Wednesday, 30 May 2012

Magic and Mystery in the Greek Magical Papyri


John William Waterhouse, Pandora, 1896.

Sections of the Greek Magical Papyri that exemplify attitudes, practices, and symbols pertaining to elements of the mystery cults come along with Greek deities, fragments of hymns and invocations, rituals, and myths. According to Betz, “Obviously, in the eyes of the magicians who wrote and transmitted these texts, the mystery cult language and ritual provided religious legitimacy and cultural approval for all the other magical materials.”[1] This phenomenon of the imposition of mystery cult ideas, rituals, and tradition indicates and testifies how the Greek mysteries expanded their influence, along with the expansion of other religious fields of discourse into mystical cults enriched with magical rites and spells. Apart from the Spell of Pnouthis, the sacred scribe, for acquiring an assistant, the Mithras Liturgy[2] also attests to this with verses such as “mysteries handed down not for gain but for instruction”[3] and “O lord, while being born again, I am passing away; while grown and having grown, I am dying; while being born from a life-generating birth, I am passing on, released to death – as you have founded, as you have decreed, and have established the mystery.”[4] Other rites that reveal mystery cult terminology with some Hebrew influences are the 'Stele of Jeu the hieroglyphist in his letter', which includes a verse summoning the Headless One by declaring, “I am Moses, your prophet to whom you have transmitted your mysteries,”[5] and the 'Eighth Book of Moses' which states “Now begin to recite the stele and the mystery of the god.”[6] These verses testify to the influence that mystery cult terminologies and practices had on the Greek Magical Papyri. According to Betz, under this impact:

Earlier Egyptian magic was transformed, enriched, brought up to date, and thus legitimated. By presenting themselves as mystagogues, the magicians doubtless added to their prestige… The mystagogue-magician of the Greek mystery cults transformed the older magic into a new and higher “religion.” For the mystagogue-magician, the syncretistic amalgam was indeed “religion.”[7]

However, one must not discredit the fact that there were differences between magic and religion in the Greek Magical Papyri, which were determined by theological issues inherent within the structures of the mystery cults and the fashion in which they were adopted within the realm of magic. To an extent, it appears logical that most of magicians were not fully aware of the entirety of the inner dimensions of the mystery cults whose material they appropriated. For they believed that their ‘art’ was indeed a fully operational religion, which they referred to as ‘magic’, and themselves as the operators of it as ‘magicians’, reflecting yet again the natural receptiveness, fluidity, and impressive power of the magician’s worldview. To conclude, I shall quote a passage from Butler’s exceptional tome, Ritual Magic, which so eloquently invokes and encaptures the diachronic fascination we have up until this day with ritual conjuring the natural receptiveness, fluidity, and impressive power of the magical worldview:

For the inventors and practitioners of the rites, however deeply versed in the lore of their subject and however obedient to its rules, often gave proof of the artistic temperament, to the advantage of the literature which has survived. The aim, like that of astrology, alchemy and applied science as a whole, was strictly practical; the means show evidence of creative instincts, poetical imagination and feeling for beauty and drama… this is what makes the study of ritual magic still interesting to-day.[8]



[1] Hans Dieter Betz, ‘Magic and Mystery in the Greek Magical Papyri’, in Magika Hiera: Ancient Greek Magic and Religion, edited by Christopher A. Faraone and Dirk Obbink, 1991, 250.
[2] PGM IV. 479-829.
[3] PGM IV. 476.
[4] PGM IV. 718-724.
[5] PGM V. 108-111.
[6] PGM XIII. 685.
[7] Hans Dieter Betz, ‘Magic and Mystery in the Greek Magical Papyri’, in Magika Hiera: Ancient Greek Magic and Religion, edited by Christopher A. Faraone and Dirk Obbink, 1991, 254.
[8] Elizabeth M. Butler, Ritual Magic, 2002, 4.

2 comments:

  1. Good stuff - Send us an article to our new magazine http://www.magick.org.au

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