November 2, 2022
Episode 153: Korshi Dosoo on Early Christian Magic
We are delighted to welcome Korshi Dosoo back to the podcast, this time with a focus on Christian magical papyri from the first millennium of our era.
- The parameters of our source-material: Coptic, and sometimes Greek, Egyptian papyri (and sometimes parchment) from about the third or fourth century until the twelfth or thereabouts,
- Our working definition for ‘magic’ in the present discussion, as (roughly) ‘ritual meant to effect changes in the world’, and a further discussion of what exactly we take ‘Christianity’ to mean (which turns out to be the more difficult one),
- A four-part typology of the kinds of Christian magic we find in the sources, namely:
- amulets for healing or general protection making use of scriptural passages or other, non-canonical Jewish/Christian writings (most commonly an incipit of one of the four gospels, sometimes Psalm 90/91, sometimes passages from the ‘Letter of Abgar to Jesus and Jesus’ Reply’, or a mix-and-match from these six texts),
- ‘narrative charms’, a.k.a. historiolæ, ‘little narratives’ – the discussion ranges from Middle Kingdom Egypt to ninth-century England, showing the kinds of long-term continuities we sometimes find in these story-charms – formulæ to be pronounced, retelling the exploits of a god or gods, which, in the telling, are meant to solve a current problem of some kind,
- The ‘prayer for justice’, a form of curse or quasi-curse (these texts have a lot of overlap with defixiones more broadly, but Versnel and others have argued that there is enough distinctiveness in these texts to justify speaking of a separate genre of magic from the curses) in which the practitioner invokes god in the form of a petition for redress of grievances or for protection , and
- ‘proper’ magical texts, addressative works like the Testament of Solomon, The Prayer of Mary at Bartos, and many others, some of which invoke demons and Satan, as well as the usual angels and saints, and most of which are shockingly under-studied.
Bonus section on the appearance of Jesus in non-Christian magical texts, including the exorcism-spell in PGM IV, invoking Jesus, which may well be one of our earliest surviving Christian liturgical texts (!).
Korshi Dosoo is a papyrologist specialising in magic. His PhD work, a study in ‘rituals of apparition’ from the Theban Magical Library, is essential reading, and his current project, based at the Julius Maximilian University Würzburg and entitled Coptic Magical Papyri: Vernacular Religion in Late Roman and Early Islamic Egypt, is making all manner of fascinating discoveries, as this interview demonstrates.
Works Cited in this Episode:
Book burning of magical texts at Ephesus in Acts of the Apostles: 19:11-20.
Augustine and Chrysostom on Christian amulets – maybe not effective, but at least not demonic: see Joseph E. Sanzo. Scriptural Incipits on Amulets from Late Antique Egypt: Text, Typology, and Theory. Mohr Siebeck, Tübingen, 2014, pp. 161-165.
On that ‘Jesus’ incantation-bowl, see Dan Levene. ‘… And by the name of Jesus …’: An Unpublished Magic Bowl in Jewish Aramaic. JSQ, 6:283–308, 1999.
The charm known as ‘Flum Jordan’ is found e.g. at British Library, Sloane MS 962, folio 38v: Criste was borne in Bedlem, baptized in þo flem Jordan. Also þo flem astode, also astond þi blode .N. In nomine Patris et Filii et Spiritus Sancti.
Ninth-century English healing charm (Corrigendum: actually tenth century) mentioning Woðen: B4 in F. Grendon, “The Anglo-Saxon Charms,” Journal of American Folklore 22.84 (1909), 191–95, 226–29.
For the Prayer of Mary at Bartos, see: Marvin W. Meyer. The Magical Book of Mary and the Angels (P. Heid. Inv. Kopt. 685). Text, Translation and Commentary. Universitätsverlag C. Winter, Heidelberg, 1996. and Adam Łajtar and Jacques van der Vliet. Empowering the Dead: The Texts from a Medieval Funerary Complex in Dongola. Raphael Taubenschlag Foundation, Warsaw, 2017, pp. 80-239.
