In addition to the Gospel accounts, which favor Jesus, other sources also accuse Jesus of magic and sorcery. Justin Martyr, a second-century Christian, had to counter the charge of Jesus as magician, as did Origen in the third century against the previous accusations by Celsus (Justin, Dial. 69:6f; 108:2; 1 Apol. 30; cf. Tertullian, Spect. 30; Cels. I.6, 26, 28, 38, 40, 66, 67, 58; II.1, 6, 7, 9–12, 44; III beginning; IV.75).

Schäfer (2007) reads the Talmudic traditions of Jesus learning magic in Egypt as inverting traditions from the Gospel of Matthew. In Matthew, Jesus goes to Egypt as a child to escape Herod’s persecutions (Matt 2:13FF) after being visited by the Magi (Matt 2:2). The rabbis take these connections and the relationship between Egypt and magic in antiquity and invert them, aligning the story of Jesus with a preexisting story of Ben Stada. Whereas the book of Matthew positively relates Jesus to Egypt, the Magi, and healing powers, the Rabbis negatively associate Egypt as the place where Jesus gained illicit magical powers to perform his miracles and healings—never doubting he performed them, but questioning the source of his power (cf. Smith, 1978, pp. 47–48).

Although there are Talmudic stories related to Jesus in the Babylonian versions that have nothing to do with Jesus in the Palestinian ones (b. Sanh. 107b; b. Soṭah 47a) and the Babylonian Talmud claims that Jesus was killed for his sorcery (b. Sanh. 43a), there is a greater tendency to ascribe magic to Jesus in Palestinian than in Babylonian Rabbinic sources (Schäfer, 2007, pp. 101–106, 114).

Like the Gospels and Acts, many Rabbinic sources report one’s ability to heal in Jesus’s name and assume that such an invocation of Jesus’s name was effective (T. Ḥul. 2:22f; y. ʿAbod. Zar. 2:2/12, fol. 40–41a; y. Šabb. 14:4/13, fol. 14d–15a; Qoh. Rab. 1:24; b. ʿAbod. Zar. 27b) but that it was better to die than to be healed in Jesus’s name. Jesus’s name has recognized power, even from among his enemies, but its source is questionable. In another story, a healing is actually accomplished, but it is still better to die than be healed by a heretic (y. ʿAvod. Zar. 2:2/7, fol. 40d; y. Šabb. 14:4/8, fol. 14d; Qoh. Rab. 10:5).

Overall, it is not what Jesus does that disturbs the Rabbis—and, indeed, although the Rabbis associated magic with idolatry, there is much evidence of many Jews practicing the very things the Rabbis condemn as Christian—but the competing source of power that disturbs (Schäfer, 2007, pp. 104–105). What activities, social conditions, or power relations, therefore, elicited or eluded the charges of magic?

The Social Conditions of the Charge of Magic.

As anthropologists since Van Gennep, Turner, and Douglas have known, margins are places of power and danger. Those on the margins have the power to destabilize or reinforce existing social structures and hierarchies. The margin is a source of creativity and destruction. Societies seek to tap the power of the margin and, in a delicate balancing act, regulate it so that it will not destabilize.

Whether one calls them magicians, sorcerers, miracle workers, or holy people, marginal intermediary figures mediating between a superhuman source of power and the people will elicit suspicion from those already in authority within existing social institutions. That is, the charge of magic is relational, operating within multiple overlapping institutional systems and competing channels of power.

Reimer (2002) has sought to move beyond positivistic accounts, which ask whether Jesus really was a magician, and rhetorical accounts, which see magic as merely a charge, as something with some content, relying upon J. Z. Smith’s “polythetic classification.” Nonetheless, he never is able to escape the socially constructed nature of the category as a form of slander. Responding to a similar argument, Stratton (2013) writes, “I propose…that we define magic not according to a concrete set of practices, which are universally defined (even according to the broad polythetic model), but as culturally specific ideas about illegitimate and dangerous access to numinous power, whose local applications need to be considered on their own terms in order to understand the work they do in their respective societies” (p. 245). Reimer does get beyond an “empty” definition of polemic, but few scholars saw such slander as empty; rather, it had stereotypical attributes attached to it. As Stratton has argued, these stereotypes were developed and deployed in specific ways in local contexts. Certain activities, however, would more likely elicit a charge of magic and such a charge relies strongly upon one’s local social situation.

Magic is a discourse of alterity, but one’s actions or behaviors could open one up to such a charge under particular social circumstances, so it is a term that, although notoriously ambiguous, has a residue of stereotyped content. Magical accusations relate to power structures and threats to established order. The charge of magic solidifies structure against potential disorder. Thus a miracle worker who appears disruptive will be accused of magic. To rebuff the charge, one must demonstrate that such a person actually supports established social order or belongs to a higher, divine order. It is a means to regulate power relations. That is why perceived outsiders to established power are the most often accused: women, lower classes, and foreigners. The Median Magi still fit into this social discourse since, although they were centrally positioned within their own society, from the perspective of the overlapping Mediterranean discourses, they represented outsiders and foreign practices.

Both power and danger arise from the interstices and fringes of social systems. Based upon various charges against people as magicians and the “evidence” used, one can see the content of the rhetoric and how others will represent someone as either a magician or a miracle worker, whether or not they actually possessed such qualities.

First, one gains numinous power from withdrawal from society (Reimer, 2002, pp. 47–141). Jesus going into the desert fits this pattern, as do the great ascetics of Late Antiquity Native American dream seekers, or several cross-cultural accounts of the rites of passage. Subsequently, the power gained in the fringe spills over into regular society in the form of miraculous acts.

Marginal intermediaries remain untied to local forms of authority or power. That is, they will remain transient and mobile and will not seek other social forms of authority. This might be one reason why the Gospels and Acts portray Jesus and his disciples as itinerants. Magicians, however, are portrayed as resident and will use their power to access more authority. A mediator actually gains authority by appearing to be dead to human ambition (Brown, 1971). Telling the disciples not to accept money would also avoid such a charge, the inverse of the Simon Magus story.

