Magic in Ancient Greece: Necromancy, Curses, Love Spells, and Oracles
The magical traditions of ancient Greece encompassed spells, curse tablets, drugs, potions, poisons, amulets, and talismans. For many cultures of the past, there was a very fine line between magic, superstition, religion, and science. The ancient magicians were seen as symbols of wisdom, keepers of secrets, and masters of the arts, mathematics and science, particularly chemistry. Because magicians were believed to be individuals with access to supernatural powers, they were both feared and respected.
Spells and incantations had been used by the Egyptians for thousands of years and the Greeks carried this tradition forward, as evidenced by surviving Greek papyri containing magic records that date back to the 4th and 3rd century BC.
Magical book written in ancient Greek, which consisted of seven pages enclosed by a cover depicting a veiled woman’s head and a bearded man. ( public domain )
Amulets and Talismans
Amulets in ancient Greece were believed to have provided protection or the attraction of positive outcomes to situations or desires. These were worn around the neck or wrist of a person, or placed in physical locations, such as a house, to provide the same intended results. Commonly, Greek amulets were divided into two broad categories: talismans (which were believed to bring good luck) and phylacteries (which were intended for protection).
The materials used for talismans included bones, wood, stones and sometimes semi-precious gemstones. They could also be written on small pieces of papyrus or a metal sheet. They could be carried in a pouch or small container, or in small bags containing mixed herbs. And to complete the process, one had to invoke a god or goddess (usually Hecate), or multiple gods, and recite magical words of power.
Ancient Greek amulet MS 5236, invoking the god Phoebus Apollo. Dating to 6th century BC, the inscription on the gold lamella was created by block printing. ( CC by SA 3.0 )
Black Magic and Curses
In Ancient Greece, no one was safe from the attacks of magic spells, including people of power such as politicians and orators. Magic spells could be made in secrecy and hexes could be buried with the dead, who were believed to have means to carry the curse requests to the underworld. According to Lisa Orkin, many inscriptions on katares (or curses) found at the Kerameikos cemetery, near the ancient marketplace where politicians made public addresses, would begin with “I bind to the earth”.
Katares were also found with figurines and often buried in the graves of youths because, according to German Archaeologist Jutta Stroszeck, it was believed that a premature death would get the spell to the gods of the underworld faster. Dr. Stroszeck’s maintains that katares were also dropped in wells, another avenue to the underworld. “You made the spell in the very moment that you wanted to weaken another person, to impede, to make immobile, to bind somebody. It is clearly an expression of hate.”
Katares are not unique to Greece and they have been discovered throughout the Mediterranean. What makes the Greek collection of katares special is that they relate information about the life of a society at its highest point: the Age of Pericles about 2,500 years ago, when the Parthenon was built. According to Dr. Derek Collins, “a common type of magic in the fifth century and later involves the metaphor of binding or holding down someone, as a way to thwart their ambitions, activities, or even their powers of perception”.
Ancient Greek curse tablet. ( NewHistorian.com)
Necromancy, Invoking the Spirits of the Dead
Necromancy, or the practice of invoking the spirits of the dead, was an illegal form of ritual in Ancient Greece but evidence suggests that it was practiced in secrecy. The Necromanteion was an ancient temple dedicated to the god of the Underworld, Hades, and his consort, the goddess Persephone. The ancient Greeks believed that while the bodies of the dead decayed in the earth, their souls would be released, and travelled to the Underworld via fissures in the earth. The spirits of the dead were said to possess abilities that the living did not have, including the power to foretell the future. Temples were therefore erected in places thought to be entrances to the Underworld to practice necromancy (communication with the dead) and to receive prophecies.
Artist’s depiction of a ritual inside the Necromanteion. From Marc Jailloux (“Orion”: The Oracles, 2011)
In Dr. Christopher Faraone’s opinion, there is a lot of interesting research that has been done in relation to ancient Greek love spells and incantations. Love magic embraced two rather different types of spells: one set designed to produce erôs (“erotic seizure”) in the victim, and the other used to create philia (“affection” or “friendship”), as Dr. Faraone explained in his book, “Ancient Greek Love Magic” (2001).
Although not much evidence has been found regarding the uses of psychedelic mushrooms in Ancient Greek magical traditions, some scholars suggest the incorporation of drugs in rituals involving the descent to magical worlds. Many ceremonies were kept under strict secrecy, with the Eleusinian Mysteries being a prime example, and we might never truly know everything there is to know about them, suggests Jennifer Wirth.
- Pythia, The Oracle of Delphi
- First Ancient Oracle Well to Apollo unearthed in Athens
- Necromanteion – The Ancient Temple of the Dead
The Oracles of Delphi, who were priests and priestesses, were perhaps some of the most important people involved with magic rituals in Ancient Greece. The oracles were believed to have the ability to translate cryptic messages direct from the gods, and to make prophetic statements.
The Pythia was the name given to any priestess who served as an oracle in the Temple of Apollo at Delphi. The priestess was a woman over fifty years of age, lived apart from her husband, and dressed in a maiden’s clothes. According to Plutarch, who once served as a priest at Delphi, the Pythia first enters the inner chamber of the temple (Adyton). Then, she sits on a tripod and inhales the light hydrocarbon gasses that escape from a chasm on the porous earth. This observation can be confirmed by modern geologists. After falling into a trance, she mutters words incomprehensible to mere mortals. These words are then interpreted by the priests of the sanctuary in a common language and delivered to those who had requested them.
“Priestess of Delphi”, by John Collier. ( Public Domain )
The world of Ancient Greek magic is rich and vast. Much research has been done in different areas of cults and rituals and an even larger amount of information can be learned from Greek mythology. But much is still unknown about the secret and magical practices of the ancient Greeks, particularly the practices belonging to the initiatic schools, such as the Eleusinian Mysteries.
Top image: “Delphic Oracle” Painting by Heinrich Leutemann. Image source: art-prints-on-demand.com
By Marina Sohma