Chopping Off the Golden Bough

The theme of magic is one which the modern mind finds surprisingly attractive. In the West it might seem that science has achieved a definitive ascendancy; the old assumption that the real causes of events were to be sought on the religious plane is visibly fading away. Nowadays few churches dare point to sin as the cause of AIDS, or to denial of a creed as the reason for a person’s death, or to rejection of a God as the explanation of a famine. And yet we need look no further than the magazines that are sold at the supermarket checkout to see that the supernatural, in its most unregenerate forms, is alive and interesting, and that the will to believe in magic is very far from being extinct.

In a recent poll in the United Kingdom, many more Britons claimed to believe in the supernatural—astrology, telepathy, ghosts—than in God. But that poll, and others like it, points up also a cardinal difficulty. A very large number of respondents said they “believed in” astrology; but when they were asked whether they would take astrological factors into account in making a practical decision, the number replying “Yes” to the first question shrank by two thirds. In what sense do people accept the stories they read in magazines like the National Enquirer—“Elvis still alive in outer space,” “Second World War bomber found on the moon”? In what sense do they “believe” in such things as astrology and magic? These questions are even more difficult when they are asked, not about contemporaries, but about people who lived in the distant past.

Professor Fritz Graf, of the University of Basel, is well known for his work on Greek religion. His book on magic in the ancient world first appeared in French, was translated (not without considerable changes) into German, and appears now in English. Graf has studied to good effect the numerous texts found on papyrus and on lead tablets which have come to light in the last hundred years. His book contains a great deal of very interesting material, ably discussed; it is a substantial and controversial contribution to the study of a fascinating and controversial subject.

He begins with an extensive discussion of the word “magic,” as we find it used in Greco-Roman antiquity. That is perhaps a strange place to start. The word is absent from the earliest surviving Greek writings, and it does not appear until about 500 BCE. It is an Eastern word, originally referring to the magoi, a priestly class among the Persians. At first it was applied by the Greeks to wandering religious experts and charlatans, who for money would perform ceremonies that claimed to deliver anxious souls from their sense of guilt or ritual defilement. While the word is often, later on, used to refer to what we call magic, it never lost that original association with the exotic.

The word “magic,” then, is not very early; but the idea is much older in Greece than the use of the word. Already in the Odyssey of Homer we meet the alarming figure of Circe, who gives Odysseus’ men food, then touches them with her wand and transforms them into swine. The hero Odysseus himself is protected from sharing this squalid fate by a god, who gives him a talisman to hold: a special plant, hard to find, called moly. Circe’s spell has no effect on him, but her reaction, interestingly enough, is not to comment on his talisman but to say, “You must be Odysseus! I knew you would come one day. The mind in your breast is proof against enchantment.” Not counter-magic, then, but the hero’s own nature is what protects him. The episode (which Graf does not mention) is thus an ambiguous one, as magical encounters often are. Was it a counter-spell that guarded him, or was it his own mental quality?

The other great magician of early myth is Medea, who fell in love with the dashing hero Jason and assisted him by her magical arts to win the Golden Fleece. She made him proof against the flames snorted forth by fire-breathing bulls, and she lulled to sleep the dragon that guarded the tree on which the Fleece hung. Later on she turned her powers against the hero himself, a story unforgettably dramatized by Euripides in his Medea. That play raises a problem not fully faced in Graf’s book. In it Medea destroys her rival, a princess for whose hand Jason has rejected her, by sending her a headdress impregnated with a deadly stuff, a drug. It burns her flesh and kills both her and her father, when he tries to help his daughter and gets stuck to her disintegrating body. It is never made clear, though, whether the means which Medea uses are to be thought of as magical, or simply as exotic substances, unknown in Greece, but known and exploited by a clever and formidable foreigner.

The same can be said about another scene in the Odyssey. No less a person than Helen, back from Troy and living respectably with her husband Menelaus, knows what to do when the conversation turns maudlin and the people she is with start to cry. She slips into the drink a potion which she picked up in Egypt: a drug so powerful, we read, that those who have taken it would sit, smiling happily, even if their own brothers were being killed before their eyes. Supernatural? Or just consciousness-changing? Probably the latter, though the point is not explicitly clarified. Helen, like Medea, is the sort of person (exotic, glamorous, traveled) who might well be expected to have in her suitcase some exotic things of that kind. We may not be so far from the world of Sherlock Holmes, where there is no magic but people can be killed by poisons from Sumatra and the Amazon jungle: poisons impressively declared to be “unknown to medical science.”