When the inarticulate power of a holy man meets the articulated power in established society, then one finds a “sorcerer” (Reimer, 2002, pp. 142ff). Magic is not so much a given thing, but a relational term of power of the intermediary as it relates to the articulated power of society. To avoid the charge of magic, the outsider intermediary will attempt to locate himself within the legitimacy of existing traditional structures, passing off his activity or teaching as an extension of the preexisting beliefs and values of a local religious community (Reimer, 2002, p. 174).

Ultimately a miracle worker will have fringe status, be itinerant, have no concern for self, no personal ambitions, perform miracles, and deflect honor and status. These descriptions will be applied differently to friend or foe, embellishing the more rhetorical aspects of the charge of magic rather than overturning it. Thus, Jesus receives the charge of magic in the New Testament because, although a fringe, itinerant miracle worker who largely deflected status, he was often perceived to come into conflict with local forms of established religious authority (scribes, Pharisees, and priests), eliciting the charge of magic. Acts, however, overturns this model while relying upon it. Although in Acts there is an obvious prompt for the charge against the apostles’ competitors as competitors, the social location of the charges is significant. Although Simon was primarily a competitor of similar marginal status as the earliest Christians or represented a form of Christianity that the author of Acts sought to marginalize with this story, the other figures represent traditional forms of authority. Elymas was an advisor to the proconsul, belonging to established civic authority; the sons of Sceva are related to the Hebrew priesthood in the story, representing established forms of mediation in Judaism; and even the female slave with the Pythian spirit represents traditional Greek forms of access to the divine, since she possesses the Pythia, the traditional source of oracular authority co-opted by Apollo at Delphi. John of Patmos, moreover, uses associations with sorcery via Jezebel for internal regulation of the churches in Asia Minor, while conjuring Rome—the established centralized authority par excellence—as a great whore and sorceress.

Although the discourse of magic is primarily seen as established authority to put marginal figures “in their place,” Acts and Revelation turn these power relations on their heads, challenging broader social expectations of legitimate and illegitimate mediators of the divine. In it, marginal, liminal figures—the ones typically associated with magic—accuse established, institutional forms of authority, in their turn, as magical in the Roman government, portions at least of the Hebrew priesthood, and one of the most recognizable names of Greek oracular tradition. The fringe countered the discourse of magic and turned it back onto its disseminators, but ultimately remained enmeshed within it, adding to it the particular Jewish and Christian associations between magic and demonic forces.

Jesus as sorcerer in late antique Rabbinic documents demands further commentary. Christianity was no longer a fringe movement, but was gaining power in the Roman world. Significantly, the charge of magic was more common in Palestinian circles, where Christian power would have been greater than in Babylonian sources, where Christian political authority would have been weaker. As Christianity became less marginal during and after the fourth century, the charge of magic against Jesus and, mutatis mutandis, his followers increased in Jewish sources, which were, from the Christianized Roman perspective, marginal.

As the emergent Jesus movement received, deflected, and leveled charges of magic, they were participating in a broader polemicizing discourse of alterity used to stabilize central forms of authority; it was no mere empty rhetoric, no mere castles on clouds, but belonged to broader social frameworks that regulated the delicate balancing of the potentially chaotic reservoirs of numinous power. These social frameworks employed the discourse of magic to strengthen boundaries between self and other that operated upon the overlapping binaries between male and female, domestic and foreign/exotic, institutional and popular, and legitimate and illegitimate. As social groupings sought stability—often because they were themselves unstable, in a state of transition—they labeled aspects within their social networks as magic, marking them as illegitimate—yet effective!—forms of access to the numinous and allying them with connotations of foreign, female, and dangerous, attempting to assert their own place as authoritative agents of the holy.




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Jared C. Calaway

Early Judaism

Until recent times scholars of early Judaism neglected the study of magic. Yet ritual practices that can be characterized as magical were commonplace among the peoples of the Mediterranean, including ancient Jews.

The prohibitions on various kinds of ritual practitioners in Exodus 22:17 and Deuteronomy 18:10–11 were, of course, well known to Jewish interpreters of later periods, but so were the biblical stories of miraculous holy men like Moses, Elijah, and Elisha. Magical traditions gathered around David and Solomon as masters of demons and around charismatic Jewish figures like Honi the rainmaker (Josephus, Ant. 14.22; m. Taʿan. 3.8). Early Jewish traditions did not speak univocally against magic qua magic; those that address the topic only criticize certain kinds of practitioners (Bohak, 2008). Late antique interpreters, such as the rabbis, carried forward this complex approach to ritual practices and practitioners.

Among scholars of religion, the entire category of magic remains disputed and its delimitation has implications for the treatment of gender. Historians of religion tend to avoid the category of magic because they view it as a tool of polemical discourse, not specifying any particular activity but merely used to cast aspersions upon individuals perceived as threatening. This approach proves particularly relevant for the gendered nature of magical accusations in early Judaism. Jewish sources interpreting the laws of the Hebrew Bible or discussing the relative merits of different ritual specialists tend to speak particularly negatively about women or other outsiders.

However, using a more general term, such as “ritual practices,” is problematic because it is too broad, making every religious ritual magical. Thus, scholars like Gideon Bohak (2009) have suggested defining magic in the context of early Judaism “as a separate and independent sphere of action within the wider Jewish cultural tradition…best represented by the large corpus of Jewish magical texts and objects, a corpus which is characterized by its specific technical-professional nature” (p. 111). This approach focuses on the wide variety of Jewish texts and objects that are recognizable by scholars as magical. According to this perspective, people involved in the production of magical texts were experts comparable to other skilled and learned men in late antique Jewish communities. The shortcoming of this approach is that when it is coupled with the presumption that only men in antiquity could become literate experts, the participation of women in magical production is precluded a priori. Paradoxically, contemporary scholars dismiss the possibility that ancient Jewish women produced magical texts while early Jewish sources insist all women engaged in magical practices.

Key Sources.

