The Greek Magical Papyri is the name given by scholars to a body of papyri from Graeco-Roman Egypt, written mostly in ancient Greek, which each contain a number of magical spells, formulae, hymns, and rituals.
The materials in the Greek Magical Papyri date from the 100s BC to the 400s AD.
The manuscripts came to light through the antiquities trade, from the 1700s onward. One of the best knowns of these texts is the Mithras Liturgy.
The texts were published in a series, and individual texts are referenced using the abbreviation PGM plus the volume and item number.
Each volume contains a number of spells and rituals. Further discoveries of similar texts from elsewhere have been allocated PGM numbers for convenience.
The corpus of the PGM was not based on an ancient archive, but rather are a modern collection that has been added to over time.
The unclear circumstances of each text’s production, over a span of centuries, have therefore occasioned some debate. Betz, the English translator of the PGM, claims that the texts form a fraction of the “magical books” that must have existed in antiquity, and considers them a form of “underground literature” subject to book-burnings at the time.
He cites book-burning in the Acts of the Apostles (Acts 19:10), Augustus’ orders to burn magical books according to Suetonius (Suet. Aug. 31.1), and what he terms “numerous” early Christian book-burnings.
Frankfurter, on the other hand, considers these texts productions of “innovative members of the Egyptian priesthood during the third-/fourth-century decline of the Egyptian temple infrastructure,” and lends them considerably less “underground” status than Betz.
Segal goes further, using the PGM to question the dichotomy of magic and religion in scholarship on the Hellenistic world.
He uses the existence of hymns in the PGM to suggest that the people who wrote them in such ‘magical‘ texts saw no distinction between such material and the more overtly magical content in the same documents.
Just how “underground” the practitioners that produced these texts were, therefore, remains contested, though Betz points to the admonitions to secrecy about the details of certain practices in certain of the papyri.
The first papyri in the series appeared on the art market in Egypt in the early 19th century.
Another papyrus (PGM III) was acquired by the diplomat Jean-François Mimaut (1774 – 1837) and ended up in the French Bibliothèque Nationale. The major portion of the collection is the so-called Anastasi collection.
About half a dozen of the papyri were purchased in about 1827 by a man calling himself Jean d’Anastasi, who may have been Armenian, and was a diplomatic representative at the Khedivial court in Alexandria.
He asserted that he obtained them at Thebes (modern Luxor), and he sold them to various major European collections, including the British Museum, the Louvre, the Bibliothèque Nationale in Paris, the Staatliche Museen in Berlin, and the Rijksmuseum van Oudheden in Leiden. H. D. Betz, who edited a translation of the collection, states that these pieces probably came from the library of an ancient scholar and collector of late antiquity based in Thebes, Egypt.
A similar individual, known as he who appeared in Thebes, Prince Khamwas, was the fourth son of King Ramses II and high priest of Ptah in Memphis, Egypt. According to Miriam Lichtheim:
Here I should like to stress that Prince Setne Khamwas, the hero of the two tales named for him, was a passionate antiquarian. The historical prince Khamwas, the fourth son of Ramses II, had been the high priest of Ptah at Memphis and administrator of all the Memphite sanctuaries. In that capacity, he had examined decayed tombs, restored the names of their owners, and renewed their funerary cults. Posterity had transmitted his renown, and the Demotic tales that were spun around his memory depicted him and his fictional adversary Prince Naneferkaptah as very learned scribes and magicians devoted to the study of ancient monuments and writings.
Betz observes, in the introduction to his translations, that while the papyri were produced in Greco-Roman Egypt, they contain many sections that are Greek in origin and nature.
He notes how Zeus, Hermes, Apollo, Artemis, and Aphrodite, among others, are portrayed not as Hellenic or Hellenised aristocrats, as in contemporary literature, but as demonic or even dangerous, much like in Greek folklore.
However, Betz also emphasizes the amount of syncretism he sees in the papyri, especially between Greek, Jewish and Egyptian beliefs.
Betz noted, “In this syncretism, the indigenous ancient Egyptian religion has in part survived, in part been profoundly Hellenized. In its Hellenistic transformation, the Egyptian religion of the pre-Hellenistic era appears to have been reduced and simplified, no doubt to facilitate its assimilation into Hellenistic religion as the predominant cultural reference. It is quite clear that the magicians who wrote and used the Greek papyri were Hellenistic in outlook. Hellenization, however, also includes the Egyptianizing of Greek religious traditions. The Greek magical papyri contain many instances of such Egyptianizing transformations, which take very different forms in different texts or layers of tradition. Again, working out the more exact nature of this religious and cultural interaction remains the task of future research.”
