Review: “Guide to the Study of Ancient Magic” edited by David Frankfurter

Frankfurter2019David Frankfurter (editor). Guide to the Study of Ancient Magic. Religions in the Graeco-Roman World. Volume 189. Leiden: Brill, 2019. XIX + 797. 

Guide to the Study of Ancient Magic analyzes magic expansively, including a wide range of traditions and methodologies. It is divided into four parts. Part One provides a general introduction to the volume, framing magic as a category which has utility. Part Two suggests that magic should be understood as a form of illegitimate ritual. Each entry within Part Two describes magic as such and avoids using the term “magic,” focusing on constructing the emic perspective. It covers Mesopotamia, Iran, Egypt, Greece, ancient Israel and Early Judaism, Rome and the Roman Empire, early Christianity, and Roman and Byzantine Egypt. Part Three offers analyses of objects and texts historically called magical, each chapter providing fresh analysis and an overview of the history of scholarship. Magic items and objects include the Greco-Egyptian magical papyri, Christian spells and manuals from Egypt, binding spells, Jewish amulets, magic bowls, and magic, gems, figurines and images in ritual practice, textual amulets and writing traditions, and ritual objects in buildings. Finally, Part Four examines “magic as a quality or dynamic of words, texts, artifacts, persons, ritual procedures, or socials situations” (25). Magic is approached from the perspective of speech acts, writing, materiality, mysticism, theurgy, local application of an authoritative tradition, and social tension.

Overall, the volume is an excellent introduction to the theory of magic and ways that magic is practiced through time and space. Notable contributions include each introduction to regional forms of magic (illegitimate ritual) in chapters 4-11, David Frankfurter’s discussion of “magic” as a form of local ritual drawing from an authoritative tradition, and Sarah Iles Johnston’s discussion of the relationship between theurgy and magic. Though readers may have minor quibbles concerning points by authors, by and large Guide to the Study of Ancient Magic is an excellent volume for a detailed overview of studies of magic in the ancient world. Therefore, I will focus my criticisms on points of possible improvement evident throughout the entire volume. Additionally, below the body of this review is a summary of each chapter and occasional comment about contributions.

First, Guide to the Study of Ancient Magic does not effectively deal with places of historical and ritual overlap. This is especially evident in various author’s discussions of early Christianity, Rome, and Roman/Byzantine Egypt. Many of these materials and cultural traditions developed within the same cultural milieu. As such, it would possibly be more helpful to discuss each in conjunction with one another.

In a similar vein, cultural overlaps are indicative of a degree of intercultural contact and sharing of knowledge. No contributions attempt to track or identify paths wherein knowledge was exchanged or could be exchanged. By doing so, we could have a better sense of how the places wherein magical traditions overlap attained new representability after shifting from one historical context to another via a medium. This issue may be dealt with by more critically considering the notion of the “Mediterranean world.” Helpful discussion of the Mediterranean in terms of intercultural contact is present in The Early Mediterranean World, 1200 – 600 BC.

Second, various contributors should consider incorporating more literary and critical theory into their work. Literary and critical theory would provide helpful frameworks and explanations for claims. For example, David Frankfurter comments about Egypt and hieroglyphs: “vocalization of words was symbolically fixed to their written expression (and vice versa), so writing could substitute for vocal utterance” (630). The notion that writing is a sort of substitute for speech is evident is many literary theorists, most notably Barbara Smith. By further exploring how literary theorists and cognitive linguists think about the relationship between speech and text, Frankfurter and others may be able to develop more systematic, critical, and informed models on how magic functions.

Third, though the editor notes this problem, it is worth highlighting in the review: many traditions are excluded. These include, though are not limited to, Islam and other marginal traditions throughout the ancient Mediterranean. Criticism of the absence of certain traditions is related to my previous points. Intercultural contacts and exchange were common throughout the Mediterranean. As such, the boundaries between traditions, namely the chapter divisions in this volume, are perhaps more porous and permeable in history than the volume indicates. The editor should consider how to develop an approach to magic which is both historically contextualized and flexible enough to account for the permeable and porous boundaries between cultural groups and societies throughout history.

Even with these three criticisms, Guide to the Study of Ancient Magic is a thorough and thoughtful volume on the current state of magic studies in antiquity. Many chapters may be useful as introductory reading for undergraduate and graduate students (Part 2). Moreover, other scholars would do well to familiarize themselves with the methodological discussions Part 4 in order to develop them for their own purposes. In short, I highly recommend Guide to the Study of Ancient Magic to libraries, as it is a particularly helpful reference book for issues of ancient magic.

Chapter Summaries

In chapter 1, David Frankfurter explores how scholars have discussed “magic” from three perspectives, commenting on the implications for each one. First, he argues for a distinction between how texts represent or create caricatures of ‘magic’ practitioners and “how historical ritual specialists in certain times and places might actually have invoked demonic forces in certain rituals” (7). Second, he highlights how modern compilations of ancient documents as ‘magic’ are primarily “documents of specific historical subcultures” (9), like Egyptian priests in the 6th century or Jewish Rabbis in Babylonia. They are not documenting mageia. With this, he provides for guiding points for studying magic: (a) as much as possible, use indigenous vocabulary; (b) consider how texts epitomize illegitimate ritual; (c) when using terms like witch or wizard, be clear when it is used to describe a literary figure as opposed to a real, social figure; and (d) textual evidence is not magic but types of rituals. Third, magic should not be understood as a second order-classification but as a heuristic tool,  which signifies “a shift in political and spatial dimension of materials, formulas and ceremonial elements and the particular charisma borne in the local domain by the symbols of broad religious institutions” (14).

In chapter 2, David Frankfurter outlines the goal and organization of the volume, directing focus on “the problems and interests in ancient materials and the theoretical challenges that they occasion” (22). Within this broad frame, the volume is divided into 3 subsequent sections. Part 2 considers cultural constructions of illegitimate, unsanctioned ritual, aiming for emic and idiosyncratic descriptions of such rituals. Part 3 explores texts and materials which have been called magical and aims to describe how such materials may be used by scholars and what the materials were. Part 4 uses magic as a heuristic term, an etic term, using “magic as a quality or dynamic of words, texts, artifacts, persons, ritual procedures, or social situations” (25).

Chapter 3 briefly introduces Part 2.

In Chapter 4, Daniel Schwemer initially provides a broad overview of ritual lore, focused on the ashipu profession. From texts related to this, namely ritual texts against kishpu, he describes how rituals within ashiputu corpora characterize kishpu and its cause. From this emerges the characterization of an image which was dealt with via ritual actions. Of course, worked into all this is an overview of diagnostic texts. He complicates the presentation by noting the presence of rituals from the Neo-Assyrian and Achaemenid periods which were viewed as kishpu in some texts. In general, Schwemer’s description is an excellent emic description of Mesopotamian magic. Two additions would improve the entry though. First, attention to the socio-economic aspects of magic would be helpful. Second, it would be helpful to distinguish more clearly between text and reality, bridging the divide between the two via analysis.

In chapter 5, Albert de Jong describes the constructions of, and problems with, magic in ancient Iran regarding Zoroastrianism. Particularly problematic with Zoroastrianism is that evidence for constructions of ‘magic’ is found primarily within two textual corpora: Avestan texts and the middle Persian texts known in Pahlavi. Avestan texts include three categories of evil beings: yatus, pairikas, and daevayasnas. The daevayasnas are portrayed as those who invite daevas, usually translated ‘demon’, to sacrifices, thereby strengthening evil. At base, though, daevayasnas are portrayed through the ritual lens of the Avestan texts as those who perform rituals incorrectly, the texts only sometimes describing daeva-worship practice. So, “these texts do not interpret the daevayasnas as such, but interpret other sources of evil and locate the daevayasnas among them” (72).

