Magic in Ancient Greece: Necromancy, Curses, Love Spells, and Oracles

Magic in Ancient Greece: Necromancy, Curses, Love Spells, and Oracles

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The magical traditions of ancient Greece encompassed spells, curse tablets, drugs, potions, poisons, amulets, and talismans. For many cultures of the past, there was a very fine line between magic, superstition, religion, and science. The ancient magicians were seen as symbols of wisdom, keepers of secrets, and masters of the arts, mathematics and science, particularly chemistry. Because magicians were believed to be individuals with access to supernatural powers, they were both feared and respected.

Spells and incantations had been used by the Egyptians for thousands of years and the Greeks carried this tradition forward, as evidenced by surviving Greek papyri containing magic records that date back to the 4th and 3rd century BC.

Magical book written in ancient Greek, which consisted of seven pages enclosed by a cover depicting a veiled woman's head and a bearded man.

Magical book written in ancient Greek, which consisted of seven pages enclosed by a cover depicting a veiled woman's head and a bearded man. ( public domain )

Amulets and Talismans

Amulets in ancient Greece were believed to have provided protection or the attraction of positive outcomes to situations or desires. These were worn around the neck or wrist of a person, or placed in physical locations, such as a house, to provide the same intended results. Commonly, Greek amulets were divided into two broad categories: talismans (which were believed to bring good luck) and phylacteries (which were intended for protection).

The materials used for talismans included bones, wood, stones and sometimes semi-precious gemstones. They could also be written on small pieces of papyrus or a metal sheet. They could be carried in a pouch or small container, or in small bags containing mixed herbs. And to complete the process, one had to invoke a god or goddess (usually Hecate), or multiple gods, and recite magical words of power.

Ancient Greek amulet MS 5236, invoking the god Phoebus Apollo. Dating to 6th century BC, the inscription on the gold lamella was created by block printing.

Ancient Greek amulet MS 5236, invoking the god Phoebus Apollo. Dating to 6th century BC, the inscription on the gold lamella was created by block printing. ( CC by SA 3.0 )

Black Magic and Curses 

In Ancient Greece, no one was safe from the attacks of magic spells, including people of power such as politicians and orators. Magic spells could be made in secrecy and hexes could be buried with the dead, who were believed to have means to carry the curse requests to the underworld. According to Lisa Orkin, many inscriptions on katares (or curses) found at the Kerameikos cemetery, near the ancient marketplace where politicians made public addresses, would begin with "I bind to the earth".

Katares were also found with figurines and often buried in the graves of youths because, according to German Archaeologist Jutta Stroszeck, it was believed that a premature death would get the spell to the gods of the underworld faster. Dr. Stroszeck's maintains that katares were also dropped in wells, another avenue to the underworld. "You made the spell in the very moment that you wanted to weaken another person, to impede, to make immobile, to bind somebody. It is clearly an expression of hate."

Katares are not unique to Greece and they have been discovered throughout the Mediterranean. What makes the Greek collection of katares special is that they relate information about the life of a society at its highest point: the Age of Pericles about 2,500 years ago, when the Parthenon was built.  According to Dr. Derek Collins, "a common type of magic in the fifth century and later involves the metaphor of binding or holding down someone, as a way to thwart their ambitions, activities, or even their powers of perception".

Ancient Greek curse tablet.

Ancient Greek curse tablet. ( NewHistorian.com)

Necromancy, Invoking the Spirits of the Dead

Necromancy, or the practice of invoking the spirits of the dead, was an illegal form of ritual in Ancient Greece but evidence suggests that it was practiced in secrecy.  The Necromanteion was an ancient temple dedicated to the god of the Underworld, Hades, and his consort, the goddess Persephone. The ancient Greeks believed that while the bodies of the dead decayed in the earth, their souls would be released, and travelled to the Underworld via fissures in the earth. The spirits of the dead were said to possess abilities that the living did not have, including the power to foretell the future. Temples were therefore erected in places thought to be entrances to the Underworld to practice necromancy (communication with the dead) and to receive prophecies.

Artist’s depiction of a ritual inside the Necromanteion. From Marc Jailloux

Artist’s depiction of a ritual inside the Necromanteion. From Marc Jailloux ("Orion": The Oracles, 2011)

Love Magic

In Dr. Christopher Faraone's opinion, there is a lot of interesting research that has been done in relation to ancient Greek love spells and incantations. Love magic embraced two rather different types of spells: one set designed to produce erôs ("erotic seizure") in the victim, and the other used to create philia ("affection" or "friendship”), as Dr. Faraone explained in his book, “Ancient Greek Love Magic” (2001).

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