Why I Study Ancient Christian Magic (and so should you) Pt. 1 of 3

A drawing of an angel, possibly Gabriel, from a Gnostic Christian magical papyrus.

A drawing of an angel, possibly Gabriel, from a Gnostic Christian magical papyrus.

I study ancient Christian magic. No, not [simply] because I aspire to be Harry Potter…but the reasons are as complicated as they are personal, and it is about time that I address them.

Some may think I derive perverse glee in exposing the inconsistencies in ancient Christians’ piety—that somehow their reliance on love spells, Jesus amulets, and curse tablets invalidates their legitimacy as moral actors in history. “Why,” the critic may ask, “would Christians—whose own religion denounces magic—rely on bizarre, disgusting, and often shamefully misogynistic strategies to navigate their daily lives?”

As important as it is to recognize how ancient and modern Christians differ, castigating the ancients smacks of desperate axe-grinding from a recovering fundamentalist and not serious scholarship. Not only is it unproductive but it also breaks a cardinal rule of historians: foisting modern morality onto ancient sensibilities. As the scholar Robert Orsi says, “Religious studies is not a moralizing discipline.” We refrain from condoning, defending, or passing judgment on our subjects of study in favor of exploring how religion functions in specific geographical and chronological contexts.

This, however, does not relegate religious studies to mere “knowledge production.” In my own work, I strive to highlight the relevancy of research even as arcane as “ancient Christian magic”—how, through studying the rituals and habits of  ancient Christians, we can promote empathy, exercise humility, and tear down walls of misunderstanding in the present.

My first reason for studying ancient Christian magic is that it explores the 99% of Antiquity.

“Church history” brings to mind big names like Ignatius, Tertullian, John Chrysostom, Augustine, and Jerome. Introductory classes often focus on major events like Constantine’s victory at the Milvian bridge or social changes like the rise of monasticism. However, although the Church fathers, bishops, monks, and emperors constitute the bulk of research in my field, they ironically reflect the vast minority of the ancient Christian population—the 1%, as it were.

The major heroes of ancient Christianity were, in general, wealthy politicians, statesmen (men…not women), lawyers, and scholars. Their own prestige afforded a certain level of fame to their writings even during their life time, enabling them to be copied again and again to our present age. Archaeology likewise favors the 1% as massive basilicas tend to survive 15 centuries far better than mud-brick houses in the Mediterranean countryside.

This is not because of any latent bias in academia…this simply is the nature of our evidence in a field so far removed from its subject. However, focusing on the 1% of ancient Christianity skews our understanding of how Christians thought, worshipped, and related to each other and the divine in antiquity.

It is difficult to describe just how privileged characters like Augustine and Ambrose were. Living in villas fit for kings, they had the time to wax eloquent on the nature of the Trinity that others spent on subsistence farming. Life for the masses was, in the words of Thomas Hobbes, “poor, nasty, brutish, and short.” Barely 15-20% of the population had any level of literacy. Archaeology moreover reveals to us a world characterized by high birth mortality rate, rampant parasites, and a near-complete lack of public health initiatives.

It is within this world we must imagine early Christian magic. Studying magic, more than any theological text, brings us face to face with the average ancient Christian and how they practiced their faith “on the ground.”

When I focus my camera on an apotropaic menorah inscribed on the threshold of an ancient house in Priene, the power that the symbol held for the original homeowner is almost palpable. When I study curse tablets found in situ, I encounter the angst and anxiety of the last person who had touched the object.

Here there is immediacy to ancient ritual far removed from the rarefied rhetoric of Paul or Pausanias. 

In short, everyone practiced magic in antiquity….not everyone (in fact, very few) wrote sweeping theological tracts or eloquent sermons. Focusing on the former is my way of exploring the nature of ancient Christianity, a field so often dominated by “big name/big event” histories.