As for the yatu and pairika, usually translated as sorcerer and witch, Avestan texts characterize these figures as female with malicious and pernicious influence. Pahlavi texts yield similar conclusions concerning the dewesn (devil worshippers) and jadugs (sorcerers). The former is characterized primarily as performing ritual improperly. The latter is characterized whoring, being disobedient, or committing ritual transgression. Sassanian texts also suggest women could be accused for acting as a jadug.

So, at base, de Jong portrays Zoroastrianism as a system wherein the texts are less interested in ‘wrong ritual’ but more interested in precision of correct ritual. As such, proper rituals and prayers are said to be mighty weapons against daevayasnassorcerers, and witches. Unfortunately, material culture complicates the picture because the most helpful things are Sassanian amulet seals which are not present in Zoroastrian texts. Equally problematic is the relationship between incantation bowls, replete with Iranian personal names, divine names, and geographic names, and Zoroastrianism. Overall, it is difficult to comment on religion and magic in Zoroastrianism due to the lack of evidence. Though the contribution is thorough and enlightening, I am left wondering about the reason for ritual ambiguity: is it possible that the ambiguity of ritual transgressions is an intentional thing? Is part of the literary construction of evil figures meant to be ambiguous? If so, how does this impact how we understand other groups in Avestan and Pahlavi texts?

In chapter 6, Jacco Dieleman describes “the nature, functions, and perceptions of ritual and ritualists in pharaonic Egypt” via heka, activities “always framed as assisting in the preservation of the ordered world” (87). Within Egypt, Dieleman constructs a picture of Egypt wherein heka and religion cannot be distinguished. He first describes the nature of heka and how it is harnessed in ritual for ordering the world. Rituals harnessing heka and collections of Egyptian ritual texts demonstrably do not permit a sharp distinction between state ritual and private ritual. Now, because heka is ambiguous, he examines how heka can be a hostile force and how there existed a fear, albeit not a reality, of foreign heka workers who performed rituals with malicious aims, a stereotype present in narrative texts. Finally, he deals with curse rituals, regularly practiced in Egypt for general defense by the state and private individuals. So, “there was no concept of ‘black magic’ or deviant, illegitimate ritual in ancient Egypt” (113). This chapter is notable for its exceedingly clear layout, helpful and insightful discussion of the relationship between religion and magic, and consistent use of primary source material instead of assertions about Egyptian ‘magic.’

In chapter 7, Fritz Graf offers an overview of magic in Greece. Stemming from the goal of defining magos and its cognates, he also (a) examines terminology rivaling or supplementing magos and (b) examines whether magos has anything to do with sanctioned or unsanctioned activities. Texts from the 6th and 5th centuries BCE represent magos as an “itinerant religious entrepreneur” (121). During this period, magos was embedded within a network of ritual specialists: mantisaugrtes, and goes. During the 4th century, magos also became negatively associated with thusiaiepoide, and pharmaka. He ends by describing how the Homeric thelxis, a charm, eventually came to be criminalized by Theodosius and Justinian. Although Graf effectively illustrates how magos developed chronologically in relation to the culture and generally provides and helpful overview, the piece is poorly organized. As such, it is difficult to follow the various developments of magos within the Greek tradition.

In chapter 8, Yuval Harari describes the terminological development of “various aspects of paranormal power and knowledge: from Jewish sources in the Hebrew Bible, the Second Temple period, and Rabbinic literature. First, concerning biblical literature, Harari begins by describing prohibitions against various unsanctioned ritual specialists in Deut 18:9-15. In doing so, Harari frames the discussion in terms of us and others, Us being “the biblically sanctioned agent of knowledge and “truth”” (141-142), the aim being an emic description which is methodologically challenging. From here, he describes multiple aspects of how the Hebrew Bible constructs sanctioned sources and unsanctioned sources of knowledge and paranormal power: signs (אות) and prophetic deeds, priestly practices, means of delegitimizing the “Other”, and performative speech as regards cursing and Yahweh’s name. Through this, he shows how the bible “recognizes the effectiveness of foreign agents of supernatural power and knowledge operating in the world, but consistently reiterates their inferiority vis-a-vis those who act on God’s behalf and under his auspices” (150).

Second, examining Second Temple period writings, Harari highlights multiple key developments: demonology, exorcism via heavenly knowledge from God, demons who teach women unsanctioned knowledge, and ritual performances with sanctioned efficacy being framed as speech from a biblical hero. Third, considering how these ideas grew into Rabbinic Judaism, he describes Rabbinic literature from three perspectives: various laws on keshafim, the power of words, and how Rabbinic literature constructs alien practices and other agents of paranormal events or activities. So, he proposes three basic ideas for exercising power in Rabbinic literature: “(1) a basic belief in the performative potential of the human “deed” (ma’aseh), which effects transformational change in the world and is kishuf, (2) a prohibition against its performance because it is idolatry or defiance of heaven, and (3) stories about the rabbis’ power to operate precisely in this way, that is, to perform a ma’aseh” (173). Overall, Harari’s contribution is one of the best; however, that is likely because much of his discussion is drawn from his previous book on the subject. Even so, his analysis is notable because it (a) focuses on the literary construction of ‘magic’ and (b) emphasizes the issue of knowledge, an emphasis which would be helpful for every contribution. Excluded from his discussion, though, is how certain biblical figures who attain knowledge in unsanctioned rituals are related to the broader Near Eastern culture. For example, how to the kesheph and hartumim relates to Mesopotamian and Egyptian rituals?

In chapter 9, Magali Bailliot traces the evolution of ambiguous ritual practices through the lens of juridical texts. First, by tracing relevant terminology in the Twelve Tables, counter-spells and disenchantments in Pliny, Plutarch, Augustine, and iconography, relevant terminology in Lex Cornelia de sicariis et veneficis, and various later texts, Bailliot highlights how rituals involving things like sorcery, haruspicy, and divination were socially ambiguous. They were perceived as such even more so when such rituals had the potential to disrupt social and political stability. Second, Bailliot describes how defixiones functioned as historically ambiguous rituals, using defixiones “as testimonies to ancient mentalities” (194). To do so, Bailliot shows how gesture, symbol, and word are all linked together within defixiones, though she doesn’t deal with images. With this, Bailliot concludes by suggesting that the itinerant specialists (magicus, necromancer, veneficus, etc.), namely the Others, “did not challenge social rules so much as lend themselves to a play of ambiguities” (197). Though this contribution is solid, for those unfamiliar with Latin, Greek, and Roman studies, the heavy use of emic terminology may confound readers. This raises an important issue in studying any magic: how does one use emic terms in a way that does not make the material unapproachable by non-specialists?

In chapter 10, Joseph E. Sanzo describes the wide range of opinions concerning illicit ritual, ‘magic,’ in early Christian literati. He first addresses how illegitimate and ambiguous ritual characterizations developed in the literary tradition, dividing texts as either narratives or lists. Early narratives do not front illicit practices like mageia, only using such terms for distinguishing insiders from outsiders. Later narratives further developed the contrast between legitimate and illegitimate actors. Lists with illicit rituals, he argues, are similar: earlier texts use general terms for illicit behavior; however, over time, illegitimate ritual experts are more precisely placed within their own taxonomy. Second, he examines the discursive contexts of illegitimate and illicit rituals. To no surprise, discursive contexts typically functioned by establishing religious boundaries. Sanzo also illuminates the diversity of opinions among ecclesiastical leaders.

