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

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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.