Wednesday, April 7, 2010


Peter Jones, Sunday Telegraph, July 13 2008

Magic works on men, gods and nature: it is used to assert mental, physical or material control over people; to bring gods on-side by means of various formulas (e.g. incantations, magic words); to move mountains, rivers and forests. But since nature is not mocked, it is only by psychological means that the fiction of its efficacy can be maintained. If you can be persuaded it will work, it will.

Daniel Ogden, professor of Ancient History at the University of Exeter, suggests the ancients could be so persuaded because they heard so much about it. Traditional, folkloric (and therefore hugely appealing) tales of magic proved it, and their repetition down the millennia not only lodged the idea of the supernatural in the popular imagination but also provided a template for thinking about, and even practising, it.

For, as Ogden shows, Greeks and Romans were not all high-minded rationalists. Magic-working pops up everywhere: in high literature from Homer to Horace, in histories, novels and the Bible; in documents like the magical papyri from Greek Egypt (do-it-yourself guides to protect yourself against death, attract lovers, foretell the future and so on); on curse-tablets (thin lead sheets inscribed with requests for help of various sorts, mainly involving litigation, sporting contests, love affairs and revenge, and entrusted to the dead or deities connected with the dead to act upon); and inscriptions on magic amulets. The hair-raising stories in which Ogden’s book is so rich have modern resonances too. Time and again we are reminded of the horror movie – ghosts (especially angry ones attacking living victims, begged off by being consulted at oracles of the dead), vampires, werewolves, zombies and even Dr Frankenstein.

One theme among many that Ogden develops (including love-relationships between the living and the dead) is that witches are up and doing long before male sorcerers appear on the scene. In Homer’s 7thC BC /Odyssey/, Circe turns Odysseus’ men into pigs, tries the same trick without success on Odysseus who also baffles her erotic lures, instructs him how to consult the ghosts of the dead, controls the weather, makes people disappear and uses drugs.

Medea, whose name suggests the Greek for ‘intelligence’, also fits the bill. She is best known for her desire to spite her faithless husband Jason by killing his new bride with a poisoned robe, slaughtering their children and escaping in the chariot of the sun (the theme of Euripides’ famous tragedy); but there is enough artistic and literary evidence from the 7thC BC to suggest she too is an early prototype, using drugs and rejuvenating people. Their male counterparts come on the scene only from 500 BC.

As in so many other areas, Romans witches come under the spell of their Greek models, but with a crueller, more Gothic twist. They are old hags, wicked, drunken and driven by lust for young men or a desire to kill; they collect body parts (often from the mouths of wolves) to effect their spells, and mix drugs in cauldrons; they control the physical environment, levelling mountains and making forests walk. Some particularly nasty examples feature in the poet Horace. They bite into a lamb’s neck to pour blood into a pit as an offering to the ghosts of the dead; they kill a young boy by burying him up to his neck, then dry out and powder his marrow and liver to create a love potion.

In Rome too, Ogden argues, well-developed images of male sorcerers, usually associated with dodgy locations in the Near East, appear only later, in the AD period. (Among them are Judaeo-Christian practitioners of exorcism, commanding demons to leave their victim’s body.)

Another little-acknowledged triumph, then, for feminism.

If we are tempted to dismiss this as a wholly ancient phenomenon, we should be careful. This is the sort of world, Ogden points out, that the doctor Carlo Levi met in his exile in South Italy in 1935-6 and described in Christ stopped at Eboli: love philtres, poisons, amulets to ward off disease, spells for curing toothache or transferring one’s illness to someone else, werewolves and ghosts. Only the other day in Kenya, eleven elderly people accused of being witches were burned to death by irate locals. The supernatural still exerts its grip.

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