Materials that fall in the scholarly category of Jewish magic may be divided into “insider” and “outsider” sources (Bohak, 2008, p. 70). Outsider evidence includes apocryphal and pseudepigraphic sources, the first-century C.E. writings of the Jewish philosopher Philo and the Jewish historian Josephus, and legal and narrative traditions in Rabbinic literature that discuss magic and its practitioners. Insider evidence includes such materials as the Hebrew and Aramaic amulets from Palestine, Jewish Aramaic incantation bowls from Babylonia, and the late antique Hebrew treatise Sepher Ha-Razim. Such materials become especially abundant after the fourth century C.E. Both insider and outsider evidence describe ritual practitioners as individuals who wield power over and against demons, other divine powers, and other practitioners. Outsider evidence casts women as witches particularly concerned with interpersonal matters and describes them as repellant to the divine. Their magic is portrayed as both dangerously efficacious and, at the same time, fraudulent.

Key Vocabulary.

In early Jewish sources, the two relevant terms that remained in use from the Hebrew Bible are keshafim (witchcraft or magic) and qesamim (magical practices). The term keshafim (singular kishuf, cf. witch mekhashef/a of Exod 22:18) appears most often in Rabbinic sources applied to practices of suspect men or to women. Tal Ilan (2006) points out that in Rabbinic literature kishuf and its derivatives are “almost entirely reserved for women. In far more than 50% of the occurrences of this root in the two talmudim the context is that of the female witch” (p. 240).

Qesamim, meaning magical practices (Qosem, magician), still signaled suspect activity, but as a term it was more mild in connotation and could be applied by the sages to others sages as well (e.g., y. Maʿas´. 3:10, 51a).

Further complicating matters is the fact that, in many rabbinic stories that describe the sages’ interactions with other ritual practitioners, the words denoting incantations, spells or acts of inhuman power are utterly neutral: milta (literally a word or in certain context, a spell [b. Ḥul. 105b]), ma’aseh (literally “deed,” “happening,” “story” or in context, “a magical act” [b. Pesaḥ. 11b]), amar de-amar (literally “he said what he said”; in context, “he uttered an incantation” [y. Sanh. 7.13, 25d]). This serves as a reminder of the complexity of the category of magic in Jewish antiquity; descriptions of ritual practices could be taken for granted among the sages, even elevating them, or serve to marginalize other practitioners.

Hellenistic and early Roman period (298 B.C.E.–70 C.E.).

Already in the Second Temple period, Jewish writings speculated that the origin of magic secrets was with the fallen angels of Genesis 6:1–4 and their union with mortal women. Expansions of these tantalizing verses appeared in the Book of Watchers (200–150 B.C.E.), where the angels were said to have revealed divine secrets and mysteries, including sorcery, charms, and healing, to women (1 En. 7:1, 8:1–3).

Reflecting misogynist attitudes of the Greco-Roman period, the Testament of Reuben blames women for bewitching and seducing the angels with adornments: “my children, flee from sexual promiscuity, and order your wives and your daughters not to adorn their heads and their appearances so as to deceive men’s sound minds. For every woman who schemes in these ways is destined for eternal punishment. For it was thus that they charmed the Watchers” (T. Reu. 5:5–6; trans. Charlesworth, 1983, p. 784).

Pseudo-Philo retells the biblical story of Saul’s encounter with the necromancer of Endor (1 Sam 28:7–25). Its author is the only source to offer Saul’s vanity as the reason for his expulsion of seers and witches from Israel (Charlesworth, 1983). Samuel, raised from the dead, is quick to point out that he did not come at the beckoning of the king or the woman, but only in keeping with divine orders that he continue to rebuke Saul for his sins against God (63:2).

Where the Testament of Solomon upholds the wise king as a master of magical lore, it names Queen Sheba as a witch, demoting her from the high status with which she is described in biblical sources (1 Kgs 1—10). Other Jewish traditions made Solomon the authoritative source on demonic lore and exorcism; exorcising demons in his name was apparently a common practice in the later Second Temple period (Josephus, Ant. 8.45–49).

Although some argue against the historicity of this event, there is evidence that a witch-hunt took place just beyond the borders of the Hasmonean kingdom in Ashkelon, perhaps during the reign of Queen Shelamzion (76–67 B.C.E.; Ilan, 2006). The Mishnah (ca. 200 C.E.) mentions that Shimon ben Shetah hung 80 women there (tractate Sanh. 6:4) and later commentary identifies these women as witches, sharing a fanciful account of Shimon ben Shetah outsmarting these capable witches and executing them (y. Sanh. 6:8, 23c).

The Jewish philosopher Philo (20 45 C.E.) is perhaps the earliest source to provide an emic definition of magic (Bohak, 2008). He distinguishes between true magic, the scientific study of nature pursued by kings and the famous Persian Magi, and its base counterpart “pursued by mendicant priests and altar-parasites and the basest of the women and slave population” who engage in erotic magic (Spec. Laws 3.101–102; LCL with minor changes).

Roman and Late Antique period (70 C.E.–636 C.E.).

After the destruction of the Temple and especially in Late Antiquity the primary evidence for magical practices and secondary sources commenting about magicians becomes much more abundant. The Jewish historian Josephus (ca. 37/8–100 C.E.), who lived in Rome in the aftermath of the Jewish revolts in the late first century C.E., was especially proud of Jewish achievements in the field of exorcism. Not only did Judea possess the special plant needed for exorcisms, but also King David was an exorcist—ridding Saul of his demons—and Solomon was the master of demons par excellence (J.W. 7.180–185; Ant. 6.214; cf. 1 Sam 19:9–10).

Sepher haRazim.

A handbook of magic spells called Sepher HaRazim (the Book of Mysteries, fourth century C.E.) declares itself to be the revelation of the angel Raziel given to Noah in the year of the Flood. Scholars suggest it was composed in Palestine, where it was aimed at a male Jewish elite that could read its lucid Hebrew prose. The treatise combines Hellenistic Jewish cosmology with magic recipes that reflect the broad spectrum of magic popular in the Greco-Roman Mediterranean, including spells for love, healing, wealth, and political success as well as more aggressive magic. Like other magical spells from the Greco-Roman Mediterranean, it is peppered with warnings to keep away from women, especially menstruating women, to ensure the efficacy of the ritual practices described therein. Still, some of its magical recipes employ the angels to guard and protect women.