In chapter 11, Jacques van der Vliet describes construction of illegitimate ritual practices from textual sources in Roman and Byzantine Egypt. First, he outlines the history of the region, the types of source material, and relevant terminology. Second, he describes illegitimate ritual from five perspectives: (a) deviant ritual practices are used to draws boundaries in terms of religious and intellectual differences; (b) terms like mageia that are used to other individuals and sub-groups within the broader category of “Christian,” a sort of insider conflict; (c) sources which offer credible scenarios about how illegitimate ritual functioned in society, though this section is poorly presented because van der Vliet does not explain why he determines texts to be credible; (d) various texts, especially gnostic, that represent the efficacy of illegitimate rituals; and (e) how magos entered Christian imagination as a ‘bad guy’ for saints. Common in each grouping is that the deviant ritual is constructed as having efficacy on account of unsanctioned, illegitimate entities (demon, devil, archons, etc.).

In chapter 12, David Frankfurter introduces Part Three, which focuses on “textual and archaeological materials that have been labelled magic according to long scholarly tradition” (279). He frames Part Three as a section attempting to analyze the literary materials not as magic documents but in terms of how they reflect historical social situations.

In chapter 13, Jacco Dieleman, author of Priests, Tongues, and Rites (Leiden: Brill, 2005), describes the range of Greco-Egyptian magical papyri. He frames magic in this context as “a generic term for a set of ritual practices from late Ptolemaic and Roman Egypt that aimed at acquiring assistance from deities, demons, and the dead for overcoming uncertainty, misfortune illness and conflict in everyday life” (284), a product of the scribal class. Next, he describes the history, origins, and pitfalls of the most accessible text corpora: the Papyri Graecae Magicae (PGM), the Greek Magical Papyri in Translation (GMPT), and the Supplementum Magicum (Suppl. Mag.). Of these manuscripts, Dieleman distinguishes between two types: formularies and activated materials. This allows him to prevent etic categorization of texts, such as language divisions. He also identifies five ancient archives. Shifting to textual content, Dieleman divides the corpora into categories, each with its own subcategories: knowledge, control, protection, healing, and miscellaneous. Then, he draws attention to how the scribal features point to a scribal class conversant with Egyptian, Greek, and Demotic traditions, showing a high degree of technical language and fluid boundaries between Greek and Egyptian scribal cultures.

Moreover, focusing on the apparent bilingualism, he suggests that the bilingual nature of the corpora is grounded in the belief that the supreme deity is beyond and above ethnic and linguistic divisions and answers to different names in different speech communities” (311). Likewise, a reason for bilingual scribal cultural tendencies is “the idea that certain languages, due to their antiquity, are better suited than others to address the divine” (312). Additionally, though Greco-Egyptian formularies often introduce novel ideas, texts tend to be framed “in claiming ancient pedigrees that are without basis in historical reality” (312), thereby giving “clues as to the social and cultural framework in which the practitioners aspired to be working” (312-313). Finally, by noting significant shifts in the corpora, he describes how amalgamation and adaptation appears in Egypt regarding other cultural imports, thereby enabling ritual specialists with “new means to capture and mobilize ritual power in writing” (319). Overall, Dieleman’s contribution is incredibly clear, concise, and well presented. The only problem, though extremely minor, is his use of the term “intertextual,” which appears to be used in an uncritical fashion (300).

In chapter 14, Jacques van der Vliet describes Christian spells and manuals from Egypt, a contribution which is a revision of Marvin Meyer’s (1948-2012) original submission. These texts, typically in Coptic, were produced between 300 and 1200 CE. First, he provides a broad overview of scholarly history, ranging from one of the earliest publications on Coptic magic (1894) to major conferences, articles, and books as late as 2016. Second, he addresses the nature of the Coptic magic corpus, deeming linguistic dichotomy between Greek and Coptic an “antiquated academic habit”, highlighting the corpus as Christian in spirit and background, noting the diversity in text materials, and focusing on Coptic “magic” as a textual practice distinguished from literary and documentary texts. Subsequently, van der Vliet provides an overview of a wide variety of Coptic magic genres and textual strategies. Finally, he describes how future scholarship on Coptic magic must more systematically map out textual sources, more thoroughly consider the social contexts of Coptic spells as ritual artifacts, and consider the authority of Coptic ritual texts. Like other contributions, van der Vliet provides a helpful overview. The sections on genre and textual strategies, though, is difficult to follow. Additionally, it is worth noting the various blog posts from a recent conference on Coptic magic at Universität Würzburg (link).

In chapter 15, Esther Eidinow explores the subject of binding spells (defixiones) on lead and papyri from the 6th century BCE to the 8th century CE, touching on prayers for justice and border-area curses when necessary. She initially provides an overview of the corpora and collection, including forthcoming collections. Next, she outlines a range of texts, diverse in chronology and geographic region. The transmission of defixiones radiates outward form Sicily (6th century BCE), eventually making its way into Roman-Britain. The movement resulted in variations, “shaped by the needs of local contexts, cultures, communities, or even individuals” (364). She then describes how lead binding spells were buried possibly because they were associated with the underworld. Shifting to text and word, Eidinow describes the various types of language (words) and images on defixiones. Finally, based on what is in binding spells, she considers the possible social contexts of them. Even so, she notes that much work remains to be done in mapping the distribution of defixiones in the Mediterranean world and the social dynamics of the objects. Most notable in Eidinow’s contribution is how the uses conceptual blending in order to explain binding spells. The only criticism of her contribution is that rather than asking how the text constructs or imagines a writer of defixiones, she focuses on the writers of defixiones. In reality, we can never know who the writers were or what they were thinking; however, we can know how the text represents the writer, regardless of historical reality.

In chapter 16, Gideon Bohak, who wrote Ancient Jewish Magic: A History (2008), focuses on three groups of Aramaic/Hebrew amulets and magical spells: Byzantine-Palestine, Sassanian Babylonia, and manuals and recipes from late Jewish antiquity. After providing an overview of the respective time periods and regions, Bohak makes a few general observations concerning the corpus. First, he highlights how magic in Egypt, Palestine, and Syria, as opposed to Babylonia, was strongly influenced by local culture. Moreover, evidence for such magic in Babylonia rises drastically in the 5th and 6th centuries CE, which he explains as a period of shifting from oral magic to scribal activity. Second, turning to social contexts of magic artifacts, he notes three trends: (a) though viewing a wide range of heavenly powers as theologically valid, the producers were still firmly monotheistic; (b) magicians were likely also scribes, familiar with spells and the Hebrew Bible, possibly even members of the Rabbinic class; and (c) Jewish physicians likely produced amulets. Even so, Bohak highlights that the study of Jewish magic is in its infancy, in the senses of comparing Jewish magic with Greek and Coptic texts, Babylonian vs Palestinian magic, and ancient Jewish vs Christian magic. Though a splendid contribution, I am not convinced by his explanation for the rise of magic artifacts in the 5th and 6th centuries CE, namely that there was a shift from oral magic to scribal activity. Instead, he should consider how social and economic shifts may have contributed to the influx of magical artifacts.

