Episode 55: Naomi Janowitz on Jewish Magic and ‘The Jewish Magi’ in Antiquity

Professor Naomi Janowitz has written some of the best books on ritual practice in Late Antiquity, and some of the best – and only – books considering specifically Jewish ritual practice in the wider Mediterranean context of ritual practices, beliefs, and polemics.

This interview circles around the question of Jewish magic in antiquity, by way of reflections on the power of ritual to construct social reality, and the many competing and overlapping voices which go into defining categories such as ‘magic’, ‘religion’, licit and illicit, and so on. We address two main questions: what was Jewish magic in antiquity (and it turns out that this is a very difficult question to answer), and how did the image or stereotype of the Jew as a privileged magical practitioner, which we find in non-Jewish peoples of the ancient Mediterranean like the Greeks and Romans, function? So: what was Jewish magic, and what was ‘the magical Jew’? The answers given to these questions are complex and draw on a rich array of comparative cultural data, from weddings at the Burning Man festival to ‘voodoo dolls’, from ancient Rabbinic stories of magical contests to Austin’s How to Do Things With Words (see the Works Mentioned section below). And there are a few Jewish jokes along the way as well.

Ancient Judaism was permeated with sacred rituals of many different sorts; rituals for healing, to attain knowledge, to make things right with god, to curse one’s enemies. The debates within ancient Judaism as to what is licit ritual and what is forbidden were a complex, living discussion to which no definitive answer could be given, by virtue of the structures of knowledge within antique Judaism. Nevertheless, we discuss certain criteria which predominate in the ancient debates: Jewishness (rituals done by outsiders are generally suspicious), gender (women’s ritual practice often being seen as inherently questionable or even dangerous), family connections (one’s mother is not a witch, but that lady over there is), and specialist suspicion (I am a damn fine Jewish healer; who the hell does this non-Jewish healer think he is?). Listeners might want to check out Episode 5 of the podcast for some methodological background to this discussion.

Ancient Judaism was also subject to a kind of ‘orientalism’ by non-Jewish peoples: the Jews were often seen as especially gifted at magic, with all the useful and also forbidden baggage that such expertise entails. Listeners might want to check out Episode 8 here, for some background on the Græco-Roman idea of the ‘barbarian sage’.

Works Discussed in this Episode:

Butler, J., 1990. Gender Trouble: Feminism and the Subversion of Identity. Routledge, London.

Goodman, M., 2007. Rome and Jerusalem: The Clash of Ancient Civilizations. Allen Lane, London.

Zeitlin, F., 1996. Playing the Other: Gender and Society in Classical Greek Literature. University of Chicago Press, Chicago, IL/London.

Recommended Reading:

  • Austin, J., 1962. How to Do Things With Words. Harvard University Press, Cambridge, MA.
  • Butler, E., 1949. Ritual Magic. Cambridge University Press, Cambridge, UK.
  • Collins, A. Y. (1999). ‘Messianic Secret and the Gospel of Mark: Secrecy in Jewish Apocalypticism, the Hellenic Mystery Religions and Magic’. In: Wolfson, E. R. (Ed.), Rending the Veil: Concealment and Secrecy in the History of Religions, Seven Bridges.
  • Frankfurter, D. (1997). ‘Ritual Expertise in Roman Egypt and the Problem of the Category of Macician’. In: Schäfer, P. & Kippenberg, H. G. (Ed.), Envisioning Magic: A Princeton Seminar and Symposium, Brill.
  • Frankfurter, D. (2002). ‘Dynamics of Ritual Expertise in Antiquity and Beyond: Toward a New Taxonomy of “Magicians”‘. In: Mirecki, P. & Meyer, M. (Ed.), Magic and Ritual in the Ancient World, Brill.
  • Graf, F., 1997. Magic in the Ancient World. Harvard University Press, Cambridge, MA.
  • Graf, F. (2002). ‘Theories of Magic in Antiquity’. In: Mirecki, P. & Meyer, M. (Ed.), Magic and Ritual in the Ancient World, Brill.
  • Hoffman, C. A. (2002). ‘Fiat Magia’. In: Mirecki, P. & Meyer, M. (Ed.), Magic and Ritual in the Ancient World, Brill.
  • Janowitz, N., 2001. Magic in the Roman World: Pagans, Jews, and Christians. Routledge, London.
  • Janowitz, N., 2002. Icons of Power: Ritual Practices in Late Antiquity. Pennsylvania State University Press, University Park, PA.
  • Struck, P. T. (2002). ‘Speech Acts and the Stakes of Hellenism in Late Antiquity’. In: Mirecki, P. A. & Meyer, M. W. (Ed.), Magic and Ritual in the Ancient World, Brill.
  • Swartz, M. D., 1996. Scholastic Magic: Ritual and Revelation in Early Jewish Mysticism. Princeton University Press, Princeton, NJ.


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