Secretum secretorum - An Overview of Magic in the Greco-Roman World
Background for Ars Magica sagas

Magic in the Graeco-Roman World

I shall attempt in this paper to give a survey of magic in the classical world, in particular that which could be called Greco-Roman. Starting with the Greek literary references, I shall work my way towards the end of the Pagan era. Unfortunately due to the complexity and volume of this subject, I shall not be able to do full justice to the material.

No definition of magic can be universally applicable because "magic" cannot and should not be construed as a properly scientific term. Its meaning changes as the context in which it is used changes. No single definition of magic can be absolute, since all definitions of magic are relative to the culture and sub-culture under discussion. Furthermore, we often are led by our own cultural assumptions into making too strict a distinction between magic and religion in the Hellenistic world. The only way to discuss magic in its Hellenistic context is to start with documents that discuss magic, or claim to be magical, and see what is in them.

Magic has always tried to locate the secret forces in nature (physis), their sympathies and antipathies. In a sense, the magi were scientists (physikoi), the magi were interested in manipulating the powers (dynameis) of nature. At the same time, they explored the human soul, its conscious and unconscious states and expressions.

The first magical operation that was recorded in Greek is found in Book 10 of the Odyssey: Odysseus' meeting with Circe. One should note that Circe's magic consists in the use of a wand and that Odysseus' defense against her involves an herb called moly [1], which is revealed to him by the god Hermes. Several requisites of magic are here combined: a mysterious tool that looks like a stick but that is obviously endowed with special powers; an herb that was not easy to find; and a god who reveals to one of his favorites a secret that will save him. Thus at the beginning of recorded Greek literature we find the three elements that will characterize magic as a system in the Hellenistic age: a magical tool, a magical herb (starting a long tradition of herbaria) [2], and a god who reveals an important secret.

Circe was a beautiful woman-a seductress or temptress- whom Odysseus visits on her island and who change his companions into swine. It is not clear why she does this. Perhaps because she hates men; perhaps because she represents a more ancient matriarchal society; perhaps because she is just a semi-divine power left over from an older culture, a relatively harmless power if one keeps one's distance, but very dangerous if one comes within her reach. Although Circe changes Odysseus' companions into swine, she has no power over Odysseus himself, because of the magical herb, moly, that Hermes had given him. Not even Hermes, however, can protect Odysseys from Circe's physical charms; when Circe realizes that she has no power over Odysseus, she offers him her bed, they become lovers, and he stays for a while.

Circe is a daughter of the Sun, one of the Titans, just as Medea is the granddaughter of the Sun. The Titans represent an earlier generation, or dynasty, of the gods. Not only can Circe transform men into beasts but she can predict the future. Through her predictions and instructions, Homer links Circe with the other magical motif of the epic, the necromantic scene in Book 11 of the Odyssey. Following Circe's instructions, Odysseys digs a trench, pours out as an offering to the dead a drink consisting of honey, milk, wine and water, and slaughters two black sheep in such a way that their blood runs into the ditch. This attracts the shades of the dead in flocks, and by drinking the blood they regain, for a short time, the ability to communicate with the living.

In the centuries after Homer a number of individuals with supernatural powers emerged who cannot be labeled or classified precisely. They belong partly to the history of Greek philosophy and science, partly to the realm of Greek religion, but they are also magoi, or miracle-workers.

Perhaps the three most famous Greek magoi, between Homer and the Hellenistic period, when magic became an applied science, were Orpheus, Pythagoras, and Empedocles. All three are strikingly similar, but each clearly has an identity of his own. Pythagoras and Empedocles lived in fifth century BCE Orpheus was a more mythical figure, but Orphism, the religious movement named after him was very real and influential.

Orpheus and Pythagoras are associated with important philosophical and religious groups or schools in the history of Greek culture, while Empedocles remains more of a solitary phenomenon, though he did have disciple. All three individuals are known to have expressed their ideas in poetry and prose, and at some point many of these compositions were probably written down by their followers, but few of these writings are extant. What we have are fragments or substitutions by later authors. The similarities among these three figures suggest that in Greek civilization existed a type of miracle-worker who was also an original thinker and a great teacher, someone who offered a philosophical theory to explain the universe and the human soul-macrocosm and microcosm-and who may also have been a poet.

Orpheus is first mentioned in the sixth century by the poet Ibycus of Phegium, who speaks of "Orpheus of famous name." For Pindar, he is "the player on phorminx, father of melodious songs." [3] Aeschylus described him as he who "haled all things by the rapture of his voice." [4] In a vase painting he is depicted on board a boat, lyre in hand; and he is expressly named on a sixth-century metope of the Treasury of the Sicyonians at Delphi. Beginning in the sixth century the iconography of Orpheus becomes continually richer: vase paintings show him playing the lyre and surrounded by birds or wild animals or else by Thracian disciples. He is torn to pieces by maenads, or he is in Hades with other divinities. From the fifth century, too, are the first references to his descent to the underworld to bring back his wife, Eurydice.[5] He fails in this because he looks back too soon or because the infernal powers opposed his undertaking.[6] Legend makes him live in Thrace "a generation before Homer," but on fifth-century ceramics he is always represented in Greek costume. It is in Thrace that he dies. His head, thrown into the Hebron, floated to Lesbos, singing. Piously recovered, it served as an oracle. [7]

The attribution of magical powers to Pythagoras, as recorded in the days of Aristotle, has been discarded by many historians of Greek philosophy of science, but scholars such as W. Burkert tend to accept it is part of the genuine tradition.[8] The traditions concerning Pythagoras are considerably complicated because of the distance of the texts that have passed down to us from the historical figure and the fact that the number of Vitae that do survive is often contradictory in their interpretation of the figure of Pythagoras.[9]

What is known about the history and chronology of Pythagoras's life is limited but fairly straightforward. Pythagoras was born on the Ionian island of Samis in 571/570 BCE and lived there until his late thirties; according to the least reliable sources, he migrated to the Achaean city of Croton in Magna Graecia (southern Italy) in 532/31, soon after the defeat of the city at the hands of its neighbors the Courians. Pythagoras died sometime toward the close of the sixth century in the city of Metapontum, where he had moved for what were most probably political reasons.

The miracles of Pythagoras form a somewhat fixed catalogue of ten items or less which are capable of an independent, contextless circulation in Hellenistic paradoxographical collections such as Apollonius' Historia thaumasiai 6 or Aelian's Varia historia II.26 and IV.17. The ultimate source of the group appears to be Aristotle in his lost work, Peri ton Pythagoreion. (1) At the same hour he was seen in two cities; (2) he had a golden thigh; (3) he told a Crotanite that on a previous existence he had been King Midas; (4) a white eagle permitted him to stroke it (or in some versions, he converted a wild bear to vegetarianism or persuaded an ox to abstain from eating beans); (5) a river greeted him "Hail, Pythagoras!"; (6) he predicted that a dead man would be found on a ship entering a harbor; (7) when asked for a sign he predicted the appearance of a white bear and declared it was dead before the messenger reached him bearing the news; (8) he bit a poisonous snake to death (or in a more rationalistic version, he drove a snake out from a village). These stories are usually presented without interpretation or explanation. They hint at the divine, the numinous, the ability to control the animal, power of transcending space and time-they show that Pythagoras was a 'divine man,' theios aner.

Empedocles ascribed to himself the powers to heal the sick and rejuvenate the old; he also claimed that he could influence the weather and summon the dead.[10] Empedocles-or his disciples-evidently thought of himself as a miracle-worker. Yet, he is also associated as a great scientist. Did he start as a magician who lost his nerve and took to natural science, or was he a scientist who later in life converted to a form of Orphism or Pythagoreanism? This is the way Dodds amusingly states the problem, before going on to state that Empedocles was a combination of poet, magus, teacher, and scientist. Dodds sees no contradiction between these various skills or vacations, instead seeing them as a unity.[11]

After Empedocles, the scale of these gifts in exceptional individuals begins to shrink, becoming specialized. One either has the gift of healing, or the gift of prophecy, but no longer the wide range of supernatural powers of which magi like Orpheus, Pythagoras and Empedocles were blessed. This specialization, or limitation of spiritual gifts was observed in antiquity by Paul in his First Letter to the Corinthians and by Plutarch in his essay On the Cessation of Oracles.