In chapter 17, Veronique Dasen and Arpad M. Nagy describe magical gems from antiquity, which belong to the broader class of amulets and are a modern etic category. Such amulets reflect “the transculturality of magical knowledge in the Roman imperial period” (416), reflecting old traditions and new developments. First, Dasen and Nagy outline three formal characteristics and three structural elements: gems typically have texts, images, and magical signs; structural elements include engravings, material, and shape. Based on these factors, they may be categorized. Second, they briefly lay out the various functions of gems as amulets (material for which efficacy is not apparent to the non-initiated), gems (with a performative social value and protective function), jewels (primarily a sign of wealth), and seals. The significance and meaning of these categories are unclear, though. Third, they consider how amulets draw from tradition and represent cutting edge, personalized technology, especially in terms of iconography. Though I agree with Dasen and Nagy that both tradition and innovation are present, I disagree with their claim that there is a contradiction between the two. Fourth, shifting to social function, they describe the types of individuals who made amulets (ritual experts), production centers (widespread; no single production center), and chronology (viewing use of magical gems as part of a broader shift from ritual via orality to ritual via writing). They note, though, that identifying who used amulets is either overly specific or too generalized. Various Greco-Egyptian papyri at least show a connection between papyri and gems regarding rituals as two dialects of magic, a concept they should have further detailed. Finally, they provide an overview of why amulets were used, namely for love and illness. In section, they offer an overview of the history of scholarship.

In chapter 18, Andrew Wilburn engages “with the concept of representation in ritual practices and the relationship between an image or simulacrum of a person or thing and the person or thing that it purports to represent” (458). Dividing the analysis into three categories (Egypt and ancient Near East; Greek and Hellenistic world; and Roman), he describes four common ritual. Beginning his discussion, Wilburn first highlights how realism “may not map onto the ancient mind” (461); instead, “the importance of the [image often lies not in its appearance but rather its efficacy to the goals of practitioner or ritual celebrant” (462). For this conclusion, he draws from a mixture of previous studies on regions and critical theory. Second, he offers a broad overview of images in Egypt, the ancient Near East, the Hellenistic world, and the Roman period. He concludes that images were polyvalent in terms of their relation to their antecedent. Even so, the image was simply a representation of the antecedent. I am only left wondering about texts; if a text is viewed as an image, or perhaps language describes a ritual representation, how does that change our understanding?

In chapter 19, Roy D. Kotansky broadly analyzes amulets from the perspective of textuality and writing traditions in the ancient world. He classifies amulets into three categories: unlettered, semi-lettered, and lettered. Konansky’s categories are based on the notion of an amulet progressing from spoken incantation to written text. Next, he considers a wide range of amulet traditions: Mesopotamian, Egyptian, Punic-Phoenician, early Hebrew and Jew, early Greek, and Roman. For each tradition, he attempts to describe its development in terms of textuality, especially regarding how the amulets relate to each other cross-culturally. This contribution is problematic on two accounts. First, he uncritically applies the Great Divide between text and orality, a problem pervasive throughout this volume. Second, he fails to justify his division of amulets by region and does not address issues wherein the categories overlap. Moreover, he extensively uses imprecise and generic rhetoric in order to make claims about textual traditions, such as words like “anticipates” without any substantiation as to why the textual tradition is related.

In chapter 20, Andrew Wilburn examines how various building components across the ancient Mediterranean indicate ritual processes via material evidence (archaeological) and literary sources. For each building component, Wilburn concisely and clearly describes the evidence for cultures chronologically. Initially, though, Wilburn provides a basic theoretical framework for social space. Then he discusses the building components: site preparation, foundation, enclosure, floor, roof, and aggressive ritual activity regarding architecture. In doing so, he illuminates the “fluid relationship between ritual and architecture” (600). Though a marvelous contribution, I am left wondering how his theory of social space incorporates notions of “ancient Mediterranean.”

Part 4 considers ways in which magic might serve to describe “a quality of social or material dynamics or of communication itself” (606). Discussion in Part 4 is intended to be tentative and provocative, not exhaustive.

In chapter 22, David Frankfurter considers how speech may be considered ‘magic’ by describing it in terms of a speech act. First, he describes what constitutes a speech act, highlighting important terms like illocutionary, perlocutionary, and functionality. Though speech acts do not necessarily carry magical force, “there exist certain types of speech that function in their very utterance to change things in the world, or to create a situation that invites change” (613). Second, he applies this model to epoide and charm, sacred and liturgical speech, and other worldly speech. For each, the magical aspect is the shift to divine sources of language or the “phonetic zone of the gods” (624).

In chapter 23, David Frankfurter considers how writing functions as magic “long after the moment of vocalization” (627) and how the written word in antiquity can be “a magic that revolved around the ideas of graphically representing speech” (629). He subsequently examines multiple traditions and links them together. First, he observes how hieroglyphs, as substitutes for vocal utterance could be washed off and transferred as “a concrete medium for the “power” of the word, name, god, or myth that is signified” (635). Second, drawing attention to Greek writing, ritual orality, and voces magicae, Frankfurter describes how voces magicae served to imitate the speech of gods based on the Greek philosophical notion of stoicheia. Third, he identified five ways in which Greek letters functioned as iconic media in a way akin to Egyptian hieroglyphs (“Ephesian letters”; nomina sacra; Greek alphabet as secretly pictographic; isopsephy/gematria; and cryptography). Finally, Frankfurter describes how characteres are linked to Egyptian hieroglyphs in image, literature, and amulets through merging Greek magic “with the concrete efficacy of the visual signifier in Egyptian magic” (656). With approach to magic, it “offers a qualitative evaluation of the significance and function of writing, or a form of writing” (657).

In chapter 24, Frankfurter considers the materiality of magic, focusing on “material media as (a) primary contexts for… religious and ritual experience and (b) as possessing and directing agency in the world” (660-661). Fundamental for him is identifying how agent authors perceived materials as acting, fixed sympathetic forces or agents. Combined as an assemblage, such sympathetic forces are powerful active groups of agents. In some cases, such as figurines, materials as agents demand responses within ceremonies and ritual. Additionally, through social context and recognizability, a sort of agency may be created in an object, such as a ritual object or assemblage linked to myth and immediate ritual efficacy as a mediating object. So, at base, Frankfurter pushes for a model of magic and materiality wherein “Even if its agency derives ultimately from a god, hero, ancestor, or ritual expert, the amulet, blessing, or assemblage bears that agency in its material form” (676). This approach seems particularly promising beyond the realm of magic, especially when considering how idols functioned in the ancient Near East.

In chapter 25, Naomi Janowitz examines how “magic” can explain certain aspects of mysticism through a notion of magical language. She looks at ancient linguistic ideologies and analyzes them: words as representations of divinity via the Derveni Papyrus and Socrates, words as divine speech via the Hekhalot hymns, transformation by divine names via Hekhalot Rabbati and Gospel of the Egyptians, and words, sounds, and breath via Mithras liturgy.

In chapter 26, Sarah Iles Johnston examines the connection between theurgy and magic. First, she offers a concise history of theurgy, especially highlighting its relation to magic and Jewish traditions. Theurgy originates out of Middle Platonic philosophy. Through this Platonist metaphysical framework, Johnston describes various ritual processes for ascension. Though scholars often approach theurgy as magic, Johnston presents theurgy as something distinct form magic based on extant theurgical texts. This contribution is an excellent overview of how theurgy has been used through history.

In chapter 27, David Frankfurter examine sway in which magic can be used when linked to the concept of religion, not being crude or derogatory. This is necessary because, evening setting aside problematic conceptions of religion versus magic, “we must reckon with some kind of cultural relationship between – in gross terms – official forms of religion and the forms represented in the magical texts and ritual materials” (721). So, Frankfurter frames magic as drawing from “authoritative tradition,” namely an appeal to religious authority whether or not it is based in historical reality, As such, he defines magic as “the invocation and deployment of an authoritative tradition in a local performative context through the creative agency of a ritual expert and involving various ritual media” (722). By incorporating Robert Redfield’s Great Tradition and Little Tradition, he further specifies magic as “the ritual or material context in which a Great Tradition (that may or may not be associated with living cults or temples) is interpreted by a ritual expert, located in time and space, and linked with particular social circumstances” (725). Great Tradition is identifiable via iconography, written vs. oral, and local social agency as mediated by Great Tradition. He offers three gradations of such mediation through which magic attains efficacy: direct mediation of an active religious institution, ritual experts improvising elements of a living or moribund institution, and mediation of an invented Great Tradition. At base, though an imperfect model, magic ritual is a more localized form of religious religion. Though a potentially promising approach, I wonder how it may be adjusted for particular historical contexts and how we may more precisely describe the Greater Tradition. For example, Frankfurter claims that Jewish ritual experts practically invented the tradition of Solomon as an exorcist. As a Great Tradition, what is the relationship between Solomon as an exorcist and the Hebrew Bible? In other words, a method should be developed in order to specify the ritual specialist’s perception of the Great Tradition.

