conference notes

Witchcraft, Magic, and the Supernatural in the Ancient World

A one-day symposium, ‘Witchcraft, Magic, and the Supernatural in the Ancient World’, was held at the University of Bristol on Friday 4th December 2015. The event was organised by Dr Louise Wilson (Bristol), from The Figure of the Witch Project with Professor Ronald Hutton, and featured the speakers Professor Daniel Ogden (Exeter), Professor Andrew Gregory (UCL), and Dr Irving Finkel (The British Museum). As well as examining witchcraft, magic, and the supernatural in the ancient world and its sources, the day also debated the study and historiography of magic and related subjects in current and recent academic contexts.

Circe Offering the Cup to Odysseus, John William Waterhouse, 1891 (Wikimedia Commons)
Circe Offering the Cup to Odysseus, John William Waterhouse, 1891 (Wikimedia Commons)

The Making of Magic in the Ancient World

Professor Daniel Ogden (Exeter)


The day began with a positioning paper by Professor Daniel Ogden, who clearly identified magic as a theme within Ancient Roman and Greek texts.

He began with a few initial questions:

  • How was magic classified in the ancient world?
  • Who did it?
  • Why?

Folk tales depict magic and its successful practice: it is lodged within the popular imagination in the ancient world. There seem to be some set templates for thinking about magical behaviour and practicing magic at this time. Ogden highlighted some examples of texts from the earlier Roman Empire to demonstrate ways in which magical phenomena are portrayed: Apuleius’ Metamorphoses has magic being done with urine, blood, and gore, and resulting in transformation; Augustine’s City of God features an enchanted cheese; Petronius’ Satyricon and Aesop’s Fables both include werewolves in among their cast of characters; Cicero’s Divinations has a ghost; Lucian’s Philopseudes portrays the prototypical sorcerer’s apprentice – and so on.

From these ancient folk tales, Ogden points out, there also emerges an established set of contexts for the telling tales of magic. In them, stories of magic are usually depicted as being shared on the road, in the tavern, or at a private dinner. It was an established custom to tell tales of this sort at Roman dinner parties, but wealthy patrons could also hire storytelling professionals – aretalogi (from the Greek aretalogia, which Ogden defined as the affirmation of divine power from personal experience). Emphasising the factuality of the events narrated, aretalogi urged listeners to believe and recognise the miraculous truth of their tales, and the reality of the supernatural phenomena they described.

One example of such a tale is that of Thelyphron, from the Metamorphoses of Apuleius. In this story, Thelyphron (a university student) runs out of funds, and hears of a sum of money being offered to watch over a corpse for one night. He enquires, and the widow of the dead man tells him that shape-shifting witches in the area use human flesh in their spells, so he must stay alert and wary in his task, so that they don’t take any parts of her husband’s corpse. Thelyphron, predictably, falls asleep whilst on watch. When he awakes at dawn he is relieved to find the body intact. The widow pays him, and all seems well, until the townspeople accuse her of poisoning her husband, and bring the corpse back to life to ask him if it’s true – which it is. The corpse then thanks Thelyphron – it transpires that, in a twist, the witches took pieces of his ears and nose instead of the dead man’s. When Thelyphon touches these parts of his face, pieces drop off – they have been replaced with wax by the witches to delay discovery.

As well as folk tales, other sources from Ancient Rome and Greece provide examples of magic – there are epitaphs from Rome dating to c. 20 AD dealing with supernatural child-snatching, and the Greek Magical Papyri (PGM), written in the 4th century AD, contain spells (which were probably much older in origin).

In the PGM witches and mages can draw down the moon and summon the goddess Hecate who can bring Cerberus with her. One can also make a mini-Eros assistant with wax: to do so you must make sacrifices in order to make it awaken (including killing seven birds), and after this you can send your Eros doll to do your will. Ogden compared the PGM to the Philopseudes, which contain the original ‘Sorcerer’s apprentice’ story, of an Egyptian master scribe and his apprentice. In this, they use papyrus recipes, just like the actual Greek Magical Papyri.

Ogden concluded that there is a strong tradition of magic in ancient texts and sources, with a tight nexus of repeated motifs, such as the use of recipe books/magical papyri, and the creation of dolls/amulets. In this, he is reacting against modern Western scholars who believe that magic began in 500 BC because the term ‘magos’ is first attested in 500 BC Persia (Dickie, 2001). Around 500 BC, he pointed out, the notion of magic extends from having a purely male association, to include female practitioners too. However, he concludes, magic, magicians, ghosts, werewolves, and other supernatural stories existed before this.



