Episode 77: Korshi Dosoo on the Papyri Græcæ Magicæ and Western Esotericism

[Apologies for poor sound quality on this one. The technology was not on our side, but the ideas are worth the effort of listening!]

We are delighted to interview Korshi Dosoo, a papyrologist who not only knows what’s in the Greek Magical Papyri (all manner of texts of ritual power from various parts of Egypt, dating from the first to the fourth centuries CE), but knows the history of the texts before they became the PGM corpus, the history surrounding Preisendantz and the formation of the corpus, and even the history of the corpus itself within western esotericism.

We discuss how the corpus was first put together, and the various textual iterations since. We then move on to what we mean when we talk about ‘magic’ in our Græco-Egyptian context. Genre is discussed, along with the several types of document collected under the heading of ‘magical papyri’, including:

  • recipe books,
  • καταδεσμοί or ‘bindings’,
  • amulets and instructions for making amulets,
  • healing practices of various types,
  • technical divination texts,
  • ‘revelational’ divination texts (where a god appears to you, either in propria persona, in a dream, or in a material medium, and answers questions; be sure to cross-reference this material with the visionary and epiphanic material from the Chaldæan Oracles discussed in the previous episode),
  • spells for acquiring a paredros, a familiar spirit, to aid you in your magical operations (also relevant to the Oracles),
  • the ascent-magic of the Mithrasliturgie,
  • general spells for acquiring good fortune,
  • texts devoted to sending dreams to other people (usually to make them fall in love with you),
  • exorcism instructions,
  • and paignia, ‘party tricks’, an interesting genre where the lines between stage-magic and real magic blur.

Other topics covered include a quick primer on the complex linguistic landscape of Græco-Roman Egypt (how to tell your Demotic from your Coptic), the question of how Egyptian the PGM are, and how Greek, speculations about other, now-lost literate magical traditions from elsewhere in the Empire, and to what degree Græco-Egyptian magic might have been a cultural export like astrology.

We then turn to the extraordinary influence of the PGM on modern thought and esotericism. The work of Preisendantz and co. gave us ‘the ouroboros’, and had a major influence on modern sociology of magic, particularly through the work of Mauss and Hubert. One text which was published earlier than the corpus as a whole, the codex now known as PGM 5, gave the magicians of the Golden Dawn a very important ritual which, through Aleister Crowley’s (mis)handling of the text, has become forevermore known as ‘the bornless ritual’. And last but not least, the Mormons come into it. Class.

Works Discussed in this Episode:

  • Betz, Hans Dieter. The Greek Magical Papyri in Translation Including the Demotic Spells. Chicago: The University of Chicago Press, 1986 [1992].
  • Bull, Christian. The Tradition of Hermes Trismegistus: the Egyptian Priestly Figure as a Teacher of Hellenized Wisdom. Leiden: Brill 2018.
  • Celsus on invoking spirits: Origen Cels. 1.68.
  • Crowley, Aleister. “The Temple of Solomon the King.” The Equinox 1, no. 3 (1910): 133-280. This contains Crowley’s possible reworking of the spell originally devised by Alan Bennett; see King, Modern Ritual Magic: The Rise of Western Occultism. Bridport: Prism Press, 1970 [1989], p.52.
  • Kyranides: D.V. Kaimakes, Die Kyraniden. Meisenheim am Glan: Hain 1976.
  • Durkheim, Emile. The Elementary Forms of the Religious Life. Translated by Joseph Ward Swain. London: George Allen & Unwin, 1915.
  • Gee, John. “Eyewitness, Hearsay, and Physical Evidence of the Joseph Smith Papyri.” In The Disciple As Witness: Essays on Latter-Day Saint History and Doctrine in Honor of Richard Lloyd Anderson, edited by Richard Lloyd Anderson, Stephen D. Ricks, Donald W. Parry and Andrew H. Hedges: Maxwell Institute, 2000.
  • Goodwin, Charles Wycliffe. Fragment of a Græco-Egyptian Work upon Magic. From a Papyrus in the British Museum. Edited for the Cambridge Antiquarian Society, with a Translation and Notes. Cambridge, 1852.
  • Hubert, H. “Magia.” In Dictionnaire des Antiquités Grecques et Romaines. Volume 3 Part 1, edited by Ch. Daremberg, Edm. Saglio and Edm. Pottier. Paris: Libraire Hachette, 1900.
  • Richard Gordon. “Reporting the Marvellous: Private Divination in the Greek Magical Papyri.” In Envisioning Magic, edited by Peter Schäfer and Hans G Kippenberg. Leiden: Brill, 1997: 65-92.
  • Mauss, Marcel, and Henri Hubert. A General Theory of Magic [Esquisse d’une théorie génerale de la magie]. Translated by Robert Brain. London: Routledge, 1902 [1950/1972/2001].
  • Preisendanz, Karl, and Albert Henrichs. Papyri Graecae Magicae. Die griechischen Zauberpapyri (vol. I). Stuttgart: Teubner, 1928 [1973].
  • ———  Papyri Graecae Magicae. Die griechischen Zauberpapyri (Vol. II). Stuttgart: Teubner, 1931 [1974].
  • Regardie, Israel. Ceremonial Magic. Bramley: Lowe & Brydone, 1980.
  • Ritner, Robert K. “The Religious, Social, and Legal Parameters of Traditional Egyptian Magic.” In Ancient Magic and Ritual Power, edited by Paul Mirecki and Marvin Meyer. Leiden: Brill, 1995: 43-60.

