Exploring Magic in the Ancient World

Tags: ancient magic, greeks, romans, egyptians, papyrus

On Friday 24th April, we were excited to host Professor Ian Rutherford who visited us from the University of Reading to talk to students about the practice of magic in the Ancient World!

Students and staff were able to find out about the roots of the word 'magic' (from the Greek 'magos' meaning a 'magician', which in turn came from Persian). It was explained that magic was often depicted by communities as something that came from other, exotic places, and it was always a secretive practice. As a result, very few spells have been written down for us to discover. He talked about the evidence for spells which we do have, including magical papyri, tablets and love philtres, and explained some of the things which magic would ask for. Requests for an assistant were common, with one spell existing to make one's shadow a personal assistant. The group felt this seemed a good idea! Spells were also used for health, love and to bind someone's anger. There were not any spells that have come down to us which asked to make people richer, which is surprising and curious. 

Professor Rutherford explained how many of the spells in Harry Potter were actually very like how magic would have been practised, with the exception that they would usually have been written in Eyptian. The problem of efficacy was discussed - i.e. why did the ancient Greeks and Romans not notice or mind that the spells did not actually work - and other magical aspects were explored, such as amulets, spells to ward off fever and to bind things. 

It was a really fascinating exploration into a widely appealing topic and we are very grateful for Professor Rutherford for taking the time to talk to students and staff. He will be returning to do a community talk on June 19th. The classics enrichment group will be running a controlled study on the efficacy of a Roman spell on plants over the next few months!