 

Ancient Corinth, Modern Pilgrimage

P1050094As I walked through ancient Corinth, a British tourist behind me was narrating the site’s significance to his companions: “Yes, Paul visited here in the middle of the second century. It was during his second missionary journey…”

I briefly considered turning around to correct his mistaken timeline, but his statement instead alerted me to a distinctive aspect of Corinthian tourism in the 21st century: Tourists don’t visit Corinth for the sites.

temple of apollo

The Temple of Apollo, one of the more prominent ruins at the site of ancient Corinth.

Of course, Acrocorinth and the Corinthian Canal are spectacular to behold. The geography alone, a thin spit of land connecting the Greek mainland with the Peloponnese, justifies the train ride from Athens to Corinth. But compared to other major ancient cities—Rome, Athens, Jerusalem—Corinth simply lacks the imposing structures that attract droves of tourists. Only the ruined Temple of Apollo dominates a skyline comprised primarily of knee-high blocks and crumbling columns.

Nevertheless, a robust tourist industry drives the economy of Corinth, forever indebted to Paul and his famed letters to the early Corinthian ekklesia.

Corinth, in short, is not a site that you see. Rather, you experience Corinth.

The landscape, despite its decided lack of spectacular sites, becomes a canvas that pilgrim-tourists invest with meaning, inspiring a panoply of religious rituals and experiences. On any given day at Corinth, you will find Christian tour groups singing hymns, individuals sitting in the shade reading through 1 Corinthians, and others simply soaking in where “Paul had walked.”

corinth

The local Orthodox Church directly adjacent to the ancient site.

Religious memory, text, and materiality combine to allow a timeless and acute immediacy to Paul and the Corinthian church. Lacking archaeological evidence of this church, the landscape demands the pilgrim to guarantee her own satisfaction in the site, imagining how Paul might have lived, where the Corinthians may have met for the Eucharist, and what troubles may have prompted Paul to pen his two epistles.

The Corinthian pilgrimage, therefore, paradoxically resurrects a dead ruin to nourish faith in the present, populating the landscape with events, people, and relationships long-since past.

 

 

 

 

 

The Nicene Creed: Ancient Defense Mechanism?

hexamillion_block

Justinian’s Nicene inscription from the Corinthian Isthmus. Dates to the 6th century CE. Ancient national security.

Hunched over a Greek inscription in OSU’s epigraphy center, I checked my translation again. It couldn’t possibly be right, could it?:

“φῶς ἐκ φωτός, θεὸς ἀληθινὸς ἐκ θεοῦ ἀληθινοῦ…”

“Light from light, true God from true God…”

Yep, the opening line of my inscription was lifted directly from the Nicene Creed, the famous 4th-century profession of faith that distills all of Christian orthodoxy into one short passage. Inscribed in legible, albeit messy, handwriting, it bore all the hallmarks of the Late Antique period…poor syntax, imaginative letter-forms, and crosses. The fact that it mentioned Emperor Justinian, though, made it obvious:

+Light from Light, True

God from True God

guard the Emperor

Justinian and his

faithful servant

Victorinus as well as those

dwelling in Greece according to the living God.+

512px-Corinth_ast_2005129_lrgThis inscription was originally carved on a block on the Hexamillion Wall…a series of fortifications spanning the Isthmus of Corinth. At a mere 6.3 km wide, the Isthmus was the only land route between the Peloponnese and the Greek mainland, causing rulers to covet the land not only for its strategic value but also its commercial viability as a crossroads between the Western and Eastern Mediterranean. In fact, merchants in antiquity used to transport their goods (and sometimes even their ships!) across the Isthmus on the Diolkos Road. Justinian wisely capitalized on this prime real estate, but stone and mortar alone apparently did not satisfy his defensive criteria. He required divine protection.

By invoking the Nicene Creed, this inscription not only broadcasted the emperor’s Orthodoxy but also called upon the power of God using a well-known formula. This strategy echoes other inscriptions intended to ward away misfortune, whether that be an enemy assault, plague, or demonic invasion. A similar block appears in the city of Miletus which reads:

Archangels! Protect the city of the Milesians and all the inhabitants!

