in ancient greek life

Proteus is not someone who was easy to deal with, as greek heroes from Menelaus to Aristaios had to learn. He possessed immense knowledge, but he had to be forced to share this knowledge with others, and this was not easy: like the seals whose shepherd he was, he was slippery, and he was a shape shifter. "Suddenly, he turns into a wild boar, a frightful tiger, a scaly snake or a shaggy lion, or he shoots up in hissing flames or flows away in a pool of water", as someone narrates who knows him well. "You have to catch him by deception and ruse and then steadfast you have to hold on and with mighty force, whatever happens." (Arethusa's instruction to Aristaeus, Vergil, Georgics 4.407-412. The model, Homer, Odyssey 4.417-420, is much less detailed).

Somehow, we all seem to know someone as slippery and elusive as this. But this is not why I tell this story; nor is it because some people thought him a sorcerer. Not only persons behave like Proteus, some concepts do the same: we somehow imagine that we know what they mean, but when we are to catch them with the fine net of a definition, they shift their shape, slip through our fingers, and leave us wondering; and we have to use force to keep them serviceable to a reasonable degree.

Magic is such an elusive concept. Created in the late sixth century BCE as a by-product of persian imperialism, it has been with us for more than 2500 years, first as greek μαγεία, then as latin magia; it was eagerly adopted by the christian bishops and, considerably later, by these other authoritative expounders of human life, the evolutionary anthropologists and historians of religion. One would have thought that over more than one century of debate, there would be some agreement about the contours of the term. But agreement there is only in popular culture (magic is dazzling and sexy and always a great selling point): as to scholars, over time they have come up with a number of often contradictory definitions.
I will not bother and bore you with definitions here. (For a short overview, see my Magic in the Ancient World, Cambridge, Mass.: Harvard University Press, 1996, chapter 1). Somehow, the ancients knew what they meant when they talked about magic, sorcery, or charms (μαγεία, μαγγανεία, φαρμακεία, θέλξις); and somehow, we seem to know it as well. Instead of talking about definitions, then, I shall confidently look at the phenomena greeks and romans subsumed under these terms, and keep in mind the contrast with what we in our culture mean when we talk about magic. The hermeneutical tension between these two sets of assumptions will generate enough meaning to help us along. And if this seems somewhat untidy, well, one has to keep in mind that one had to use force and trickery in order to deal with Proteus.

Procession of donkey headed demons.

Fragment of a wall painting
from the palace of Mycenae
(13th century BC).

I shall begin this narrative at the moment when some greeks came up with the term mavgo - and its derivative mageiva, "magic" and "magician". This happened at the turn from the sixth to the fifth century BCE. The first author to have allegedly used this terminology was Heraclitus, the philosopher from Ephesos: he described some ecstatic rites that he rejected as those of mavgoi, "persian priests". He knew what he was talking about: during his lifetime, the persians had conquered Western Asia Minor, and Heraclitus and his contemporaries could see persian priests officiating for the persian governor and his court and functionaries: to describe greek rites as belonging to the religious apparatus of the imperialist oppressor was pretty tough stuff. It is not quite clear what those rites were; Clement of Alexandria does not give much context and has his own agenda, but it looks as if Heraclitus was censuring and rejecting the practitioners of private dionysiac mystery rites and not of what we would call magic. But this semantic difference is exactly what we would expect; it warns us against projecting our definitions upon early Greece.

More than a century later, Plato returned to the topic and wrote about itinerant priests (αγύρται) and seers, private religious entrepreneurs who "come to the doors of the rich" and sell their art - initiation rituals that look dionysiac even in Plato's hostile description, and potent binding spells whom powers have been granted by the gods. (Republic 2, 364 BC). Beggar priests and seers come to the door of the rich and persuade them that they possess a power, given to them by the gods, to heal with sacrifices and incantations, in pleasure and celebrations, whenever either they or their ancestors committed an unholy deed; and if they wanted to damage an adversary, the same priests would with little expense hurt a just or an injust man with spells and binding rites: they claim that they could the gods persuade to help them".