Justin Martyr and Origen refer to exorcisms through the names of the patriarchs done by Jews: Justin Martyr, Dialogue with Trypho 85.3; cf. Origen, Against Celsus 4.33, More extensive discussion in Martin Rist, “The God of Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob: A Liturgical and Magical Formula,” JBL, 57.3 (1938): 289-303.
Exorcism mentioning Jesus in the Greek Magical Papyri: PGM IV ll. 1227-1264. Also mentioned in ll. 3007-3086.
Translation of the Coptic Cyprian text: Marvin Meyer and Richard Smith. Ancient Christian Magic: Coptic Texts of Ritual Power. Harper San Francisco, San Francisco, CA, 1994, pp. 153-158, no. 73.
The Prayer of Jacob discussed in Michael Zellmann-Rohrer. Seth on Mount Sinai: A Coptic Magical Formulary with a Prayer and Theophany of the Biblical Seth. Zeitschrift für Ägyptische Sprache und Altertumskunde, 144(2):240–54, 2017. and Korshi Dosoo. “2. ‘Magical’ Adjuration’”, in Coptica Sorbonensia. Textes de la 6e école d’été de papyrologie copte, Paris, 2-11 juillet 2018 (P. Sorb. Copt.). Paris: Association des Amis du Centre de’Histoire et Civilisation de Byzance, 2022, p. 27-39.
Korshi’s project, the Coptic Magical Papyri project, must be visited by anyone interested in ancient magic, ancient Christian magic, and even Late-Antique Islamicate magic.
Roger Bagnall. Early Christian Books in Egypt. Princeton University Press, Princeton, NJ, 2009.
David Frankfurter on ‘historiolæ’: Narrating Power: The Theory and Practice of the Magical Historiola in Ritual Spells. In Marvin Meyer and Paul Mirecki, editors, Ancient Magic and Ritual Power, volume 129, pages 457–76. Brill, Leiden, 1995.
James George Frazer. The Golden Bough: A Study in Magic and Religion. Macmillan, London, 1939.
James Kapaló, Éva Pócs, and William Ryan. The Power of Words: Studies on Charms and Charming in Europe. Central European University Press, Budapest, 2013.
Ramsaey MacMullen on Symeon the Stylite: Christianizing the Roman Empire (AD 100-400). Yale University Press, New York, NY, 1984, p. 1-4, citing Theodoret of Cyrus, Life of Symeon the Stylite 13-16.
Jonathan Roper, editor. Charms and Charming in Europe. Springer, Basingstoke, 2004.
Idem. English Verbal Charms. Academia Scientiarum Fennica, Helsinki, 2005.
Idem, editor. Charms, Charmers and Charming: International Research on Verbal Magic. Springer, Basingstoke, 2009.
Jesper Sørensen. Magic Reconsidered: Towards a Scientifically Valid Concept of Magic. In Bernd-Christian Otto and Michael Stausberg, editors, Defining Magic: A Reader, pages 229–42. Routledge, London/New York, NY, 2014.
Hendrik S. Versnel. Some Reflections on the Relationship Magic-Religion. Numen, 38 (2):177–97, 1991a.
Henk S. Versnel. Beyond Cursing: The Appeal to Justice in Judicial Prayers. In Christopher A. Faraone and Dirk Obbink, editors, Magika Hiera: Ancient Greek Magic and Religion, pages 60–106. Oxford University Press, New York, NY, 1991b.
Idem. Writing Mortals and Reading Gods: Appeal to the Gods as a Dual Strategy in Social Control. In David Cohen, editor, Demokratie, Recht und soziale Kontrolle im klassischen Athen, pages 37–76. R. Oldenbourg Verlag, Munich, 2009.
Idem. Prayers for Justice, East and West. In Richard L. Gordon and Francisco Marco Simón, editors, Magical Practice in the Latin West, page 275–354. Brill, Leiden, 2010.
Recommended Reading (and Listening):
The Coptic Magic Project hosts ample online bibliographical resources, to which we refer the interested listener. The project also has an occasional podcast devoted to conversations between eminent scholars, which SHWEP listeners will find to be of a ridiculously high-quality.