If magic is defined broadly to include ancient medicine or chemistry, we may note the case of Maria the Jewish alchemist. An Alexandrian writer named Zosimus often quotes Maria the Jewess as an authority on many alchemical techniques in second-century C.E. Alexandria (Janowitz, 2001; Ilan, 2006).

Rabbinic literature.

In general, the Babylonian Talmud is a much richer source for the study of magic and ritual practices than the Jerusalem Talmud (see especially b. Sanh. 67b ff.). As mentioned above, the Jewish sages inherited traditions that both proscribed magic and included authoritative figures that could enact supernatural feats. Hence, the rabbinic attitudes to magic are complex, ambivalent, and seemingly contradictory.

The Mishnah gives evidence of Jewish legal discussions of magic. The rabbis acknowledge the prevalence of illusions and trickery as well as real magical practice. It was the latter that really bothered them. M. Sanhedrin 7:11 states, “The magician that performs an act is liable to punishment and he that deceives the eyes is not [liable to punishment].” To be able to discern the difference and adjudicate accordingly, would-be judges ought to study magic. So one tradition states, “We do not seat anyone on the Sanhedrin unless they are masters of wisdom, masters of vision, masters of stature, masters of old age, masters of magic, and knowledgeable in seventy languages” (b. Menaḥ. 65a). Thus mastery of magic is mentioned among other positive attributes, but only for rabbinic men. Rabbinic discussions, then, distinguish between the lawful learning of magical techniques for the sake of judiciary matters and the unlawful learning of it for the sake of practicing it (b. Sanh. 68a; b. Šabb.75a).

Whereas the legal sources might suggest there were no magical practices among the rabbis, narrative sources reveal a much different picture of the rabbis in action. In one tradition, a man approaches the rabbis for help when demons residing in a certain sorb bush attack him and threaten his life. The first rabbi he consults accidentally writes him an amulet against only a single demon and it proves ineffective. The second rabbi he approaches writes him anamulet against sixty demons, and that one proves successful at provoking the demons to depart the bush (b. Pesaḥ. 111b).

The sage Abaye summarizes laws on magic as follows: “The laws of magicians are like those of the sabbath. Certain activities are punished by stoning, some are not liable to punishment but still forbidden, and others are entirely permitted. If one actually practices magic he is stoned; if he only creates an illusion he is exempt but the action is still forbidden. Entirely permitted are such deeds as those that were performed by Rav Hanina and Rav Oshia, who spent every eve of the sabbath studying the laws of creation, then created for themselves a one-third grown calf to eat” (b. Sanh. 67b).

Some traditions portray the sages reciting incantations and performing amazing feats to demonstrate that they are equal or superior to ill-intentioned ritual specialists, such as female witches or male heretics. One story portrays a witch confronting and trying to bind the Babylonian sages Rav Hisda and Rabbah. They in turn know the proper countercharms to thwart her (b. Ḥul.105b). Another famous story from the Jerusalem Talmud takes place at a bathhouse in Tiberias and depicts a heretic cursing and binding the sages Rabbi Eliezer, Rabbi Yehoshua, and Rabbi Akiva to the vault of the bathhouse. Rabbi Yehoshua manages to cast a binding spell, which traps the heretic to the door. Both parties agree to annul their spells but continue their magical duel. Going down to the sea, the heretic recites an incantation and splits the sea in two, proclaiming himself as great as Moses. The sages challenge him to walk through the sea as Moses did, and when he does, Rabbi Yehoshua calls on the angel of the sea to drown him. Thus, the dramatic competition ends and sages emerge victorious (y. Sanh.7.19, 25d).

As Jacob Neusner (1969) explains, Torah was the basis of the rabbis’ supernatural power, the means to their magic that ultimately justified their ends: “The rabbis controlled the power of Torah because of their mastery of Torah quite independently of heavenly action. They could issue blessings and curses, create men and animals. They were masters of witchcraft, incantations, and amulets. They could communicate with heaven. Their Torah was sufficiently effective to thwart the action of demons” (p. 20). Because in Late Antiquity rabbinic Torah learning and its public representation was strictly the privilege of men, this was a source of authority and power only rabbinic men could pursue.

This context might explain the general attitude toward women in connection with magic in rabbinic literature. Already in m. ʾAbot, Hillel is quoted as saying, “the more women, the more witchcraft.” Commenting on the prohibition against witches in Exodus 22:17, which specifically targets female witches, the Jerusalem Talmud states that “scripture teaches you about the way of the world in which the majority of women are witches” (Sanh. 7:13, 40b). The Babylonian Talmud agrees, “most women engage in witchcraft” (Sanh. 67a). Furthermore, we find statements in the Jerusalem Talmud that not even pious women avoided magic: “even the best woman is an expert at magic” (Qidd. 4.11). The Babylonian Talmud similarly states, “Even if the majority [of the town] is Israelite, you do not say a blessing because the daughters of Israel burn incense for magic” (Ber.53a).

There are a few examples of rabbis turning to women for their special knowledge. According to a story in the Babylonian Talmud, a fourth-century C.E. sage named Amemar learned from “the head of the women who practice magic” an incantation to deflect a female practitioner should he chance to run into one (Pesaḥ. 110a). Abaye shares traditions learned from his foster mother (or a woman named Em, as she is cited elsewhere without reference to Abaye) for healing incantations (b. Šabb.66b) as well as medical practices that border on the magical (b. Šabb.134a).

Amulets and Babylonian incantation bowls.

