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Classical Journal On-Line <[log in to unmask]>
Tue, 21 Jul 2009 12:29:39 -0500
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Magic in the Ancient Greek World. By DEREK COLLINS. Blackwell Ancient 
Religions. Malden, MA, Oxford and Victoria: Blackwell Publishing Company, 
2008. Pp. xiv + 207. Paper, $28.00. ISBN 978–1–4051–3239–8.

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Previously published CJ Online reviews are at 

CJ Online 2009.07.04

This is a thought-provoking and informative, if uneven, examination of the 
actual practice of magic in the ancient Greek world, as opposed to the 
representation of magic and magical practices in the poets. Collins (C.), 
who identifies himself as a historian of magic (p. 166), examines magical 
practices from an anthropological and historical perspective, considering 
both physical (e.g., curse tablets and binding figures) and textual 
evidence (e.g., the use of Homeric verses for magical purposes in the late 
antique period, and the overt discussions of the practice in the 
Neoplatonists). In this, he attempts to determine not so much what magic 
really was (an impossible question, as he notes) as what its practitioners 
thought it was and what social and cultural constructs made the existence 
(or belief in) and practice of magic possible. In the process, C. both 
illuminates some major problems in assessing historical magic—what was 
magic thought to be, how would you recognize it if you saw it, and what 
enabled it to exist?—and offers new avenues of exploration for the study 
of the phenomenon.

C. expresses the wish that his work will be of value to a broad audience, 
i.e., “accessible to non-specialists and challenging to specialists” 
(p. xi). Specialists may find some of the overt analysis of magical 
practices and the mindset that enabled their existence interesting, 
although fully half the book sets out the background to and framework for 
that analysis. But C.’s study will prove very useful to non-specialists, 
in particular students, who will find much of value in his explication of 
these theories and methodological approaches and how they underlie his 
study of specific magical practices and the cultural constructs that 
support them. C. provides this background through a survey of 
anthropological schools (Chapter 1) and a clear and explicit discussion of 
the intellectual and theoretical framework that made Greek magic (be 
thought) possible (Chapter 2). Non-specialists will also benefit from 
C.’s sensible approach to defining magic and its relationship to 
religion, and from his clear delineation of issues in the practice of magic 
(e.g., the role played by the “characters” / kharactēres on curse 
tablets in facilitating communication with the supernatural, as distinct 
from the curse text itself, pp. 73–8). The summary of each chapter (p. 
xiv) is especially useful for helping the student make sense of the 
evidence presented, the argument based on it, and the argument’s broader 
context. The summary is omitted, however, for Chapter 3 (Binding Magic and 
Erotic Figurines), perhaps because C. finds “no simple way to 
summarize” it (p. 101), and Chapter 5 (Magic in Greek and Roman Law), an 
informative if uneven section whose relevance to the overall study is not 

C.’s examination of the social constructs that allow a belief in magic 
and magical practices is clearly laid out and persuasively argued. C. 
contends that how magic is conceived and how that understanding affects the 
practice of magic are the product of the traditional underpinnings of a 
particular culture, and that recognizing this link is the key to 
understanding of magic (or what it was thought to be and how it was thought 
to work). C. argues that the existence and practice of magic, however 
defined, are offshoots of the religious practices and social customs in the 
ancient Greek world and should be understood on that basis. For example, 
the principle behind “binding” (compelling another party to do what one 
wants) remains the same, whether one pierces a clay figurine to compel an 
unwilling partner in an erotic situation (“magic”) or makes an offering 
to a statue of a god in an effort to convince that god to assist one 
(“religion”): both situations require the belief that inanimate objects 
can have social agency, and that that agency that can be convinced or 
compelled to act as one wants if the inducements are sufficient. Curse 
tablets deposited in the graves of the restless dead “work” because the 
depositors live in a world in which it is thought that the unsatisfied dead 
are angry and their anger can be channeled. By assimilating “magic” to 
normal cultural practices and beliefs, C. obviates the need to distinguish 
between “magic” and “religion,” a modern distinction made 
problematic by the importation of modern and medieval notions of evil and 
the demonic into our understanding of them. At the same time, by taking 
this approach, C. offers insights into both the nature of magic and its 
function in the Greek world.

C. sets out the theories and framework for his approach in a clear, 
detailed and accessible way. It is unfortunate, therefore, that the actual 
practice of Greek magic receives only brief analysis. Of the five chapters 
(not including the cursory introduction and the conclusion), two provide 
background and methodology, and one is concerned largely with Roman laws 
against magic (ranging from the Twelve Tables, through Apuleius’ speech 
defending himself against charges of using magic to seduce and marry a 
wealthy older woman, to a brief discussion of Christian and medieval law). 
C. recognizes that the inclusion of Roman law in an analysis of Greek 
magical practices might seem odd (p. xii), and he tries to head off 
criticism by explaining that the Romans used Greek precedents “for their 
own understanding of magic and its effects” (p. 132) and that Roman and 
medieval magical practices were “essentially Greek in nature” (p. xii). 
Be that as it may, the Romans were not Greeks, still less were medieval 
Christians, and C. does not demonstrate that these cultures conceived of 
the practice of magic in the same way the Greeks did. On the contrary, C. 
admits that the Romans absorbed and adapted Greek practices (p. 132), and 
that very adaptation of Greek practices into a Roman framework calls into 
question the value of a study of Roman law as evidence for earlier Greek 
practices. Roman law could have used a more detailed study in a separate 
work. But as it stands, it tends to detract from C.’s exploration of how 
magical practices were understood by Greeks. Further exploration of how the 
laws of the various Greek city-states dealt with magic would have been 

C.’s discussion of specific magical practices is a useful contribution to 
our understanding of the ancient Greek world. Had he applied his 
anthropological examination to other such practices, the contribution would 
have been even greater. While C.’s reluctance to consider the evidence 
offered by literary representations of magic is understandable—magical 
practices and the mindset that allows them can differ between fiction and 
reality, although a discussion of how literary representations do or do not 
correspond to the “objective” practices might have been 
informative—his omission is less easy to understand when it comes to 
magical practices for which there is historical evidence and which could 
have augmented his discussion. For example, practices relating to restless 
ghosts (e.g., armpitting / maschalismos) could have strengthened the 
analysis of curse tablets (because both presuppose that the unhappy dead 
are interested in and can be controlled by the living), while offering 
insight into the nature of ghosts and how to deal with them in their own 
right (i.e., to stop them from harassing you or use them for your own 
purposes). Similarly, the absence of any discussion of amulets, which C. 
admits would have fit nicely into several chapters (p. xi), is lamentable. 
Amulets were a common magical tool, so a consideration of how they fit into 
magical practices and how they were thought to function would have been 

Overall, C. has provided a good introduction to the theory and study of 
magical practices and their cultural contexts, and one that will facilitate 
further work on ancient magic. Fewer digressions into Rome practices and 
beliefs might have allowed him to broaden that insightful introduction and 
so provide a more substantial foundation for the study of Greek magic.

University of Alberta

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