Unlike the Hexamillion block, which only uses small crosses, the Milesian block includes esoteric magical symbols that were believed to harness and direct ritual power. Here we see two different strategies to defend imperiled space, one invoking God, the other archangels. However, early Christians had a panoply of options available to them for supernatural protection…some quite a bit less “orthodox” than Justinian’s pious inscription. The bishop John Chrysostom, for example, lambastes his congregation for wearing medallions of Alexander the Great around their necks: “Why rely on a Greek king when you can rely on the King of Kings??”

Today the Nicene Creed is synonymous with orthodoxy. Millions of Christians every week recite it in response to the question: “Christian: What do you believe?” But what does the Nicene Creed mean in an epigraphical context? Particularly when it closely resembles other Greco-Roman magical strategies?

As I’ve said before concerning amatory spells, Christians in Late Antiquity deployed any strategy they deemed effective regardless of “orthodoxy” when it came to magic. Although Christianity had blossomed in popularity by the 5th and 6th centuries, the Mediterranean world remained a religiously pluralistic society, enabling individuals who may have attended the basilicas on Sundays to appropriate indigenous practices into their own worldview. We shouldn’t interpret this as vestiges of “paganism” persisting in a sub-culture of semi-converted Christians, but rather, as culture’s inexorable tendency to assimilate readily available symbols and reinvest them with new meaning. Labeling this phenomenon as the intermingling of “Christianity” with “paganism” skews the social reality of Late Antiquity—a time when neither term was well-defined or used as discrete categories of classification.

Justinian’s Hexamillion inscription certainly proclaims Nicene Christianity, but the inscription joins a long tradition of employing stone to defend imperiled space. This should alert us to the fact that early Christians were a product of their immediate culture as much as we are today. Although we invoke symbols and discourses to differentiate ourselves from the Other, we may have a lot more in common with our neighbor than we think.

Further Reading:

Rangar Cline, “Archangels, Magical Amulets, and the Defense of Late Antique Miletus,” Journal of Late Antiquity, Volume 4, Number 1, Spring 2011, 55-78.

 

Report from OSU Epigraphy Seminar

photoFor the past few days, I’ve been at OSU’s Summer Epigraphy Seminar. As you can imagine, this is an archaeologist’s dream vacation. Let me give you a run-down:

What is epigraphy?: I’ve been getting this a lot. Epigraphy is the study of inscriptions. In Greco-Roman history and archaeology, this entails analyzing Greek and Latin inscriptions on stone, pottery, or metal. It is a specialized skill that not only requires a grasp of the ancient languages but also knowledge of the idiosyncrasies of writing on stone (i.e. weird letter forms, odd syntax, or poorly preserved words).

What is the connection to religion?: So why am I here? Early Christians, as people living in an epigraphical society, relied on inscriptions to broadcast political affiliation, boast about financial benefactions, or exercise religiosity. I have especially focused on magical inscriptions meant to defend space against sickness or demonic invasion. For these people, inscribing a cross, Bible verse, or the words of Jesus himself on your doorway shored up the potentially dangerous threshold. Afterall, ancient demonologies tell us that demons were believed to have corporeal bodies that could squeeze through any unprotected chink in your wall.

This seminar will enable me to approach epigraphical material responsibly and holistically in my research…hopefully informing my later work on my dissertation. Epigraphy also comes in handy when studying curse tablets: the go-to method for resolving social spats in late antiquity.

Coolest Fact from the Seminar: Did you know that the Greeks and Romans painted their inscriptions red? Archaeologists can detect trace amounts of red paint in the letter forms of these inscriptions…makes sense if you want the words to pop out to passersby right? Also makes the white inscriptions we see in Washington DC seem particularly stark…

 

The Rise and Fall of the Gospel of Jesus’ Wife?

Recto-flatEven when the major news outlets fall silent, the academic blogosphere continues to buzz. New evidence has arisen that casts doubt on the authenticity of the Gospel of Jesus’ Wife (GJW)—the small scrap of Coptic that Dr. Karen King of Harvard Divinity School brought to light in 2012.