Both products that these peddlers were selling served urgent needs, or at least so they said. The initiation rituals freed from the consequences of evil deeds that the client or one of his ancestors had performed (Plato does not expand on those consequences: they must have been either psychological troubles or punishments after death, or both); the binding spells damaged any enemy or rival. In a society where psychological troubles were not easily treated and even less often cured, and where rivalry and competition was a major form of existence, these were no small gains to be had from private rituals.
Plato does not like these specialists and attitude underlying their rituals any more than Heraclitus did: their assumption - that powerful rituals are able even to sway the gods to help and condone unethical behavior (to forgive evil deeds and to damage a fellow human being) seemed repulsive to Plato the theologian of an ethically purified concept of divinity. And at least the binding spells had undesirable social consequences as well: they spread irrational fear among their victims, "whenever they see a magical doll made from wax or clay on the grave monument of the family or in front of the house-door" (Laws 11.933 BE). Instead of furthering social coherence and harmony (the ideal to the utopian social thinker Plato), these practices pitted citizens against each other and spread dissent and suspicion in the city.
At about the time of Plato's youth, yet another disapproving voice chimed in from a seemingly different quarter. "My own view, we hear that voice say, is that those who first attributed a sacred character to this malady were like the magicians (μάγοι), purifiers, begging priests (αγύρται) and quacks of our own day, men who claim great piety and superior knowledge." This is the voice of the cutting edge doctor who wrote a treatise on epilepsy, its etiology and is therapy with the polemical title The Sacred Disease, Περί ιερής νούσου, in which he debunked the then current view that epilepsy was caused by demoniac possession and therefore should be treated with ritual means, with purifications and prayers, to keep away the intruding divinity. The doctor's reason for his attack again is theological, in his cosmology, as in Plato's, gods are supremely good, at an absolute though benevolent distance to humans, and they are unable to invade human bodies or minds and thus cause mental illness. His opponents are the same as those of Plato and Heraclitus: itinerant religious professionals who in this case, profess to heal serious disturbances by inadequate means. (Hippocrates, On the Sacred Disease, 4).
In classical Greece then, the maygoi cover a much wider area of ritual action with their art, mageiva, than any modern notion would allow them. The components of this wide area (ecstatic rituals, private initiation rites, binding spells, cathartic rituals against mental disorders) all have in common that they are rejected by philosophers and doctors.

This rejection has mostly theological reasons; Plato's social argument is unique but it fits the spirit of the work it comes from, the late Laws that show a much clearer awareness of social facts and realities than his earlier writings. These opponents of the magoi in their turn share not only a theology that is based on ethical standards, but they also share the social position in the greek city: philosophers and doctors alike are almost as itinerant and marginal professionals in their cities as their opponents, the magicians and begging priests. Thus, it is in a discourse among marginals that the term magic for the first time appears - marginals with a very firm claim to higher and better knowledge about the divine than the average citizen of any greek city.

The triple Hekate.
Here, as Maiden, Mother and Crone.
She rules the sky, the earth and the underworld.
She holds the keys of the hidden knowledge.
Hekate, along with Zeus,
shares the ability to fulfill human wishes.
According to Hesiod,
her power and worship
are lost deep in time.
She had an important role
as a goddess in tales related
to the eleusinian mysteries.

One of the ingredients of the mix which the itinerant professionals were selling (or peddling, if you prefer) was binding spells, κατάδεσμοι in greek. They were put to use in many situations where individuals competed with each other and where one would desperately need means to block the competition - in business, in erotic pursuits, in sport, but also when suing or being sued in court. We have little knowledge of the ritual that was performed in classical Greece to make this act of ritual binding work, with one exception: one had to speak a spell or prayer, and one had to write the text of this spell or prayer on a lead tablet that then was deposited somewhere inside the earth; we know considerably more from late imperial Egypt through the mediation of several long magical books that were written in Egypt.

In the archaeological record, these lead tablets appear for the first  time in Sicily during the later part of the sixth century, and in Athens in the middle of the fifth century; about the same time our literary texts begin to mention such rituals. The lead tablets have a rather uniform appearance all over Greece, although the formula can show some local preferences and predilections: in Athens, the formula typically says: "I bind so-and-so to Hermes of the Underworld (and/or or other underworldly powers such as Persephone or Hekate)", καταδώ τινά; in more clerically-minded Sicily, the texts have: "I register so-and-so with whatever underwordly divinity", αναγράφω τινά.