Pythagoras, through both his legend and his doctrine, had great influence on Platonism, but Plato himself says little about magical practices. That he believed in astrology and other forms of divination is strongly suggested by the Timaeus, and it is reasonable to assume he believed in daemons from what we know of the Platonic School tradition. In his Laws (933a-e) he takes healers, prophets and sorcerers for granted. These practitioners existed in Athens and no doubt all other Greek cities, and they had to be reckoned with and controlled by laws. Plato does add that one should not be afraid of them, their powers are real, but they themselves represent a rather low order of humanity.

Aristotle is convinced that the planets and the fixed stars influence life on earth and that the fixed stars influence life on earth and he too believed in the existence of daemons. In his History of Animals (it should be noted here that historia originally meant something closer to "research," not history in its modern sense, thus a better title is Biological Researches) he suggests the magical theory of sympathies and antipathies in the animal world, under the influence of the stars. Some of these theories are found in Books 7-10 of the History, but because they do not fit our modern conception of Aristotle, there are serious doubts to their authenticity. Book 10, for instance, is missing in the oldest extant manuscript. Though even if Aristotle himself may not have written it in this form, it would seem to reflect some of the teachings of his school. Books seven and nine have also been rejected by modern editors, but it seems that Book seven uses materials from respectable Hippocratic writings and that Book nine relies on Theophrastus; hence these portions should not be lightly discarded as later fabrications.[12]

In his collection Characters, Aristotle's pupil Theophrastus (c.370-285 BCE) has given us the wonderful "Portrait of the Superstitious Person". In Greek, superstition is deisidaimonia, literally "fear of supernatural powers." Some of the powers mentioned by Theophrastus are deities that had cults in Athens, and it would be fair to say that the priests of these deities encouraged some of these sentiments the subject of the sketch displays. Along with the priests, however, the superstitious person consults the "advisors." These are doubtless the more obscure practitioners of the occult arts, but even they appear to be more rational than he. Surely not all Athenians of Theophrastus' time were so haunted by fears, but his portrait is based on personal observation and in enjoyable reading.

The Hellenistic period (roughly the last three centuries before Christ) is characterized by a new interest in magic. From this period we have an abundance of texts in Greek and Latin, some literary and some for practical use. Although the magical papyri that are extant were written in the first centuries after Christ, their concepts, formulas and rituals reflect this earlier period, the time when the occult sciences were developed into one great system. This systematization seems to have taken place in Egypt. The Greeks who lived in Egypt had excellent opportunities to observe the local beliefs and practices, and being Greek they must have tried to make sense of what they saw. This syncretistic urging of the Hellenistic mind produced a great body of occult lore that we shall examine. Before doing this it seems appropriate to discuss two Hellenistic poets who lived in Egypt in the early third century BCE, to whom we owe remarkable descriptions of magical operations.

Apollonius of Rhodes (so called because he spent the last three years of his life on the island of Rhodes, though he was born in Egypt) is famous for the epic Argonautica, one of the main characters of which is Medea. The text we are interested in is taken from the account of the Argonauts from the Black Sea. They landed on the island of Crete, but its shores were guarded by Talos, "A bronze giant who broke off lumps of rock to hurl at them." Talos is introduced by Apollonius as a leftover from the Bronze Age; as if people then had really been made of bronze; he had survived into the heroic age and Zeus had given him to Europe as a guard. Talos naturally terrified the Argonauts (great heroes that they were). They would have rowed away had Medea not come to their rescue. It was obviously time for her magic, and this quasi-magical monster was a real challenge to her. She knew she could destroy Talos unless there was immortal life in him; a product of magic could be destroyed by countermagic. Medea worked herself into a trance during which her hatred became material and the "images of death" that she had conceived assumed a reality of their own. This force was so strong that the monster was literally knocked over.

Theocritus (c.310-250 BCE) is mainly known as a pastoral poet, but he also wrote several pieces describing everyday life in the great modern capital Alexandria. One of these has the title Pharmakeutria, which is the feminine equivalent of pharmakeutes and means "witch or "sorceress"; it is derived from pharmakon 'drug,''poison,''potion,' or 'spell.' Any herb, chemical, or requisite used in medicine or magic could be called pharmakon. We do not know who gave the poem this title, but it is appropriate, even though the woman is probably not a professional. Another text involves a young Greek woman, Simaetha, who lives in Alexandria, and is in love with a young athlete. It was love at first sight, and for some time they were happy together. Now, however, he has not shown himself at her house for eleven days, and she decides to draw him back by magical means, threatening more powerful measures if this love magic does not work. She had already consulted the professionals, of which there may have been quite a few: "Did I skip the house of any old woman who knows magic songs? But this was a serious matter." Then, she sets up with a few fairly simple pre-requisites a magical operation at her house. The ingredients she uses are barley groats, bay leaves, bran, wax, wine, liquids (winter, water or milk) for libations, coltsfoot, and pulverized lizard (a favorite for alchemists). Her tools are a magic wheel, a bull-roarer, and a bronze gong. She also keeps a fringe from her lover's cloak-representing the magical law of sympathy-and she shreds it and throws it into the flames. She then addresses various spells and incantations to the full moon in the sky and to Hecate in the underworld, though the two are recognized as identical.

Theocritus' account of this magical ceremony is poetic, yet there is a great deal of agreement with extant magical papyri, amulets and curse tables from a later period.

Along with the poets we also have available a great deal of testimony from insiders, the professionals. By the end of the last century BCE, Hellenistic magic was fully formed as a system, and all the occult practices that we are familiar with-astrology, alchemy, daemonology-had become applied sciences that could be taught and learned to a certain extent. Much of the instruction was probably carried out in secret, with small groups of disciples studying with a master. The Egyptian priests were supposed to be the keepers of ancient mysteries that they never shared with outsiders, and thus we have very little information from which to draw on about this kind of apprenticeship. We do have, however, many handbooks and treatises on the more technical expertises, such as astrology and alchemy, and we have a substantial body of recipes and formulas for practical use - the magical papyri. The trend towards specialization that was remarked upon earlier continued throughout this period. The professional astrologer was now usually not a practicing magus; as these sciences became more complex, it became more difficult to master them in a lifetime. No doubt some 'sorcerers' dabbled in more than one of these arts, and as an ideal, the Faustian type of magician, who is also a great astrologist, alchemist, daemonologist and physician, was recognized. He was not unlike the 'scientist' who trained in the school of Aristotle, and he was interested in the whole physical world, in living creatures, plants, stones, and metals; but his experience and methods were different.

At this point, let us look at the magical papyri, those scrolls and leaves from Egypt which taken together formed a practicing magician's collection of spells, themselves. What we have are no doubt only a fraction of the magical literature available in antiquity. From Acts 19:18-20 we know that Paul made many Ephesians bring out their magical books and burn them; Ephesus was apparently one of the centers of magic, and Ephesia grammata are 'magical words.' The language of the magical papyri reflects various levels of literary skill, but generally they are standard Greek, presumably they are closer to the spoken language than to poetry or artistic prose. Many terms are borrowed, it seems, from the mystery cults; thus magical formulas are sometimes called teletai (literally, 'celebration of mysteries'), or the magician himself is called mystagogos (the priest who leads the candidates for initiation).[13]

Often the texts are written as a recipe: "Take the eyes of a bat....". These recipes, along with the appropriate gestures, are supposed to produce a variety of effects: they guarantee revealing dreams and the talent of interpreting them correctly; they send out daemons to plague one's enemies; they break up someone's marriage or kill people by insomnia. There is a definite streak of cruelty in some of these ceremonies, and Theocritus, in the text discussed above shows how love magic, which seems harmless enough, can turn into hate magic if the victim does not respond. The same is true for Dido's magical ceremony at the end of Aeneid 4. The magician seems to think: "If you will not love me, I will kill you."

In the magical papyri we see the use of the terms "magic" and magical" with the practitioners calling themselves , "magicians."[14] However, scholars quickly discovered that this usage makes a definition of magic harder, not easier. A.D. Nock published one of the earliest attempts to understand the magical papyri.[15] He thought of the phenomenon as having a Graeco-Egyptian character, comparing it with many of the reports of magic in classical Greece. Though the papyri may have picked up Persian features, he basically saw them as Greek in character. Thus, he tried to understand them by comparison with the worship of Hecate in ancient Greece. Martin Nilsson, upon examination of the papyri, could not believe that magicians wrote such beautiful hymns and spells without help. Their work, he felt, must have been copied from some other source. For Nilsson and Nock, the most likely source for the writings of these magicians was Hellenistic religion. Considering the metric structure of the hymns, Nilsson suggested that there was an earlier body of literature, attached to the worship of various Greek gods, surviving only in late papyri. The magical texts witnessed to those religious hymns, though the magicians no longer understood them. Through this fairly elaborate theory of literary transmission, Nock and Nilsson were able to explain both the magical and the religious quality of the writing. This elaborate enterprise is only necessary because they saw magic and religion as totally different and separate phenomena.