Following Professor Ogden’s presentation, there were some questions and comments from the audience.

Q: (From Prof Ronald Hutton) Can we settle whether the Romans hunted witches?

A: There is no evidence of a ‘witchfinder general’ equivalent character in the literature, but we do find strange reports of emperors periodically banishing various characters from the city, or executing them in impossibly large numbers. These are presented as imperial decrees. It is almost impossible to find anything in Greek law explicitly against magic, however Romans had several laws against magic at various times (for an example, see the Lex Cornelia). However, it is difficult to know what to do with these reports. The later Empire, with its Christian emperors, swung wildly between tolerance and intolerance, and periodically persecuted witches.

Hutton added that is not until the 5th century AD that we see the idea of ‘nature’ and the ‘natural’, with the notion of ‘magic’ being contrasted against this as ‘supernatural’. This is because the Athenians began defining themselves as a culture against that which already existed: they linguistically coded magic as a negative thing, and so this echoes down the ages to the Middle Ages/Early Modern period. To give one example, Medea is thereafter portrayed as evil. But in earlier texts she is more of a demi-goddess, the daughter of sun god – ‘she can shoot lasers from her eyes.’


Homer’s Circe – The First Witch?

Professor Andrew Gregory (UCL)


The second speaker was UCL’s Professor Andrew Gregory. In his paper, he asked whether Homer’s Circe can be considered the first witch, or whether the situation is more complex and nuanced than it may initially appear.

Gregory began by highlighting that there are shifting definitions and perceptions of magic across time and cultures that we should be sensitive to when considering magic. Scholarship in recent years has moved away from a binary idea of science vs magic, and now recognises the connections between the two.

He is interested in the nature of the world views involved in a belief in magic: what is required in terms of an intellectual underpinning of a belief in magic? He is also interested in the transition from magical or mythological world views to other views.

Is Circe the first witch in Western literature?

There is a fairly strong case to suggest that she is. She keeps unusual tame beasts (lions and wolves). She is beautiful, sings well, and is skilled at weaving. She drugs Odysseus’ men, turning them into pigs and back into men again. She attempts to drug Odysseus, and seduces him. (As a side note, it is also interesting that she is portrayed as sexually voracious, and this concern with female sexuality and magic continues through to the Malleus Maleficarum and beyond.) She has foresight, advising him on his journey, and she seems to be able to change the weather. Gregory also notes that the potion used by Circe is the traditional one found in several ancient texts, of wine, barley, and cheese mixed together. These factors would all seem to suggest that she is a witch.

However, there might be another possibility – one often overlooked due to reasons of translation or assumption… Circe might be a goddess.

Circe the Goddess?

Professor Gregory presented the evidence:

  • She is the daughter of Helios, the sun god
  • She doesn’t require a source of magical power outside of herself as witches do in other lore, e.g. swearing fealty to the devil in medieval/Early Modern texts
  • She knows herbs – and Hermes too is said to know herb-lore (although so do witches)
  • She does not seem to spell or chant at any point
  • She doesn’t do anything that can be termed as ‘maleficia’ in Christian lore.
  • She does not have a familiar – she owns animals and swine, but these seem to be tame animals rather than familiars
  • She does not engage in necromancy
  • She seems able to control/predict the weather – a trait common to many gods

Homer does not call Circe a witch. He calls her ‘polypharmakou’, which means that she knows many drugs, and her house is described as a ‘hiera domata’ – a sacred dwelling, or sacred palace. Her wand, too, might instead be a rhabdos – a herding stick – rather than an inherently magical object. So when she turns the men into swine, this may have been accomplished with the use of a drug, with the stick intended for the banal use of herding them once in their pig form, rather than having any power in and of itself.

Gregory also pointed out that Homer uses the term ‘phusis‘ – meaning nature – for the first time. This word is cognate with the notion of the world being natural, and the processes and creatures within it operating in an orderly and natural manner. It is against this concept that notions of the supernatural or chaotic are pitted – that which operates outside of nature’s laws. It is useful to ask what we mean by ‘witch’ in the ancient world – is it the same as in later contexts, for instance? Gregory suggested that the categorisation is problematic and needs to be deconstructed further.



Following Professor Gregory’s presentation, there were some questions and comments from the audience, prompting further discussion.