In chapter 28, Esther Eidinow considers “magic” a heuristic means for understanding social tension by analyzing aggressive magical practices. Through social conflict discourses within texts, Eidenow identifies social dynamics, including various contexts, motivations, and assumptions regarding social tension, questioning why certain social tensions arise in communities from the perspective of magic. Such an approach Eidinow suggests, is indicative of emotion, thereby enabling a better understanding of social dynamics and tensions. Second, she suggests magic points towards social tensions inasmuch as magical accusations can function as a form of gossip. Thus, she argues that magic from her perspective may only be understood in context of the society and culture. Finally, she offers thoughts about how subsequent scholarship should integrate magical studies.

Review: “The Anti-Witchcraft Ritual Maqlû: The Cuneiform Sources of a Magic Ceremony from Ancient Mesopotamia” by Daniel Schwemer

Schwemer2017Tzvi Abusch and Daniel Schwemer are two of the most prolific writers with regard to Maqlû¸ the well-known Mesopotamian anti-witchcraft ritual. Already in 2016, Tzvi Abusch published the long-awaited critical edition of Maqlû, a remarkable editorial achievement [1]. This volume, then, serves as a supplement to the critical edition of Maqlû. Instead of focusing on translations and transliterations like Abusch’s critical edition, this volume focuses on the epigraphy and history of transmission of Maqlû.

Chapter One introduces Maqlû. First, he briefly describes the matter of witches, withcraft, and anti-witchcraft rituals in the ancient Near East, a particularly succinct summary which provides (a) scholarship history and (b) a summary of Maqlû. Subsequently, he describes the role which the Maqlû-ceremony played culturally, describing the prestige of Maqlû in Mesopotamian tradition and how it was incorporated into other rituals and texts. Shifting to textual transmission and dates, he suggests that the exact composition date is unknown; however, on the basis of linguistic forms, development of Babylonian literature, and extant MSS, it was likely composed between the 13th and 11th centuries BCE, with a fixed length of eight tablets, followed by the Ritual Tablet. Even so, evidence from rituals like Bīt Rimki and SpTU 4, 128 point towards “the plurality of maqlû rites used in the ritual practice of āšipūtu” (4). At last, Schwemer provides a thorough synopsis of the maqlû-ceremony.

Whereas Chapter One provides an overview, Chapter Two discusses the MSS of Maqlû. This discussion of MSS also includes, of course, a helpful discussion of the history of scholarship. Figures in this include Fracois Lenormant (1875), George Smith (1875), Theophilus G. Pinches (1891), James A. Craig (1895), and, most importantly Knut Tallqvist (1890s). It was Tallqvist who first reconstructed tablets I and II, some of Tablet III-VII, and a “Tablet VIII,” which he had not yet identified as the Ritual Tablet. After exploration of the Kuyunjik Collection and subsequent work, Meier identified that the maqlû-series was composed of 8 incantation tablets and one ritual tablet. Meier’s work, Schwemer comments, “reflects, on the whole, an understanding of the Akkadian text that is still valid today” (24).

Of those fragments discovered at Nineveh, only 46/221 were known by Meier. Wilfred Lambert and Rykle Borger, though, helped to identify many of these fragments. The fragments were eventually joined together and ordered in Abusch’s critical edition. Subsequently, Schwemer describes the various locations from which other fragments were recovered, such as at Sultantepe, Uruk, Kish, and Nimrud. Other fragments, such as two NB MSS from Nippur, were identified; however, they remain unstudied. Finally, he lays out the distribution of canonical MSS, based on tablet.

Next, he considers source typology, for which he distinguishes between the Maqlû-text and parallel sources. Parallel sources “include text portions or passage that are identical or similar to passages in Maqlû. Those portions, however, are not presented as part of Maqlû, but are embedded in a different literary and ritual context” (26). As for sources who wrote Maqlû proper, he divided these into two categories: full-text tablets and excerpt tablets. The latter includes school texts and commentaries, for which we have 17 school tablets, two commentaries, and a LB explanatory text, demonstrating an understanding of Maqlû as “authoritative textual tradition that could be used as a witness in theological arguments” (27). The former, namely full-text tablets, include the vast majority of MSS. On the basis of the spread of these tablets, Schwemer suggests that they were not complete sets; rather, they were “individual assignments by advanced students of cuneiform” (28). Finally, he provides a chart organizing the MSS by Tablet, Siglum, Museum number and bibliography, Provenance, and Plate number.

Chapter Three attempts to group the various fragments on the basis of palaeography, tablet formatting, physical properties, colophon, and findspot/museum collection context. These categories enable to him to propose 5 plausible full-sets of Maqlû from Kuyunjik. He then proposes some smaller text groups for MSS from Ashur, Sultantepe, Nimrud, and those of unknown provenance, or in some cases no group. He does the same with MSS from Babylonian libraries at Babylon and Borsippa, Sippar, Kish, Nippur, Ur, and Uruk.

Chapter Four describes the variants and versions of Maqlû. In doing so, he distinguishes between the multiple levels of variation: section level, line level, word level, and morphological variation. For variations at each of these levels, he further distinguishes between legitimate variants, inferior variants, and scribal errors. Moreover, on the basis of the “comparatively homogeneous group of manuscripts with a low incidence of scribal errors,” Schwemer views the Kuyunjik Maqlû sources as the textual standard. In laying out the information as such, he effectively demonstrates the variation in Maqlû MSS through time and space. Perhaps more importantly, his analysis uncovers important morpho-syntactic patterns and peculiarities from Maqlû MSS, patterns which may help to make sense of morpho-syntax in other Assyrian and Babylonian texts.  

Chapter Five, forms a brief supplement to the critical edition by Abusch. Schwemer offers readings of cuneiform signs different from those of Abusch on the basis of hand copies in this volume. This is followed by hand copies of 126 Maqlû MSS.

Overall, Schwemer’s presentation of Maqlû MSS and variation within them is extremely valuable. His organizing MSS into tablet groups and subsequent tracking of variants between Maqlû MSS offers a helpful reconstruction of how texts were received and copy in Mesopotamia. Furthermore, his analysis of the variants by group has much potential for strengthening our understanding of various Akkadian dialects. For example, he notes that “The attestations for the nominative in -a­ found in the Maqlû manuscripts would suggest that scribes were prone to use them in intransitive clauses or in semantic contexts with low transitivity, but future studies based on a more comprehensive dataset of pre-Late Babylonian manuscripts of Standard Babylonians texts may invalidate this observation” (70). In other words, the spelling conventions and linguistics variations may be helpful data in elucidating how Akkadian developed in space and time.

I only noted a single typo on pg. 66. In the left column, the paragraph beginning with “The addition of ina before ŠU.[SI in RT 66′” does not include a final ] bracket after SI.



[1] Tzvi Abush, The Magical Ceremony Maqlû. A Critical Edition (Leiden-Boston: Brill, 2016).