The greatest problem with the approach is that no direct literary connections between magical hymns and the religious hymns have been detected. Though there are many similarities between the two, no one has been able to demonstrate any direct borrowing. In the absence of such evidence, we should probably assume that the magicians had more originality than either Nock or Nilsson thought, that hymns could be written in either magical or religious conditions, or, at least, that the material in the papyri is a melange of different phenomena collected and written by people who saw no distinction between the two.

E.R. Goodenough saw the hymns and charm in the Greek magical papyri in the context of sectarian Judaism and late Hellenistic syncretism. Goodenough points out that one God alone is worshipped; the other deities are reduced to the level of angels or demons. Goodenough's point is that these hymns reflect a sectarian Judaism, syncretized with a number of other influences. Although most of these spells are not "normative" Christianity or Judaism, they combine aspects of both.[16] While this approach brings a much needed religious analysis to the papyri, it too fails in only considering one side of the material. What is needed to understand the papyri is the understanding that the cultural milieu went beyond a simple division of religion and magic.

The 'curse tablets,' tabellae defixionum, are another important source for our knowledge of Hellenistic magic. The term defixio is derived from the Latin verb defigere, which means literally 'to pin down,''to fix,' but which also had the more sinister meaning of delivering someone to the powers of the underworld. Of course, it was possible to curse an enemy through the spoken word, either in his presence or behind his back, and this was thought effective. For some reason, however, it was considered more effective to write the victim's name on a thin sheet of lead with magical formulas or symbols and to bury this tablet in or near a fresh tomb, a place of execution, or a battlefield, to give the spirits of the dead - which were presumed to hover around such sites on their way to the underworld-power over the victim. Sometimes the curse tablets were transfixed by a nail (thedefixio dramatized), or they were thrown into wells, springs, or rivers.[17]

Amulets were worn as protection against curses, the evil eye, and evil powers in general.[18] These tokens were often made of cheap materials, but precious stones were thought to have special powers; they were also more durable, and so thousands of carved gems that had a magical rather than an ornamental function have survived. The word amulet is probably derived from amolitum[19], whereas talisman could be an Arabic transformation of Greek telesma 'initiation.' Any one could wear an amulet with their mixture of Babylonian, Egyptian, Greek, and cabalistic elements, regardless of their faith or affiliation.[20] The amulets carry the same formulas as the papyri, though in an abbreviated and concentrated form.

The world of antiquity was full of magical powers, acting in all directions and many people must have felt constantly threatened. To protect oneself by wearing an amulet was just not enough, many took to heart the adage that a good defense is a good offense and employed black magic as a precaution.

Something should be said about magical ingredients, tools, and devices. Magical tools were used repeatedly, just as the spells and incantations were repeated on each occasion. Herbs and other ingredients, however, were used up and had to be replenished. As stated before, plant magic and the use of the wand are as old as Homer. Theocritus' amateur witch also used herbs, and in addition a magical wheel, a bull-roarer, and a gong. Moreover special plates and rings were to be worn during the ceremony. Such a magician's kit, probably dating from the third century CE, was discovered in Pergamon. It consisted of a bronze table and base covered with symbols, a dish (also decorated with symbols), a large bronze nail with letters inscribed on its flat sides, two bronze rings, and three black polished stones inscribed with the names of supernatural powers.[21]

The use of symbols, numbers and strange words in magic must be very old, though the famous and overused Abracadabra formula is not attested before Serenus Sammonicus, the author of a work Res Reconditae (Secret Matter), who was murdered in 212 CE.[22] Symbols and numbers were also very important in Hellenistic magic.[23]

What emerges from the evidence is the permanence and universality of magic in the ancient world. Although some testimonies may be relatively late, the doctrines and practices they reveal are probably much older. Certain formulas and recipes were handed down for generations, perhaps with minor changes, and though they are found on tablets and papyri dating from the early Christian era, they probably had been practiced for centuries. Moreover, clearly the same type of magic was practiced throughout the Roman Empire.

Types of Magical Operations

Our material permits a division of magical operations into two main kinds, theurgical and goetic. The word theurgia must be explained. In some contexts it appears to be simply a glorified kind of magic that is practiced by a respected priestlike figure. Dodd says: "Proclus grandly defines theurgy as 'a power higher than all human wisdom, embracing the blessings of divination, the purifying powers of initiation, and in a word all operations of divine possession.' It may be described more simply as magic applied to a religious purpose and resting on a supposed revelation of a religious character....So far as we can judge the procedures of theurgy were broadly similar to vulgar magic."[24] Here we see how difficult it is to separate magic from religion. In a typical theurgical rite the divinity appears in one of two ways: (1) it is seen in trance, where the soul of the theurgist leaves the body, ascends to heaven, sees the divinity there, and returns to describe the experience; (2) it descends to earth and is seen by the theurgist either in a dream or when he is fully awake.

The term goetia is a synonym for mageia, but has even more negative undertones, just as theurgia is definitely more exalted than either. It was usually the case that the philosophers interested in magic described themselves as theurgists, and the lower-class practitioners as magoi or goetes. According to Plotinus[25] theurgy aims at establishing sympathy in the universe and uses the forces that flow through all things in order to be in touch with them. Thus, the theurgist achieves in reality what the philosopher can only think.[26]

Theurgy, from the Greek theourgia means literally something like "actuating the divine" and refers to actions that induce or bring about the presence of a divine or supernatural being, whether in an artifact or a person. It was a practice closely related to magic - not least in its ritual use of material things, sacrifices, and verbal formulas to effect the believer's fellowship with the god, demon or departed spirit. It is distinguished from ordinary magical practices less by its techniques than by its aim, which was religious (union with the divine) rather than secular. use of the term theourgia as well as of the related theourgos, referring to a practioner of the art - arose in the second century CE in Hellenistic circles closely associated with the birth of Neoplatonism. The practice was commended and followed, in the third and later centuries, by certain Neolatonist philosophers and their disciples.[27]

It is important to note that the great theurgists of antiquity were highly educated men and women of impeccable reputation, totally different from the sellers of curses and spells.[28]

Syncretism and the Occult Sciences

From Hellenistic times forward the theologies of the eastern Mediterranean were complicated by the tangle of correspondences between the traditional Greek pantheon and the newfound gods of nations subjugated by Alexander and later conquerors. Even a simple cultic act without theological embroidery would require the worshipper to address the god and hence to know the correct divine names and titles. One response to this was syncretism, blending several gods into one; monotheism, henotheism or simply clarifying a lower god's relationship to some higher deity might resolve the same problem.

Hellenistic magic represents a conglomerate of many different influences. It borrowed freely from the religions and occult sciences of different cultures (Greek, Jewish, Persian, etc.), but even the religious elements were selected for a practical purpose: the gods of magic were worshipped not for the sake of their glory but for the help they could offer in certain situations. Often these gods were asked to fulfill wishes that the operator would not acknowledge openly; hence, magical prayers and spells were usually "whispered" or "hissed," whereas in the temples of a god or goddess legitimate prayers were uttered aloud. But the syncretism of Hellenistic magic had a parallel in the syncretism of Hellenistic religions in Egypt, a country where many different cultures coexisted, a country that had been open to Eastern influences for centuries and that now, under Greek rulers, had been given a capital, Alexandria, that would become one of the intellectual centers of the world.

In Egypt a kind of curriculum of occult sciences was created during the Hellenistic period. To the Greeks living there, many religious ceremonies must have appeared to be magical operations. Then too, the Greeks probably considered to be magic certain manufacturing processes that the Egyptians kept secret. From the beginning, alchemy seems to have been a mixture of magic and real technology, but the secrecy that enveloped both probably exaggerated the role of the former. Some typically Egyptian features of Hellenistic magic are: (1) Magic is not practiced primarily as a necessary protection from the evil powers that surround the individual; rather, it is a means of harnessing good or evil powers in order to achieve one's goals and desires. (2) The operator of the magical papyri pretends to be a god in order to frighten the gods. This attitude of pretending, of temporarily assuming a supernatural identity, is highly characteristic of magic in general. (3) Magical power is linked to certain words that are clearly differentiated from normal language; they are pronounced in a certain way or written on gems, papyri and the like, along with certain signs and diagrams. (4) Power is also linked with certain gestures and rites; these rites are similar to the ones used in religious cults, but, one would assume, are sufficiently different and distinctive enough to avoid misunderstandings. It was common, for instance, to sacrifice black animals to the powers of the underworld to make sure that none of the heavenly gods would claim it for himself.

