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date: 19 April 2024



  • H. S. Versnel


  • Roman Myth and Religion

1. The concept

Antiquity does not provide clear-cut definitions of what was understood by magic and there is a variety of terms referring to its different aspects. The Greek terms that lie at the roots of the modern term ‘magic’, μάγος‎, μαγεία‎, were ambivalent. Originally they referred to the strange but powerful rites of the Persian magi (see magus) and their overtones were not necessarily negative (Pl.Alc. 1. 122: ‘the magian lore of Zoroaster’). Soon, however, magos was associated with the doubtful practices of the Greek γόης‎ (‘sorcerer’) and hence attracted the negative connotations of quack, fraud, and mercenary (e.g. Soph. OT 386 f.). Through Aristotle, Theophrastus, and Hellenistic authors this negative sense also affected the Latin terms magus, magia, magicus. However, in late antiquity, especially in the Greek Magical Papyri, the term μάγος‎ regained an authoritative meaning, somewhat like wizard, and was also embraced by philosophers and theurgists (see theurgy). Since in these late texts prayer, magical formulae, and magical ritual freely intermingle, they challenge modern distinctions between magic and religion (and science). However, definitions being indispensable, we here employ a broad description of the ‘family resemblance’ of magic: a manipulative strategy to influence the course of nature by supernatural (‘occult’) means. ‘Supernatural means’ involves an overlap with religion, ‘manipulative (coercive or performative) strategy’, as combined with the pursuit of concrete goals, refers rather to a difference from religion.

2. Sources

Greek and Roman literature provides abundant examples of magical practice in both narrative and discursive texts. Myth affords many instances. Besides gods connected with magic (Hermes and Hecate), we hear of Telchines, skilful but malignant smiths well versed in magic. The Idaean Dactyls were masters of medical charms and music. Thracian Orpheus was a famous magician, and so were Musaeus (1), Melampus(1), and others. But, as elsewhere, the female sex predominates. The most notorious witch was Medea. Thessaly boasted an old tradition of witchcraft, the Thessalian witches being notorious for their specialism of ‘drawing down the moon’.

The earliest literary examples come from Homer. The witch Circe (Od. 10. 274 ff.) uses potions, salves, and a magic wand to perform magical tricks and teaches Odysseus how to summon the ghosts from the nether world. Folk magic glimmers through in a scene where an incantation stops the flow of blood from a wound (Od. 19. 457). Hesiod (Theog.411–52) offers an aretalogy (see miracles) of Hecate. Tragedy contributes magical scenes (e.g. the calling up of the ghost of Darius I: Aesch. Pers. 619–842) as well as whole plays (Eur. Med.), while comedy ridicules magicians (e.g. Ar. Plut. 649–747; Menander(1)'s (lost) Deisidaimon and Theophoroumenos). Theocritus' Pharmakeutria (‘Drug- or Poisonmonger’, hence ‘Sorceress’) became a model for many later witch scenes (e.g. Verg. Ecl.8, and Hor. Epod.5, describing the gruesome preparation of a love potion). Similarly, magical motifs in Greek epic tradition (e.g. Ap. RhodArgon. passim) were continued by Roman epic (e.g. Luc.Civil War 6. 413–830). Exceptionally informative is Apuleius' Metamorphoses, which contains many a picturesque magical scene.

Another illuminating work by Apuleius belongs to the sphere of critical reflection. His Apologia (De magia) is a defence against the charge of magic and provides a full discussion of various aspects of ancient magic. Other discussions can be found in the satirical works of e.g. Theophrastus (for instance the 16th Character (Deisidaimon)), and Lucian, passim. Although early philosophers like Heraclitus (1), Pythagoras (1), Empedocles, and Democritus were often associated with magical experiments, Greek philosophy generally rejected magic. Plato(1) wants the abuse of magic (φαρμακεία‎) to be punished, and Sceptics, Epicureans (see Epicurus), and Cynics never tired of contesting magic. The shift towards a more positive appreciation in late antiquity, in, for example, Hermetic writings (see Hermes Trismegistus), Iamblichus(2), and Proclus (cf. § 1 above), was effected by a new cosmology, also apparent in new demonologies, in prophecies, and astrology.

