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Ancient Spellcasting

By Marguerite Johnson

Magic was widely practised in the ancient world; archaeology and written texts provide considerable evidence for it. And what is fascinating about examining the many and varied rituals that constitute magic in Greece and Rome is the startling dichotomy between the real practitioners and the literary stereotypes of the same: so much documentation and archaeological evidence on actual magic indicate that it was essentially practised by men, yet the literary depictions almost always show women as the witches, the hags, the magical experts. From Homer’s sorceress par excellence, Circe, who is expert in the transformation of others – as illustrated by the metamorphosis of Odysseus’ men into pigs in Odyssey Book 10 – to the extravagant poisoner, Medea, as well as the horrid hags of Horace, witches in ancient literature are female.

This dichotomy is clearly the partial result of the ancients’ attitudes towards women; women are seen as deceptive, treacherous, the weaker sex, as being prone to participating in unorthodox activities. In contrast, men were seen as the upholders of both public and private values and traditions, as intellectually and morally superior, as the defenders of hearth and home. Nevertheless, to practise magic in antiquity, one had to have – to varying degrees – a relative sound grasp of literacy as spells needed to be written in many instances and instructions had to be read, and this reality suggests the dominance of male practitioners.

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(H/T History of the Ancient World)

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