Many sources from antiquity often point to the Persian origins of magic. It is appropriate then to discuss this briefly. Persian priests, the magoi, were supposed to have inherited the lore of the Chaldeans. Chaldea was the name of a country (according to Genesis it was the home of Abraham), but a Chaldean could also be an astrologer or an interpreter of dreams, originally perhaps a member of a priestly caste that studied occult rituals and handed them down. Zoraster (sixth century BCE) was the greatest teacher, priest and magician (a figure comparable to Orpheus in some ways) in the early Persian Empire. He lived during the reign of the Achaemenids and wrote many works on magic, astrology, divination and religion. He is considered the creator of a system of daemonology that was adopted at various stages and in various forms by Jews, Greeks, and Christians. At the time of Plato, the Greeks already associated magic with Zoraster whom they considered to be a demigod, he was called "the son of Ahura Mazda." Another great Persian magus, Ostanes, accompanied Xerxes on his campaign against Greece (480 BCE), no doubt as an advisor to the monarch. After his defeat at Salamis, the monarch left Ostanes behind, and Ostanes became the teacher of Democritus (born c 470 BCE), apparently encouraging his pupil to travel to Egypt and Persia. Democritus is chiefly known as a great scientist to the modern reader; however, he may have transmitted Persian magic in one of his many lost works.[29]

The word magus, magicus and mageia were used with a variety of connotations - from the religion of te Magi of Persia to scurrilous, harmful magic or witchcraft. While the Magi were members of the priestly caste of the Persians and therefore could be considered honest religionists, the Greeks and Romans who viewed the Persian Empire tended to bring their own intellectual prejudices to bear against religion when they described it. Herodotus, Pliny and Plutarch tended at their hardest to view the religion as little more than fraud.[30] Furthermore, since Persia remained Rome's most potent enemy throughout the Imperial era, any religion practiced there was bound to be viewed as subversive and dangerous.

Then too many people in the Hellenistic world called themselves magoi when they had no real connection with Persia. These people always courted the epithet , a less ambiguous term usually meaning "quack." Though in the Symposium (202e) Plato grants magic a measure of efficacy as a function of Eros, almost all the other uses of the term are derogatory.[31] The problems of candidates for the title "divine man" was to convince the world that they were not magic and certainly not ; as detractors might have called them.[32]

The three magi, who came to Palestine from a distant oriental country to offer their adoration to the new-born child in Bethlehem, are represented as monarchs and as wise men.

Zoraster, Ostanes, and the three magi mark half a millennium. During that time and for centuries to come, the Western World associated Persia with magic and secret lore.

We should also consider the influence of Judaism, and especially Jewish magic, on Hellenistic magic. Alexandria had a large Jewish population in the later Hellenistic period, and it seems to have contributed a good deal to Hellenistic culture in general. We have both the daemonology of Philo, a Jewish Platonist, and a variety of popular superstitions.[33]

The Old Testament gives us a certain amount of information on magical practices and beliefs, and the very fact that they were outlawed indicates that they existed.[34] In turn, towards the end of the Hellenistic period, Jewish magic was strongly influenced by Greek and Egyptian ideas. By that time many Jews-like the Greeks and Romans-believed in the evil eye, the power of certain words and phrases, the protection afforded by amulets and so on. Necromancy was practiced (necromancers were called "bone-conjurers"), as was exorcism usually as a last resort when medicine failed.

Because he practiced exorcism and from popularized versions of the Gospels, Jesus was considered a magician by many Talmudic scholars and no doubt appeared as such to many Romans who did not think of him as a religious leader.[35] It is easy to see how even Moses could appear to be a powerful magician in addition to being a great teacher and leader; he became identified with the Egyptian Thoth as will be shown later. Magic books were ascribed to Moses in antiquity.[36]

Solomon's great wisdom was supposed to include magic, and a magical text, the Testament of Solomon, circulated under his name; it was probably composed in the early third century CE, but the manuscripts attesting to it were not written before the fifteenth and sixteenth centuries.[37] The Wisdom of Solomon, a biblical book considered apocryphal by Jews and Protestants, was probably composed in the first century BCE. In it Solomon says: "God...gave me true knowledge of things, as they are: an understanding of the structure of the world and the way in which elements work, the beginning and the end of eras and what lies in-between...the cycles of the years and the constellations...the thoughts of human beings...the power of spirits...the virtue of roots....I learned it all, secret or manifest." Clearly, Solomon is pictured as the greatest scientist and the greatest magus of his time: he has studied astrology, plant magic, daemonology, divination, but also ta physika 'science.' Some translators obscure this fact; they write, for instance, "the power of winds" when the context shows that daemons are meant. Josephus certainly understood the passage in this way. he writes: "God gave him knowledge of the art that is used against daemons, in order to heal and benefit men."[38] He even adds that Solomon was a great exorcist and left instructions on how to perform this kind of healing. This could mean that in Josephus' time, a magical text existed which taught how to exorcise daemons in the name of Solomon.[39]

In later antiquity, the Jews had the reputation of being formidable magicians, and the various names of their deity-Jao for Yahweh, Sabaoth, Adonai-appear frequently in the magical papyri. Many outsiders must have thought of Yahweh as a secret deity, for no image could be seen and his real name was not pronounced, Here again we see theology or religious ritual, misunderstood, as the basis of speculation on magic.[40]

The roots of cabala, 'received tradition' are believed to reach back into the first century CE, when the first tracts appeared in Palestine.[41] The cabala is best explained as a system or method of Jewish mystical devotion having certain magical elements. The cabalistic tradition preserved, in a systematic and coherent form, blended with Platonist and Neoplatonist doctrine, a good deal of the occult science of late Hellenistic times.

The Roman Era

Turning to the Roman Era we must first look at one of the greatest Roman poets, Virgil (70-19 BCE). In his eighth eclogue is a free translation or adaptation of Theocritus' second poem. He leaves out a number of details and gives it a happy ending-the magic works and the lover returns-but otherwise he is quite faithful to the original. It is a good assumption that the magic described was practiced in Italy as well as in Greece and Egypt. Virgil may have left out something or added some color, but the magical operation as a whole sounds authentic.

A more serious magical ceremony is described by Virgil at the end of Book 4 of the Aeneid. The hero of the epic, Aeneas, has landed on the coast of North Africa, where he meets Queen Dido, who has just begun to build a new city, Carthage. Dido resembles more an oriental fairy queen with a tragic past than a witch. She falls in love with Aeneas, and wishes him to stay as her prince consort. One is reminded of the Circe episode in the Odyssey and of Jason and Medea in Apollonius' Argonautica. In these epics, a traveling hero meets a beautiful and exotic woman who is potentially dangerous, although kind and hospitable as long as her love for the hero lasts. When Aeneas leaves Dido because Fate decrees that he must found an empire of his own, Dido's love turns to hate. She then stages a complex magical ritual designed to destroy her faithless lover. She builds a gigantic pyre in the main courtyard of her palace and prepares, with the assistance of a famous priestess, an elaborate sacrifice to the powers of the underworld. Realizing that no love magic could bring Aeneas back to her, she kills herself in her despair, adding the ultimate emphasis of doom to her curse. It was commonly believed that those who died before their time could unleash enormous powers of destruction at the moment of their death and sometime afterwards. Dido thus had sealed and extended her curse through her suicide. Unfortunately for her, Aeneas was protected by his gods. Her curse lingered on, however, leading to Rome's near crushing defeat by Carthage many centuries later.

Next, it would be best to describe Seneca, the philosopher and playwright (c. 5 BCE - CE 65), and his nephew, Lucan (CE 39-65), the epic poet, because they continue the literary tradition of the superwitch. Seneca's tragedies reflect the taste for the horrible, cruel and grotesque that seems so characteristic of the early Roman Empire. He selects some of the most gruesome Greek myths for dramatic treatment (Thyestes), and he spins out the theme of magic, necromancy and the like where it is given by the mythical tradition (Medea) and even where it is barely indicated (Hercules on Mount Oeta).[42] From the dialogue between Deineira and her nurse we learn that it is quite common for jealous wives to consult a witch; as it turns out, the nurse, very conveniently, is a witch herself. There is an implication in this passage that a great hero such as Hercules cannot be influenced by magical means, and in the end he is overcome by deadly poison that Deianira gives him, believing it to be a love charm.