He is equally undecided about the sources of the Jewish elements within the papyri, declaring that “the origin and nature of the sections representing Jewish magic in the Greek magical papyri are far from clear.”
However, he concludes that the syncretistic elements within the papyri were a relatively unified approach, best understood as “a Greco-Egyptian, rather than more general Greco-Roman, syncretism.”
He also says that Albrecht Dieterich noted the importance of the Greek Magical Papyri for the study of ancient religions because most of the texts combine multiple religions: Egyptian, Greek, Jewish, and/or others.
Janet H. Johnson noted in 1996 that the texts can only be understood entirely when the parts written in the Egyptian language known as “Demotic” are accounted for. Johnson adds:
“All four of the Demotic magical texts appear to have come from the collections that Anastasi gathered in the Theban area. Most have passages in Greek as well as in Demotic, and most have words glossed into Old Coptic (Egyptian language written with the Greek alphabet [which indicated vowels, which Egyptian scripts did not] supplemented by extra signs taken from the Demotic for sounds not found in Greek); some contain passages written in the earlier Egyptian hieratic script or words written in a special “cipher” script, which would have been an effective secret code to a Greek reader but would have been deciphered fairly simply by an Egyptian.”
Many of these pieces of papyrus are pages or fragmentary extracts from spell books, repositories of arcane knowledge and mystical secrets.
As far as they have been reconstructed, these books appear to fall into two broad categories: some are compilations of spells and magical writings, gathered by scholarly collectors either out of academic interest or for some kind of study of magic; others may have been the working manuals of traveling magicians, containing their repertoire of spells, formulae for all occasions.
These often poorly educated magic-users were more like showmen than the traditional Egyptian wizards, who were a highly educated and respected priestly elite.
The pages contain spells, recipes, formulae, and prayers, interspersed with magic words and often in shorthand, with abbreviations for the more common formulae.
These spells range from impressive and mystical summonings of dark gods and daemons to folk remedies and even parlor tricks; from portentous, fatal curses, to love charms, and cures for impotence and minor medical complaints.
In many cases, the formulaic words and phrases are strikingly similar to those found in defixiones (curse tablets or binding spells), such as those we find inscribed on ostraka, amulets, and lead tablets.
Since some of these defixiones date from as early as the 500s BCE, and have been found as far afield as Athens, Asia Minor, Rome, and Sicily (as well as Egypt), this provides a degree of continuity, and suggests that some observations based on the PGM will not be altogether inapplicable to the study of the wider Greco-Roman world.
Throughout the spells found in the Greek Magical Papyri, there are numerous references to figurines.
They are found in various types of spells, including judicial, erotic, and just standard cursing that one might associate with Haitian voodoo (“Vodou”).
The figurines are made of various materials, which usually correspond to the type of spell. Such figurines have been found throughout the Mediterranean basin, usually in places that the ancient Greeks associated with the underworld: graves, sanctuaries, and bodies of water, all of which stress the border between life and death, which is a common theme in greek magic.
Some have been discovered in lead coffins, upon which the spell or curse has been inscribed.
Religion in Greco-Roman Egypt
The religion of the Greek Magical Papyri is an elaborate syncretism of Greek, Egyptian, Jewish (see Jewish magical papyri), and even Babylonian and Christian religious influences engendered by the unique milieu of Greco-Roman Egypt.
This syncretism is evident in the Papyri in a variety of ways. Often the Olympians are given attributes of their Egyptian counterparts; alternatively, this could be seen as Egyptian deities being referred to by Greek names.
For example, Aphrodite (who was associated with the Egyptian Hathor), is given the epithet Neferihri—from the Egyptian Nfr-iry.t, “nice eyes” (PGM IV. 1266).
Within this profusion of cultural influences can still be seen classical Greek material, and perhaps even aspects of a more accessible “folk-religion” than those preserved in the mainstream literary texts.
Sometimes the Greek gods depart from their traditional Olympian natures familiar to classicists and seem far more chthonic, demonic and bestial.
This is partly the influence of Egyptian religion, in which beast cult and the terror of the divine were familiar elements; equally the context of magical texts makes such sinister deities appropriate.
*This article was originally published at en.wikipedia.org.