The scope of the ritual, in both cases, is clear: the texts remove an individual (or sometimes a group of individuals) from the care of the olympian divinities into the realm of the underwordly powers, moving them to a status that is close to but not identical with being dead: like the dead, they will not be able to speak or walk, to witness in court, to make love or do successful business. The closeness to the dead expresses itself also in the most widespread find spot of these tabellae defixionis, the grave. Sometimes, the tablet is pierced with a nail (more often, the iron nail did not survive: they were thus literally "nailed down", an an athenian text from the fourth century has it.

Sometimes, these texts were accompanied by one or several small statuettes made of lead: they represented, more or less crudely, a man or woman, naked and with their hands firmly lied behind their back. This iconography characterizes a captive, a prisoner of war or an arrested criminal: he or she has become the captive of the underwordly gods. Often, the name of the victim was inscribed on a thigh of the figure in order to prevent any misunderstanding - a ritual detail that goes all the way back to Bronze Age Mesopotamia, as do the figurines as such or their burial in graves or under the threshold of a house.

Several lead figurines like this were found in the main cemetery of Athens, the Kerameikos: all date to the fifth and early fourth century BCE. Others come from many other places in the greek world, Boeotia or Delos, or even from Italy; others again from Egypt where even statuettes made of bees was or clay could survive. Their iconography - a naked prisoner - is identical all over the wider greek world. In the last instance, it goes back to Pharaonic Egypt: there, it represents an outside enemy whom the pharaoh with reassuring regularity defeats and crushes; such statuettes were often buried along the borders of Egypt to keep these foreigners and enemies out. Formulaic and iconographic homogeneity all over Greece and an oriental pedigree is exactly what one would expect if the agents of these rites in Greece were itinerant professionals who easily transmitted their skill from place to place and sold their art for money, and who picked up ideas from religiously and culturally powerful neighbors.
These texts on their sheets of lead are more than the written remains of a ritual practice. They are the very recording of the spoken prayer or spell: the spell was recited when it was inscribed. As long as the tablet remained hidden and buried, the spell was supposed to work and the victim was supposed to suffer but as soon as the written spell was found, taken out and possibly destroyed, it stopped working, and the victim was free. That is: as long as the voice recorded on the tablet remained intact, the infernal gods could listen and would grant the prayer; but once the voice stopped speaking, the spell ceased, and the victim was free again. (The same was true for the statuettes: as tong as the images remained intact, they could communicate their visual message: once found and destroyed, the communication ceased and the spell was broken).

Besides the leaden tablets with their message to the infernal gods, there were at about the same time other famous metal tablets in Greece that concerned the underworld and were found in graves, just like the lead tablets: the famous orphic gold tablets, as their first italian finders called them; by now, it has become clear that they belong to dionysian or bacchic mysteries. We have much fewer of those (about 20 instead of several hundred) but they too reach from the fifth century BCE to the second century AD, and they too recorded a voice that conveyed a vital message.

This time, the voice is a teacher's or guide's voice, and it gives instructions to a deceased person on how to act and what to say and to do in the Underworld: "When dead and arriving in the underworld, you should not drink from the first fountain lest you will forget everything, but drink from the Lake of Memory; and since access to this lake is heavily guarded, this is the password you have to say." Or "When you arrive in the underworld, you will face the Infernal Queen and her tribunal, tell them ʽI am a child of Earth and Starry Heaven' (that is: 'of divine originʼ)”, or, on another tablet, "Say 'Dionysos personally has freed meʼ" password-like information that in all cases had the same result: the dead could then proceed to Paradise.

This information where to go in the Underworld and what to say there - is information which the bearer of the gold tablet must have received during life already, in an initiation ritual that freed him or her from the consequences of evil doing and guaranteed the entry into Paradise; but in order to make sure that this information was not forgotten once the body was dead, the initiator's voice was recorded on the tablet and carried its message along with the body.

Thus, gold tablets and lead tablets are closely related and again this should not surprise us: it is exactly these two things which the itinerant beggar-priests and seers in Plato promise, to bind an enemy and to free from evil deeds through initiation rituals. The same itinerant priest sold both types of tablets and performed both types of rituals, the binding rites that lead to lead tablets, and the bacchic initiation rites that produced the orphic gold tablets. Thus, the magoi of Heraclitus and Plato catered both for the needs of the living and those, less numerous, of the dead; the philosophers disapproved of both types of rituals.