In Seneca's Medea, her invocations and incantations are no longer left to the imagination, as they were when Apollonius wrote his epic three centuries previously. Her power of hating, which she can switch on and intensify at will is still the dominant theme, but Medea now has her cabinet of horrors from which to select the most efficient engines of destruction. Her magic now involves the whole universe; she claims that she can force down the constellation of the Snake.[43]

The magical papyri illustrate the sense of power that filled the operator during the course of the ritual. Seneca probably knew of such texts, but he gives them a literary polish that the professional magicians were rarely capable. Whether these plays were performed on stage or were simply recited, they must have shocked a contemporary audience, and shock, ekplexis, was supposed to have a therapeutic value. It is probably fair to say that Seneca created horror because, as a Stoic philosopher, he believed that the shock caused by horror cleansed the soul of all the emotions that interfere with peace of mind. As a Stoic, Seneca also believed in cosmic sympathy, and thus some of the tenets of magic would make sense to him.

The ultimate horrors and powers of witchcraft are portrayed by Lucan in Book 6 of the Pharsalia, probably an effort to surpass his uncle. Before the decisive battle of Pharsalus (48 BCE), in which Julius Caesar defeats the forces of Pompey, the two armies had moved through Thessaly, the classical country of witchcraft. There, one of Pompey's sons consults the famous witch Erictho about the outcome of the upcoming confrontation. In Lucan's epic, Erictho is the most powerful witch, and is appropriately loathsome and disgusting. She can compel the lesser gods to serve her and cause them to shudder at her spells.[44]

Let us now turn to three historical personages of the first century CE who seems to have many of the characteristics earlier associates with Orpheus, Pythagoras and Empedocles. Jesus Nazareth, Simon Magus and Apollonius of Tyana.[45]

It is controversial to examine Jesus in terms of this particular tradition, though more has been written on the subject in the last ten years. Since he was called a "magician" by Pagans and Jews alike, it seems appropriate to examine him in this light. From an outsider's point of view Jesus obviously was a typical miracle-worker. He exorcised daemons, he healed the sick, he raised the dead, he made predictions, but apart from walking on waves he never performed the ostentatious magic that Moses and Aaron performed when they defied the Egyptian magicians. He did not, however, practice necromancy. Nevertheless, within three hundred years of his birth, he was accused of stealing the "names of the angels of might" from Egyptian temples.[46] The "angels of might" could be translated as "powerful daemons," and the Egyptian concept of "words of power" could be connected with Jesus' belief in angels close to the throne of the Father.[47] According to the Gospels, he did not practice necromancy, but his life story is full of features that can be paralleled elsewhere: his divine origin, his miraculous birth, the annunciation and the nativity surrounded by unusual events; he is menaced in his infancy; his ministry is handed to him by an earlier evangelist (John the Baptist); he has to face a powerful daemon representing the evil forces of the world (Satan), and refuses to make a deal with him, winning a trial of spiritual strength. These encounters can all be paralleled: Abaris yielded to Pythagoras, and Zoraster had to resist evil daemons.

Matthew's report that Jesus was taken to Egypt as an infant was used by hostile sources to explain his knowledge of magic; according to a rabbinical story, he came back tattooed with spells.[48] It is also pointed out that in rabbinical tradition that Jesus was mad, which was often associated with people of great power (dynamis). The Gospels speak of the "descent of the spirit," the pagans of "possession by a daemon," and both are possibly explaining the same mystical phenomena. It has even been suggested that Jesus' claim to be "the Son of God" is a formula used in magical rites by the operator who identifies himself closely with the supernatural power that he invokes.[49]

Simon is the name of a magus mentioned in Acts 8:9ff. and elsewhere.[50] He was active in Samaria about the time of the Crucifixion, and his disciples called him "the power of God that is called the Great Power." Simon was deeply impressed by the apostle Philip's cures and exorcisms and by the gift of the Spirit that came from the apostles' laying on of hands; therefore, he not only "believed and was baptized" but he asked the apostles to sell him their special gift so that he could practice it too. This is the typical attitude of the professional magician. To Simon, the charisma of this new religion is a kind of magic that can be purchased, for a price, and his is prepared to pay for it as he probably had before for the kind of magic he lad learned. The sharp rebuke that he draws from Peter-and that he is flexible enough to take it in good grace-shows how the early Church drew a line between itself and practitioners of magic such as Simon.[51]

We hear about Simon again from Justin martyr (e.g., Dialogue with Trypho, ch. 120), who says that he was a magus born in Samaria, that his followers worshipped him as the supreme God, and that a Phoenician woman, former prostitute called Helen, lived with him. She was considered the "primary notion" emanating from him. She was a fallen power for whose salvation he had appeared.

According to other Christian writers[52] Simon established his own Trinity, in which he was the Father, Jesus was the son, and Helen was something like the Holy Spirit; but in another sense Simon was all three. This remarkable bit of theology shows how skillfully Simon adapted the Gospel to his needs. It is quite possible that he started out as a magus and then developed into a cult figure by borrowing from Christianity whatever suited him. He and Helen were worshipped before statues of Zeus and Athena; this, no doubt, was designed to make the ritual more palatable to pagans. The priests of Simon's religions were said by some early writers to practice both magic and free love-a combination of charges that appears throughout history.

From the testimonies we have, Simon Magus emerges as a skilled practitioner of the occult sciences, which he was supposed to have learned from Egypt. He did, unlike Jesus, practice necromancy, and even claimed according to the Clementine Recognitions,[53] to have created a human being. Simon claimed to have invoked the soul of an innocent boy who had been murdered and commanded it to enter a new body that he had made from air, thus forming a new human being.

Simon's downfall came, according to Acts, when Simon and Peter challenged each other before the emperor Nero in Rome. Most people will be familiar with the tale of the Simon born by the winds and Peter banishing the daemons that caused Simon to fall to his death.

The third magus of this period was Apollonius of Tyana, who was born in Cappadocia a few years after Jesus, and survived into the reign of Nerva (c. 97 CE). About a century later, Flavius Philostratus wrote a comprehensive Life of Apollonius of Tyana, which is our most important source.[54] Philostratus, a professional writer, was a protégé of the empress Julia Domna, mother of the emperor Caracalla. This cultured lady was interested in philosophy, religion and science; Galen was another of her protégés. She owned a document that claimed to be the memoirs of a certain Damis of Niniveh, a disciple of Apollonius; this she gave to Philostratus as raw material for a polished literary treatment. From Philostratus' biography the strange, ascetic, traveling teacher called Apollonius emerges. He is usually labeled a Neo-Pythagorean; although he is more like a new Pythagoras. He certainly represents, in a different age, the same combination of scientist, philosopher, and magus. A revival of Pythagoreanism took place in the first century CE, with its centers in Alexandria and Rome. If we can trust his biographer, Apollonius traveled as far as India, where he exchanged ideas with the Brahmins, who were considered to be true Pythagorean philosophers.

What we know of Apollonius' teaching is fairly consistent with traditional Pythagorean doctrine. Animals have a divine soul, just like human beings; hence it is a sin to kill an animal, either to eat it or use its fur or skin for clothing or to offer it to the gods as a sacrifice. Vegetarianism and a pure, ascetic life are necessary. Apollonius also believed in the transmigration of the soul and claimed to remember his own previous existences, but he explicitly denied certain astonishing feats that were ascribed to him by Philostratus-for example, that he had descended into the underworld and that he could raise the dead. Since he was arrested on charges of magic twice, once under Nero and again under Domitian, he must have had every reason to reduce the miracles he was credited with to reasonable dimensions. His disciples probably made him more into a thaumaturge than he himself wanted to be. In some ways Apollonius resembles Socrates: he enjoyed lively philosophical debates and was very good at using an opponent's premise against him. Like Socrates, he had a daimonion. Unlike Socrates, he published, we know of one treatise, On Sacrifices.

