Defining the Magical Practitioner in Antiquity

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Medea rejuvenates an old ram by boiling it.

When we think of curses, we think of a magician, or even a witch, who’s up to no good in the dark of the night. Ancient literature teems with this figure: the witch of Endor, Medea, even followers of Jesus figure into this portrait of the evil magical practitioner (Gordon 253).

I want to set aside the specific question of cursing for a moment (we’ll talk about that in another post), and look at how we define the magical practitioner in antiquity. I would argue that we can’t define such a person—or at the very least, that it’s hard to pinpoint such a figure.

I’ve talked about the cultural contexts that surround the definition of magic in antiquity at my other blog, Invocatio (and you can read that post here). While I may not draw a hard and fast line between religion and magic, others have attempted to define what separated magicians from their religious counterparts. I want to look at some of these categories and determine whether or not they are useful for analysing magic in antiquity. In many ways, these categories reflect the similarities between the two spheres rather than any specific differences.

1. The magician sought money and status.

This common criticism goes all the way back to Plato, who suggested in The Republic that “Beggar-priests and soothsayers knock on the doors of wealthy households and try to persuade the owners that…if anyone has an enemy he’d like them to hurt, then it will hardly cost anything to injure him” (Republic 364b-c). Juvenal, in the Roman period, also criticized the profit-motives of oracle mongers and the women who patronized them (Juvenal, Satires 6). If we look to ancient sources, it would be easy to suggest that the desire for money distinguished magic from religion.

The problem is that ancient religion, especially religion in Rome, was just as much about status and money, if not more so, than the practices of magicians (or, more accurately, freelance religious professionals). There were no formal qualifications for the priesthood in Rome, that is, aside from having powerful friends and tons of cash. Religion was as much a political and social accoutrement as anything else, and the practice of euergetism, the practice of the wealthy funding civic infrastructure in exchange for public recognition, further blurred the lines between religious patronage and social advancement (Gordon 239).

The point is simply that, in the ancient world, religion and social standing were often interconnected. To say that money distinguished magicians from everyone else is to ignore the very real role that it played in more institutionalized religious structures.

2. The magical practitioner relied on specific formulae.

One look at the Greek Magical Papyri, replete with its voces mysticae (aka strings of vocalic sounds with no direct translation) and it would be easy to conclude that the magician resorted to a set formula of spells and incantations. Evidence from the world of curses would appear to support this, as curse tablets often show signs of mass production, with space left for the magician to “pop in” the relevant particulars (Gager 14).

However, these weren’t the only ancient rituals that were highly scripted. In fact, institutionalized religion was almost predicated on the exactness of ritual formulas. At one end of the spectrum, we have a list from Suetonius of the prayers and invocations that accompanied the Secular Games (Life of Augustus xxi.1-4), a festival that lasted several days and often repeated similar themes in its prayers. But lest you think such prayers were just words (and thus not very necessary), recall this example from Rome, where the improper recitation of a prayer compelled the city to start the entire festival all over again in one massive religious do-over (Livy, History of Rome 41.16). Clearly, the recitation of specific words and formulas was just as important to the religious sphere as it was to their “magical” counterparts.

3. Magic seeks to compel the gods, while religion does not.

This charge suggests that the boundary between religion and magic is found in the relationship the magician cultivates with the gods. While the religious professional enjoys some sort of spiritual congress with the gods, the magician—through the use of magic—seeks to compel them against their will.

Like the above categories, this one also breaks down in an ancient context. Take for example the preeminent religious act in the ancient world, that of sacrifice. Sacrifice was often undertaken with the full intention that some sort of exchange was taking place, for example, to appease the gods, to gain their favour, or to thwart their wrath. From a linguistic perspective, the Greek word εὔχομαι (euxomai, to pray) has a secondary meaning of “to boast.” In other words, “to pray” is to brag to the gods of all the things you have done for them, compelling them to show their favour likewise (Depew 233). To suggest that religious acts were wholly spiritual while magical acts were coercion overlooks the essence of obligation that characterized religion in antiquity. The gods were always being coerced, be it through choice sacrifices, heroic deeds, or “magic.”

These are not the only ways scholars have attempted to define magic, but they are a few of the more problematic ones. It should be clear that distinguishing between magic and religion in the ancient world is not so easy; many ideas are similar and overlap (and are even, on occasion, identical). Instead, what tends to define magic is the cultural context: Those who belonged to the social elite engaged in religion, those who did not were suspect of magic. As we’ll see in a later post, even an act like cursing—something which appears relatively easy to identify—doesn’t easily conform to simplistic definitions or categories.

For more on the cultural contexts which determined the label of magic, see my post On the Arbitrary Appellation of Magic in Antiquity at Invocatio.


  • Ankarloo, Bengt, and Stuart Clark, eds. 1999. Witchcraft and Magic in Europe: Ancient Greece and Rome. Philadelphia: University of Pennsylvania Press. 92-123.
  • Depew, Mary. 1997. “Reading Greek Prayers,” in Classical Antiquity Vol. 16, No. 2.
  • Gager, John G. 1992. Curse Tablets and Binding Spells from the Ancient World. Oxford: Oxford University Press.
  • Gordon, Richard. 1990. “Religion in the Roman Empire: the Civic Compromise and its Limits” in Pagan Priests: Religion and Power in the Ancient World. Edited by Mary Beard and John North. Duckworth.
  • Juvenal, Satires.
  • Livy, History of Rome.
  • Plato, The Republic.
  • Suetonius, Life of Augustus.

Photo via Wikimedia Commons.

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