The true irony here is that Harvard Divinity School released the definitive answer that the fragment is ancient, and therefore, not a forgery a mere few weeks before this revelation. They based its authenticity on several conclusions:

1. Radiocarbon analysis dated the papyri to around the 8th century CE.

2. Analysis of the ink revealed it is consistent with ancient ink.

3. Respected papyrologists Roger Bagnall and AnneMarie Luijendijk argued for its authenticity.

At the time, I generally agreed with these findings and wrote on how talk of Jesus’ wife was nothing special for late antique Christians.

What wasn’t readily apparent to most scholars, though, is that the GJW has a sister text—a fragment of the Gospel of John—that Karen King acquired at the same time. Christian Askeland over on the Evangelical Textual Criticism blog, along with a few other respected voices, determined that this sister text was written with the same ink, odd handwriting, and writing implement as GJW (probably a brush according to palaeographer Malcolm Choat).

However, this Gospel of John fragment, at least according to its detractors, is more obviously a fake.

In short, it seems a modern forger copied the Coptic text line-for-line from Herbert Thompson’s readily available Coptic edition of the Gospel of John. The lines even seem to break off precisely where Thompson’s lines end on the pages of the modern publication, implying the forger had a copy in their possession while fabricating the text.

JohnRecto (1)

Notice that the purportedly ancient text cuts off precisely where the modern publication moves to the next line. Unlikely coincidence?

For scholars such as Larry Hurtado and Mark Goodacre, this is the smoking gun everyone has been waiting for. If this fragment of John is obviously a fake, then the GJW, which exhibits the same ink and handwriting, must also be a fake.

We are still awaiting a response from Karen King, but several questions remain:

1. If the writing is modern, we must still admit that the papyri on which it is written is ancient—that much is incontrovertible. Any potential forger would have needed to obtain two blank pieces of ancient papyrus. Surely not impossible, but definitely difficult.

2. The ink on the GJW matches other black carbon-based ink used between 1 CE and 800 CE. I’m waiting to see a satisfactory argument how someone could reproduce this ink today.

Although this debate may never see a resolution, at the very least, it has offered a glimpse into the scholarly process. From the start, there have been world-renowned scholars on both sides. They have argued their positions without vitriol and supported with textual, scientific, and archaeological evidence. Even the most brilliant ancient historian isn’t infallible, nevertheless, their research will always endure a rigorous peer-reviewed process. Imperfect? Yes. Slow? Definitely. But when sensationalism grips the media airwaves, keep in mind, a balanced yet lively debate likely continues in the ivory tower.

 

“Noah” Will Ruin Your Sunday School Memories…And That’s Good

5201999-161742-noah-ark

Noah and friends happily floating above utter destruction

A few weeks ago I predicted that Noah would be both mediocre and forgettable. It seems, though, that my cynicism was only half-correct. Noah is indeed mediocre. It is uneven, overwrought, and missed many opportunities that the source material provided.

However, I can’t say that it is forgettable. I’ve been hearing the story of Noah’s Flood since childhood. When I think back to these Bible lessons depicted via flannel-graph, I remember images of happy animals on a cartoonish ark and rainbows, but leave it up to a movie to bring to the forefront that this story is about the annihilation of humanity.

Of course people drowning is implicit in a story that says things like, “and the waters prevailed above the mountains…and all flesh died that moved on the earth,” but such perfunctory language, so characteristic of a Near Eastern deluge myth, does not do the terrible image justice.

And this is why Noah is not a forgettable movie. If for no other reason, watch this movie for the horrifying image of people­—men, women, children—clinging to the final outcropping of land while Noah and his family listen to their wailing screams over dinner. It has ruined my Sunday School image of this story…and that’s a good thing. It reminds me how easily we are desensitized to violence, not only in the Old Testament but in ancient history in general. We read the decimation of the Egyptian firstborns in Exodus with the same dispassion as when reading the death of the 300 Spartans and their compatriots in Herodotus’ Histories. Temporal distance and cultural difference render us so far removed from the events that we forget to empathize with the victims. A quick glance at these ancient histories and myths should remind us of antiquity’s brutality.

