GUEST BLOG: Digging for Magic

by Phillip Witteveen on May 30, 2013

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Our guest blogger is Andrew T. Wilburn, author of the recent book Materia Magica: The Archaeology of Magic in Roman Egypt, Cyprus and Spain. Wilburn is an Associate Professor of Classics and Archaeology at Oberlin College. He teaches courses on a variety of topics in ancient history, archaeology and art history, and Greek and Latin language and literature.

Have you ever been in love, deeply in love, with someone who did not return your affection? Or maybe you’ve gotten into a little trouble with the law—a speeding ticket? Did you wish you could say “Abracadabra” and have the problem go away? For men and women in the ancient world (Greece and Rome, about 2000 years ago), magic seemed to offer solutions. Their magic, however, was not like the illusions made famous by David Blayne or David Copperfield. It was personal and vicious.

Can we reconstruct how ancient magic figured into peoples’ lives? This is the topic of my new book, Materia Magica: The Archaeology of Magic in Roman Egypt, Cyprus and Spain. We learn about ancient magic through the objects that people used – curses, amulets, and figurines that we might call “voodoo dolls”—and by considering the social and historical context of those artifacts. This period was before Christianity, or during the early years of the religion; most people were pagans and worshiped lots of gods. The objects used by sorcerers often turn up where you least expect them. For example, around 1890 AD, some locals on the island of Cyprus were digging a well close to the site of Roman Amathous, which had been inhabited 2000 years earlier. As they dug down with picks and shovels, they came upon an older shaft. This passageway was filled with something other than the normal rocks and dirt and rubble—the Cypriot men instead unearthed a jumbled mass of human bones. Below this were even more mysterious objects—folded sheets of lead, scratched with strange words in ancient Greek and arcane symbols, and then translucent white tablets, which also had been inscribed. Whether the locals could make out the text is unclear, but if they had, they would have discovered weird words and phrases. One tablet reads, in part, “I lay upon you this muzzling charge against Ariston, give over his name to the infernal deities ALLA ALKE KE ALKEO LALATHANATO Thrice-named Kore!” This object called on many gods and goddess, often using their secret names and other magical phrases to seize and restrain the victim, Ariston.

These artifacts, called curse tablets, are just one type of evidence that I explore and contextualize in my book. Curse tablets were not limited to Amathous, and indeed, the tablets from Cyprus are part of a long tradition that stretches back to the 5th century BC, the period of Classical Athens. In Materia Magica, I investigate who produced the magical objects, how the magicians activated the spells and what this magical act meant for the local community. The physical place where the artifact was found, and what it was found with, helps us answer these questions. The curses from Amathous—over 230 lead and stone tablets—were produced by at least four individuals who were all working out of a spell book. Who were these individuals, and why were they working together? Some of the tablets were mounted on the walls (holes for hanging them are preserved on one tablet), suggesting that they were meant to be seen, but by whom? The tablets don’t tell us much at all about why they were created, although it is likely they were used in the lead-up to a court case. There is a chance reference to livestock, another to a banker, but one curses the Roman governor of the island, a particularly dangerous venture since many crimes were punished with crucifixion. Piecing the tablets together and understanding how they worked at Amathous is the main goal of one of Materia Magica’s chapters.

Materia Magica uses archaeology to better understand how magic worked in the ancient world. My book lays out a method for investigating the physical side of ancient ritual and then turns to three case studies to figure out who was doing magic, how, and why. The answer, in brief: desperate people who wanted to change their world and make their lives better used the objects that fill the pages of my book. Beyond the Cypriot material, other chapters explore erotic spells and protective rites at Egyptian Karanis, and, at Empúries, Spain, an unusual burial of curse tablets as part of a funeral. Sometimes, their methods were not nice – like demanding that a demon grab your lover’s hair and drag him or her through the streets – but many aspects of ancient life appear brutal and vicious to our modern minds (think gladiators). While we can’t watch ancient reality television to show us the hidden side of human nature, we can dig through people’s garbage to learn the secrets they did not want us to know.

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