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Materia Magica: The Archaeology of Magic in Roman Egypt, Cyprus, and Spain

Materia Magica: The Archaeology of Magic in Roman Egypt, Cyprus, and Spain

By Andrew T. Wilburn (New Texts from Ancient Cultures). Pp. xvi + 342, b&w pls. 25. University of Michigan Press, Ann Arbor 2012. $80. ISBN 978-0-472-11779-6 (cloth).

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One of the most infamous cases of sorcery in Roman history emerged during the struggle between Tiberius’ nephew Germanicus and the governor of Syria, Gnaeus Calpurnius Piso (Tac. Ann. 2.43–3.18). When Germanicus fell ill in the East, he suspected his rival of giving him poison (venenum). A subsequent search of Germanicus’ home revealed hidden deposits of sinister items: human remains, lead curse tablets, blood-smeared ashes, and other implements of witchcraft (aliaque malefica) used to compel the infernal gods. In the turmoil following Germanicus’ death, a woman named Martina, a friend of Piso’s wife and a notorious poisoner, was summoned from Antioch to Rome, but she expired en route under suspicious circumstances. In the end, Piso committed suicide and the senate officially proscribed his memory.

The unsettling story of Germanicus and Piso incorporates several standard literary themes. Its magic involves secrecy, selfishness, and malevolence, not to mention a woman from the East. Of course, literate male elites composed such narratives and may have distorted their subject. It is at this point that Wilburn’s Materia Magica enters the picture (cf. 14–15). His book  explores the archaeology of magic at three sites in the Roman Mediterranean: Karanis in Egypt, Amathus on Cyprus, and Empúries in Spain. Wilburn makes reference to the Egyptian spell books known today as the Papyri graecae magicae (PGM) and Papyri demoticae magicae (PDM), but he is primarily interested in the material manifestations of local praxis. From the evidence, Wilburn shows that magic could feature public performance, collective participation, and benevolent aims. Critical to his study is his definition of the art of magic as an amalgam of ritual activity, religious elements (familiar ones to add legitimacy, foreign ones to create a “coefficient of weirdness”), and personal goals (9, 15–20). After extensive preliminary remarks, he considers each of his three sites in succession.

With regard to magic’s sometimes public quality, Wilburn examines a third-century C.E. dispute over the property of one Gemellus at Karanis. According to the documentation, Gemellus’ adversaries openly threw a brephos—likely a human fetus—at him and his cultivator, seeking to halt their labor with malice (phthonos) (95–105). Also striking is a group of three first-century C.E. curse tablets from Empúries, each found in a cinerary urn in the Ballesta cemetery. Wilburn argues that these tablets were deposited during a single funeral, for the burial was not damaged or disrupted in any way, and the objects themselves have warped edges, as if they were placed in still smoldering ashes (229–32). In addition, Wilburn notes that the tablets target the same Roman officials in an apparent conflict over land redistribution and may thus indicate an undercurrent of local resistance (238, 250–52).

As opposed to the idea of the solitary sorcerer, Wilburn finds evidence for information exchange and collective action. Writing in the first century C.E., Pliny the Elder cryptically referred to a magices factio on Cyprus (HN 30.2.11), and a series of lead and selenite curse tablets from Amathus supports his testimony. Many of these tablets remain unpublished, but it is clear that a body of professionals produced them from a limited number of prototypes. They feature neat handwriting and consistently distinctive spellings—e.g., demones rather than daimones (169, 187–88, 198). One even resembles a curse from PGM 4, provenanced to Egyptian Thebes, though Wilburn believes that both derive from a Hellenic ancestor (197–200).

Finally, over and against magic’s malevolence, Wilburn has several counter-examples from Karanis. A fourth-century C.E. amulet with Judeo-Christian divine names protected a man named Serapion from fever (111–14), while a nearly contemporary ostrakon bears an abbreviated spell—almost certainly a mnemonic aid—for guarding a granary (119–27). Similarly, a group of 84 decorated animal and human bones, some of which evoke images from the magical papyri, may be vestiges of a local rite for protecting and/or controlling herds (159–62).

In general, Materia Magica is a circumspect and original study. Wilburn effectively incorporates previous scholarship on ancient magic as well as related work, most notably that of Mark Leone and Gladys-Marie Fry on African-American “conjure.” His characterization of magic as “big business” (200), heterogeneous (217), and dependent on gossip and partial revelation (214, 262) is especially astute. Wilburn also has a healthy respect for analytic limits and complications, including the frequent loss of archaeological context, the possibility of equifinality, the danger of circular reasoning, and lingering questions about the gender and literacy of practitioners.

That said, readers may disagree with a few of Wilburn’s ideas. One potential quarrel concerns his definition of magic, which encompasses rituals that Greeks and Romans would have hesitated to identify as such, like initiation into the Isaic mysteries, while excluding phenomena that seem to belong, like the baskania, or “evil eye.” In fact, dissatisfaction with Wilburn’s definition may be rooted in a simple preference for the emic over the etic, or for philology over archaeology—something more in the vein of Stratton’s Naming the Witch (New York 2007). Still, a more thorough and integrated treatment of the highly charged Greek and Latin terminology (e.g., mageia, goêteia, pharmakeia, carmina mala, venenum) would have enhanced his book.

More specifically, one may question Wilburn’s conviction that the PGM and PDM did not circulate beyond the Nile Valley (28, 33). He is doubtless correct that “a dialectical relationship between local rites and a koinê of magical practice” existed in the lands surrounding mare nostrum, with Egyptian priests compiling spell books over decades, even centuries, and appropriating the stereotype of the “oriental wizard” (59–64). Nonetheless, we know that contemporary texts with long redactional periods—the various Christian gospels, for instance—were disseminated far and wide, and our literary sources mention the use of Egyptian books by magicians such as Pseudo-Democritus, Thessalus of Tralles, and the satirical figure of Arignotus. Can we thus be so confident that the Egyptian magical papyri were never exported?

Overall, then, Materia Magica is an important volume, but one that does not constitute—or presuppose to constitute—the last word on its subject. Because of its unique focus on material components, it is indispensable to scholars of ancient magic. It is also suitable for graduate and advanced undergraduate students in classics, history, and archaeology.

Steven M. Stannish
Department of History
State University of New York at Potsdam

Book Review of Materia Magica: The Archaeology of Magic in Roman Egypt, Cyprus, and Spain, by Andrew T. Wilburn

Reviewed by Steven M. Stannish

American Journal of Archaeology Vol. 119, No. 1 (January 2015)

Published online at

DOI: 10.3764/ajaonline1191.Stannish

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