The Natural History of Pliny the Elder (CE 23/24-79) is a voluminous survey of science, pseudo-science, art and technology. Reflecting the state of knowledge in the late Hellenistic era, it is based on a hundred or so earlier authorities. This huge composition deals with cosmology, geography, anthropology, zoology, botany, pharmacology, mineralogy, metallurgy and their uses in ancient art. It is a mine of information, but since nearly all the sources that Pliny used are lost, it is of considerable value to us, and it had a great influence on later thought. Pliny believed in ancient traditions and was convinced that the powers of certain herbs or roots were revealed to humanity by the gods. The divine powers in their concern for the welfare of humanity, have ways of making us discover the secrets of nature. In their wisdom and love the gods bring us gradually closer to their status; this is the Faustian aspiration of being like the gods. There will always be progress of this kind according to Pliny.[55] How it works in the short term is not important; in the long term it emanates from benevolent powers. This concept is firmly rooted in Middle Stoicism: here we have a "cosmic sympathy" that, if properly understood and used, operates for the good of humanity.

With all his learning, Pliny preserved many religious and magical practices. He did not believe in the effectiveness of all magical arts; in fact, he felt that most claims of the professional sorcerers were exaggerated or simply false (25.59, 29.20, 37.75). The sorcerers would not have would not have written down their spells and recipes unless they despised and hated humanity (37.40). If their promises were worth anything, the emperor Nero, who studied magic with the best teachers and had access to the best books, would have been a formidable magician, but in fact he did nothing extraordinary (30.5-6). Pliny's conclusion, however, is cautious: though magic is ineffective and infamous (intestabilis), it nevertheless contains at least "shadows of truth" (veritatis umbras) which are due to the "arts of making poisons" (veneficae artes). Yet, Pliny states, "there is no one who is not afraid of spells" (28.4), and he seems not to exclude himself. The amulets and charms that people wore as a kind of preventive medicine he neither commends or condemns. It is better to err on the side of caution, for, who knows, a new kind of magic, a magic that really works, may be developed somewhere this very minute. This is why the professional magicians, as we have seen, were always on the lookout for new ideas.

Pliny devotes the beginning of Book 30 to the magi andrefers to them here and there especially in Books 28 and 29.[56] To him they are basically sorcerers, but they might also be priests of a foreign religion, such as the Druids of the Celts in Britain and Gaul. He even includes Moses in a list of famous magi. According to Pliny, the art of the magi touches three areas: medicina, religio and artes mathematicae (30.1), "healing power," "ritual," and "astrology." Pliny's religio is not the same as our religion, sometimes he uses it in the sense of "superstition," sometimes in the sense of "expression of religious belief or custom".[57]

To the Platonist philosopher Plutarch of Chaeronea (c. 45-125 CE) we owe the treatise On Superstition, which reminds one here and there of Theophrastus' sketch.[58] Plutarch defines deisdaimonia 'superstition' as "fear of the divinity or of the gods," though he has examples he uses show that, like Theophrastus, he has in mind a kind of fear that becomes an obsession. Specifically, he mentions magical rites and taboos, the consultation of professional sorcerers and witches, charms and spells, and unintelligible language in prayers addressed to the gods.[59] Although Plutarch himself takes dreams and portents seriously, he reserves superstitious for those who have excessive or exclusive faith in such phenomena. Clearly, it is a matter of discrimination. He also takes for granted other magical practices, such as hurting someone by the evil eye, and offers an explanation of that phenomenon. He also believes in daemons that serve as agents or links between gods and human beings and are responsible for many supernatural events in human life that are commonly attributed to divine intervention. Thus, a daemon, not Apollo himself, is the real power behind the Delphic oracle. Some daemons are good, some are evil, but even the good ones, in a fit of anger, can do bad things.[60]

In general, Plutarch accepts a certain amount of what we would call "popular superstition," but he is anxious to select only what is compatible with his own philosophical doctrine, and what he selects he purifies and gives, as far as possible a rational explanation. He does not discuss ritual magic in any detail and he seems to reject astrology.

A later Platonist, Apuleius of Madaura (born c. 125 CE), gives us a substantial amount of information on contemporary beliefs in occult science. We have the speech he delivered in his own defense against the charge of magic, circa 160 CE, and from this Apologia (another title is De Magia) we learn how easy it was, at that time, for a philosopher to be accused of magiocal practices. Yet Apuleius may not have been completely above suspicion. In his novel, Metamorphoses (also known as The Golden Ass), a piece of fiction which seems to have autobiographical elements, the ehro, Lucius, dabbles in magic as a young man, gets into trouble, is rescued by the goddess Isis, and then finds true knowledge and happiness in her mysteries.[61]

Like Plutarch Apuleius firmly believed in the existence of daemons. They populated the air and were, in fact, formed of air. They experienced emotions just like human beings, and their mind was rational. In a sense, then, the human soul was also a daemon, but there were daemons who never entered bodies.[62] In his treatise On Socrates' God Apuleius presented a complete, systematic version of daemonology that was acceptable to later Platonists.

When magic is mentioned in Roman laws, it is always discussed in a negative context. A consensus was established early which viewed harmful acts (and only harmful acts) of magic as criminal. The Laws of the Twelve Tablets (451-450 BCE) expressly forbid anyone from enticing his neighbors' crops into his fields by magic. Furthermore, the maleficient arts were often considered to be identical with death by poisoning and punishable with equal severity. An actual trial for alleged violation of these laws was held before Spurius Albinus in 157 BCE.[63] Cornelius Hispallus expelled the Chaldaen astrologers from Rome in 139 BCE - ostensibly on the grounds that they were magicians.[64] In 33 BCE astrologers and magicians are explicitly mentioned as having been driven from Rome. Twenty years later, Augustus ordered all books on the occult subject to be burned. In 16 CE magicians and astrologers were expelled from Italy, which was reinstated by edicts from other Emperors in 69 CE and 89 CE. Later, Constantine issued a ruling to cover all charges of magic. In it he distinguished between helpful charms, not punishable, and antagonistic spells.[65]

Spiritual Movements of Late Antiquity and their relation to the Occult Sciences

Now let us turn briefly to the various spiritual movements of late antiquity. These theologies often had great impact on the occult sciences, and shall be considered with that view.

No discussion of this field would be complete without Gnosticism.[66]The term is derived from gnosis 'knowledge'- not just any knowledge, but the higher knowledge of 'knowing God.' To the followers of this ideal, the highest goal in life was to escape from the evil environment surrounding them, to ascend to the realm of the good, which is, at the same time, the ultimate reality. To escape from the visible world by 'knowing God' is to be saved. To be a Gnostic meant to rise above all earthly things and thereby to lose interestin the body, its needs, functions, and emotions. Everything else followed from this; hence it was not necessary to design a system of ethics for the problems of everyday life, as imperial Stoicism and the early Church did.

Some Gnostic leaders-for instance, Carpocrates of Alexandria (c. 120 CE) -- apparently used incantations, drugs and messages from spirits or daemons, but since much of this information has come down to us through Christian authors who were hostile to the Gnostics, it is not all that reliable. There seems to have been a genuine interest within Gnosticism to reconcile Christianity with contemporary philosophy and occult science, but on the whole the Gnostics were more concerned about understanding how the cosmic mechanisms worked than about manipulating them.[67]

Hermetism may have been a related movement. This shall be covered in more depth in later sections. Suffice it to say that for our purposes Hermetism will be used to refer to the body of writings attributed to Hermes Trismegistos-and the various adaptations and commentaries that it gave rise to.

In the Danube region in 174 CE, occured a celebrated incident that conveys the religious commotion of the period and tells us something about another set of secret texts, the Chaldaean Oracles. That year was the eigth in the wars between the Danube tribes and the Stoic emperor, Marcus Aurelius (who began composing his famous Meditations in the same year). A Byzantine epitome of the historian Cassis Dio explains that after subduing the Marcomanni, the imperial armies confronted the Quadi, who trapped Legio XII Fulminata - the "Thunderstruck" - in a closed place that exposed the troops to parching sun. Miraculously, the thunder of asudden cloudburst shook the abrbarians, while the heaven-sent rain eased the Roman thirst. The Byzantine epitomizer denies that an Egyptian magician called Arnouphis brought the rain by praying to "the aerial Hermes," claiming instead that it was his own God who heard the pleas of Christian legionnaires. This famous episode interested many otehr writers, some whom maintained that the emperor himself called down the rain. One version, preserved in a Byzantine lexicon, mentions

Ioulianos, Chaldaean and philosopher, father of the Ioulianos called theurgos...wrote works on theurgy, ritual and verse oracles, as well as many....other secret books on knowledge of this sort....They say that once, when the Romans were exhausted by thirst, he made the dark clouds come together all at once and send forth a furious thunderstorm with continuous thunder and lightning, and that Ioulianos accomplished this by some kind of wisdom. But there are those who say that Arnouphis, the Egyptian philosopher, worked this wonder.[68]