3. Objectives

As to the intended effects, a rough distinction can be made between harmful ‘black’ magic and innocent or beneficial ‘white’ magic, although the boundaries cannot be sharply drawn. For the category of black magic curse-tablets are the most conspicuous evidence (see curses). Numerous other forms of black magic were widely applied and feared: incantations; the use of drugs and poison (significantly φάρμακον‎ may refer to magic, poison, and medicine); the practice of ‘sympathetic magic’ (similia similibus), for instance the use of ‘voodoo dolls’ melted in fire or pierced with needles (Pl.Leg. 933b; Theoc. 2; Verg. Ecl. 8; Ov.Her. 6. 91); and ‘contagious magic’, the destruction of the victim's hair, nails, part of his cloak, or other possessions as ‘part for all’, with the aim of harming the victim himself (Theoc. 2. 53 ff.; Verg. Aen. 4. 494 ff.).

Some of these practices can function in ‘white’ magic as well. Its main objectives are protection against any kind of mishap, the attraction of material or non-material benefits, and the healing of illness. The first two are above all pursued by the use of amulets or phylacteries, the last by the application of all sorts of materia medica, often activated by charms and ritual (see § 4 below); also by means of purifications, exorcism, or divine healing.

Mixtures occur: love magic is generally pursued for the benefit of the lover, not for that of the beloved, who is sometimes bewitched in a very aggressive manner and by gruesome means. Other types of magic (e.g. prophecy) are more or less neutral, although uncanny aspects may render them suspect (e.g. nekyomancy or the consultation of spirits of the dead).

4. Techniques

Magic is essentially based on secret knowledge of sources of power. The most important are (a) utterances, (b) material objects, and (c) performance.


Utterances may consist of inarticulate sounds, cries, various types of noise (e.g. the use of bells), hissing, or whistling. More common are powerful words and formulae. One important category consists of strange, uncanny words not belonging to the Greek or Latin idiom: the ‘Ephesian letters’ (so called from their alleged origin in Ephesus), also referred to by terms such as ὀνόματα ἄσημα‎ (‘meaningless names’), or voces magicae (‘magical names/words’), whose (alleged) foreign origin and lack of normal communicable meaning were believed to enhance their magical power. Another category of effective words consists of Greek or Latin expressions in which the illness or the cure is compared with a model taken from myth or legend (esp. Homer, Virgil, the Bible) or nature. Stylistic and prosodic devices, such as metre, anaphora, repetition, and rhyme, add emphasis and efficacy to the formulae, as do other magical devices such as writing normal words from right to left or with foreign letters. A copious stock of magical formulae is provided by the so-called Greek Magical Papyri, a corpus of papyrus texts from Egypt that contain extended formulae with magical words and names of great gods and demons, including lists of vowels understood as names of archangels, who are invoked or even forced to assist the practitioner.


There is practically no limit to the selection of magical ingredients: any object or material may have a magical force—iron, (precious) stones, pieces of wood, parts of animals, nails, hair, the blood of criminals. Most important are herbs and plants, where magic and folk medicine often coalesce in the wisdom of the root-cutter and herbalist (see pharmacology). Drawings of foreign gods and demons may be added and, especially in black magic, ‘voodoo dolls’, sometimes transfixed with needles, could have a role.


In the application of these objects and as independent magical acts, various performative actions play a part. The magical objects must be manipulated in a special way, various gestures are prescribed, etc.

These three technical aspects are often combined, exemplarily so in the famous cure of a fracture in M. Porcius Cato(1), Agr. 160: a knife is brandished and two pieces of reed are brought together over the fracture while a charm is sung: motas vaeta daries dardares astataries dissunapiter (untranslatable).

5. Social setting

The social and legal standing of magic is basically ambivalent. (Secret) wisdom and expertise in the application of supernatural means was indispensable and widely resorted to, hence highly valued. Many official ‘religious’ rites, especially in Rome, contained ‘magical’ elements, which were accepted because and as long as they were publicly executed on behalf of the state. In the private sphere, however, magic's very secretiveness and association with asocial or even antisocial goals fostered suspicion and condemnation. Already in the 5th cent. bce, the author of The Sacred Disease (Hippoc. Morb. sacr. 2. 12 f., 4. 36 ff.) made a clear distinction between religious and magical strategies and censured the latter. Plato (see § 2 above) wanted the abuse of magic to be penalized in his ideal state; the Romans, as early as 450 bce, actually did so in the Twelve Tables. Under the first emperors many laws were issued to repress the growth of magical practices, and the 4th cent. ce saw a renaissance of anti-magical legislation. In this period, however, magic was practically identified with prava religio (‘bad religion’) and superstitio (‘superstition’), which, together, served as conveniently comprehensive (and vague) classificatory terms to discredit social, political, and/or religious opponents.


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