Gold tablets and lead tablets alike assist humans in the difficult business of making a success of one's existence as a human being; being dead, in this perspective, is another aspect of being-in-existence. Ritual means for helping with both were readily available in ancient societies: the eleusinian mysteries promised wealth in this world and bliss in the other world to the initiates already according to the homeric hymn to Demeter (480-489).

The itinerant practitioners followed this attitude, and their clients took what they offered, presumably without any qualm or bad feeling: the opposing metal values in which the ritual texts were engraved, gold and lead, did not correspond to an opposition of moral values, good and bad.

Clay model of a woman, which was used in practicing sexual magic with nails in various organs (Louvre Museum).
In fifth century Greece, ordinary
people made use of both magic
and initiatory cults, provided they could afford them. Plato's itinerant priests, typically, turned to the doors of the rich only and the graves from which we have gold tablets look solidly middle-class at least. 

Binding spells helped to master difficult situations, situations in which an individual saw himself or herself subject to conditions and forces that were difficult or impossible to control. At the origin of these rites were the gods: it was no lesser divinity than Aphrodite herself who gave love spells to the humans. At least this is what the poet Pindar narrates in his version of the Argonaut story in the Fourth Pythian Ode. When Jason, the leader of the Argonauts, arrived in Colchis, he desperately needed help, and he hoped to find it with Medea, the young and powerful daughter of the local king. Whereas other authors tell us that Aphrodite and Hera made Medea fall in love with Jason by sending Eros to do their bidding, Pindar offers a much more elaborate story. It was Jason who used an erotic spell against the unsuspecting virgin, and it was Aphrodite herself who taught Jason the art of love spells, both the words and the rituals, and she gave him the instrument used in love magic, the iynx (Pythian Ode 4.213-220). In Pindar's description the iynx was a wheel on which the bird iynx was bound; when turned, the tormented bird must have given a high-pitched sound. In ritual reality, the iynx was a wheel that one would turn with the help of two strings: when spinning, it must have made the some high-pitched sound as the bird. The iynx was firmly associated with love magic.

On vases, it is often Eros, the god of love, who manipulates an iynx, and from a pair of splendid gold earrings in the British Museum, there dangle two erotes, each with a iynx in his hands: a beautiful expression for erotic seduction female jewelry was supposed to produce, in the hope of the rich owner or, perhaps as likely, the mind of the rich donor of the jewelry.

Jason's love-spell worked and produced not only the help he had expected, but also a marriage; it was seriously flawed, however, and after she had lost some glamour, Jason dumped his barbarian princess.

In the reality of greek life, love spells regularly aim for stable marriages and are used by both genders: the material is quite impressive and ranges from the fifth century BCE to the fifth century CE. This does not mean that they were harmless, as an impressively long spell from fourth century BC Thessaly demonstrates (see picture below).


The Pella curse tablet is a text written in greek, found in Pella, Greece.

Ιt contains a curse or magic spell (greek: κατάδεσμος, katadesmos) inscribed on a lead scroll, dating to first half of the 4th century BC (circa 375-350 BC). It was published in the Hellenic Dialectology Journal in 1993.

There might, after all, exist an obvious and good reason why one's own confessions of love met with deaf ears:

Of Thetima and Dionysophon I register the marriage with the underworld, as well as the marriage of all other women with him, both widows and maidens, but above all Thetima: and I entrust this spell to Makron (the dead in whose grave it was deposited) and to the daimones. And were l ever to dig up, unfold and read these words, only then should Dionysophon marry, not before; may he indeed not take any other woman than myself, and let me alone grow old by the side of Dionysophon, and no one else. I implore you, have pity with me, dear daimones [...] Please protect this for me so that this does not happen and that Thetima miserably perishes, [...] I however become happy and blessed.