Further Reading:

Seibert, Eric. The Violence of Scripture: Overcoming the Old Testament’s Troubling Legacy. A confessional book but this doesn’t detract from Seibert’s scholarship. His thesis caused quite a stir in the Christian intelligentsia: “We shouldn’t celebrate or condone God’s violence in the Old Testament.” Check it out.

 

A few final thoughts on the movie:

What I liked: God never speaks but communicates only through premonitions and visions. Although the biblical narrative implies God’s speech was actual illocution, by keeping the “Creator’s” communication so vague, Noah’s task is all the more terrifying. He encounters the same dilemma that people of faith face today, namely: “I could be completely wrong…what am I doing?”

What I disliked: Noah’s murderous insanity near the end is weird and out-of-character. I would have rather seen him portrayed as a tortured soul overcome with guilt than a delusional maniac.

Missed Opportunity: The Watchers. I was so excited to see the Watchers made famous by 1 Enoch. There is such a rich mythos surrounding these creatures…their initial decision to descend to earth, wed human women, birth giants, and teach men about industry. Although the movie references much of this, the Watchers are just too goofy to take seriously. Regal, fallen angels (or at least terrifying cherubim) would have been much more fitting.

 

 

 

 

 

 

How Did Early Christians View Noah’s Ark?

Russell Crowe as Noah in Darren Aranofsky's biblical epicAlthough Darren Aronofsky’s Noah hasn’t even hit theaters yet, some from among its target audience are already flogging it as “unbiblical” and “bizarre.” The backlash—which includes the film’s censorship in Qatar, Bahrain, and the UAE—has prompted Paramount Studios to appease religious groups with the following disclaimer in all promotional material:

“The film is inspired by the story of Noah. While artistic license has been taken, we believe that this film is true to the essence, values and integrity of a story that is a cornerstone of faith for millions of people worldwide. The biblical story of Noah can be found in the book of Genesis.”

Though I’m not sure why we are expending so much righteous indignation on a film that will likely be as forgettable as it is mediocre, I am excited to see this “artistic license” in action. Aronofsky most obviously deviates from the biblical story by including the Watchers—angels who, according to the Book of Enoch, descended to earth to wed human women. This account embellishes the strange story in Genesis 6 in which these angel/human couplings produced giant offspring called the Nephilim. But where Genesis only makes vague allusions, Enoch goes into great detail, describing the Nephilim as 300-cubit (~135 meters) tall giants who decimate the earth’s resources and instigate God’s retributive Flood.

Aronofsky probably won’t include all of these details from 1 Enoch, but by incorporating some apocryphal material, he ironically is exercising the same creative liberty that early Christians did when thinking about Noah’s Flood. Many early Christians, including some prominent figures like Irenaeus, Tertullian, and Clement of Alexandria, considered 1 Enoch to be authoritative Scripture. Other Christian sects like the Sethian Gnostics composed their own accounts which bear little resemblance to Genesis.

Many early Christian interpretations focus on the Ark itself, but even though Genesis provides its exact dimensions, it never seems to appear in the same way.

Noah's Ark in Catacombs1. A box

Some early Christians conceptualized Noah’s Ark as a square box. In the Catacombs of Marcellinus and Peter, a massive 2nd-3rd century funeral complex located to the south-east of Rome, archaeologists discovered a wall fresco depicting Noah sitting in his ark. The ark is comically stylized as a little lidless box, while the dove that Noah released to search for dry land can be seen flying back to his outstretched hands. A similar depiction appears on a marble sarcophagus dated to about 260-300 CE. The sarcophagus, which probably was commissioned by a wealthy Christian client, depicts Noah sitting in a little box with the dove fetching him a piece of an olive tree.

