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MC10 The Magic of Transculturality

The Magic of Transculturality (Funding Period: November 2012 – June 2016)

Koordination: Joachim Friedrich Quack, William Furley


P. Lugd. Bat. J. 384 (V), 1, recto, column 3

P. Lugd. Bat. J. 384 (V), 1, recto, column 3

Introduction: The Sources
There is a substantial body of manuscripts from late antiquity in Egypt (ca. 150-500 CE), written partially in the Egyptian language and script (Demotic), but to a larger extent in Greek, which collect ritual spells and techniques commonly classified as “magical” (Brashear, 1995). These have often been sidelined by classical scholars as they seem far from the literary mainstream and, conversely, they are too late to be of interest to most Egyptologists. They have even been referred to disparagingly as “Gnostic cheese”. Nevertheless, they are by now mostly available in reliable editions and translations (Preisendanz et al. (1973-1974); Daniel & Maltomini (1990-1992); Betz (1986); Quack (2008)), but still lack detailed commentaries on many aspects.

State of Research

Up to now, research has often been hampered by the multitude of different competences needed, with Classicists as well as Egyptologists tending either to ascribe too much or too little of the background to the areas of their own competence, with discussion sometimes descending to disputes over “copyright”. Classicists trying on their own to comment on the connections to Late Egyptian religious practices tend to be superficial (e.g. Merkelbach & Totti (1990-2001)). Efforts to highlight connections to Greek philosophical thinking (e.g. Betz (2003)) have proven rather one-sided. There have been a number of conference volumes in recent times, but they have resulted in an assembly of individual studies rather than a unified and coherent overview. Global treatments of magic in the Graeco-Roman world (such as Graf (1996); Dickie (2003)) were, in general, unable to devote enough space and energy to the specific case of Graeco-Roman Egypt to advance our understanding substantially. One of the project leaders has tried to show in a more balanced way how in the Graeco-Egyptian magical papyri there is both clear continuity with older Egyptian traditions as well as obvious innovations and foreign elements integrated into older structures (Quack 1998 and 2004). The other has contributed to the understanding of hymns, which are also an important part of magical incantations (Furley 1993 and 2001). Fruitful but somewhat restricted studies (only covering two of the manuscripts) have shown how they could be set within a bilingual milieu related to the Egyptian priesthood (Dielemann, 2005).

Project Description

The project started from the idea that progress in the research can be achieved if we analyze some of the more prominent "magical" techniques involved in a way which goes beyond the simple sequence of the preserved manuscript (while at the same time paying close attention to the question whether the manuscripts themselves have meaningful structures and groupings of related techniques). Thus, we decided to conduct a synoptic examination of the various appearances of one single magical technique in order to give a clearer impression of the way individual traditions were either fused together or kept apart. The main aim of the project is a monograph on one of the most important subgroups of magical spells: divination rituals, i. e. all the different magical techniques that are employed for the purpose of gaining any kind of hidden knowledge (whether from a god or other supernatural beings). For this purpose, Ljuba Bortolani and Svenja Nagel classified all the Greek and Demotic divination spells according to different ritual techniques, such as dream oracles, lamp and bowl divination or divination with a medium etc. Each technique is being analyzed in a separate chapter including an overview of the relevant spells, their common features and differences (e.g. incantations, ritual procedures, materia magica, etc.), a detailed discussion and some case studies which examine the most relevant examples through a line-by-line commentary. We focus on the cultural backgrounds of the single components of the rituals, in order to understand whether they originated in a Greek, Egyptian, Jewish or mixed cultural tradition. A second step is to assess which kind of cultural interactions (if any) underlie the rituals in each case, and how the final result, the mixture of different ingredients, functions within its own historical context: Roman Egypt. Is one justified in speaking of a culture of "hybridity"? We prefer the terms of fusion and plurality as being less loaded by previous models as well as being more to the point.