When are we faced with something frankly magical, and when is it an attempt, however misguided, at a rational procedure? The distinction is hard to draw. It goes with our general view of what sort of place the world is. A wounded man is treated by giving him rest, washing his body, preparing for him special food; we also croon an incantation over his wound; he recovers. Is it then rational to include the incantation in our treatment of the next man to be hurt? Does there exist a “sympathy” between things that are in some way similar, although they are apparently unconnected, so that (for instance) when I stick a pin in this voodoo doll, that produces a pain in your chest? Are there, as a matter of fact, unseen nonhuman agents, whose names are talismans of power, which if spoken will produce drastic effects? It is not obvious that these hypotheses are fantasies, and that those who try to act on them are doomed to frustration, while such phenomena as electricity and X-rays (at least as astonishing to the uninitiated) are perfectly natural, part of the furniture of the scientifically verifiable and manageable universe. Might it not just as easily have been the other way around?

Scholarship has had its fashions, in the field of magic no less than in others. A hundred years ago scholars in countries like Britain, France, and the United States were serenely confident in the supremacy of their own society, not only in its power but also in its sophistication; and so they looked with conscious superiority on the superstitions of less happy breeds. Lucien Lévy-Bruehl described them, in the 1930s, as having a “primitive mentality,” which was different from ours in being naively tolerant of contradictions. That, like the word “primitive” itself, is now a matter of embarrassment for his anthropological successors.

Even worse, because much better known and more influential, is Sir James Frazer, author of the celebrated Golden Bough (first published 1890), whom Graf discusses at some length. Frazer distinguished religion, science, and magic. Magic, he wrote, was clearly distinct from religion because of its attitude toward the gods—it did not approach them with submission and prayer, but with an assertion of mastery and an attempt to force the gods to obey the will of the sorcerer. Magic was in fact an attempt at science, but a mistaken one. Modern writers are careful to distance themselves from anything that seems to imply, as Frazer’s book did, that some forms of religion are superior to others, or that some beliefs or practices are less rational, or less sophisticated; and denunciations of Frazer are de rigueur for modern anthropological writers. Sometimes, indeed, one could feel that these writers form a kind of tribe—we might call them the Anthropologi—for whom Frazer is a kind of evil spirit, whose influence must be kept away by constant ritual utterances: in fact by what is sometimes called apotropaic magic.

Graf fully shares this tribal dread of Sir James. Not only does he speak of “inveterate Frazerians” and of “Frazerian dogma”; we actually find him saying that “there are always spirits to be exorcised, notably Frazerian spirits.” Dare one suggest that this really is what many Anthropologi feel, and that it may help them to understand the thoughts, superstitions, and rituals of the remote peoples they study? Themselves hagridden by malign spirits, they can empathize naturally with spirit-haunted peoples.

In ancient Greece itself, however, the attempt was made very early to distinguish magic from religion on the one hand and science on the other. The oldest works in the medical tradition were written in the fifth century BCE, and they draw a sharp distinction between “natural” causes of disease and the intervention of spirits. The medical writers, struggling self-consciously toward rationality, denied that spirits had intervened to cause illness. Practitioners who prescribed cures of a supernatural kind were seen as charlatans from the point of view of science and as blasphemous from the point of view of religion, since they claimed not to influence the divine agents by prayer, but to constrain them to obey their commands by force. The classic statement of this view is in the treatise On the Sacred Disease, ascribed to Hippocrates, composed about 430 BCE. This work insists that epilepsy (called the sacred disease because its onset was so unpredictable that it seemed supernatural) is no more, and no less, sacred than any other disease; forms of “treatment” which professed to compel gods or demons to obey were a waste of time, and worse.