2. A Giant Pyramid

In his apologetic text Contra Celsum, the 3rd century church father Origen battles Celsus over the Ark’s existence and exact dimensions. Using a similar line of argument that modern critics employ, Celsus derides Noah’s flood as a children’s story and points out that the Ark couldn’t have possibly been large enough to hold 2 of every kind of animal. Origen counters by implying that the Ark was likely larger than what the biblical text stipulates. He expands these views in his Homilies on Genesis, in which he suggests that Moses, who was purportedly educated in Egypt, recorded the cubits in the larger Egyptian cubit when composing Genesis. Therefore, the Ark was much larger than what the plain text of Genesis says. He finally and inexplicably conceives the shape of the ark as a pyramid with a square base that tapers to a square top.

 3. A Luminous Cloud 

Noah

Artistic rendition of Noah in his little boxy Ark on the aforementioned Jonah sarcophagus. Note the olive branch and dove.

The Sethian Gnostics are by far the most creative. According to their flood story found in The Apocryphon of John, a second century gnostic text, God is an evil Demiurge who decides to destroy the world by means of a Flood. In an attempt to spoil the Demiurge’s plans, the personification of foreknowledge, Pronoia, warns Noah to save the human race. Rather than an ark, though, Noah gathers some people together and hides them in a luminous cloud, thereby surviving the deluge.

We can see, then, that early Christians held a plurality of beliefs about Noah, the Ark, and the Flood. Although Aronofsky pays little heed to the Genesis account, he’s joining a long and storied lineage of people embellishing and innovating upon this beloved story. As “bizarre” as it may be, it is certainly no more weird than the Sethian versions, and he may even make some early Christians proud by giving extra screentime to the Watchers.

We must remember that 21st century Protestants don’t have a monopoly on the Flood story. Not only do we share it with Jews and Muslims, but less populous religious groups such as the Mandaeans, Samaritans, and Bahá’ís also hold it dear. My inner cynical movie critic has already convinced me that the movie will be terrible, but whether it is a blockbuster or a flop, why not judge it on cinematic rather than theological grounds?

Further Reading:

Origen, Contra Celsum

Origen, Homilies on Genesis II.2

Apocryphon of John

How to Use Ancient Magic for Love and Dating

St. Valentine does not approve of this message

St. Valentine does not approve of this message

It’s St. Valentine’s Day and for anyone trying to navigate the confounding world of dating, I have some ancient Christian wisdom that may change your love life forever.

Love spells.

Everyone in antiquity used magic for a staggering range of social crises from childbirth to chariot races; so, it should come as no surprise that Christians deployed spells to cope with the greatest crisis of all: how to win the girl of your dreams.

These spells are what you might expect from the ancients—graphic, desperate, and grossly misogynistic. So use at your own risk! I’m operating under the assumption that ancient Christians knew what was best in matters of love.

The extant corpus is truly staggering, so as part of my ecclesiastical duty, I’ve found the best one to use for Valentine’s Day this year. It’s not too weird, but leverages just enough ritual power to do the job.

The following excerpts come from Heidelberg Kop.518, a Coptic love spell found in Egypt that dates to around 800 CE. The original user inscribed the spell along with unintelligible drawings on a piece of parchment and apparently discarded it. If you want the entire spell, you’ll need to check out my “further reading” section at the bottom. It’s quite lengthy.

Among its many strategies, this spell invokes…

1. Archangels

This spell invokes the heavenly powers of the archangels. Sure they have better things to do than helping with your amatory woes (like stemming an endless tide of demonic forces), but perhaps they will deign to assist you?

“By the great power of the archangels Michael and Gabriel

who go to wherever ____ daughter of ____ is…

fill her heart with every fiery desire

and every longing and every passion and every form of love…”

Archangels are ubiquitous in Late Antique magic, marked by the telltale suffix –el (note, for example, the less popular Raphael, Suriel, Uriel, etc.). Both Greco-Roman and Jewish magic invoke archangels, so this alone is insufficient evidence to label this spell as explicitly “Christian.” Especially when you consider…

2. Syncretism!

Just in case you don’t completely trust the archangels to do your bidding, this spell also invokes Apollo and Zeus to cover all your bases. You can’t go wrong with a little bit of divine insurance.