Archaeological excavations from Palestine and Babylonia have unearthed many ritual objects from the fourth to seventh century C.E. (Naveh and Shaked, 1985, 1993). The most popular “magical” object was the amulet (Hebrew Qamea), an inscribed text rolled up and worn around the neck by men and women all over the ancient Mediterranean, including late antique Jewish Palestine. The Mishnah takes some popular practices like wearing apotropaic amulets for granted, but arrogates to the rabbis the authority to decide who is a qualified maker of amulets. The incantation bowls from Babylonia also refer to themselves as amulets. In the twentieth century dozens of Hebrew and Aramaic amulets were found in Palestine, and hundreds of incantation bowls in Jewish Babylonian Aramaic have come to light. The incantation bowls discovered in situ were excavated in present-day Iraq and Iran, but most are without provenance. About the size of cereal bowls, these bowls contain Hebrew and Aramaic incantations appealing to God, angels, and others, for all sorts of problems and aspirations; the script is generally written from the center of the bowl spiraling out to the edges.

In these artifacts gender issues emerge in several ways: Jewish men and women, singularly and together, are the clients of magical amulets, which seek protection from demons, illnesses, or the curses of others. In addition to generalized requests for protection, a few amulets show Jewish men seeking commercial success, seeking good standing in their communities, or pursuing the love of a woman. Apart from men, Jewish women seek maintenance of their pregnancies, healthy babies, and restored love in their marriages. Notably, there is a 60:40 ratio of male to female clients desiring aid in the Babylonian incantation bowls (Morony, 2003), which suggests that more men than women sought ritual assistance in this particular medium.

Interestingly, one oft-copied formula in the incantation bowls targets female in-laws because they are seen as the source of curses directed at the male client (Segal, 2000). In several incantation texts, including one of the few in Talmudic Aramaic, feminine subjects address demons or other antagonists (Müller-Kessler and Kwasman, 2000; Segal, 2000). It proves impossible to ascertain whether women actually authored or performed these incantations or whether their names were inserted into a prefabricated incantation text.

Modern Debates.

As mentioned earlier, the usefulness of the category of magic for ancient Mediterranean religions continues to be debated. Gideon Bohak (2008) argues for a practical definition of magic that points to the corpus of magical texts from antiquity. Other scholars such as Naomi Janowitz (2001) place emphasis on the problematic discourse of magic and argue, “authorities cannot—by definition—engage in magic. They can, however, bless, curse, heal, exorcise, predict the future, and put angels to work” (p. 99). As Tal Ilan (2006) puts it, echoing John Gager (1992), “what the rabbis did was considered religious practice, but when women did it, it was considered witchcraft” (p. 240).

Jewish women’s involvement or lack thereof in the traditional category of ancient magic and witchcraft continues to be debated as well. The view of the rabbinic sources, which blamed outsiders for exposing ancient Jews to magic and Jewish women in particular for internalizing it, was carried forth by Jewish historians into the twentieth century.

Taking rabbinic stereotypes of women at their word, albeit sympathetically, Meir Bar-Ilan (1993) writes that “women were removed entirely from the social circle of the community. As a result, it appears that the tendency by women to indulge in witchcraft was a type of expression of their desire to rule” (p. 20). Similarly, Simcha Fishbane (1993) posits that in patriarchal Rabbinic Jewish communities, which excluded females from public religious activities, women developed their own ritual practices and formed their own groups, which in turn were condemned as witchcraft by the rabbis. Although both of these scholars situate magic outside the rabbinic movement, Bohak (2008) finds evidence of magical practices among the rabbis themselves and further notes that, on account of literacy patterns in antiquity, men are far more likely candidates for the composition of textual magic than women.

Melissa Aubin (1998) contributed the most sustained assault on scholarly readings of rabbinic sources that accept the description of women as witches, writing that “common to all of these views is the assumption that passages in Rabbinic literature demonizing women’s involvement in so-called magic provide a window onto the mischief of the lower classes, resulting from either ignorance or subversive tendencies” (p. 51). She suggests that rabbinic sources on magic are much more fruitfully mined for ascertaining rabbinic ideology and “cultural constructions of gender” rather than the reality of ancient women.

Likewise, Rebecca Lesses (2001) highlights the way rabbinic rulings about magic served to construct gender differences in ancient Jewish society, excluding women from alternative sources of authority. Lesses contrasts Talmudic sources on magic with the incantation bowls, noting how the rabbis are primarily concerned with threats to themselves as men, whereas the incantation bowls show the concerns of both men and women (Lesses, 2001). She writes that the bowls demonstrate that “women (as well as men) employed incantations and other rituals (such as going to the roof to curse the demons) to protect themselves, to expel the demons, and to effect healing” (Lesses, 2001, p. 367).

Kimberley Stratton (2007) shows how accusations of witchcraft could be used to discredit women within the Rabbinic movement who dared to resist or challenge the development of Jewish law. She further traces accusations of women’s involvement in magic to Rabbinic anxiety that their legal rulings could not be enforced in the kitchen, the area of food preparation managed by women, and the realm of Rabbinic law, which was most fundamental to the creation of the Jewish social body.




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Mika Ahuvia

Early Church

The religious landscape of the Hellenistic and Roman Mediterranean was characterized not by doctrine, but effectiveness. Although it was popular among certain religious traditions to speculate about a future disembodied condition or passionless (apatheia) existence, the body was that piece of the real that constantly harked the wandering mind back to its materiality. Without knowledge of modern biology or pharmacology, the ailments that struck the body were perplexing and mysterious. The ancient Mediterranean was a world permeated with daimons, spirits, and gods; each influenced the body in different ways. Extreme conditions of poverty (malnutrition, mental disorder, high infant mortality rates, and disease) plaguing every segment of society required rituals that were effective. Hence, “what worked” triumphed over what was deemed “right.” “Magic” was practiced by the emerging orthodox church as well as proto-heterodox groups. Indeed, the existence of magic in the early church demonstrates that ritual distinctions between orthodox and heterodox are artificial in the first centuries C.E.

“Popular religion,” although difficult to define, concerns traditions and rituals that either depart from officially sanctioned cults or apply them in divergent or subversive ways. In official pre-Christian Roman cults, commoners usually did not compete with sanctioned cults in terms of doctrine or conscious subversion, but rather in terms of what worked. A person might bring his sick relative to the shrine or temple of a particular god with the hope of healing, but if this did not work, it would not be uncommon to then seek out a healer, exorcist, or some concoction or potion that could provide relief. This, again, was not conscious subversion of official cults in favor of popular religion, but a form of pragmatism. However, practitioners of these alternative ritual options did occasionally position themselves as rivals to official cults (e.g., John the Baptist, Jesus of Nazareth’s reported healing campaign).