The attentive reader may think that this, surely, is very like what Frazer said, and what he is constantly criticized for saying. And indeed the same distinctions are made by other, non-medical writers. Graf must admit that “the dichotomy between religion and magic, which is constitutive of the Frazerian approach, is already present in Heraclitus and in Plato”: that is to say, in the very earliest discussions we have of these questions by actual Greek writers. That fact he faces, or faces down, with striking composure. Graf simply looks us in the eye and tells us that not only was the

magic/religion contrast…restored to honor by the Frazerian triad already prefigured in Plato…. The second contrast, that between magic and science, was also prefigured in ancient medical thought…. The Hippocratic doctor already clearly insisted on the fact that the sorcerers claim to force and constrain the gods—another essential feature of Frazer’s system.

And then—just as the reader imagines that Graf is about to allow (at least) that Frazer was in line with the most acute thinkers on these matters in the ancient world itself—we read: “If there were a need to demonstrate the ethnocentric nature of the Frazerian classification, one would have absolute proof of it here.”

We must be clear what exactly Frazer is being charged with. What is this absolute ethnocentricity? Sometimes the accusation is that he formed his mental categories too exclusively from those of his own society. Thus we read elsewhere in Graf’s book that “the ‘Christiano-centric’ character of [Frazer’s] definition of religion is clear”; and, indeed, much more specifically, “the Frazerian categories had their roots in the English Protestantism of the seventeenth century.”

Nor is that all. As for the notion of “sympathetic magic,” the idea that our everyday life is connected with, and affected by, the workings of the cosmos and the growth of plants, “that term,” Graf writes, “was made familiar by Frazer’s highly influential scholarly work,” but it “is much older than this work. As a good Hellenist, Frazer took it from the Greek Stoics…. But it is particularly the alchemists and magicians of the imperial epoch who thus explain” the occult relationships between human beings and the natural world.

For Graf such talk of sympathetic magic is tainted with the idea of “primitive thinking”; and “since the notion of ‘primitive thinking’ has melted away like snow in sunlight, sympathy will also have to disappear.” Still, when we come from Greece to Rome, we find that in the first century CE, the learned and informative encyclopedist Pliny the Elder makes the same distinction as Frazer does between medicine and magic, very much in the same manner. He too is briskly tarred with the Frazerian brush: “Pliny does not describe a historical evolution, but rather projects the prejudices of his own time and class upon history (not so much different from what Frazer did).” So the charge sheet against Frazer includes Christianity, in a very specific form; and also anachronism and class prejudice.

By calling Frazer’s notions “ethnocentric,” then, Graf is not simply saying that they were those of his own modern tradition. Graf himself makes it clear that Frazer’s notions were in fact anchored not merely in his own class in late Victorian Cambridge but in at least a significant part of the ancient evidence itself. What Graf is saying in his charges against Frazer is that the ancient categories of explanation are themselves unsatisfactory, and that we know better about ancient magic than the ancients themselves. We know better because of the evidence of other societies—other, that is, not only than that of Frazer, but also other than that of the ancient world. But we may perhaps still suspect that a system of explanation such as Frazer’s, which finds so many points of contact with the ancient evidence, and with the conclusions drawn from it by intelligent contemporaries, may not be so completely discredited by reference to evidence from elsewhere.

What does seem true is that what can be called religion and magic—i.e., respectively, prayer to a god and an attempt to compel a god—are not in reality so neatly separate and opposed to each other as scholars like Frazer assumed. Graf has no difficulty in producing interesting texts which show the sorcerer combining the two in the same utterance. He provides some very curious examples. The same text which instructs the aspiring sorcerer to say, “I have spoken your signs and your symbols; therefore, Lord, perform this for me perforce, lest I shake the heavens,” goes on immediately to a lengthy and conventional hymn to the same god. Graf concludes: “There is no doubt that coercion belongs to magic. But it constitutes only one element in a set of religious behaviors that range from the cruelest constraint to the most obsequious submission…. Why, then, is it invested with such importance in European thinking about magic?”