Preliminary Results

At this stage, the chapters about the dream oracles and lamp divination (which together constitute a substantial part of the analyzed material) have been completed, while the remaining divination techniques (bowl divination, direct visions etc.) are currently under examination. The finished chapters have already given us detailed insights into compositional patterns, traditions, cultural backgrounds and varying stages of plurality and, less often, actual fusion. From the documents analyzed so far, it would appear that each individual divination technique cannot be traced back to only one cultural background. On the contrary, two basic types seem to have developed in each case – one originating in a mainly Egyptian tradition, and one from a mainly Greek one. Diachronically, we are able to observe different stages of development of single techniques as well as of individual sections within the spells. In sum, this suggests on the one hand that the accumulation of different cultural elements increased in time (although, of course, it can vary considerably from spell to spell), and on the other hand that the awareness of their origins/original meaning gradually disappeared in a transcultural 'language of magic'.

The Project’s International Conference

The international conference "Cultural Plurality in Ancient Magical Texts and Practices" was organized by the research group and held in Heidelberg on 11th-14th September 2014. The participation of specialists who have devoted their studies to magical phenomena of different ancient cultures led to a very fruitful discussion on different aspects of magic and cultural plurality and gave us lots of new input for the development of our own research. The papers will be collected in a conference volume that is currently in preparation (scheduled for publication in 2016).


Betz, Hans Dieter, 2003: The 'Mithras Liturgy', Tübingen: Mohr Siebeck. 

Betz, H.D. (ed.), 1986: The Greek magical papyri in translation, including the demotic spells, Chicago. Second edition 1992.

Brashear, William, 1995: 'The Greek Magical Papyri: An Introduction and Survey; Annotated Bibliography (1928-1994)', in: W. Haase (ed.), Aufstieg und Niedergang der römischen Welt, Berlin/New York: De Gruyter, vol. Teil II: Principat, Band 18/5, 3380–3684.

Daniel, R. W., Maltomini, F. (eds.), 1990-1992: Supplementum Magicum, vol. XVI– of Abhandlungen der Rheinisch-Westfälischen Akademie der Wissenschaften. (Sonderreihe, Papyrologica Coloniensia, Opladen: Westdeutscher Verlag. 

Dickie, Matthew W., 2003: Magic and Magicians in the Greco-Roman World, London/New York: Routledge.

Dielemann, Jacco, 2005: Priests, Tongues, and Rites. The London-Leiden Magical Manuscripts and Translation in Egyptian Ritual (100-300 CE), vol. 153 of RGRW, Leiden/Boston: Brill.

Furley, W.D., 1993: 'Besprechung und Behandlung. Zur Form und Funktion von ΕΠΩΙΔΑΙ in der griechischen Zaubermedizin', in: G.W. Most, H. Petersmann, A.M. Ritter (eds.), Philanthropia kai Eusebeia, Festschrift für Albrecht Dihle zum 70. Geburtstag, Göttingen, 80–104.

Furley, William D., Bremer, Jan Maarten, 2001: Greek Hymns. Selected Cult Songs from the Archaic to the Hellenistic Period. Vol. I The Texts in Translation. Vol. II Greek Texts and Commentary, vol. 9 and 10 of Studien und Texte zu Antike und Christentum, Tübingen.

Graf, Fritz, 1996: Gottesnähe und Schadenszauber. Die Magie in der griechisch-römischen Antike, Munich: C.H. Beck.

Merkelbach, Reinhold, Totti, Maria, 1990-2001: Abrasax. Ausgewählte Papyri religiösen und magischen Inhalts, 5 volumes, Opladen: Westdeutscher Verlag.

Preisendanz, K., Heitsch, E., Henrichs, A. (eds.), 1973-1974: Papyri Graecae Magicae. Die griechischen Zauberpapyri, Stuttgart2.

Quack, J. F., 1998: 'Kontinuität und Wandel in der spätägyptischen Magie', Studi Epigrafici e Linguistici, 15, 77–94.

—, 2004: 'Griechische und andere Dämonen in den demotischen magischen Texten', in: T. Schneider (ed.), Das Ägyptische und die Sprachen Vorderasiens, Nordafrikas und der Ägäis, Akten des Basler Kolloquiums zum ägyptisch-nichtsemitischen Sprachkontakt, Basel 2003, Münster, 427–507. 

Quack, Joachim Friedrich, 2008: 'Demotische magische und divinatorische Texte', in: B. Janowski, G. Wilhelm (eds.), Texte aus der Umwelt des Alten Testaments, Neue Folge Band 4. Omina, Orakel, Rituale und Beschwörungen, Gütersloh: Gütersloher Verlag, 331–385.


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