Coptic Magical Papyri on the (Virtual) Road: Between Magic and Liturgy: A Workshop on Christian Ritual Texts (26th–28th November 2020)

At the end of November, the Coptic Magical Papyri project’s team participated at a Zoom workshop organised by Ágnes T. Mihálykó and the Vienna Euchologia Project, which is currently preparing a database of Byzantine euchologia prayer books. The workshop brought together scholars studying Christian liturgical texts and magical texts and objects, and the so-called paraliturgical texts, which are private prayers, such as the euchologia prayer books. There is an overlap between these categories, which has rarely been studied; some “occasional prayers” in the euchologia prayer books can help with health concerns, such as migraines and childbirth, just like magical healing texts (as well as medical ones, of course). Furthermore, magical texts often use liturgical elements in a non-liturgical context, such as the epiclesis, or call for the Holy Spirit to descend upon the bread and wine during communion. The aim of the workshop was to re-examine these categories, as they are often studied separately, and re-think their taxonomy. Besides this three day workshop, the organisers are also preparing a volume for publication, bringing together some of the ideas discussed during the workshop.

Coptic Prayer for the churching of the newborn. Vienna, Nationalbibliothek K 00070 Pap, property of the National Library in Vienna.

The workshop was efficiency organised – the presentations were very short, in most cases followed by the reflection of a respondent, and concluded with a discussion. On the first day, Claudia Rapp, leader of the Vienna Euchologia project, presented the taxonomies the project is using and some of the challenges it is facing, and Diliana Atanassova discussed the hymns in the Typika of the White Monastery (a Typicon is a service appointed by a book of directives which may be performed without the presence of a priest in the Orthodox church). The second half of the first afternoon then raised more theoretical questions which prompted a lively discussion; Coptic Magical Papyri team member Korshi Dosoo presented a new working definition of the “problematic” category of magic, which takes into consideration the emic category of magic from a new perspective, and Ágnes Mihálykó presented prayers formulated in the liturgical traditions, as she is an expert on Christian liturgical papyri.

The second day began with team member Markéta Preininger’s suggestion of a possible framework of ritual analysis of ritual texts using ideas derived from the cognitive linguistic theory, followed by Jacques van der Vliet’s observations on liturgical aspects of magical texts. Anastasia Maravela explored the function of historiolae in Christian prayers and magical texts, and Ilias Nesseris talked about the context and function of “occasional” prayers.

The last day was dedicated to topics such as exorcism in late antiquity, discussed by Martin Lüstraeten, while Eirini Afentoulidou explored the way women’s sufferings are treated in the euchologia prayers – which proved to have some important parallels with magical texts. At the end of the workshop, team member Edward O.D. Love discussed similarities and differences between the categories of Coptic curses, prayers for justice, and letters to gods, and Nils H. Korsvoll ended the conference by presenting different taxonomies of cruciform symbols in Syriac magic bowls.

Greek Euchologion, ca. 18th century. Image copyright © The British Library Board.

Among others who have participated either as respondents or as discussants were Joseph E. Sanzo, Daniel Galadza, Harald Buchinger, Elisabeth Schiffer, Mélanie Houle, David Frankfurter, Giulia Rossetto, and Henry Maguire.

The workshop and the discussion proved to be very fruitful, and we’re excited to continue the collaboration with the publication of the proceedings next year. We’ve also learned that Zoom workshops and conferences can be just as rich (and just as demanding!) as in-person conferences!

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