Traditions of Magic in Late Antiquity


"Magic," as modern scholars have grudgingly learned to admit, is a very elusive category. No definition of "magic" has ever found universal acceptance, and countless attempts to separate it from "religion" on the one hand and "science" on the other have borne few, if any, fruits. The problem lies, to a large extent, in that what one society may label "magic," another would label "religion," and another "science," so that by choosing one label we are implicitly choosing sides whenever conflicting definitions of magic compete with each other, or run the risk of imposing our own categories upon societies in which these categories would have made no sense.

Given these difficulties, the present exhibition will not attempt any definition of ancient magic. Its goal is much more modest -- merely to present some of the materials in the University of Michigan's collections which might prove useful in any discussion of magic and its practitioners in the Mediterranean basin and the Near East from the 1st to the 7th centuries A.D., a period which saw the magical traditions of several different cultures coalesce and merge into an unprecedented form of international, and even multicultural magical praxis, with its own rituals, symbols, and words of power. Presenting the available evidence, and pointing to some of the interrelations between different types of evidence and to the possible origins of some of the motifs and practices embedded in it, are only first steps on the road to understanding, but crucial steps nonetheless. Moreover, the fact that until quite recently this aspect of that civilization which we often call Greco-Roman has received far less attention than it deserves renders such an exhibition even more significant. Finally, the study of ancient magic can teach us much not only about ancient society, but about human nature and human social structures in general, especially as they relate to the generation, accumulation, and transmission of knowledge about the powers above and the powers below. Magic, after all, is just another manifestation of the innate human desire for control -- to control our natural environment, to control our social world, and eventually to control our own destiny. The techniques may have changed over the last fifteen centuries, but the goals remain the same.

The current exhibition is divided into three sections: one deals with manuals of magical practices, another presents various protective devices, and the third presents some of the more aggressive uses of ancient magic. The wall cases display enlarged photographs of some of the items, allowing a closer examination of even the smallest details.

The present catalogue contains translations of most items, accompanied by brief comments and notes. It must be stressed, however, that both translations and notes are tentative -- the texts and images often defy interpretation, and much remains unknown. If the present exhibition will contribute to a growing interest in, and a closer study of these intriguing sources, it will have achieved its goal.

Continue in the exhibit:

Acknowledgments | Abbreviations | Further Reading