The answer is, I suppose, that what is specific to magic is precisely the element of compulsion: that is why scholars have attached so much importance to it, and why they have regarded it as the defining feature that distinguishes magic from forms of religion that do not involve it. In a Greek papyrus of the fourth century CE, for instance, we are unambiguously in the presence of a sorcerer when we find a procedure and a spell prescribed which will enable us to summon a powerful goddess by night and make her kill for us:

She will come with torches in her hands; [by uttering a second spell] you will extinguish her torches; she will stand beside you, in distress and reproaching you. Say to her, “Do this, and I shall light your torches.”… If you are sending her to kill, give her the sword; she will give you her torches and come back with the sword bloody….

For all this you will need not only to speak the appropriate spells but also to carry a magical protection in each hand; the spells will, as usual, be gibberish—thermoch khthaboi akhaph berthiokh, and so on. This is religion in a very special sense. With practices like this, we feel ourselves in the presence of a wicked child, his impotence compensated as omnipotence, acting out his fantasies of spite all by himself, while the grownups are asleep. Magic is a nocturnal and solitary occupation. Graf, of course, never says anything so moralizing. Our interest in ancient societies, he observes, should not be fastidious.

Frazer and his school were interested in the judgments expressed on magic by those thinkers in the ancient world who rose above it. Graf is drawn instead to the more highbrow magical practitioners and theoreticians of later antiquity. Such men sometimes talk of magic as a form of “contact with the gods” and “shared speech with gods.” The rituals of magic resembled those of more conventional religion; but the solitary magician, lacking a congregation as audience for his performances, aimed at a closer relationship with the divine. “The spirituality of the magicians is akin to the spirituality of the followers of the mysteries,” i.e., the initiatory cults which promised secret knowledge and special privileges to their members. For Graf, quoting Marcel Mauss, “any abnormal interest in the sacred can lead to the suspicion of magic.”

Against this it should be emphasized that the practical spells are very careful to instruct their users not only to protect themselves against the gods they raise by wearing amulets and carrying talismans: they also regularly give the procedure for dismissing the god when he has done his work. There is no sign of a desire to chat with these alarming visitants.

Graf’s fancy is taken by the Greek and Roman accounts that survive in nonliterary texts, some of which lay down a long and exacting course of training for the aspiring sorcerer. It may include lengthy withdrawal from society and even travel for concentrated study in a foreign country famous, or notorious, for its magicians: Egypt, perhaps. Practitioners of this type claimed to possess exotic secret knowledge. It is striking how often in the Roman magic formulas we find Jewish traces, names like Sabaoth and Adonai and vaguely Hebrew phrases. The spell quoted above, in which the sorcerer threatens to shake the heavens if his prayer is not granted, has just recited among the titles of his god Adonai and Gabriel. Jews, like Egyptians, were known to possess impressive-sounding divine names and titles; and Moses was declared to have been a magician, the author of magical books. When the Christians come along, the name of Jesus Christ starts to turn up in the magical papyri for use in incantations. He, too, seemed to be someone possibly possessed of power.

There certainly were some high-brow persons in late antiquity who dabbled, or did more than dabble, in the lore and practice of magic. For some of them it may indeed have had an atmosphere rather like that of the great religions. But it is well to remember that the most eloquent and interesting source we have that actually talks in that way, Apuleius’ Apology (speech in his own defense), is a speech made by a man on trial as a wizard, who is understandably eager to explain away all his suspect activities as really harmless, edifying, and cultured. Such a text cannot be taken as simple truth.

To use such people as the model to explain the nature of ancient magic as a whole is worrying. Apuleius composed his speech during the second century CE. Men had been casting spells long before that kind of language began to be heard. And above all: so many of the texts simply do not give that sort of cultured and disinterested impression. One of the most frequent phrases in them, addressed to the god or spirit whom the sorcerer has in his power, is “Now, now, quickly, quickly!” Another regular injunction to these spirits is “Today, in the present hour!” Real urgency breathes through these formulas. Alone on the roof of his house at night, grasping his protective talismans, dressed sometimes as a corpse, or with the body of a slaughtered animal (cats were especially popular), the sorcerer struggled to raise a dead man from the grave to act as his servant, or to make his own shadow into a devoted attendant, or to win the passionate love of a woman, who (doubtless) lay ignorantly asleep in her bed.