Popular religion is often associated with magic, which, with its pejorative connotations, was used to distinguish between sanctioned and prohibited ritual. Likewise, magic, in modern parlance, tends to operate in the domain of the prohibited. This is the result of the rhetoric of various early church theologians; but it is important to stress that second-century rhetoric should not be interpreted as reality. Magic was resisted by the emerging hierarchy of the early church not because it was a form of imaginative fancy, but because it was perceived as being effective.

Magic is often interpreted as spiritual power competing with sanctioned religion; that is, if a miracle occurs within a sanctioned cult, it is a miracle, but if it happens outside official limits, it is magic. This article uses the term neutrally to contextualize the early church’s experience of the miraculous in dialogue with the cultic traditions that preceded and competed with it. Representations of Jesus in the Synoptic Gospels, the Johannine tradition, and subsequent early church tradition in the second century are undoubtedly in line with what could be defined as magic. Given the controversial nature of this term, there are two alternatives that may be used to alleviate this tension: “ritual” and “wondrous work.” Ritual implies the use of symbolic formulae to influence events that are normally beyond the control of the individual or community concerned. Wondrous work derives from the Greek terms thauma (“wonder,” “miracle”) and ergon (“work”). Thus, one who works wonders or miracles (on behalf of a god) was a thaumaturge, and ritual was the means by which these wonders were enacted. For our purposes, “thaumaturge” and “magician” will be used interchangeably.

The gods of the Hellenistic Mediterranean world dwelt in sacred temples and shrines. The house of the god was the place of divine mysteries, miraculous healings, and social welfare. The last point highlights the socioeconomic function of shrines: priests, who were required to be wealthy, would present themselves as “lovers-of-the-city” by bequeathing such gifts as wine, oil, and money on the people. The house of the god was where the god could offer graces upon the people in the form of gifts or healings. An example of this can be drawn from a report of a healing at the temple of the god Asclepius: a woman named Cleo, it was reported, had been pregnant for five years. She was brought prostrate on a palette to the temple of Asclepius as a supplicant. “Immediately as she came from him and from the temple, she bore a boy…After she had accomplished this, she wrote about it in a votive offering…Five years Cleo bore the burden in her womb until she slept in the temple and she became healthy” (Cartlidge and Dungan, 1994, p. 151). Such narratives served to popularize different healing shrines wherein doctors often offered their services.

Asclepius, like Jesus, was son of male god (Apollo) and human mother (Coronis); he was also a universal god-man with healing or magic power. In the New Testament era, it was believed that one had to coax and entice a god into action. In the Jesus tradition, the “divine one” is not in a temple in the form of an image awaiting the appropriate ritual purity, invocations, and supplications, but an embodied person among the people.

There is no consensus on the question of whether the historical Jesus was himself a magician. Scholars are certain, however, that many of the early Jesus groups in the first century at least represented Jesus as a thaumaturge in their narratives.

Performativity and the Earliest Magic Stories in the Jesus Tradition.

Critical scholarship approaches gospel literature as products not of historical memory, but of experimental performance and elaboration. The convention of using particular sayings or aphorisms (chreiae) for making new meaning was common among Greek writers. Greek rhetorical manuals (progymnasmata, preliminary exercises) of the first century C.E. outlined this process of elaborating sayings/chreiae into performative arguments.

One of the earliest and multiply attested thaumaturgic traditions in the Jesus literature that demonstrates this elaborative convention is the “beelzebul” controversy (Q/Luke 11:14–23//Matt 12:22–32//Mark 3:22–30). Herein the core saying is the charge that Jesus “drives out demons in the name of the head demon” and that he is able to do so because he “is under the control of Beelzebul.” The Q and Mark traditions elaborate this core saying/charge in slightly different ways, but both follow the general elaborative conventions of the progymnasmata. This trajectory is important for the magic stories in the Jesus tradition because it shows that such performance trumps eyewitness accounts. Thus, scholarship might move beyond the question of the historicity of these accounts to see miracle (and sayings) traditions as part of performance, not merely reminiscence. The question of whether Jesus actually healed people shifts toward the conviction that one was healed by Jesus, despite the possibility that the historical Jesus did not literally heal the person.

The performative aspects of acting as Jesus and healing others offer a variation on the performance of being a particular gender. Indeed, chreia elaboration was a mechanism by which the rhetorician would become—that is, perform as—another person. This goal of imitating and being another was known as prosōpopoeia. Given this performative dimension, magic traditions can be interpreted as derivative of certain people being a Jesus, taking on his role as healer. This is developed in the Acts of the Apostles, where followers of Jesus heal in the same manner as he did in the gospel narratives.

Sources for the Jesus Magic Tradition.

Various ancient sources have been investigated for the ways in which they depict Jesus’s magical activity and its gendered significance.

Pre-Markan miracle chains.

A number of scholars have adapted P. Achtemeier’s proposal that two sets of magic/miracle traditions were incorporated into the Gospel of Mark. Jesus, in these miracle chains, is presented as founding a new community of Israel as a composite form of a Moses-Elijah figure.

In pre-Markan magic and miracle chains, there is a mythological founding of a (new) people of Israel: as in the Exodus narrative, there is miraculous crossing of water (the stilling of the storm in Mark 4:35–41 and walking on water in Mark 6:45–51). Moreover, just as Yahweh fed the Israelites in the wilderness with manna, so do pre-Markan miracle chains end with a miraculous meal (five thousand people in Mark 6:34; 44, four thousand people in Mark 8:1–10).

Mack (1998) demonstrates how the period between the Crossing of the Red Sea and Yahweh’s guidance in the Sinai wilderness presented a period of time in which the writers of the epic could “test” the people of Israel and set cultural boundaries. These boundaries are crossed in the six healings that stand between the beginning and end of the two pre-Markan miracle chains. This, then, was a literary mechanism that enacted a change in the social and ethnic makeup of the people of (this new) Israel.