This rival of Arnouphis, servant of Thoth-Hermes, was the younger of two Julians, both called "Chaldaean." The father was known simply as a philosopher, the son as a theurge; and it was the son who may have written or redacted the texts that we know in the obscure fragments entitled Chaldaean oracles. Christian authors from Arnobius in the late third century through Synesius in the early fifth knew the Oracles (even a Byzantine scholar such as Psellos was well aware of the Oracles), but it was Porphyry and later pagan Neoplatonists who most valued them; Plotinus alone of his school ignored them. Like other Greek oracles, their form is hexameter verse; their subject is philosophical theology adnd theurgic ritual. The point of the rites, which call a god down into a statue or into a human medium, is to help the human soul escape its bodily prison and rise up to divinity. The theology of the Oracles provides intellectual justification for these ritual prescriptions. In some particulars, epecially the notion of First and Second intellects, the Chaldaean system resembles that of Numenius of Apamae, a Neopythagorean of the second century. Porphyry wrote a lost commentary on the Oracles, and many of his followers through the Byzantine period and later shared his fascination with their involved doctrine. Except that it was conventional to attribute theological wisdom to one of the sacred peoples of the East, why the Oracles were called Chaldaean is unclear.[69]

The highest entities mentioned in the Oracles are a First Paternal Intellect, absolutely transcendent; a Second Demiurgic Intellect, who proceeds from the Father and knows the cosmos as well as himself; and, within the First Intellect, a female Power, called Hecate, who produces or is the World Soul. Hecate is a conduit for influences traveling between the intelligible and sensible realms. At the nether end of the All lies Matter, made by the Demiurge. The physical world is a foul tomb and a jail from which the higher human soul must escape, shedding the lower soul's ochema ("vehicle") or chiton ("garment") acquired during its descent through the satrs and planets. Ascetic conduct and correct ritual will free the soul from the astrological bonds of Fate and defend it against the demonic powers who fill the ontological space between gods and mortals.[70] In their theology and theurgy, the Oracles testify to the desire that the gods talk about themselves, a wish that still ran strong among pagans in the first Christian centuries. Late in the first century, Plutarch of Chaeroneia seems to have thought for a while that the old oracles had waned. Ammonius, the Athenian Platonist who taught Plutarch and studied with Alexandrian philosophers, traveled to Delphi to quiz Apollo on his place in the divine hierarchies. A century later, when Plotinus died, his student Porphyry sent a questioner there to ask Apollo about the fate of his master's soul, and the god's reassuring reply showed a good thorough understanding of Plotinian terminology. Oracles of theological context answering large questions about the soul and divinity came not just from Delphi but from Cleros, Didyma and other sites across the eastern Mediterranean, where civic delegations and private persons traveled in the first three centuries of the new era to query the god and then return home to inscribe what they had heard on public monuments. As of the early second century, over three hundred such civic inscriptions are to be found just from Claros alone; displays of religious commitment so conspicuous and expensive were not the simple annals of the poor. Moreover, some of them show that Apollo had studied his philosophy.[71]

Neoplatonism is the Platonic philosophy systematized in the Enneads of Plotinus (205-270 CE), whose thought was further developed by others through the sixth century. Earlier, in the first century BCE, the "divine Plato" had been revived as the supreme religious and theological authority by the Middle Platonists; at about the same time the Neo-Pythagorean philosophers were active. Plotinus was influenced by both of these theistic and apophtic (negative) schools, which upheld the transcendence of a supreme mind and being called theos (God) and placed within this mind the Platonic forms conceived as divine Ideas. These conceptions became the basis for kataphatic (positive) theology and a doctrine of divine providence. Neoplatonism's most distinctive doctrine, however, opposed Middle Platonism in holding that the First Principle and source of reality, the One, or Good, transcends being and thought and is naturally unknowable. This doctrine, which originated with Plotinus, was taught more forcefully by his successors, especially Iamblichus and Proclus.

The Neoplatonic One, or Good, was the object of religious aspiration. It was conceived as a transcendent, infinite, productive goodness and freedom attainable through mystical experience. The one distributes love (eros) to all souls; this love in turn leads each soul back, with necessary attendant intellectual and moral effort on the part of the soul, toward mystical union with the One. The task of the philosopher is to guide their followers to the experience of the divine. In his Enneads, Plotinus presents an orderedstructure of living reality eternally proceeding from the One and descends in continuous stages from the Nous, or Divine Intellect, with its living forms through soul, with its different levels of experience and activity, to the last and lowest realities, the forms of bodies.[72]

The Neoplatonists - at least some of them - became the most ardent defenders of ritual magic and theurgy. Plotinus claimed mystical powers and certainly took magic seriously, though it is doubtful he should be called a magician.[73] He believed that the soul was clothed in an ethereal covering, the ochema, which was illuminated by divine light so that spirits and souls (or daemons) could be seen. The soul itself could ascend toward the Absolute through ecstasy.

Porphyry (c. 232-304 CE) in his Letter to Anebo, criticizes the exaggerated claims of certain Egyptian theurgists: they threatened to frighten not only the daemons, or the spirits of the dead, but the Sun and the Moon and other divine beings of a higher order; they pretended to be able to shake the heavens, to reveal the mysteries of Isis or interfere at a distance with her sacred rites. What Porphyry attacks is not the theory that magic works, but the techniques employed by its Egyptian practitioners and their blatant self-advertisement.

Iamblichus (c. 240-330 CE), another Neoplatonist, replies to Porphyry's letter in a work entitled On the Mysteries of Egypt, which is basically a defense of ritual magic and theurgy and which deals, from a philosophical view, with the techniques of inducing the presence of daemons or gods.[74] Iamblichus firmly believed that the world is managed by a host of daemons and that the magician-priest, if he has been duly initiated and trained, can get in touch with these subordinate deities and control them to a certain degree. In this work, which is an important source for understanding religious feeling in antiquity, Iamblichus described in detail the visions he had of spirits.

One group that revered Orpheus lived in Western Asia Minor in the second or third century CE. Their cult sang hymns by torchlight to a number of gods-mostly the Homeric figures-offering them fumigations and libations. One member of the sect may have written the eighty-seven Orphic Hymns that survive; they seem to be a coherent collection. Judged by the number (eight) of hymns given him, Dionysius was the god most honored by the cult. The hymns vary from thirty lines to six, most of them devoted to the god's names and attributes. The hopes that the hymns express are predictable: good health, economic success, peace and so on. Some of the terminology of the hymns show that their author knew the language of the Mysteries. Others who borrowed the name of Orpheus had different aims. Neo-Pythagorean Orphica revived the literary habits of the first Pythagoreans. Jewish students of Orpheus exploited his traditional association with Musaeus; they claimed that he was really Moses and that he was Orpheus' teacher-rather than the reverse. An Orphic Testament, probably of the first century BCE, makes Orpheus recant his polytheism and teach Musaeus about the one God. Alexandria produced syncretistic Orphica. It was hard for any Hellenistic philosophical school or any religion of late antiquity to resist the versatile Orpheus. There was even Orphica dealing with astrology, alchemy, magical gems and such topics as those treated in the technical Hermetica.[75]

The Orphic text that inspired Neoplatonic metaphysics and theology was the Rhapsodic Theogony. Damascius, last head of the Academy in the early sixth century, detected three separate theogonies, and subsequent scholarship has discovered three more, tracing the earliest to about 500 BCE. The "rhapsodies" were the twenty-four sections of the whole, numbered like Homeric books, and they told an incredibly intricate tale of theogony and mythology. In the form known to the Neoplatonists, the Rhapsodic Theogony seems to have circulated as early as the first century BCE. One example will serve to illustrate this Orphic mythology, which were far more complex and contradictory than the account in Hesiod's Theogony. In its primeval state the world had been made by a god called Phanes (the Manifest) or Protogones (Firstborn), but Zeus swallowed Phanes and then produced the world known to humanity. From a Neoplatonic perspective, the world of Phanes corresponded to Plato's intelligible world of Ideas, while Zeus gave rise to a sensible cosmos of matter. From the time of Plutarch of Athens in the early fifth century through the period of Olympiodorus in the Alexandrian school of the later sixth century, the Neoplatonists returned time and again to the Orphic theogony. Proclus was the most prolific interpreter of Orpheus among the Neoplatonists, but he may have learned his devotion to the Orphica from Iamblichus and Porphyry.[76]

A source of divine wisdom with a long and complex pedigree survives in the twelve books of Sibylline Oracles, composed between the second century BCE and the seventh century CE and assembled towards the end of that period by a Byzantine editor.

