The Greco-Egyptian Magical Formularies

by Briana Johnson on November 21, 2022

This guest author post with Chris Faraone – Sofia Torallas Tovar, editors of The Greco-Egyptian Magical Formularies: Libraries, Books, and Individual Recipes, from the University of Michigan Press. This book is available in hardcover and accessible ebook formats.

As general editors of the project Transmission of Magical Knowledge: Magical Handbooks on Papyrus, we set out seven years ago with an international band of extremely talented scholars on the road of re-editing, translating, and studying the magical handbooks from Roman Egypt that have been preserved on papyrus. From Antiquity to the present, many cultures have collected and arranged magical knowledge, recipes, rituals, and prayers in formularies or handbooks of magic. These books and recipes systematize traditions of knowledge developed to deal with everyday human concerns, including those related to love, wealth, health, and many other aspects of daily life. The largest corpus for the study of these ancient handbooks is that of the Greco-Egyptian magical formularies from Roman Egypt. Egypt’s arid climate has enabled the preservation of organic materials, most importantly the papyri, in the sands of the deserts at both sides of the Nile basin. More than 80 such handbooks survive, often just fragments. Among them, the Theban Magical library is the largest known hoard of magical handbooks, and includes some of the most famous magical formularies composed primarily in Greek, with important contributions in Demotic and Coptic. These manuscripts are kept today in libraries in London, Leiden, Berlin, Paris and Warsaw, and since these were acquired separately through the antiquities market, it is impossible to know the archeological context of any of them. Were they found together, were they part of a temple library, or were they hidden together in antiquity to avoid persecution and burning? Or were they just secret documents that were hidden away from uninitiated eyes? It is difficult to answer these questions, but these papyri provide an incredibly rich source for diverse textual, scribal and material information to study the transmission of magical knowledge. 

During our work on volume 1 of Greek and Egyptian Magical Formularies (Berkeley 2022) so many questions came up about the singularity of each of these books, that we started collaborating on the various chapters that compose this book, with the aim of clarifying various issues of a scribal nature and of understanding the production of magical books.  Since their discovery, all magical texts from Roman Egypt were labeled the “Greek Magical Papyri” and treated a single collective, but from the very beginning, we marked the clear difference in our project between (i) handbooks, which typically contain one or more recipes for magical rituals and feature rubrics and various scribal abbreviations and symbols, and (ii) applied texts (amulets, curses), which were created for specific rituals, contain the personal names of the amulet’s owner or the curse’s victim, and often were folded or showed other signs of their use. By making a clear distinction between these two types of magical texts and ignoring the activated texts, we were able to focus intently on the material dimension of the handbooks, which had been neglected, because scholars assumed that they came from the same “library”, even though it is clear that they were produced independently at different times and places and that individually they often betray several layers of recension, that date to different historical periods, derive from different traditions and reflect a variety of different practices. Our systematic examination of the material characteristics of these books has, moreover, helped us reassess their paleography and consequently rethink their chronology. This kind of reorganization of the corpus helped us, in turn, to better understand the transmission of magical knowledge and the influence of some texts onto others.  New dates have been assigned to some pieces and new connections between previously separate fragments have also changed our perception of book-formats and scribal practices. 

We are very grateful, once again, for the support that the Neubauer Collegium is providing for our project on the magical papyri, and to our colleagues whom we list below, for their invaluable collaboration, wisdom, generosity, and hard work.


Editorial Board

Korshi Dosoo, Marina Escolano-Poveda, Richard Gordon, Edward Love, Franco Maltomini, Anastasia Maravela, Raquel Martín Hernández, Alberto Nodar Domínguez, Panagiota Sarischouli and Michael Zellmann-Rohrer

With contributions by:

Sophia Alkhoury, Miriam Blanco Cesteros, Malcolm Choat, Eleni Chronopoulou, Matthew Cohn, Daniela Colomo, Jacco Dieleman, Radcliff Edmonds III, Jean-Luc Fournet, Alejandro García Molinos, Marius Gerhardt, Kelly Holob, Jordan Johansen, Janet Johnson, Agnes Mihálykó Tothne, Ariel Singer, Emilio Suárez de la Torre, Philip Venticinque, and Rachel Yuen-Collingridge.

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