“Apollo…

…be a mediator!

Illumine the abyss!

Bring ____ daughter of ____

To ____ son of _____”

Here we problematize further the label “Christian spell.” I don’t hesitate with this label due to some notion that Christians didn’t practice magic (because they certainly did). I hesitate because what constitutes a “Christian” in Late Antiquity? Can we nail down this guy’s religious affiliation because he invokes Zeus, Apollo, Gabriel, and God? Possibly, but we find that ancient people leveraged as many strategies as possible to regain agency in a brief and brutal life.

3. Magic Words

Have you ever been at a loss for words? Ever stumbled in expressing your feelings that words gushed out like some incomprehensible stream of consciousness? Well fret no longer. With this spell, gibberish helps to harness and direct ritual power! Don’t forget everything that follows should be in Coptic. So pronounce your diphthongs correctly…otherwise I can’t guarantee the divine forces will hearken to your voice.

“Draw the prayer…bind them with linen strips; smear them with mud; burn them in the fire…when you write: ENASSAABRAN…NSHOURAN SHOUTABIN SHOURABATAN SHOURACHAN BAN SHOUSHF SHOURACHAEL PRIM PRIMPE…”

Scholars call these long strings of incomprehensible words voces magicae—essentially “magic words.” Although people often become fixated on “what do these mysterious words mean?” a better question is: “What did these voces magicae do for the practitioner?” Words, particularly vowels, were believed to harness ritual power. Speech not only enabled people to communicate with the divine, but it also had an ability to instigate action. Voces magicae, therefore, constitute ritualized speech. Who cares that they don’t convey meaning when you believe they are doing something?

Admittedly, I haven’t tried any of these spells for myself. But if you are the risk-taking type…start practicing your Coptic this Valentine’s Day.

…and don’t tell St. Valentine.

 

Further Reading:

Meyer, Marvin and Richard Smith, eds., Ancient Christian Magic: Coptic Texts of Ritual Power, (San Francisco: HarperCollins Publishers, 1994), 161-164

Cursing Your Neighbor and Corinthian Magic

A Roman curse tablet.

A Roman curse tablet. Note the nail holes where it was formerly pierced.

How do you negotiate strife in your social network? Even the most reclusive among us encounter it. Friends disappoint us, rivals butt into our business, and we are left with the unenviable task to mediate our sometimes volatile social interactions.

Among the many strategies in our repertoire—confrontation, gossip, compromise, forgiveness—I doubt any of us resorts to hexing our neighbors. As odd as this sounds to us in the 21st century, ancient Greeks and Romans often employed curse tablets as a means to exert control over their social lives. Curse tablets—or defixiones as they are called in Latin—generally were thin sheets of lead inscribed with magic words or spells to harness ritual power. After writing the spell, the users would fold the sheet and pierce them with a nail as a way to “activate” or “fix” the curse.

In 2013, Ron Stroud, one of the head excavators at Corinth, published 10 curse tablets discovered in the Sanctuary of Demeter and Kore…a small temple complex on the slopes of Corinth’s acropolis (Acrocorinth). Perhaps the most striking feature about these ten tablets is that three of them appear to target the same victim—a woman named Karpime Babbia. Apparently Babbia had a rival in the city of Corinth who frequented the Sanctuary of Demeter to unleash divine punishment upon her.

These three tablets call on chthonic deities like Hermes and Gaia to “exact justice” and “punish Babbia’s acts of insolence.” The rhetoric is laden with references to fertility and menstruation, implying that the spell’s author was female and envied or resented Babbia’s offspring.

