Expanded: Problems of Theocritus Regarding the Perception of the Child Killing Demon

The concept of daemons and daemonology within Greco-Roman antiquity is extremely complex. Not only are the sources on daemons limited, but the descriptions of these figures is brief and short-lived. Portrayals of daemons are inconsistent across time and cultures and may even vary between individuals. With all the difficulties associated with this topic, I conclude that it is much too challenging to write a broad overarching research paper about daemons and have decided it is much more useful to discuss a single kind of daemon or demon. Doing so, my paper may remain less frustrating and allow it to possibly fall into the domains of how demons and daemons were actually perceived in antiquity.

After countless hours of research on daemons, I have chosen to write about the origins and perceptions of the child-killing demons in Greco-Roman antiquity. My scope of focus remains in the Mediterranean world, including Ancient Rome and Greece, but may also extend to places in the Near East depending on where the origin of the demon takes me. Additionally, now that my essay has a specific subject, I may be able to track the child-killing demon across time. In addition to tracing the origins of the child-killing demons, I aim to find different types of these demons and how they may relate to one another. Lastly, my final objective is to find an explanation as to what the purpose of having the concept of this demon within society. What may be the benefits of possessing knowledge of such a demon and why it exists in the first place?

Continue reading

The Sword of Moses

The topic of my research paper addresses the question to what extent the figure of Moses conforms to an ancient conception of a magician. Stated more generally, I began my research project interested in exploring how Moses, taken in a broader context than a figure within the Jewish religious and historical tradition, would have been understood or identified as being a magician. There were clear elements within the Biblical and Jewish traditions of Moses that struck me, from the outset, as being very clearly magical, but I wanted to research if there were other viable ways of interpreting Moses outside of the scope of a prophet who performed miracles.

There are a number of converging factors that make this question a difficult one to answer, including the lack of a clearly articulated conception of what exactly a magician was, what the distinction between magical and religious actions were and how one ought to interpret Moses’ attested actions as related in Biblical/Talmudic accounts compared to seemingly magical texts that have been ascribed to him. I’m approaching this topic trying to steer clear of the unclear distinction between magical and religious activities, aiming to understand what features of the figure of Moses would have been identifiable as being those shared with a magician.

One difficulty that I’ve come across in my research thus far is the existence of a number of dubious manuscripts and apocryphal texts that have been claimed to originate from antiquity, but may very well be much later additions. The issue that I have been having in my research does not arise from the fact that these books exist in and of itself, as I feel that it would be a reasonable move to exclude them from my research given their more than questionable quality and veracity, but rather from the fact that they offer such a compelling lens through which the figure of Moses can be viewed and a stronger connection with his performance of magical acts can be attested. For example, within these works the figure of Moses is claimed to have been the source for what amounts to a very specific spellbook, as well as to have ordered and articulated a hierarchy of angels based on their respective powers and usefulness in the casting of magical spells.

Given that the origin of these texts is hotly contested and may very well be far beyond antiquity, their applicability as sources for a study of classical magic is not a clear-cut issue. By choosing to engage with these texts and include them as sources, I may in fact be undermining my own project by creating not an analysis of the relationship between the figure Moses and the ancient conception of a magician, but of an entirely unknown conception.

According to the Jewish religious tradition, Moses is the source for five books that are collectively known as the Torah. Outside of this canon I have researched an additional five books of Moses. While not all of these are equally magical in their contents, the individuals who have uncovered these “lost” books make the claim that they represent components of a more complete and full tradition of literature on the figure of Moses.

Continue reading

Expanded: The Annals of Tacitus & the Depiction of the Witch

In building the image of the Roman witch, the extant sources provide an abundance of literary motifs and evidence. Authors such as Lucan, Seneca and Horace have all contributed to the crafting of the classical witch. Yet, while these narratives are great sources for my research, they are literary in nature, and thus problematic in some areas – as many motifs associated to the witch may be used solely for dramatic purposes. The Annals of Tacitus offer an opposing, and unique, perspective into the depiction of the Roman witch. Written as a historical narrative, his coverage from the reign of Tiberius to the reign of Nero gives modern scholars insight into a politically tumultuous period during the Roman Empire. Tacitus’ recount of the use of magic as a means for political attack is absolutely fascinating. However, it is his reconstruction of women and magic that provides a potential construction of a real-life ‘witch’. Through an analysis of the accusations of artes magicae laid against these women, Tacitus also indirectly speaks to a socio-cultural theme of associating women with dark magic. However, in as much as his narrative provides, it also presents a few areas of difficulty; namely, he serves as a reminder that obtaining a unified image of the Roman witch from both the fictional and non-fictional evidence is nearly impossibly and furthermore, his inherent bias towards women and the hackneyed use of magical accusations in our ancient sources do not lend favour to the credibility of his work.