We also find in Greek and Roman texts curses on people who were to appear against the sorcerer in lawsuits. The curses condemn such persons to be dumb, helpless, as powerless (we sometimes read) as the slaughtered cat whose body, its feet turned back to front, is buried with the curse; the curses themselves were inscribed on lead, a durable metal, so that hundreds of them survive. Someone, evidently a rival doctor, “binds” seventeen rival doctors by name, “so that they cannot work but are unemployed and in misery.” Many spells relate to the popular sport of chariot-racing: horses are to be paralyzed, their drivers to fall and be wrecked in mid-career. Reading a lot of these documents is, even now, a creepy business. With each one of them somebody meant real mischief.

Most interesting of all, of course, are the erotic spells. They are numerous. Their intention, generally speaking, is the same: to make sure a woman falls helplessly in love with the sorcerer, becomes besotted and obsessed with him, so that she cannot eat or sleep for yearning. She is to come to him, now, now, quickly, quickly; and to be faithful to him as long as she lives. We do not find one-night stands in the papyri, or the sort of crude wish expressed by Robin the Ostler when he gets hold of a magic book by Dr. Faustus, in Christopher Marlowe’s play:

Now will I make all the maidens in our parish
dance at my pleasure stark naked before me;
and so by that means I shall see more than e’er I felt or saw yet.

What we do find in sources from the Roman period is such instructions as the following, in a Greek papyrus of the fourth century CE: Make two dolls, one male, the other female. The male is to hold a sword to the throat of the female. Thirteen bronze needles are to be thrust into thirteen specified parts of the female doll’s body, each of which has been inscribed with a magic name. The gods of the lower world are to be mobilized against her. She is to be brought to me (name) unable to eat or drink or have sex or be healthy or sleep except with me (name). The demon is charged to bring her,

by the name that is fearful and terrible; by the name that will make the earth, hearing it, to open; by the name which when they hear it will make the gods tremble; by the name in which the rivers and the rocks burst when they hear…. Let her not take pleasure with any other man, not even with her husband, but only with me (name); drag her by the hair, by the guts, by the soul, to me (name), in every hour that passes, by night and day, until she comes to me (name), and remains inseparable from me. Tie her fast to me for her whole life and force her to be subordinate to me (name), and let her not prance away from me for a single hour of her life….

This spell is described in the papyrus as a “wonderful love charm.”

Such fantasies do not lend themselves to social and economic explanation in which magic is treated as the attempt to obtain something normally out of reach, for example in “struggles for position and social goods.” Such a line of explanation is naturally attractive to scholars in this post-Marxist period. Nor do we get very far by invoking a wish for conversation with the gods. We are surely in the presence of driving emotional need (in the client, of course, not in the sorcerer) to get help wherever it can be found. One would like to know whether sorcerers often, or ever, tried to let the victim of such an onslaught know that it was happening. That might indeed have been the best way to make it effective; but the whole atmosphere of the instructions is so obsessively secretive that one suspects that this was rarely done.

As has been said, the great magicians of myth were women: Circe, Medea, even Helen. In literature that continued to be true. Erotic magic, in Greek and Roman poetry, is associated with women, not with men. The greatest master of erotic poetry, the urbane Ovid, in his Art of Love ridiculed the idea of resorting to such means to captivate a woman: “Away with every kind of wrong-doing! If you want to be loved, be lovable!” But in the less realistic genres of verse, epic and tragedy and love elegy, desperate ladies are often shown resorting to spells to win, or to win back, a man. The oddity is that in the spell books intended for actual use it is always assumed that the sorcerer is a man, the victim a woman. Why should this be so?

Graf thinks such stories are a device to distance the whole question of erotic attraction from the serious world of men. The stories “are thus a means for getting rid of what should not exist.” They “talk of the danger that woman’s love constitutes for the autonomy of men”: women, “marginalized and excluded from the society of men,” were perceived as a menace. Such an explanation seems to me to give less than half the answer. Ancient men read with gusto these accounts of unhappy women resorting to magic in their passionate need for love. Was the source of their pleasure really, as Graf suggests, their unflagging search for edifying material which supported the ideological basis of their society?