Professor Daniel Ogden questioned Professor Gregory’s assertions about Circe as a potential goddess, rather than a witch, claiming that it is ‘not a matter of looking at individual activities, but rather the broader picture or “syndrome” of how she behaves and what she is compared to elsewhere.’ He went on to suggest that the ‘binary’ between goddesses and witches is a ‘categorisation error’ – for instance Hecate is both, and Aphrodite has a magical amulet that she uses to seduce men – so Circe could very well be both too. He also pointed out that The

Odyssey is a product of oral storytelling – it has been changed and altered in several ways over time, and this will therefore affect Circe’s portrayal too.

Professor Ronald Hutton suggested that Ogden and Gregory are both correct, depending upon which archetype of ‘the witch’ one chooses to work within, for instance, the Eucleian witch, or evil sorceress. There are also witch-like characters found within later medieval romance, such as Morgan le Fay, who are arguably more individuated and complex than a one-dimensional evil witch-type.

Another comment from the audience picked up on the notion of the sexuality of witches, as opposed to the sexuality of goddesses – suggesting that the latter is also something to be feared in ancient texts. The goddess Ishtar turned her lovers into animals; Aphrodite leaves one of her lovers a paraplegic after having her way with him – in fact Odysseus is one of the only mortals to have sex with a goddess and emerge unscathed.


Healing in Cuneiform: Magic into Medicine into Magic

Dr Irving Finkel (The British Museum)


The final speaker of the day was Dr Irving Finkel, the Assistant Keeper of Ancient Mesopotamian (i.e. Sumerian, Babylonian and Assyrian) script, languages and cultures in the Middle East Department of the British Museum. He discussed cuneiform tablets and the magical content that can be found on them.

Dr Finkel began by outlining that there is a huge wealth of extant clay tablets containing Sumerian and Babylonian inscriptions, and that from the Messopotamian world, (ancient Iraq) there are copious sources on witchcraft and magic. To take one example, the goddess/she-demon Lamashtu can be found carved on a cuneiform tablet with a spell written on the other side. She has a lion’s head, bird’s feet, is holding snakes, suckling a wolf and a lion, and riding a donkey. This deity, Finkel pointed out, has a fondness for babies. If she smelled childbirth she would come and kill the child: she is the personification of the fear of childbirth. The spell on the reverse of the tablet reads: ‘I know your names Lamashtu…’ and proceeds to list her by several names and chilling epithets related to her behaviour and characteristics. This seems to suggest the power of naming – claiming power over something by listing and incanting its names.

In this era and geographical location – as well as others too – the gods ranged from the most powerful to least important. First-millennium theologians classified them and allocated jobs to them, and when someone was born they were said to have an affinity with a particular god. The gods were imagined to be like humans: imperfect. They could be adulterous, foolish, vengeful, lazy – or worse. This meant that humans were not always under their protection – or if they were, then that protection was often ineffectual.

Yet there were also natural enemies to humans (such as disease and death), as well as perceived supernatural ones (such as witches or spirits). Finkel made an insightful analogy with modern society by asking if anyone in the room had ever seen a microbe – to which he received a unanimously negative response. ‘No one here has ever seen a microbe,’ he stated, ‘yet we trust the people who have, and so we all KNOW that they exist!’ This, he claimed, is the same as ancient people who believed in witches and other supernatural forces and entities. He also pointed out that, just like microbes for us, the supernatural was real life for ancient peoples – not just artifice or art. These were real people, with real concerns about the supernatural and its effects. He cited the cuneiform medicine tablets as evidence of this: they don’t distinguish between magic and science, and were controlled by librarians, using a functional retrieval system – indicating that they were meant to be used. He pointed again to the possible functions of the Lamashtu tablet (to control/repel the demon-goddess), and the real fears surrounding childbirth and death.

Moving to consider ghosts, Finkel suggested that ancient peoples were not necessarily scared of them, but rather considered that spirits were part of life, and that there were explanations for these everyday phenomena. Victims of horrific or violent deaths – especially those who didn’t have much left of their bodies to be buried using the appropriate rituals – were likely to ‘be rather unsatisfied with their lot in the underworld.’ They were believed to haunt the living from unhappiness, and so the way to deal with them was to make them happy. Furthermore, a belief in ghosts, Finkel argued, is crucially embedded in the human psyche, across time and place.