There are a series of gender dynamics operating in pre-Markan sources for the thaumaturgic activity of Jesus. The woman with the hemorrhages does not submit to Jesus’s exousia, (masculine) authority, but takes initiative in taking power from him. This reversal is interpreted by Mark’s Jesus as an act of faith. The story of the Syrophoenician woman is contextualized by a remark indicating that Mark’s Jesus did not want to be seen in the “impure” gentile territory of Tyre. The woman presents herself in a submissive posture before Jesus and makes a request on behalf of her daughter. Mark’s Jesus demeans her rhetorically with a quick-witted response: “[l]et the children be fed first, for it is not fair to take the children’s food and throw it to the dogs” (Mark 7:27B). Yet, the Syrophoenician woman’s aphoristic wit trumps Jesus’s one-liner: “Sir, even the dogs under the table eat the children’s crumbs” (v. 28). This wit evinces a performative false humility, which Mark’s Jesus acknowledges. The woman performed as if she was submissive, yet uses these gender dynamics to unleash a comedic act that disrupts the symbolic place where Jesus had put her. Reading Jesus’s response with a wink and grin, one can see the aphoristic style often attributed to the Cynic philosophic tradition (although this is not to equate the two).

The Johannine signs source.

A series of scholars, led chiefly by Fortna (1970), have proposed that the first half of the Gospel of John was formed and elaborated around a set of seven “signs” or miracles. These can be outlined as follows:

Turning water into wine John 2:1–11
Healing an official’s son John 4:46–54
Healing a paralytic near the pool John 5:1–9
Feeding 5,000 John 6:1–15
Jesus walks on water John 6:16–21
Healing a blind person John 9:1–8
Raising of Lazarus John 11:1–44

The author(s) of the Gospel of John elaborated the magic stories, presenting them as signs to precipitate and substantiate belief in Jesus’s participation in the activity of the Father. The raising of Lazarus highlights this transformation of the miracle tradition into a signs tradition by making the Lazarus event a sign of Jesus’s resurrection.

Crossan (1993) has proposed an alternative theory for the miracle tradition behind Mark and John. Taking the “Secret Gospel of Mark” (recovered from Mar Saba monastery by M. Smith) seriously as part of an early form of the Gospel of Mark, Crossan aligns the raising of Lazarus with the raising of the young person in Secret Mark, outlined as follows:

Healing a paralytic (Mark 2:1–12) Healing a paralytic near the pool (John 5:1–9)
Feeding 5,000 (Mark 6:35–44) Feeding 5,000 (John 6:1–15)
Jesus walks on water (Mark 6:45–52) Jesus walks on water (John 6:16–21)
Healing a blind person (Mark 8:22–26) Healing a blind person (John 9:1–8)
Raising a young person (Secret Mark) Raising of Lazarus (John 11:1–44)

Although the veracity of Secret Mark as an actual source, referred to in a letter of Clement of Alexandria, remains debated, it demonstrates the sometimes tenuous condition of gender studies within biblical scholarship. Secret Mark portrays a young man Jesus loved who, like Lazarus, is raised from the dead. Yet, it is what follows in the narrative that has caused so much controversy: after being raised, the young man is inducted into the mysteries of the basileia of God in a ritual baptism. Because the young man approaches Jesus with a linen (baptismal) covering over his naked body and is described as “loving” Jesus, some have interpreted this as a homosexual relationship (and thus cannot be historical, or original to Mark). Although such a relationship is certainly possible, nothing in this story requires such an interpretive move because nakedness, devotion to Jesus, and a (presumably white) linen covering are consistent with ancient baptismal ritual in the early church.

The magic of Jesus in historical context.

Cotter (1999) identifies three primary ways that miracles could be interpreted in Greco-Roman antiquity: (1) as the result of an intervention by a god, (2) as Nature’s obedience to the intercessions of a holy person, or (3) as Nature’s submission to a divinely appointed hero that has been given dominion over the earth (Cotter, 1999, p. 170). The Jesus tradition evinces each of these modes. Although there are parallels with the Rabbinic materials (Honi the Circle-Drawer and Hanina ben Dosa, among others), Jesus’s miracles in the gospel traditions reflect the literary culture and activity of magicians in the broader Hellenistic world. With the advent of Rabbinic Judaism, there was a concerted move away from the thaumaturge and the scriptural paradigm of the charismatic intercessor toward a model that understood the study of Torah as the font of healing.

The Jesus presented as a magician is also singular in comparison with the “standard” Hellenistic magician. Jesus did not make use of incantations or spells, nor did he recommend the use of amulets; he also never exorcised entire households, but remained interested in individuals. However, Jesus’s profile as magician adheres to the common Hellenistic image by performing many of the same wonders (curing blindness, resurrecting the dead, calming the seas, healing paralytics, exorcising demons, and curing skin diseases) and by assuming that disease was the result of sinful behavior (hence Jesus’s refrain, “sin no more.”) Moreover, the Jesus that is presented as a magician adheres to purity codes by commanding those whom he healed to show their cleanliness to the symbolic authorities (Mark 1:40–45).

Early christian magic scrolls.

The belief that ritual—as expressed in symbolic formulae, incantations, potions, and charms—can influence the earthly realm and the divine or heavenly realm is that with which magic is concerned. Scholars have recovered a vast array of ritual and magic prayer scrolls that addressed a series of needs including requests for healings from disease, prayers for erotic pleasure, pleas for sexual potency, and direction in spiritual ascent, among others. Early Christian magic/ritual scrolls offer a perspective on alternative avenues for supplication and acknowledgment.