Magic in the Anti-Witchcraft Rituals

One the topics I am exploring extensively right now is the topic of magic. It is a hotly debated topic, with a wealth of data to draw from an develop our understanding of it. So, I am currently reading one of the most well known “magic” texts from the ancient world, namely the anti-witchcraft ritual. It is more commonly referred to as Maqlu.

What I find interesting, though, is the way that language is employed in the text. Near the beginning of the text, we read the following:

I have made an image of my witch and my warlock

Of the one who made my image and the one who performs (witchcraft) against me.

(Tablet 1, Lines 15-16)

What I find interesting in these lines is the parallelism at play. In line 15, a G Preterite 1CS form describes the patients as “making” an image of the witch and warlock. Here, the verb epēšu is used in relation to the creating an image of the respective witches.

In line 16, the verbal form switchs from a preterite to two participial forms from the root epēšu. On each form is a 1CS possessive suffix. What is not identified is an object concerning what is epēšu-ed in line 16. Because line 15 uses a finite form of the verb in relation to creating a image, this notion appears to carry over from line 15 into line 16.

Moreover, in line 16, the participial forms function as substantivized participles, denoting an agent noun (cf. Huehnergard 20.1). So, the implication is that the participles communicate “the one made my image,” albeit without explicitly stating “image.”

Now, what is particularly interesting about this is that the patient performs the same basic activity which is performed by the witch and warlock. This is evident because of the parallelism in the lines. What this points towards, then, is something well-developed in scholarship: “magic” is problematic category for describing certain phenomenon because it historically carries an negative connotation. In reality, when we look at texts like Maqlu, the afflicted patient appears to be performing rituals similar to that of the “witches” themselves, or at least employing the same material means for rituals.

Therefore, while “magic” is a necessary category for interpreting texts, people, events, and things in history, we must always be conscious of what we mean by “magic.” Do we assume certain things about magic, which ultimately causes us to misrepresent the texts or cultures on hand? So, by being attentive to what we mean when we say “magic,” we can have (a) a better appreciation for other cultures and societies and (b) a more precise and accurate understanding of other cultures and societies.

Mesopotamian Monday: Hymn of Sargon II to Nanay

Just as modern-day artists and religious practitioners write hymns of worship for gods, ancient scribes also wrote hymns for gods. The most significant difference between hymns of today and hymns of 2700 years ago is the culture and society in which hymns were written and composed. In other words, hymns presume the reader has a different type of knowledge. For example, when one reads Amazing Grace, the hymn assumes a certain degree of knowledge about Christian religious traditions. The same is true with ancient Mesopotamian hymns. In order demonstrate this, I will briefly examine a hymn of Sargon II to Nanay [1].

Generally speaking, this text is a prayer to Nanay by Sargon II. Because the tablet on which the text was written is broken, though, it is difficult to identify the flow of the text. It roughly consists of a description of cultic performers, a blessing for Sargon II, and a prayer against crop pests [2]. What I am interested in, though, is the particular deity invoked and her associations in the late 8th and early 7th centuries BCE.

The deity invoked in this prayer is Nanay, a deity who emerged in first in Sumerian civilization. By the 1st millennium, though, she became associated with the god of Borsippa, Nabû, at the temple of Ezida [3]. In terms of the family of deities, Nabû was equivalent to Muati, the son of Marduk (lines 2-5). Moreover, Nabû’s divine specialty was in the field of writing. As the deity of writing, his temple in Borsippa was known for being a center of scribal learning and scholasticism [4]. Therefore, by association, Nanay was part of divine household which specialized in scribal learning and scholasticism. In what follows, I will provide two examples as to why understanding this cultural background is essential to understanding the logic of the prayer of Sargon II to Nanay.

First, in the hymn we read a description of what Nanay does: “The knowledgeable physician whom she does not [guide], His hand is faltering before his clients. Without her, who can do anything?” In essence, she enables physicians to do their jobs. The phrase “knowledgeable physician” uses the Akkadian word asû. The asû is known in Mesopotamia as a physician, inasmuch as he employs magical materials as means to heal and provide therapy to the sick. What this hymn suggests, then, is that the knowledge of these ancient physicians was, first and foremost, made possible on account of Nanay’s assistance.

Second, we read that she plays a role in preventing plagues against the crops: “Keep affliction and loss afar off from him: The fell locust plague that destroys the grain, the vile cicade-pest that denudes the orchards, that cut off the food offerings of god and goddess” (lines 23-26). Although Nanay is not the goddess of fields, irrigation, or anything of the sort, she functions in context of a deity who is the deity of scribal writing, namely Nabû. In such scribal writings, we find a wide variety of genres, many of which are incantations and rituals. Within a text which lays out the texts required for an individual to read if they wish to become an exorcist, a line references incantations and rituals which are “designed to avoid plague or pestilence” [5]. Though done tentatively, I suggest that Sargon II requests Nanay to aid in preventing pestilence because her divine family is in charge of writing and scribal practices. Thus, they would have special knowledge of certain rituals and incantations which impact crops.

Furthermore, invoking Nanay as a means of preventing pestilence fits well with apotropaic magic, magic designed to prevents a particular, bad outcome [6]. This is notable because magic was, in many respects, tied to the notion of writing in the ancient world [7]. In light of the close relationship between magic and writing, it is, therefore, reasonable for Sargon II to invoke Nanay and implore her to prevent pestilence as a sort of apotropaic magic.

So, in summary, understanding the cultural context of any text is integral to understanding what it is expressing and the logic of what it is expressing. Thus, I have sought to demonstrate this principal by offering a few examples from the prayer of Sargon II to Nanay.

 [1] Translations from Benjamin Foster, An Akkadian Anthology (Bethesda: CDL Press, 2005), pp. 788-790. To read the text, visit and find SAA 03 004.

[2] Foster (2005), 788.

[3] M. Stol, “Nanea,” in Dictionary of Demons and Deities, ed. Van der Toorn et. al. (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1999), pp. 611-614. For a more detailed history of Nanay, see Tawny L. Holm, “Nanay and Her Lover: An Aramaic Sacred Marriage Text from Egypt,” in JNES 76 (2017), pp. 1-37 (link). For more on Nanay at Borsippa as the husband of Nabû and as Nanaya Ehurshaba, see C. Waerzeggers, The Ezida Temple of Borsippa: Priesthood, Cult, Archives, Achaemenid History 15 (Leiden, 2010), 22, 26–27.

[4] Grant Frame and A.R. George, “The Royal Libraries of Nineveh: New Eivdence for King Ashurbanipal’s Tablet Collecting, in Iraq, Vol. 67, No. 1, Nineveh, Papers of the 49th Rencontre Assyriologique Internationale, Part Two (2005), pg. 265. This is supported by the role of Ezida, Nabu’s temple, as a center for scholasticism, an archaeological site wherein 250 scholarly tablets were discovered near the shrine to Nabu. For a simple overview, see this link.

[5] M. J. Geller, “2 The Exorcist’s Manual (KAR 44),” in Assyrian and Babylonian Scholarly Text Catalogues: Medicine, Magic and Divination, ed. Ulruke Steinert (de Gruyter, 2018), pg. 306. Text available here:

[6] ] M. J. Geller, “2 The Exorcist’s Manual (KAR 44),” in Assyrian and Babylonian Scholarly Text Catalogues: Medicine, Magic and Divination, ed. Ulruke Steinert (de Gruyter, 2018), pg. 306.