Recommended Reading:

  • Hans Dieter Betz. The Greek Magical Papyri in Translation, Including the Demotic Spells, volume 1. University of Chicago Press, Chicago, IL, 1996.
  • W.M. Brashear. ‘The Greek Magical Papyri: an Introduction and Survey, Annotated Bibliography (1928–1994)’. ANRW II, 18(5):3380–3684, 1995b. Indices in vol. II 18.6.
  • Jacco Dieleman. Priests, Tongues, and Rites: The London-Leiden Magical Manuscripts and Translation in Egyptian Ritual (100–300 CE). Brill, Leiden, 2005.
  • Korshi Dosoo. Rituals of Apparition in the Theban Magical Library. PhD thesis, Macquarie University, 2014 (available on Korshi’s Academia page!).
  • Christopher A. Faraone. ‘Handbooks and Anthologies: The Collection of Greek and Egyptian Incantations in Late Hellenistic Egypt’. Archiv für Religionsgeschichte, 2:195–214, 2000.
  • D. Frankfurter. ‘Ritual Expertise in Roman Egypt and the Problem of the Category of Magician’. In Peter Schäfer and Hans G. Kippenberg, editors, Envisioning Magic: A Princeton Seminar and Symposium, Studies in the History of Religions, pages 115–36. Brill, Leiden, 1997.
  • Richard Gordon. ‘Imagining Greek and Roman Magic’. In Bengt Ankarloo and Stuart Clark, editors, Magic and Witchcraft in Europe: Greece and Rome, pages 159–276. University of Pennsylvania Press, Philadelphia, 1999.
  • Richard Gordon. ‘Shaping the Text: Innovation and Authority in Graeco-Egyptian Malign Magic’. In H. F. J. Horstmanshoff, editor, Kykeon: Studies in Honour of H. S. Versnel, pages 69–112. Brill, Leiden, The Netherlands, 2002.
  • F. Graf. Magic in the Ancient World. Harvard University Press, Cambridge, MA, 1997.
  • Hans G. Kippenberg. ‘Magic in Roman Civil Discourse: Why Rituals Could be Illegal’. In Peter Schäfer and Hans G. Kippenberg, editors, Envisioning Magic: A Princeton Seminar and Symposium, pages 137–165. Brill, Leiden, 1997.
  • Lynn R. LiDonnici. ‘The Disappearing Magician: Literary and Practical Questions about the Greek Magical Papyri’. In Benjamin G. Wright, ed. A Multiform Heritage: Studies on Early Judaism and Christianity in Honor of Robert A. Kraft, pages 227–244. Scholars, Atlanta, GA, 1999.
  • Z. Mazur. ‘Unio Magica: Part Two: Plotinus, Theurgy, and the Question of Ritual’. Dionysius, New Series, 22:29–55, 2004.
  • Ian S. Moyer. ‘Thessalos of Tralles and Cultural Exchange’. In Joel Walker, Scott Noegel, and Brannon Wheeler, editors, Prayer, Magic, and the Stars in the Ancient and Late Antique World, pages 39–56. Pennsylvania State University Press, University Park, PA, 2003.
  • C. Pharr. ‘The Interdiction of Magic in Roman Law’. TAPA, 63:269–95, 1932.
  • Karl Preisendanz. Papyri Graecae Magicae: Die griechischen Zauberpapyri. Teubner, Stuttgart, 2 edition, 1973.
  • R. K. Ritner. ‘Egyptian magical practice under the roman empire: The demotic spells and their religious context’. In ANRW 2, volume 18.5, pages 3333–3379. de Gruyter, Berlin, 1995.
  • J. Z. Smith. ‘Trading Places’. In Marvin W. Meyer and Paul A. Mirecki, editors, Ancient Magic and Ritual Power, pages 13–27. Brill, Leiden, 1995a.


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