The University Record, February 13, 1996

Magic: Just another attempt at control

By Joanne Nesbit
News and Information Services

Maybe it's magic. Maybe it's religion. Or, it could be science. The definition of "magic" can depend on who you were and where and when you lived.

"Traditions of Magic in Late Antiquity," a Hatcher Library exhibition of magical recipe books, amulets, gems, pendants, bracelets, magical words and signs and demon bowls, doesn't attempt to define "magic" but does demonstrate the innate human desire for control---control of the natural environment, control of the social world and eventually control of our own destiny.

"The techniques may have changed over the last 15 centuries," says the exhibition's curator Gideon Bohak, "but the goals remain the same."

"Traditions of Magic in Late Antiquity," on the seventh floor of Hatcher Library, runs through April 30. Bohak will present a slide lecture in conjunction with the exhibition at 7:30 p.m. Feb. 22 in Hatcher's Special Collections Library on the seventh floor.

More than 40 items relating to the practice of magic in ancient Egypt, the Eastern Mediterranean and Mesopotamia are in the exhibit, including several fragments of magical recipe books written on papyrus, some with detailed instructions on conducting specific rituals and achieving the desired results.

Amulets (protective devices worn around the body, or placed next to other objects to protect them from various evils), pendants, bracelets and thin sheets of metal, all inscribed with spells, magical words and signs designed to protect the wearer from evil, disease or pain, are displayed in the exhibit. Earthenware bowls, sometimes known as demon bowls, also were inscribed with magical formulae used to attract and trap hostile demons and are included in the exhibition.

The items included in the exhibition range in size from tiny inscribed gems to large papyrus fragments and in artistic quality from the crude to the exquisite.

"The practice of ancient magic was quite like that of modern cooking," Bohak says. "Just as today anyone can cook, but only some can cook well, anyone in the ancient world could make a simple amulet or castigate a wayward demon, but only a few specialized in such activities and achieved superior results. And, just like modern cooks, such ancient practitioners had their own private notebooks, where their painstakingly accumulated secrets were preserved---collections of recipes, hints, notes and ideas, whether borrowed or adapted from others or independently developed."

Recipes were tested, improved and sometimes passed on to clients, colleagues, disciples or successors. But, Bohak says, "whether it [the recipe] was used to protect oneself or to hurt another, made little difference to the practitioner."

Amulets, Bohak says, could be almost anything---"a red string wound around the wrist, a stone carried in a small pouch around the neck, or a piece of iron tied to one's bed. Such amulets could be prepared at home, and called for no special knowledge or technical skills." Other amulets reflect craftsmanship and skill used in their inscriptions. "These are too elaborate to have been manufactured by mere amateurs."

In Mesopotamia, demon bowls were used as a form of defensive magic. "These inscribed earthenware vessels," Bohak says, "were found in several sites in Iraq and Iran, dating from the 6th to the 8th centuries, and are unknown outside that region."

These bowls, sometimes inscribed on both the inside and outside, often were placed face-down in the corners of rooms where cracks in the walls might allow demons to enter the premises. "It would seem," Bohak says, "that these were demon traps, meant to lure, trap and disable any malevolent demons, preventing them from hurting humans or causing damage to property."

Bohak, a Fellow of the Michigan Society of Fellows and an assistant professor in the Department of Classical Studies, is currently teaching a course titled "Magic and Magicians in the Greco-Roman World."