The erotic triangle is obvious, and the situation somewhat desperate: Dionysophon is about to marry Thetima, and our writer, deep in love with him, faces a bleak future. Thus, the coming wedding is dedicated to the gods of the dead which should prevent it from taking place, and the speaker then hopes all will turn well and she will get her Dionysophon. But since the spell dooms every wedding of Dionysophon, she needs a clause to make it stop again (it is no good not to know how to end magic, as any apprentice of magic knows): uncovering and unfolding the text will do the trick. One wonders whether it worked, and I also wonder whether I wish it would have worked: erotic spells have a subversive quality. Pindar did not at all approve of Jason's spell: he made Medea "forget her respect for her parents", which is bad behavior for any girl. Much later, the christian Arnobius clearly states that erotic spell break up marriages or seduce innocent minors.

In a way that is similar to the vagaries of one's love life, the outcome of a trial is often difficult to foresee; court room dramas are, after all, a source of suspense and entertainment as inexhaustible as are love dramas. This is even truer when the jury has 500 members, as it did in classical Athens, or when it had the entire city as an audience, as happened in many ancient cities. Defendants had good reasons to be nervous and afraid. Again, the magician's art would become useful, a binding spell would efficiently disable the plaintiffʼs side (and the plaintiff could resort to a binding-spell himself, if he suspected the defendants of using it).

Many lead tablets contain such texts, such as one of our earliest curse tablets from an early fifth-century grave in Selinus in Sicily. It belongs to a group of very early trial spells from Sicily: with the rise of democracy, some cities in the rich greek west had an active and flourishing judicial system already at the end of the archaic age. This judicial system furthered the development both of binding spells and of rhetorics. Not only the earliest trial spells are Sicilian: the men who at about 450 BCE invented formalized rhetoric and its teaching, Teisias and Korax, came from Sicilian Syracuse, and their pupil was Gorgias from the neighboring Leontinoi who travelled widely to teach the art of persuasion - and who was fully aware of the close relationship between rhetorical language and magical language.

He defended the mythical Helen against the accusation of being an adulterous woman by equaling the persuasive words of Paris to erotic magic:

The divinely inspired spells of speech create joy and kill grief: when the power of a spell enters into our phantasy, it charms, persuades and changes our soul in artful sorcery (Gorgias, Helen 10).
Far from accusing Paris of unlawful practices, the skilled theoretician of the powerful word explains his success by the psychology of persuasion.
The text I wanted to cite, however, is far from being rhetorically polished and charming: it works, if anything, by the power of repetition and imagery:
SIDE A: I inscribe Selinontios and the tongue of Selinontios, twisted to the point of uselessness for them. And I inscribe, twisted to the point of uselessness, the tongues of the foreign witnesses of the plaintiffs.
SIDE B: I inscribe Timasoi and the tongue of Timasoi, twisted to the point of uselessness. I inscribe Turana and the tongue of Turana, twisted to the point of uselessness to all of them.

The formula is shaightforward, although no divinities are invoked: the location in the cemetery, however, makes the addressee clear. And the wish could not be clearer: a person with a not in her tongue is of no great use as an advocate or a witness.

A rare inscription shows us not the spell itself but the public side of its working, and the way such spells could work in secret only. The text comes from the island of Delos and was inscribed in about 260 BCE. Its hero is the priest of the egyptian god Sarapis, Apollonios - the grandson of the egyptian priest, Apollonios the Elder, who had brought the cult to the island. This first Apollonios was yet another of these itinerant religious entrepreneurs with an international radius of action: although he had grown up in Memphis in Egypt, he chose Delos as the place for his activities because the island was the hub of sea traffic in the Eastern Mediterranean and had therefore an international community of merchants and ship owners from all over the Mediterranean to cater for.

Such a ambulatory crowd promised to be especially interested in religious offers that were not firmly rooted in the tradition of one city only. His grandson, the younger Apollonios expanded the cult that he had inherited through his father: he decided to buy land in order to build a proper temple (before, the cult took place in a room of the priest's house), and he found a vacant lot in an excellent locations of the town, for a  very reasonable price. So he made his plans public - and this started his troubles: the neighbors did not want a foreign sanctuary in what must have been a mix of residential and quiet commercial area.