A pre-Christian example of the genre comes from “The Old Coptic Schmidt Papyrus,” a first-century C.E. magic scroll that records a complaint by a woman named Esrmpe against a man named Hor, son of Tanesneou. Esrmpe appeals to Osiris to “render justice to me and Hor (son) of Tanesneou for the things that I have done to him and the things that he has done to me.” Esrmpe reveals that she is socially marginalized as a woman, acknowledging that she is “without power” and has “no champion son” to protect her or advocate on her behalf, as she is “a barren women.” Her barren condition shows how biological women were defined in relation to men in the first century C.E. In this sense, she was not treated as a true subject on her own. In her symbolic universe, men defined women in relation to themselves; thus, she lost value in the economy of sexuality. Osiris serves as a last resort for her supplication. Esrmpe has been wronged by Hor and demonstrates the precarity of being a socially defined woman when she announces that “many are the things that he has done to me.” Because there was no justice for the marginalized gender, she appeals to the gods in this scroll to “render” her “justice.” This is one of the ways in which magic can subvert the sociosymbolic system in an effort to offer justice.

It is common to find a mix of appeals to Christ and other intercessors (angels and saints) juxtaposed with non-Christian divinities in the same magic scroll. One example comes from the Magical Papyrus of Paris (fourth century C.E.), requesting the exorcism of a demon. This papyrus includes a magical formula that was to be incanted over the head of the possessed individual by the magos: “[p]lace olive branches before him and stand behind him and say, ‘Greetings, god of Abraham; greetings, god of Isaac; greetings, god of Jacob, Jesus the upright, the holy spirit, the son of the father, who is below the seven, who is within the seven’” (Meyer and Smith, 1999, p. 43). This is followed by a chain of partially meaningful divine titles that are transformed into meaningless incantations: “bring Yao Sabbath; may your power issue forth from [Name], until you drive away this unclean demon Satan, who is in him. I adjure you, demon, whoever you are, by this god, Sabarbarbathioth Sabarbarbathiouth Sabarbarbathioneth Sabarbaphai” (Meyer and Smith, 1999, p. 43).

Such chains of senseless words are common in ancient magic. In Hellenistic antiquity, magic worked not because it was understood, but precisely because it was not understood. Various scholars have sought after the meaning of the various magic formulae, but have often fallen short of cataloging the majority of them. A powerful sign or symbol functions because it lacks meaning. Its meaning is its effectiveness, its causal potency, not its imaginary associations: it works because it is not invested with normal meaning, but with a meaning that moves beyond the symbolic realm.

After an exorcism, it was common to acknowledge the authority responsible by adorning the body with an amulet, and the example that follows again demonstrates the use of meaningless chains that are endowed with meaning: “after driving out (the demon), hang around the [person] an amulet…with these things written on a tin metal leaf: ‘bor phor phorba phor phorba bes charin baubo te phor borphorba phorbabor’” (Meyer and Smith, 1999, p. 44). These words sound exotic and are foreign to the magos. “Magikos” itself was a foreign (i.e., Persian, barbarian) term, and thus its exotic and at-first-meaningless nature may have been what was attractive about it in the first place.

Putting together the unknown term(s) with (perceived) effectiveness is what made magikos so compelling in the early Christian world. Theurgic activity is best understood within the context of appreciating the meaning and effectiveness of apparently meaningless symbols or words. These meaningless fragments, formulae, or goetia (“barbaric words”) in various magical papyri make use of this. Gender, likewise, presents an artificial and symbolic reference for something that has little or no biological correlate. Biological sex does not overlap evenly with social or symbolic designations of gender. Magic and gender both make reference to terms (mystical words for magic and biological designations of sex) that lack correlates in the empirical realm.

Early Christian magic scrolls also shift perspective on some of the rhetoric surrounding what certain second-century C.E. theologians referred to as “Gnosticism.” Theologians such as Irenaeus of Lyons and Tertullian charged that so-called Gnostics were proffering an elitist form of Christianity. However, the magic scrolls demonstrate that these different angelic intercessors or aeons were appealed to for rudimentary daily concerns such as love, sex, sickness, or success. In one example from the sixth century C.E., a man appeals to “the power of Yao Sabaoth,” a divine being normally associated with Gnosticism, for the love of another man (Meyer and Smith, 1999, pp. 177–178). Yao Sabaoth is not appealed to as some sort of elitist “gnostic” divinity, but as a familiar intercessor in popular religion. Papapolo son of Noe declares that his love must seek him “from town to town, from city to city, from field to field, from region to region, until he comes to me and subjects himself under my feet.”

Many of the erotic magic rituals in the early church describe love and gender dynamics in terms of a right to enjoy the other. Much of the love in these popular ritual texts is related to masturbatory satisfaction—the lover serves to satisfy the desire of the other. A magic incantation from the Berlin 8325 Papyrus (ninth century C.E.) captures this love-for-the-purpose-of-satisfaction dynamic: “you may give her desire for me, and she may desire me with endless desire and come to me in the place where I am, and I may lay my breast upon her and satisfy all my desire with her, and she may satisfy my desire, right now, right now, at once, at once!” (Meyer and Smith, 1999, p. 161). A sixth/seventh-century C.E. scroll also describes desire in masturbatory terms, such that the subject meets his own desire in the other, as if in a mirror: “With my desire may she desire me, with love may she love me. May my [desire] and my love dwell insider her, [Name], daughter of [Name], like an angel of god in her presence” (London Hay 10376; Meyer and Smith, 1999, p. 165). Although this scroll is a late example, the impressive continuity between the ancient Coptic/Greek scrolls and the modern Ethiopic (Ge’ez) scrolls (which use many of the same divine names) suggests that these later scrolls preserve an early church tradition.

Beyond requests for good fortune and sexual satisfaction, there are many examples of curses. Masculinity was defined in antiquity in terms of sexual potency and symbolic authority. One way to emasculate a socially defined “man” was to pray for his sexual impotency. An example from the Strasbourg Coptic manuscript 135 makes this dynamic clear: “It (?) must not have an erection, it must not become hard, it must not ejaculate. May he—Shinte son of Tenheu—be like a corpse left in a tomb and like an old rag left on a manure pile” (Meyer and Smith, 1999, p. 181).


Examples of popular religion evinced in the early church indicate that much orthodox rhetoric was simply that: rhetoric. The popular religion of the Hellenistic age continued alongside the development of the early church and continues in “orthodox” countries (such as Ethiopia) today.




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Justin Marc Lasser