To begin, my area of research focuses on the association of women and dark magic – and what social and cultural phenomena are taking place that are giving rise to this association. My focus is both in the earlier Roman Imperial period (1st century BCE – 1st century CE) and the early European period. By comparing and contrasting these two periods, I hope to be able to shed light on some common social themes – or differences – that took place in both periods that gave rise to women as witches. One of my objectives is to build a culturally specific image of witch in both the early Roman imperial and the early European period by combining the literary evidence with legal and historical documentation. In this objective, Tacitus proves to be an invaluable source for my research

In Tacitus’ Annals, there are many accounts relating charges of magic with women. Two such women I wish to focus on are Munatia Plancina and Aemilia Lepida. In the former, Plancina is accused – alongside her husband Gnaeus Piso – of the poisoning of Germanicus. Tacitus recounts the poisoning and subsequent death of Germanicus in Book 2.69-88 and lists many of the items linked to witchcraft; leaden tablets with Germanicus’ name, remains of human bodies, blood-smeared ashes, spells and curses were all discovered under the floorboards of Germanicus’ house (2.69). In Book 3, he recounts the charges of magic laid against Piso and Plancina. Among such charges are the accusation of assisting in “black arts”, and performing “blasphemous rites and sacrifices” after the death of Germanicus (3.13). Early in his narrative, Tacitus mentions Plancina’s ‘beloved’ friendship with Martina – a famous provincial poisoner (2.74). Later on, he explains that the only witness to prove Plancina’s involvement in Germanicus’ death – Martina – is herself killed when poison is wrapped up in her hair, giving the implicit suggestion that it was Plancina who committed this (3.7).

In the case of Lepida, amongst other charges, Tacitus tells us that she is accused of venena against her ex-hubsand, Quirinius, of feigning to be a mother, of poisonings, of adultery and of seeking out the advice of Chaldean astrologers (3.22).

Continue reading

Long Blog Post: Tacitus’ Annals and the death of Germanicus – Magic in Literary Sources

The death of Germanicus in 19AD, as described by Tacitus in his Annales, highlights the problematic dynamic within Rome’s elite body that had become prevalent with the establishment of the Principate and the rise of an imperial dynasty. With the powers of the emperor lacking a clearly delineated framework, members of the senatorial class and others in the upper echelons of the roman political machine (including the emperor’s own relatives) had to adapt to the new status-quo (Talbert, 1996, p.331-333). Political maneuvering, the forming of alliances and the realization of higher offices were now all inextricably linked to the autocratic one-man rule of the emperor, a person who must neither be challenged nor outdone (Talbert, 1996, p.335-337). Tacitus, whose moral history harks back to Republican values amidst the predominance of Imperial rule, portrays Germanicus as an individual who fails to recognize the danger of his own success in the face of Tiberius’ suspicious nature (Tac. Ann. 2.72; Cass. Dio. Rom. Hist.57.19 ). Indeed, as Germanicus falls victim to the political machinations of his enemies, who did not hesitate to use magic and poison, and subject him to “the worst of deaths” (Tac. Ann. 2.71), Tacitus emphasizes the ruthlessness that had emerged under the new political system.


It is this use of magic in the political realm of the Roman Empire that I hope to explore more fully in my paper. However, the question of what could be considered magic (especially when distinguishing it from religion), or what defines political is a task undertaken by many, most of whom have presented different results, given that both ancient and modern scholars see “magic [as] largely a rhetorical category rather than an analytical one” (Kevin Henry Crow, 339). In the case of Tacitus’ account, both categories are clearly determined. On the one hand the actors are primarily concerned with the preservation of their offices and the powers associated with them. Tiberius is visibly concerned with threats to his position as emperor while Piso can either be seen to act under Tiberius’ instructions, out of his own aspirations for power. Cassius Dio, who provides a similar version of Germanicus’ death in his Roman History, also places particular emphasis on the political threat of Germanicus’ rise to the authority of his adoptive father (Cass. Dio. Rom. Hist.57.19). In the case of magic, Tacitus (and Dio for that matter) goes about clearly outlining the means which caused Germanicus’ death:

Continue reading

Long Post: The Problem(s) of Nestor’s Cup Expanded

In my paper, I hope to examine the interface between magic and writing in early Greek curses (c. 8th-6th centuries BCE). It has been suggested that the mass amount of curse tablets that have been found throughout the Greek and Roman worlds stem from a far earlier oral tradition of magic (Eidinow 141; Faraone “Nestor’s Cup” 82-83). Literary evidence, such as Aeschylus’ Eumenides along with the Greek Magical Papyri both point to the oral tradition (Eidinow 141). In this way, my goal for this project is to examine what we know about this early period of written magic in order to explore the reasons behind why there might have been a shift from an oral tradition to a written one.

