• Coptic Amulets

    Coptic Amulets II: Sending an angel to give grace

    This week’s post takes a deep dive into one example of a favour spell from Kyprianos, our database of Coptic magical texts: P. Heidelberg inv. Kopt. 681 is a sheet of parchment, cut into a long rectangle measuring 29.5cm by 10.9cm. Unlike the healing amulet we looked at in the last post in this series, this sheet was not folded nor worn as an amulet. This is because this sheet is a formulary – a manuscript containing one or more spell(s) with formulas to be filled in, rather than an activated text – a manuscript containing the name of the person who would benefit from, or be cursed by, the…

  • Theory of Magic

    Anthropology of Magic IV: Lévi-Strauss on Magic

    In this week’s post, we are going to explore the famous article by Claude Lévi-Strauss (1908-2009) “The Sorcerer and His Magic” which appeared in 1963, and is still a classic study for anyone interested in healing rituals. The question we are trying to find an answer to in our research on Coptic magic is whether and how we can reconstruct ritual practices when many pieces of the puzzle are missing. How could Lévi-Strauss’s analysis of indigenous North American thought be useful for us? Lévi-Strauss was an influential French anthropologist and one of the founders of structural anthropology. Among his most important works are Mythologiques I-IV, an important study of mythologies…

  • 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,…

  • 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…

  • 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 Coptic Magical Papyri II: Greek Gods in Coptic Magic

    In the fifth century – the period when Christianity was settling in as the dominant religion of Egypt – Shenoute of Atripe (ca. 347-465 CE), head of a monastic federation in Upper Egypt, gave a sermon in which he attacked heretics, pagans and the orthodox Christians who fraternised with them. The sermon is known as The Lord Thundered, and it lives up to its name. Shenoute speaks of the wrath of God which will descend upon the pagans, and asks rhetorically how their false gods will save them: Where is Zeus, or his son Ares: the one who took the form of a wild boar to show his impurity? And…

  • Religion in the Coptic Magical Papyri

    Religion in the Coptic Magical Papyri I: “Paganism” and Christianity

    Religion and magic have a complicated relationship; Jewish and later Christian law often banned practices that were understood as magic, but as we saw in the previous post, Coptic magical texts are full of “religious” elements – mentions of the Christian Trinity, the saints and angels. The period that we are studying in this project – roughly the fourth to twelfth centuries CE – was one that saw huge religious changes in Egypt, and magical texts offer us a fascinating perspective on these changes. This post will briefly sketch how Egypt turned from a “pagan” society into Christian society over the course of the first through fifth centuries CE. In…