Many men want to believe that sexual passion is of consuming importance to women. They sometimes suspect that perhaps it really isn’t, that a woman may be thinking about something else, that she can even (the gods forbid!) take it or leave it, and may not want to join the long line of passionate and unhappy heroines, from Medea and Dido to Violetta and Giselle and Madame Bovary and Madame Butterfly. The lovelorn lady who weaves her spells for love is a deeply gratifying object for male contemplation: look what passion drives them to!

Perhaps the commonest form of pornography, in modern society, represents women as desperate for sexual intercourse, living for it, thinking of nothing else. At a higher level, but no less hopefully, Byron wrote:

Man’s love is of man’s life a thing apart;
‘Tis woman’s whole existence.

And Edgar Allan Poe said of Annabel Lee, with even more delicious self-satisfaction:

And this maiden lived with no other thought
But to love, and be loved by, me;

—or “BY ME!!” as one is tempted to print that masculine heart-cry. My own reading of the many erotic spells that survive from the ancient world suggests that Graf, like many other modern scholars, thinks too much, and too exclusively, of power, control, and the ideology of society. There are, after all, other motives in human life.

Magic, like religion, is a large and complex subject. No one period, perhaps, can see it steadily and see it whole. Each generation can observe that the vision of its predecessors was limited by the time and the circumstances in which they lived. Graf sees that clearly in the case of the scholars of the early twentieth century. But I guess that posterity, reading his fascinating book, will see that he takes as central to magic not a desperate victim of emotional or economic need, but an urbane man of high culture and education, a traveling orator, with a strong interest in the sacred. Perhaps the reader of the future will catch a glimpse of someone not so very different from the people whom Professor Graf himself, in the late twentieth century, meets at scholarly conferences on ancient religion.

Of all the gods of classical antiquity, none remains more easily recognized than the goat-legged god Pan. He was not worshiped in Athens in the earlier period. He was not a pan-Hellenic god at all, but only a local godlet, worshiped in Arcadia, the most barbarous and backward region of Greece. His name came from a root connected with the herding of flocks. His cult was introduced to Attica in response to a particular vision. The long-distance runner Pheidippides was sent to run from Athens all the way to Sparta to ask for aid against the Persian invasion. On his return home, alone in the wilds of the Peloponnese, he met Pan, who told him to instruct the Athenians to worship him. And so Pan became a popular Athenian god, who intervened in the great battles of the Persian War, and who had his own magical effect: he could cause panic fear in enemy armies.

At home in the country, he had the legs and often the face of a goat; but he was musical, the inventor of the Pan pipes, a persistent but usually unsuccessful lover of nymphs, of boys, and sometimes of animals. His music, and a false etymology of his name from pan, “everything,” often raised his seriousness and his stature; he is sometimes presented as a cosmic thinker and teacher.

Arcadia, too, was turned from a crude backwater, home of werewolves, to a languorous and idyllic place, home of love and of music. The supreme visual image of that sort was the painting by Luca Signorelli of The School of Pan, tragically destroyed in Berlin in the last war. In the Renaissance we find him with female and childish Pans, some of them very charming. One thinks of the exquisite picture in London by Botticelli, showing Venus watching a sleeping Mars, with three little Pans trying on his armor and blowing a conch shell in his ear. Sometimes he is not a shaggy monster but an aesthetic young man, marked as Pan only by a cute little pair of horns.

In the nineteenth century he had a vogue, especially in Britain and Germany, as the embodiment of a refined and beautiful countryside, pastoral and even mystical. Edwardians met Pan on their country rambles; Kenneth Grahame included in The Wind in the Willows an embarrassing chapter in which Mole and Rat have a vision of the god: “Then the two animals, crouching to the earth, bowed their heads and did worship.”

Sir John Boardman devotes the twenty-ninth Walter Neurath Memorial Lecture to this delightful subject. With learning that is impressive but lightly worn, he follows the varied fortunes of the god from early Greece to the present day. The illustrations range from ancient paintings and sculptures to works by Dürer, Piero di Cosimo, Beardsley, Böcklin, and Burne-Jones. Boardman passes very lightly over the fact that the Christians took some of Pan’s features for their Devil: the horns, the hooves, and sometimes the shaggy legs. But that is one of the few themes about which one could have hoped for more comment in Boardman’s delightful book.