[7] This issue is discussed in an unpublished paper of mine. I hope to publish the discussion in the future. If you are interested in my comments, please email me or leave a comment. Moreover, consider Part 1 of the Exorcist’s manual published by Ulrike Steinert, “1 The Assur Medical Catalogue,” in Assyrian and Babylonian Scholarly Text Catalogues: Medicine, Magic and Divination, ed. Ulruke Steinert (de Gruyter, 2018), pp. 203-291. The colophon for this text is translated by Steinert as follows: “[Written according to an older original and?] collated. [Tablet of…] …, the young physician, [son of …, the] shangu-priest of Baba, from the midst of the city Assur.”  This is important because it highlights the role of the physician as both (a) performing incantations and rituals and (b) functioning as a scribe to write down such incantations and rituals. This demonstrates, again, a relationship between text and the physician/exorcist who performs magic.

Weekly Digest (October 27, 2017)

*For myself and others, I will now be posting each Friday. Posts will include articles/books/blogs. which are relevant to my own work. When available, a link will be posted to the article. 
Article on Phoenician amulet dated the 7th century BCE (LINK)
“This amulet bears a Phoenician incantation (or perhaps more accurately, two or more incantations) inscribed in an Aramaic script, on the basis of which it is dated to the 7th c. BCE. Together with a companion piece, it is one of the only stone tablet text amulets’ to bear an inscription in any Canaanite dialect, and is therefore unique in several respects.”
An Aramaic-Inscribed Lamaštu Amulet from Zincirli (LINK)
“We are, nevertheless, occasionally surprised to find forgotten inscriptions with thin bibliographic trails and no available transcriptions, studies, or even legible photographs. The Aramaic-inscribed Lamaštu amulet we present here is one such forgotten item. This amulet was excavated during the 1888–1902 German expedition to Zincirli Höyük, Turkey, but was reproduced only illegibly in a 1943 report.”
CT 53 46
Zadok (2015) notes the personal names Nērī-Iau and Palṭi-Iau. If the iau element is a Yahwistic element, this is particularly interesting because their roles within CT 53 46 are as priests.
Click Hole Video About a New Gospel (LINK)
Ancient Jewish Magic Bibliography (LINK)
Review of The Materiality of Power by Brian Schmidt(LINK)
Review of Phoenician Aniconism in Its Mediterranean and Ancient Near Eastern Contexts (LINK)
Article about the Publication of Inscriptions by Christopher Rollston (LINK)
Article on Early Judaism (LINK)

“The Materiality of Magic” edited by Dietrich Boschung and Jan N. Bremmer


Dietrich Boschung and Jan N. Bremmer (eds.). The Materiality of Magic. Morphomata Volume 20. Paderborn: Wilhelm Fink, 2015, pp. 443. 

In the last two decades, scholarship about magic has thrived; however, in the midst of everything, there has been little focus on the material aspect of magic. In particular, what is the relationship between the person and the material? What role does the material play in magic?  Rather than approaching “the social, intellectual or philological side of magic” (9), the volume engages primarily with the material approach, the product of a conference in Cologne in May 2012. While many of the articles contribute to these three approaches (social, intellectual and philological), the primal approach in this volume is the materiality of magic.

Needless to say, magic is a debated term and concept. So, each articles offers fresh insights on how we should define magic and continues with valuable discussion of historical periods ranging from ancient Egypt to the post-Medieval era. Jan N. Bremmer kicks off by Bremmerproviding a the basic goal of the volume and a succinct consideration of defining magic, namely a goal of a material approach to magic and magic as a fuzzy concept understood differently based on the circumstances. Although there is nothing particularly new or innovative about the preface, it is helpful for readers who may be unaware what it is to approach magic in terms of materiality. Simply put, Bremmer’s preface is an excellent primer before engaging with the material.

Jacco Dielman sketches the history of textual amulets in pharaonic Egypt and focuses on the relationship between the material utilized and how that material affected the amulet’s format and handling. Beyond the sketch of history, he highlights how the materials used for amulets developed. One major result of his contribution is the foundation “results of a larger project on the history of textual amulets in antiquity” (23). In will be interesting to see in the future how his analyses in this volume stand up to scrutiny of future research in his large project.

Focusing on how miniature monstrous figures attain ritual efficacy, Laura Feldt argues they were installed as media who were both in this world and the other world, bringing bless and cursing. As materials, they embodied this fundamentally ambiguous state only effective as material. Feldt writes, “The ‘reality’,  functions, and importance attributed to transempirical beings in religion and magic depend fundamentally on mediation and materiality” (90). This mode of ritualizing the monstrous figures and providing it efficacy is important because, by focusing on the production of magic materials for pragmatic ends in material and textual sources, it becomes apparent that the satues attained efficacy from broader discussions about ritual efficacy, statue use, and divine presence. I do look forward to considering how Feldt’s push for understanding monsters as liminal beings, on the borders of our world and the other, modes for blessing and cursing, may have ripples in Biblical Studies.

Jaime Curbera provides update analysis on the material aspects of Richard Wunsch’s collection of Greek curse tablets. Naturally, these observations improve our understanding(s) of the nature of “magic” in ancient Greek culture. Of particular importance is the appendix, which provides new readings of some of the tablets within the collection.

Jaime Curberaq and Sergion Giannobile together issue analysis of a newly published Voodoo doll, suggesting that it originated in Keos. This is followed by a lead isotope analysis which confirms the possibility of origins in Keos.

Richard L. Gordon argues for a more intimate associations between the material and immaterial in magic by examining how magical substances, namely natural substances, manufactured objects, and text, shifted from being materials to immaterial ideas.

Veronique Dasen provides an overview of several amulets in order to demonstrate how differing period thought about amulets as material magic. Consequently, she provides important considerations of how magic and amulets developed, along with the role of the the amulets. These considerations are important because, from a methodological perspective, it highlights the importance of reflecting on material magic from an emic, internal perspective, taking consideration of the developments and influences which change how people understand materials.

Arpad M. Nagy first provides an overview of magical gems in the Roman Imperial Period. Following his discussion, he highlights a gem that stands on the threshold between two cultures, constituting a creative connection of different cultures. Because it was a product of cross-culture, it failed as a magical gem. Importantly, Nagy’s awareness of the diversity of the gems is important because it helps to re-define the genre and demonstrate the significance of magical during the period.

Jan N. Bremmer focuses on three points in his contribution: (1) a brief history of books with magic in antiquity, (2) an emic argument for the lack of any magical book, and (3) an etic argument for the Bible as a magical book in late antiquity. One thing Bremmer directly touches upon that other contributions do not is a keen awareness of the struggle between emic and etic descriptions when it comes to understanding magic. His comment on the Bible in particular demonstrates this awareness: “From an etic point of view, the uses of a Gospel or the Bible discussed above might be considered as magical. On the other hand, these books certainly were not grimoires, and neither did most Christians consider them as magical…” (269). I commend Bremmer for this astute comment.

Jitse Dijkstra concentrates on six Greek magic texts with Christian elements. With these magical texts, he demonstrates the syncretistic environment of Egypt in Late Antiquity. He does so by examining the relationship between the image on the magic texts and the texts themselves. From a historical perspective, his work is important because it enables a more nuanced examination of how the images within texts can enable cross-cultural examination of ancient cultures.

Jürgen Blänsdorf analyzes the curses texts of nymphaeum in order to consider the defixion texts and magical components in relation to Tabulae Sethianae and the Anna Perenna sanctuary. By highlighting the similar and differing elements, he clarifies and sharpens our current understanding of the texts geographically and in terms of material magic.

An updated description and appendix of inscriptions for ‘good luck’ charms of a 1994 article, Annewies van den Hoek, Denis Feissel, and John J. Herrmann, Jr. show the historical development of ‘good luck’ charms into magic chains. My favorite things in this article are (1) the overview of ‘good luck’ charms that are incredibly informative and also (2) the updated appendix of charms for future studies.

