Staring into the Abyss (Why I Study Ancient Christian Magic Pt. 2)


Ancient sarcophagi in downtown Athens.

This is my second post in a 3 part series. See “Part I” here

I’m the first to admit that I started researching magical ritual in Late Antiquity because it was weird. For an undergraduate who had primarily subsisted on a sanitized diet of Homer, Plato, and Cicero, I was equally shocked and excited to discover that the ancients deployed curse spells calling for a victim’s utter destruction and fashioned amulets to ward off sexual advances from demons. Not only did these texts controvert my romantic view of antiquity, but they were bizarre and exciting—perfect for a student who struggled to feign interest in dense philosophical or theological texts (I’m looking at you Plotinus).

But as I continued in my studies, the novelty faded, replaced by the realization that I had taken a morbid fascination in the suffering of long-dead men and women. Most ancient spells aim to ameliorate physical ailments, loneliness, or poverty, and although these strategies strike us as outlandish, the underlying motivations are all too familiar. Indeed, death and disease were more readily visible to the ancients, but try as we might to mitigate and manage them in the present, we still stare into the same abyss.  

Our own mortality resonates with this sort of research. Magic is a deeply existential activity motivated by, in the words of scholar Catherine Bell, a necessity of doing something rather than nothing. In magical ritual, we engage the world with our own body, emotions, and words in an effort to regain agency in a fragmented and uncertain reality—not out of some hubristic sense of mastery over the world but precisely because we recognize that the universe cannot be compelled.

Magical ritual evokes a hypothetical reality “as it should be” rather than the stark, brutal reality “as it is.” This is not to imply that magic is some illusory mentality known only to “primitive” people. Indeed, the gap between ancient irrationality and our modern sensibility disappears when we consider that all humans seek any strategy to gain mastery over their material realities. “Mortality” embodies this struggle because it is ultimately awareness of our eventual demise that spurs us so strongly to augment our own agency.

This is why I have continued researching ancient magic…to empathize with the ancients through our shared existential condition and to learn something about ourselves in the process. Though we may scoff at the obvious inefficacy of ancient magic, we ironically battle the same demons with the equally inefficacious weapons of wealth, sex, or power.

The Nicene Creed: Ancient Defense Mechanism?


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…


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.


…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:





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.