• Theory of Magic

    Anthropology of Magic II: Frazer and the Golden Bough

    In our previous blog post of this series, we had a look at the influence of evolutionary theory on anthropology. In this blogpost, we will continue with this topic, but this time from the perspective of James George Frazer (1854-1941), author of the famous The Golden Bough (1890-1915), a gigantic twelve volume corpus of “primitive” beliefs and traditions. Although Frazer was a disciple of Tylor, he had a very different approach to the material he studied. While Tylor derived his theories, at least partially, from his own fieldwork, Frazer did not feel it was necessary to actually conduct fieldwork – a story is told of how Frazer, as a child,…

  • Religion in the Coptic Magical Papyri

    Religion in the Coptic Magical Papyri IX: Judaism and Coptic Magic

    The Jewish people – the ethno-religious group who trace their origins to the kingdoms of Israel and Judah – have a long relationship with their larger neighbour, Egypt, even leaving aside the complicated questions of the historicity of the Exodus story and the pre-exilic kingdoms. In the fifth and sixth centuries BCE there was a significant Judaean community in the city of Elephantine in the far south of Egypt, many of whose members served as soldiers in the army of the Persian kings who then ruled Egypt. This city was even home to a second Jewish temple – one of two attested in Egypt before the destruction of the main…

  • Theory of Magic

    Anthropology of Magic I: Darwin, Tylor, and the Origins of Religion and Magic

    At the beginning of his book Magic’s Reason (2017), the American anthropologist of magic Graham Jones, describes his encounter with the illusionist Jack Alban. When Alban found out he would be interviewed by an anthropologist, he asked a friend who “knew something about anthropology” to give him advice regarding the topic. When they finally met in a Parisian café, Alban handed Jones a piece of paper with a short bibliography related to the anthropology of magic, written by his friend – Golden Bough by Frazer (1900), Mauss and Hubert’s Outline of a General Theory of Magic (1902-1903) and Durkheim’s Elementary forms of Religious Life (1912). Indeed, Alban’s friend really “knew…

  • Case Study

    Giant Fish and Judicial Prayers: Jonah in Coptic Magic

    The story of Jonah, in its general outlines, is probably one of the best known in the Bible. Jonah was an Israelite prophet commanded by God to go to the people of Nineveh in Assyria to warn them that their wickedness had doomed them to divine punishment. For reasons explained at the end of the story, Jonah decided to disobey, and fled to the city of Joppa (modern Tel Aviv-Yafo). Here he boarded a ship bound for Tarshish, identified by modern scholars as southern Spain. As Herman Melville has a preacher tell it in Moby Dick (1851): With this sin of disobedience in him, Jonah… flouts at God, by seeking…

  • Religion in the Coptic Magical Papyri

    Religion in the Coptic Magical Papyri VIII: The Bible and Magic

    In our first post on Christianity in magic, we discussed AMS 9, a large book filled with amuletic texts. Among these were the first verses (incipits) of five texts from the Bible – the gospels of Matthew, Mark, Luke, and John, and Psalm 90 (Western Psalm 91). As we noted then, these were intended to be copied onto smaller objects and worn as a way to protect the body from sickness, demonic attacks, and misfortune. This week, we’ll discuss the use of the Bible in “magical” practice in a little more detail. This discussion will draw extensively upon a recently published study of such practices, Scriptural Incipits on Amulets from…

  • Religion in the Coptic Magical Papyri

    Religion in the Coptic Magical Papyri VII: Monks and Magic

    Two weeks ago we discussed a book of amulets which showed how “magical” practices could be entirely Christian, and we noted that the book’s format suggested it might even have been produced by monks. The idea that monks played a prominent role in the practice of magic in late antique Egypt has been promoted recently by David Frankfurter, whose book Christianizing Egypt argues that most of the surviving magical texts that we have were copied by monks. We do indeed have several texts which seem to come from monasteries or monastic cells, although many more have no clear provenance, and, as we saw in the case of the ancient town…

  • Theory of Magic

    Why Magic? Some Reflections on Terminology in the Study of Ancient Ritual

    In our first blog post, we tried to briefly describe what we meant by “Coptic magical papyri”, a simple phrase which contains hidden complexities. We recently received a message from one of our readers, who, while supportive, questioned the usefulness of the word “magic” in the study of the ancient Mediterranean. Since we share many of her concerns, we decided that it might be useful to discuss the term “magic” in more detail, and explain why we have decided to use it, despite our misgivings. This post will not discuss in detail the terms for “magic” in late antique Egypt, or modern theories of magic; we’re saving those topics for…

  • Religion in the Coptic Magical Papyri

    Religion in the Magical Papyri VI: Christianity and Magic

    In our previous posts we have discussed “pagan” and “gnostic” influences in Coptic language magic, so readers would be forgiven for thinking that all such texts are full of Greek, Egyptian and Sethian deities. The bulk of our manuscripts, however, date to between the fifth and eleventh centuries CE, a period for most of which the majority of Egyptians were, at least nominally, adherents to some form of orthodox Christianity. Christianity was the dominant worldview, and the magical texts therefore reflect this, and seem to adhere to some kind of Christianity, even if they are not always strictly orthodox. But what does this “Christian magic” look like? AMS 9 is…

  • Religion in the Coptic Magical Papyri

    Religion in Coptic Magic V: Magic and Gnostic Ritual

    Last week we introduced Sethian Gnosticism, used to refer to a particular body of Gnostic texts, so-called by scholars because of their shared features, in particularly the importance of Seth as a revealer and saviour. This body of texts is also called “Classic Gnostic”, since it contains many of the features typically associated with “Gnostic” systems.* In our last post we also looked at how some of the figures which occur in the Sethian system – such as the luminary Davithe – also show up in magical texts. In most cases, we suggested, this is a result of shared cultural background rather than the dependence of Sethian or magical texts…

  • Religion in the Coptic Magical Papyri

    Religion in the Coptic Magical Papyri IV: Sethian Gnosticism and Magical Texts

    Gnosticism is one of the major areas of research within Coptic Studies, and yet, like magic, it is a controversial concept, deconstructed by its specialists to the extent that most scholars use the term “gnosticism” in scare quotes, or avoid it altogether. Yet studies of Gnosticism continue to appear, perhaps demonstrating that, despite its problems, the term still has some usefulness. In this post we will use “gnostic” and related terms as shorthands, but it is worth remembering that these are problematic labels, which may not have been those used by those we would call “gnostics”. Readers of this blog may already know that “gnostic” comes from the Greek word…