Peter J. Forshaw’s analysis of Marsilio Ficicono through Heinrich Khunrath draws out the materials aspects, and developments therein, of astral and talismanic magic and the relation between between the user and material. I found Forshaw’s comment on the blessing of the high priest particularly fascinating: “Bearing in mind Khunrath’s interest in both Christian Cabala and Divine Magic, it is little surprise to discover that the very same verses can be found on Jewish ritual amulets” (372). I find this intriguing because in Jeremy Smoak’s recent work on the Priestly blessing, one of his primary arguments is that the benediction is apotropaic in origins. Perhaps, then, Khunrath was onto something when  he used the text as a amuletic formulation.

Owen Davies explores the material culture of post-Medieval domestic magic and highlights the emotional connection between the material of domestic magic and those who provide it agency. While discussing methodological approaches to this topic, one exceedingly insightful comment, and perhaps a call to act, considers the current nature of “magic” within different disciples: “It should go without saying that different disciplines have much to learn from each other’s source base, theories, and methodologies when it comes to understanding ritual activity and magic. But while there are numerous different conversations going on, they are rarely shared because of disciplinary, chronological, and geographical boundaries between scholarly communities and individuals” (380).

As evident through the great variety of time period, The Materiality of Magic offers a plethora of conclusions through the common focus on material aspects of magic. Because it draws from so many time periods, it offers a variety of authoritative, influential, and important ideas of how scholars understand “magic”. Although it may not have been available, the volume would be strengthened substantially with an additional article about the materiality of magic in the 21st century.

Overall, I highly recommend this work. The contributions, derived from a diverse group of scholars and disciplines, are important starting points, or perhaps checkpoints, for current dialogue regarding magic. Variations of what constitutes “magic” in terms of materiality for each contributor, depending on his or her scholarly tradition and studied historical period, reflects the past and forthcoming struggles about understanding a term with such baggage. Yet, The Materiality of Magic is an excellent start in breaking disciplinary walls and secluded scholarly approaches.

*I’d like to express my gratitude to the publisher who provided me a review copy in exchange for my honest opinion. 


“Women’s Divination in Biblical Literature” by Esther J. Hamori

DivinationEsther J. Hamori. Women’s Divination in Biblical Literature: Prophecy, Necromancy, and Other Arts of Knowledge. Anchor Yale Bible Reference Library. New Haven: Yale University Press, 2015, pp. 288, $85.00 (Yale University Press).

*I’d like to express my gratitude to Yale University Press for providing me with a review copy in exchange for my honest opinion.

For the most part, scholars are aware that distinctions between “prophecy” and “magic” misrepresent the ancient world. Likewise, they are aware that prophecy is a subset of divination equal in status to the magic subset. As Hamori demonstrates, though, those distinctions have been ingrained into how males and females are understood in regard to divination. Recognizing this issue, Hamori provides analyses of the range of women in various types of divination throughout the Jewish canon and the range of depictions therein. So, while others have recognized the range of depictions, Hamori is the first to provide a comprehensive overview of the range of women of divination represented within the Hebrew Bible.

Chapter I establishes the primary trajectory of her work, namely to “color our view of the vastly complex, rich, and diverse world of ancient Israelite divination” (p. 8) based on a non-structuralist approach to divination and gender. Delving more into her methodology, Chapter II pushes strongly against structuralist tendencies to read the Hebrew Bible through a binary lens (i.e. religion vs. magic, men in public vs. women in private, male vs. females, etc.). Instead, she suggests reading biblical accounts of female diviners closely, in order to provide a nuanced reading the demonstrates the spectrum of views of women divination in biblical literature. Overall, her methodology is fantastic and programmatic to any future biblical studies relating to biblical literature, including extra-biblical literature (i.e. Pseudepigrapha, Apocrypha, etc.). It would be beneficial, though, if she could have identified the most significant books and articles in which structuralism and theological notions skew, and consequently misrepresent, the text.

Chapter III, exploring Rebekah’s character, approaches the drsh of Rebekah as divination, an act of inquiry, equitable to Isaac’s supplication, and draws parallels to Syrian birth omen divination texts to highlight her role as an omen, all-in-all exemplifying the importance of female divination to the narrative of Genesis. Chapter IV investigates Miriam and accomplishes two tasks: it cogently argues against the Song of the Sea as prophetic poetry by Miriam (1) and illustrates that the conflict between Moses and Miriam/Aaron in fact re-affirms Miriam as having access to divine knowledge, not a binary gender issue (2).

Chapter V highlights Deborah’s epiteth as “mother of Israel” to be reflective of her intermediator divination role and relates he role as a prophet as judge to Moses, not Miriam. Recognizing Christian and Jewish traditions of Hannah as a prophet, Hamori outlines Hannah and her actions in order to show Hannah and her actions are void of divination. Chapter VII pushes against tendencies to characterize the necromancer of En-Dor as an evil, sexual “witch”and instead argues for a more positive view of her as a diviner. Taking into account the divination roles of ‘wise men’ in Israelite literature and association of wise women with divination in the broad Near Eastern context, Chapter VIII argues that the ‘wise women’ of 2 Samuel act in an authoritative role associated with divinatory speech. Chapter IX emphasizes Huldah’s role as a prophet in which she has more divine knowledge than Josiah and, through examination of the Chronicler’s characterization of her and role in affirming the reformation, proves that gender is a non-issue.

Moving into prophetic and wisdom literature, Chapter X interprets the prophetess in Isaiah 8, Le-Maher Shalal Hash Baz, as one who has agency and acts with Isaiah in a prophetic role. Arguing on the basis of women divinators in Ezekiel 13, Chapter XI draws out how Ezekiel’s problem with them is not one of fake or idolatrous prophecy; rather, their prophecy and divination was a threat within Yahwism (like Jeremiah and Hananiah). Hamori, in reading the women of Joel’s vision, highlights what is not, namely everybody does not have the Spirit of God. On reading Noadiah, Hamori presents no conclusions due to the lack of evidence. Chapter XIV highlights the problem of assigning divination activities, such as the teraphim, to any particular gender, concluding that both genders practiced divination equally. Finally, on the other side of the divination spectrum, Chapter XV analyzes the late trope between female divination and sexual promiscuity in order to highlight the a more extreme picture of female divination in the Hebrew Bible.

Simply put, Hamori’s work is exquisite. She cogently highlights the variety of women in divination within the Hebrew Bible. More importantly, she breaks through the popular one-to-one association of women divination as a negative thing. While there is no denying that at moments women in divination are portrayed negatively, that is only one side of the spectrum. Hamori successfully provides descriptive analyses of various texts and vividly colors the range of views of divination. Being integral to how we understand divination in ancient Israel cultural imagination, her work will make a significant impact in how we understood gender roles within the ancient Near East.

One area she did not approach, though, is that of the Pseudepigrapha. While I have no thoughts as to how the Pseudepigrapha may have specifically complimented her analyses, I have no doubts that it would provide better insight into how the textual and socio-religious conditions may have led to and contributed to the relationship female divination = sexual promiscuity. In this vein, it opens an exciting new avenue for the reception of the Hebrew Bible. Although, while future studies may utilize Hamori’s work as a foundation for how they understand a non-structuralist approach to divination, they will likely have to take into consideration other cultural influences from the Hellenistic period.

In short, I highly recommend this work to any person. It is written for the non-specialist, so it is accessible to most people. One of the best qualities of the book is how she carefully avoids the idea of a true prophet vs. false prophet. Likewise, her argument deconstructing the poetry and songs of Miriam and Hannah as “prophetic indicators” will be informative to future analyses of these characters and texts. Do yourself a favor and read this book.