In Ancient Babylonia, when someone died they were believed to travel into the underworld, passing through several gates en route. There is no light on this journey, and all the person receives is water and clay – then they sit and wait. There is seemingly no reason, or end-goal for this waiting. However, when a woman was pregnant, the theological understanding was that the child could not be born until someone died. So perhaps this purgatory-like holding area was where people waited until they entered into a new body. The understanding was that there are a finite number of lives in the universe.

Necromancy – power over the dead – Finkel argued, is a ‘classic CV [Curriculum Vitae] requirement for witches.’ Witches are mentioned in the law code of Hamerabi in the 18th century BC, and are perceived to be a malevolent force. Presumably to interfere with this process of death and reincarnation is to cause ripples of repercussions and consequences in the natural order.



Following Dr Finkel’s presentation, there were some questions and comments from the audience, which prompted some of the following discussions.

Q: Do magical ingredients like ‘eye of newt’ literally refer to the eye of a newt, or are they code names for plant types?

A: Prof. Ogden Daniel cited the Greek Magical Papyri, which in the left-hand column gives the magical ingredient’s name (e.g. eye of newt) and in the right-hand column gives the name of the corresponding plant. So yes, often these were aliases for plants and other ingredients.

Q: What about the use of skulls in necromancy?

A: Dr Finkel answered that the process would be to anoint a skull, and then the relevant spirit would come up from the underworld and enter the skull and answer your questions. These rituals always express the need for an honest answer, ‘otherwise how would you know the spirit was telling the truth?’ There are also spells for what happens if the wrong entity comes, so that you can ‘send it packing!’

Q: Where was the line between natural and supernatural in Ancient Babylonia?

A: Finkel suggested that Babylonian disease/illness was believed to be caused by ‘supernatural’ forces, such as demons or ghosts. But the motivation for that could come from the direction of a god/goddess, or a witch, who can use demons or ghosts as their tools or agents. Babylonian medicine seems to have a distinction between everyday ailments and the Big Unknowns, like cancer, that seem to strike you down unexpectedly – with suspected supernatural causes.

Prof. Ronald Hutton pointed out that Egypt seems to be different to Greece and Rome, as it seems to have had NO concept of witchcraft or ‘the witch’. Magic, rather, seems to have been believed to be at the disposal of anyone at any time, and anyone can coerce or manipulate the gods, and harness their power. This was different to prayer. There is power that deities use to control and order the universe, and ordinary people, it was believed, could tap into that, use it, and effect change. There was no sense of magic as a morally undesirable or socially stigmatised activity. Prof. Ogden also suggested that the Greek view of Egyptian magic was that they were not outside of the establishment, they WERE the establishment, they were at the heart of it magic and the supernatural.


Final thoughts

The day ended with a fruitful and energetic round table discussion that examined and extended some of the themes and issues raised by the speakers. Dr. Louise Wilson, the symposium organiser ended by re-affirming the socially and culturally-constructed and temporally and culturally-specific definitions of magic, asking if it is necessary to build bridges between definitions in different areas of expertise. Prof. Hutton pointed out that there was a sustained attempt to outlaw the term ‘magic’ among American academics in the 1990s, and Prof. Gregory highlighted that anthropologists push to speak about a culture in its own language, and that this is sometimes problematic. He used himself as an example: he is an historian of science, yet some academics say we can’t speak about ‘science’ before the 19th century because the term didn’t exist. It can be useful and advisable to use our own terms if they are applicable, as long as we are aware of their capacities and limitations. Prof. Hutton ended by suggesting that academics ‘need to scrape the barnacles off these terms that have accumulated in the nineteenth century. We also need to stop considering magic, religion, and science as watertight terms that do not have anything to do with one another.’

Magic, it would appear, continues to be a category that defies simple categorisation or examination, but continues to stimulate and fascinate across time and place.


Edit: In the original post, I suggested that magic as a topic of discussion was taboo across America in the 1990s, however, there was rather a sustained attempt to outlaw the term ‘magic’ among American academics in the 1990s. This has been amended in the penultimate paragraph. My thanks go to Professor Ronald Hutton for this correction.


One thought on “Witchcraft, Magic, and the Supernatural in the Ancient World

  1. “Following the concluding remarks, the delegates piled all the chairs into a huge bonfire in the centre of the room, and set fire to it. They then stripped naked, smeared each others bodies with woad and excrement, and danced until dawn” [Only kidding. There haven’t been any conferences like that since the 1960s]

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