Besides a curiosity from antiquity, though, how can these artifacts illuminate the social history of ancient Corinth? At a basic level, they illustrate the role magic played in ancient societies. Although it is tempting to conceptualize this practice as a deviant ritual operating outside of the official temple religion, the priestesses of Demeter likely aided in the spells’ deposition to service a prominent need in society. Therefore, the Sanctuary of Demeter was a catchment area where the public “civic” religion intersected with the private religious expressions of the populace.

Like our own social networks, relationships in antiquity were fraught with uncertainty. Human agency opens the possibility for heartbreak, envy, or anxiety. Individuals employed rituals such as curse tablets to mitigate and compartmentalize this uncertainty. Although magic strikes us as an odd way for regaining a semblance of control, it was a readily available strategy in antiquity that melded agency with the prevailing religious idioms of the time. Asserting that curses can’t possibly “work” (whether misfortune really did befall Babbia in the coming weeks as a result of the curse) misses the more important question of how this ritual changed the texture of her relationship with her rival. Perhaps inscribing the curse was a cathartic experience? Perhaps the hexer acted differently toward Babbia knowing that a curse was deployed?

Artifacts like these draw us close to the daily lives of the ancient Corinthians. Rather than reading the rarefied thoughts of a single, literate author like Paul or Pausanias, we see direct evidence of the fears and anxieties that impelled an individual’s specific actions. Despite the exotic nature of these rituals, the anxiety and need for control that they evince remains as relevant today as it did 2000 years ago.

 Further Reading:

Stroud, Ronald. The Sanctuary of Demeter and Kore: The Inscriptions, (Athens: ASCSA, 2013).

Jesus: Great Physician or Magical Civic Defender?

Christ RedeemerJesus wore many vocational hats in the New Testament:

Carpenter…

Rabbi…

Physician…

Exorcist…

But civic protector? That’s a new one.

Plenty of Greco-Roman cities had patron deities. Athens had Athena. Ephesus had Artemis. But where did Jesus fit into this role as polytheism declined in Late Antiquity?

A little-known artifact from Philippi suggests that Late Antique Christians came to view Jesus as exactly this—an anti-demon civic protector—by the 6th century CE.

About a century ago, archaeologists discovered two marble blocks that formerly adorned the city gates of Philippi. Inscribed on these blocks in compact, Byzantine script was the apocryphal correspondence between King Abgar and Jesus described by Eusebius in his Ecclesiastica Historia.

Abgar, who is wasting away from a disease, petitions Jesus to visit Edessa and heal him. He lauds Jesus’ fame and expresses vaguely anti-Semitic pity that the Jews are mistreating him, offering Edessa as a place of refuge if Jesus so desires to leave Jerusalem. In a short response, Jesus sends his regrets…apparently being too busy with his whole crucifixion thing to trouble himself with a trip to Edessa.

What would impel the Philippians to inscribe these words on their wall? Judging by the epigraphy’s professional hand and its prominent position overlooking the city’s main thoroughfare, the inscription certainly isn’t graffiti. Instead, a wealthy patron apparently saw this as an effective defensive weapon against potential enemies. Later copies of the correspondence—including the Philippian inscription—have a protective blessing added to the end of Jesus’ letter: “Your city shall be blessed and no enemy shall ever be master of it.” Eusebius’ version, which scholars assume is the earliest attestation of the document, completely lacks this addendum.

Because of this addendum, the Jesus/Abgar correspondence apparently gained traction as a magical strategy in Late Antiquity. Not only have archaeologists discovered similar artifacts in Ephesus, Euchaita, and Edessa, but a few magic books in antiquity invoke the Abgar correspondence as a potent spell. What better way to harness and channel ritual power than Jesus’ own written words?

In a forthcoming paper, I suggest that this Philippian inscription demonstrates how Late Antique Christians appropriated an existing tradition and invested it with new meaning—essentially re-branding Jesus as a magical civic defender rather than a Great Physician. The purpose of this study is to illustrate that religious traditions have a lifecycle and are not created in a cultural vacuum. The symbolic function and value of stories changes as individuals and communities adopt them for their own specific needs. In the case of Philippi, they apparently felt safer with the words of Christ carved onto their city gates.