Reading Challenge #8: Arcana Mundi: Magic and the Occult in the Greek and Roman Worlds

When I first started this collection of ancient sources on various occult and supernatural practices in Greco-Roman antiquity, I had high hopes.  After a classics education focusing more on literary-mythological texts than lived religious experience, I was hoping to get a taste of how ordinary people practiced Greco-Roman polytheism.  Luck’s book collects various literary sources describing religious practices, classifying them by chapters on magic, miracles, daemonology, divination, astrology, and alchemy.  Chronologically, he has everything from Hesiod to early Christian authors.  In terms of genre, he has epic, tragedy, satire, epistles, and philosophers.

779822What did I get out of this collection?

  1. Religion and science were not really separate institutions in antiquity.  It’s not hard to see why: in part they come from the same root, a desire to understand and control the workings of the universe.  Even today, astrology is a complex body of knowledge, with many rules governing how to formulate and interpret readings.  The best example of this in Luck’s collection are the various readings on Apollonius of Tyana, a first-century philosopher and miracle worker who was accused of dangerous practices.  In his defense speech, Apollonius claims that he is merely the practitioner of a more complex and subtle science than his accusers can understand.  This encapsulates how intertwined magic and science were among the Greeks and Romans (and, I would argue, in our culture too).  And given the Stoic and Neo-Platonic interest in astrology, philosophy too was intertwined with magic and religion!
  2. Genre is key in interpreting texts on religion.  Each source has a bias that leaves certain data out.  When Homer describes a religious practice, there is a certain wide-eyed acceptance of it.  Lucian describing the same practice is just blatantly making fun of it.  One philosopher might be arguing for the truthfulness of divination (e.g. Iamblichus) while another might be critiquing it (e.g. Cicero).  Most Greeks were somewhere in between; like us, they were skeptics, and did not trust every rumored divination or supposed miracle.  Just as there is no “correct” or “best” source on Greco-Roman mythology, there is no “correct” or “best” source on ancient religious practices.
  3. Early Christians had many similar varieties of religious experience.  When discussing divination, Luck includes 1 Corinthians 14:1-33, in which Paul discusses speaking in tongues.  Luck comments:

    The Jews had inherited the tradition of the Old Testament prophets, who spoke in a highly poetic but quite understandable idiom.  The Greeks were accustomed to highly ecstatic outpourings that had to be translated into intelligible Greek by trained interpreters.  Paul seems to try to reconcile both traditions. (284)

    I don’t know enough about this section of Paul or about glossolalia in the early church to comment on Luck’s argument.  But it is damned thought-provoking.  Luck helps the reader see that the religious experiences reported in early Christianity sometimes had Greco-Roman precedents.

Overall, however, this book has one major flaw.  I was hoping to find some of the more lived, everyday practice of Greco-Roman religion: curse tablets, magical papyri, amulets, etc.  Luck barely includes any of these sources; one review points out that he only includes 23 nonliterary sources in his 122 anthologized writings.

In sum, I wouldn’t say that Luck’s book is bad.  For what it is, it is very good.  But it should be supplemented by something like The Greek Magical Papyri as well, which is recommended by Michael F. Bird in his list of sources New Testament graduate students should master.

Onward and upward!

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  1. Pingback: Reading Challenge #9: Jews and Christians: Graeco-Roman Views. | Linguae Antiquitatum

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