Episode 6: Magicians, Ghosts, Amulets, and Spells: Daniel Ogden on Græco-Roman Magic

Professor Daniel Ogden takes us on a tour through magic in the ancient world. We discuss the kinds of evidence available (literary texts, recipes like the Greek Magical Papyri, curse tablets, ‘voodoo dolls’, and even the occasional magical implement which survives from antiquity (see the photograph above), some of the problems of definition which occur in studying ancient magic, and the types of magical practitioners who populated the ancient world.

We then turn to a number of fascinating related subjects, including ghosts, amulets, and the nature of the ancient Greek ‘shamans’, as they are known. Finally, Professor Ogden gives us some insight into the traditional voces magicæ, including the famous Ephesia grammata, and presents his own findings regarding the process by which spells which seem meaningless may have evolved from meaningful phrases in foreign languages, become fossilised as meaningless, but powerful, spells, and then been re-charged with meaning in their new, magical context.

This is a fascinating interview throughout, but from the discussion of the enduring power of amulets onwards, Daniel Ogden is on fire! Not to be missed.

Specific points discussed include:

  • A detailed discussion of the origins, earliest appearances, and definitional spheres of the two most important ancient terms for magical practitioners, magos (‘mage’) and goês (‘sorcerer’),
  • A look at some other types of ancient magical practitioners, including the mantis (diviner), psychagogos (soul-drawer), agourtês (beggar-priest), aoidos (singer, hence ‘enchanter’), and my personal favorite, the engastrimythos (person-with-a-demon-talking-in-their-tummy),
  • The kinds of things ancient mages and sorcerers were thought to get up to,
  • The Græco-Roman conception of a ghost, the ways in which they were thought to interact with the living, and the magical uses to which they could be put,
  • A case-study, taken from Apuleius’ Metamorphoses (2nd c. CE), of a man murdered by a ghost,
  • Apuleius was of course not only a writer of amazing ghost-stories, but a Platonist philosopher who was himself accused of magic and had to defend himself in court (and his account of his defence speech survives!). We talk about that a bit,
  • The universal importance of amulets down to the present day,
  • The Greek ‘shamans’, their relationship to the Pythagorean tradition, and some discussion of their many powers, featuring the case-study of Aristeas of Proconnesus,
  • A fascinating discussion of voces magicæ (words of power with no obvious meaning, but believed to be powerful in-and-of themselves), with a theory about the ways in which they evolve, and a fascinating comparative discussion of spells for healing fractured bones which takes us all the way back to the steppe home of the proto-Indo-Europeans!

Interview Bio

Professor Daniel Ogden is Professor of Ancient History at the University of Exeter, and a world-renowned scholar on ancient magic. As this Ogden Bibliography shows, he has published widely on magic and many other fascinating themes.

Works Discussed in this Episode

  • Apuleius, Pro se de magia liber (Apologia), Helm, R. (Ed.), 1959. Teubner, Leipzig.
  • Metamorphoses: the tale of the miller murdered by the ghost can be found at IX 29-31.
  • Betz, H. D., 1996. The Greek Magical Papyri in Translation, Including the Demotic Spells. University of Chicago Press, Chicago, IL.
  • Brashear, W. (1995). ‘The Greek Magical Papyri: an Introduction and Survey, Annotated
    Bibliography (1928–1994)’, ANRW II 18 : 3380-3684.
  • Burkert, W., 1972. Lore and Science in Ancient Pythagoreanism. Harvard University Press, Cambridge, MA.
  • Dodds, E. R., 1968. The Greeks and the Irrational. University of California Press, Berkeley, CA.
  • Ogden, D., 2002. Magic, Witchcraft, and Ghosts in the Greek and Roman Worlds: A Sourcebook. Oxford University Press, Oxford.


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