Our earliest forms of written magic come in a few extant examples of what are called ‘conditional curses’ (Eidinow 141). ‘Conditional curses’ “are intended to discourage those who are planning to do a crime” (Eidinow 140) often by stating that something (bad) will happen if the person reading does something that the curser does not want them to do (e.g. “if you do X, then X”).

Possibly the earliest example of these conditional curses, as well as of Greek writing in general, is the so-called ‘Nestor’s Cup’ (Faraone “Nestor’s Cup” 77). In 1954 during excavations of the late eighth century BCE Euboean colony of Pithekoussai, fragments of an unassuming proto-Corinthian cup with a three-line inscription were found in the grave of a cremated youth (Faraone “Nestor’s Cup”  77).

Continue reading

Challenges with Homeric sources – Jacob

For my paper I’m trying to find a way to use later literary sources, in particular versions of the Medea myth up to and including Euripides’ play, in order to find or create a useful framework for looking at magic in Homeric sources. Unsurprisingly, those earlier sources are by far the more problematic to deal with. Medea is unambiguous in treating the magic employed by said witch as harmful, evil and unnatural. In contrast, both the Iliad and the Odyssey contain actions that could be interpreted as magic, but it’s much less clear whether the characters in the works consider them as such.

Before even considering the specifics of the events in these works, I think it’s important to note that they are the result of an oral tradition, and could be representative of an earlier form of Greek culture, adapted to an audience contemporary to its recording in literary form, or the compilation of a series of poems gathered from other cultures; in all likelihood there are elements of all of these, making any analysis a matter of educated guesses and deductive reasoning rather than based on unassailable facts or truths.

Continue reading

A Problematic and Interesting Source: Apuleius’ The Golden Ass

My paper aims to explore the role of Graeco-Roman female demons and the various cultural fears and attitudes that they reflect. In particular, I am looking at vampires, lamiae, female demons or ghosts, succubae, empousai, mormolyceae and striges. To keep the scope of this paper reasonably focused, I am trying to keep witches out of the discussion, as their inclusion would make the topic too broad to handle within the limits of this paper. This attempt to keep witches separate is proving to be somewhat problematic.


The source I am currently looking at is Apuleius’ The Golden Ass (sometimes known as Metamorphoses). It is a prose novel written in Latin at around the mid-second century ce. The novel concerns the adventures of the narrator, Lucius, whose deep interest in magic leads him into trouble. In the first book, Lucius is travelling to Thessaly where he encounters fellow travellers, one of whom, Aristomenes, tells him a story about his friend, Socrates. Aristomenes relates how Socrates looked terrible, and it emerges that he has abandoned his family after falling for a witch to whom he gave all his possessions and who appears to be draining him of life. Later that evening when Socrates and Aristomenes are asleep at an inn, the witch and her witch-sister burst in, drain Socrates’ blood, and remove his heart, replacing it with a sponge which allows Socrates to remain animate.

Continue reading

Table Talk on the Evil Eye

The topic of my research paper is on the phenomenon of the Evil Eye. The most useful source that I have come across in my research is from Plutarch’s Moralia, written in the late first century CE. More specifically, the passage that I am using comes from book eight, Table Talk. Table Talk is an account portraying several dinner conversations among a group of wise men. The seventh question that is presented to the group is devoted to the topic “concerning those who are said to cast an Evil Eye”. This passage is the fullest discussion from antiquity on the Evil Eye that I have found so far. It covers a broad range of the Evil Eye’s features, how it works and measures that are taken to avert it.

Plutarch’s discussion brings up several key aspects that are associated with the Evil Eye. This includes that children are the most vulnerable to its power, casters can be either intentional or unintentional; that envy is the source of its power, and amulets can be used to avert its gaze. These are fairly standard features that I have come across in other sources I have found. Aspects that were new to my research is that people could cast Evil Eye on themselves, fathers were at a huge risk of casting it upon their babies, and that someone in an envious state can cast the Evil Eye upon anyone. These are just some of the Evil Eye features that come from Plutarch.

Continue reading