The etymology of the name is unknown; in Greece the earliest mention of the term is found in the writings of the philosopher Heraclitus, about 500 BCE. Delphi, Samos, Erythrae in Ionia, Marpessus in Troas, and Cumae and Tibur in Italy each had its resident sibyl. Other individual sibyls were known respectively as Persian, Chaldean, Phyrgian, and Egyptian; and there were less famous sibyls elsewhere. Places in which sibyls were supposed to deliver their oracles, such as the cave in Cumae, were revered and visited by pilgrims. Few people, however, claimed to have seen a living sibyl. In Petronius's Satyricon (Chapter 48) Trimalchio does, but he is meant not to be believed. In reality, people were primarily acquainted with collections of ancient (or allegedly ancient) oracles that were attributed to individual sibyls and that seemed to be relevant, or could be applied, to given situations.

We have only scattered examples of pagan sibylline oracles. The most famous are perhaps those preserved by Phlegon of Tralles (early second century CE). One seems to belong to 125 BCE, another perhaps to Sulla's time, and a third certainly refers to the celebration of the Secular Games under Augustus, though it may incorporate older texts.

About half the material in the existing collection can be traced to Jewish communities in Egypt, other parts to Syria and Asia Minor. The prevailing theme is Jewish apocalyptic in a loosely pagan framework with some Christian interpolation. The first mention of the Hebrew Sibyl in classical sources is in Pausanias (10.12.9), in the second century CE, but such a figure was associated with oracles long before then. Like other sibyls, she had a personal name, which Pausanias gave as Sabba (a variant is Sambethe). She is referred to in extant oracles as a pagan daughter-in-law of Noah. As the Orphic Rhapsodies and Chaldaean Oracles the Sibylline Oracles are poetic in form - hexameter verse - and their subject matter are the standard apocalyptic catalogue of public disasters, set in the context of universal history from Creation through the Judgment to the Golden Age beyond. The Sibyl is a woman old enough to have watched the parade of war, flood, plague and famine from a primordial vantage point; like the biblical Isaiah or Jeremiah, she makes prophecy out of current events or recent history, but she authenticates her predictions by claiming to be a thousand years old. Her message is that idolatry and animal worship is doomed; the one God alone deserves worship. Her message is loose enough to satisfy many questioners. The third book of the Sibylline Oracles is one of the older parts of the collection, dating from the middle of the second century BCE. It may have been written in the Egyptian city of Leontopolis, north of Memphis, where Onias IV of the great family of Jewish high priests built a temple under Ptolemy VI Philometor. This third book speaks favorably of the Ptolemies.[77] The composite fourth book is a Jewish revision from the late first century CE of earlier Hellenistic material. It may come from Syria, while the fifth book takes us back to Leontopolis, where the Egyptian Jews of the early second century CE were no longer happy with their pagan neighbors. Book twelve is from the middle of the third century CE, most likely from Alexandria. In describing the reign of Marcus Aurelius, the Sibyl of book twelve predicts that "at his prayer he will shower rainwater out of season" -- another memory of the rain-miracle attributed elsewhere to Julian, the Chaldean theurge.[78]

Virgil may have been influenced by a Jewish Sibyl in his fourth Eclogue. He called it a "Cumaean poem," but the vision of a Golden Age of peace when the lion will lie down with the lamb and a divine child will inaugurate a new era of justice contains much that is nonclassical, though precise correspondences to the Sibylline Oracles are also lacking. In the sixth book of the Aeneid, Virgil has his hero seek out Apollo's temple in Cumae to consult the Sibyl, who leads him down through Hades to the Elysian fields and Anchises, the hero's father; paternal promises of hard-won glory for Aeneas and Rome reinforce the Sibyl's predictions. Christian writers were taken with Virgil's messianic Eclogue, but the drama of Aeneas at Cumae left a larger mark on the greater world of letters in antiquity, where the Sibyl had long been a familiar figure. Her title was perhaps at first a person's name, and her style of prophecy appeared in northwestern Asia Minor toward the end of the seventh century BCE. Heraclitus left the first surviving texts that mention her, and the cities of Ionia knew of her sisters in archaic times, as did the Italian outpost of Cumae by the late sixth century. A much older legend says that a Roman king, Tarquinius Superbus, bought prophetic books from a Sibyl, and Varro linked this story with the oracle of Cumae. From early times the Romans seem to have kept a set of Greek verse oracles on the Capitoline. Until the temple of Jupiter that housed them perished in 83 BCE, the Sibylline books instructed the Romans many times (about fifty known instances) after the early fifth century. When some public catastrophe or weird phenomenon warned that the gods were unhappy, the Senate directed the guardians of the books to consult them, and the usual advice was to build a temple or institute a rite-measures seldom as terrible as the practice of burying alive two Gauls and two Greeks, first noted in 228. So valued were the books that the republic appointed a commission to search for replacements a few years after the temple of Jupiter was destroyed. Augustus and his successors also respected them, enough to control them closely.[79]

The most important work of Greek literature showing Sibylline influence was the Alexandra written in the early third century BCE in Alexandria by Lycophron, who transformed Homer's Cassandra into a Sibyl and made her rave in muddled fury. However, fine literature for leisured readers was not the main medium of Sibylline prophecy; the professionals who collected the oracles for ready dissemination and explication among broader social circles had the special name of chresmologoi or "oraclemongers." We know that the Sibylline Oracles were in Rome by later first century BCE, because Alexander Polyhistor used the third book for the biblical story of the Tower of Babel in his Chaldaean History. Virgil wrote his fourth Eclogue around 40 BCE. Early Christian authors were also well acquainted with the figure of the Sibyl. Clement of Alexandra found them as useful pagans, but Tertullian found no good in them. By the late second century, however, some Christians put as much trust in the Sibyls as in biblical prophets. Theophilus was the first Christian to make extensive use of the Sibylline Oracles, especially book three, but their chief Christian advocate was also the main champion of the Hermetica among Christians-Lactantius. His Divine Institutes contains hundreds of brief quotations from six books of the Sibylline Oracles, and he transmitted to the middle ages the names of the ten Sibyls in their traditional configuration. Eusebius recorded a speech of the Emperor Constantine that describes the judgment day by way of the eighth book of the Sibylline Oracles, but, unlike Lactantius and other church Fathers, the emperor treated the Sibyl more as a pagan priestess than a biblical prophet.[80] Having read Lactantius' account of the Sibylline prophecies, Augustine eventually admitted the Cumaean, Erythraean and other Sibyls to the heavenly city, but elsewhere he expressed his doubts:

The Sibyl or Sibyls, Orpheus, some Hermes or other, and various seers, divines, sages or philosophers of the gentiles are reputed to have told or foretold the truth about the Son of God or God the Father. In fact, this somewhat serves to refute the foolishness of the pagans, not to embrace their authority, since we show ourselves worshipping that God about whom they cannot stay silent, daring in some cases to teach their kindred peoples to worship idols and demons, in other cases not daring to prohibit them.[81]

In Augustine's eyes, the Sibyl was no fit companion for a Christian as long as she kept company with Orpheus and Hermes. One reason for Augustine's ambivalence about the Sibyl was that Lactantius and others had linked her books with Orphica, Hermetica and Chaldaean Oracles that condoned the magical practices that Augustine thought to be the snare of demons.

Christians did maintain an interest in sibylline oracles and composed new ones throughout the Middle Ages. The queen of Sheba was sometimes identified with the sibyl Sabba. The Tiburtine Sibyl became especially popular both in the West and in the East; some of the texts, though now in medieval redactions, probably go back to the fourth century CE.

Christianity too was pervaded with magical elements. Only the conscious effort of its leaders kept Christianity from becoming another of the magical cults that were so popular. Christianity escaped this fate by assimilating the pervasive magical environment. To eradicate it was impossible even if it had been desirable. Christian people continued to practice ancient superstitions in a more or less disguised form, and pagan and magical elements entered the saint's cults.

The full-scale persecution of magic by the state begins in the fourth century CE.[82] The emperors clearly felt uncomfortable at the thought that astrologers might be able to predict their death accurately and that magicians might put a curse on them. At times even the wearing of an amulet was considered a crime. In a parallel movement, the Church, too, was now condemning magic. This combination was to prove a dominant force well into the Middle Ages.

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Last modified: Mon Mar 04, 2002 / Jeremiah Genest