They sued Apollonios and he had to stand trial. He was nervous and afraid: but in the night before the trial, the god appeared to him in a dream and comforted him. The trial itself attracted a huge crowd. When Apollonios' accusers were to bring forward their accusation, lo and behold! they could not speak anymore: the god had taken away their voices. Without spoken accusation, however, there could be no trial: the god had shown his power, and his priest got his way.
To the delian public, Apollonios' opponents must have appeared as victims of a binding spell. We can assume that they suspected that Apollonios or one of his friends had cast this spell; but this was not necessarily a bad thing. The worshipers of Sarapis, on the other hand, expected their god to intervene in the way he did. Egyptian gods were famous for their magical power, and Isis in particular, the consort of Sarapis in many temples throughout the greek and roman world, was the most powerful sorceress in the egyptian pantheon.

What matters for the modern interpreter is the insight that in this religious system divine intervention could express itself in the very same form that the result of a binding spell would take. Both the worshipers and the victims regarded this as proving the power of Sarapis: it enhanced his' fame, but did not shed a bad light on him. The greek word for such a miraculous intervention, after all, is ajrethv, 'virtue': something attributed to the most outstanding beings only.

An athletic or literary contest is as stressful as a trial, at least for the performers. As in the cases of erotic spells and trial spells, agonistic spells are well attested throughout antiquity, as long as there were contests. They too were the work of religious entrepreneurs.

One of them becomes visible to us at the moment when his commercial offer is rejected by a scrupulous man, none other than the later christian bishop Augustine. When, in the 370s, young Augustine was teaching rhetoric (either in Thagaste or in Carthage), he also participated in literary contests (theatrici carminis certamen) that were held in the theater: he was ambitious and, we assume, very good. Before such a performance a haruspex (a seer and sorcerer, Augustine's equivalent of Plato's 'seers and begging priests') accosted him and asked how much he would be willing to pay for a victory. Augustine rejected the offer because it involved an animal sacrifice and he abhorred the idea that a living creature would have to die for his sake.
In Augustine's age, the most exciting contests were not recitations, but the horse races: they were drawing huge crowds and often enough provoked as many riots as modern soccer games. Since successful charioteers could rise from lowly beginnings to impressive social standing (not unlike modern pop singers and soccer stars), the masses identified with them and vicariously projected their social hopes on them: the prestige of the star charioteer was their prestige. And often enough, supporters were willing to support their champion not only by cheering but also by charming: scores of lengthy binding spell were found in the substructions of circus buildings and hippodromes, from Beirut to Carthage and Rome.

They could be extremely elaborate and detailed, such as this text from third century CE Carthage:

I invoke you, spirit of the untimely dead, whoever you are, by the mighty names SALBATHAL AUTHGEROTABAL BASUTHATEO ALEO SAMABETHOR. Bind the horses whose names and image on this piece I entrust to you: of the Reds Silvanus, Servator, Lues, Zephyrus, Blandus, lmbraius, Dives, Mariscus, Rapidus, Oriens, Arbustus; of the Blues Imminens, Dignus, Linon, Paezon, Chrysaspis, Argutus, Diresor, Frugifer, Euphrates, Sanctus, Aethiops, Praeclarus.

Bind their running, their power, their soul, their onrush, their speed. Take away their victory, entangle their feet, hinder them, hobble them, so that tomorrow in the hippodrome they are unable to run or walk or win or go out of the starter gates or advance on the racecourse and track: may they fall with their drivers, Euprepes son of Thelesphorus, Gentius, Felix, Dionysios and Lamuros.
[...] Bind their hands, take away their victory, their exit, their sight, so that they are unable to see their rivals, and snatch them up from their chariots and twist them to the ground, so that they alone fall, dragged along all over the hippodrome, especially at the turning points, with damage to their body, with the horses whom they drive. Now, quickly!

This long text invokes a demon with all his secret names: you had to know the names as proof of your power and knowledge, otherwise the demon might not obey. The text describes in all unpleasant detail what the client of the sorcerer expects; and it does not come as a surprise when we learn that these texts are our best source for ancient horse names.

Often enough, the client must have felt that his money was well spent: accidents were common, and not the least at the narrow turning point where the crowded field was likely to crash into each other.


Fritz Graf

Professor of Greek and Latin, Chair
The Ohio State University

The above article consists of extracts from dr. Graf's article: “Tapping other powers. Magic in Greek an Roman Life” from the book: Η μαγεία στην αρχαία Ελλάδα (Magic in ancient Greece), EIE, Athens, 2008.