Magic in Ancient Greece and Rome


This paper presents an examination of magic in antiquity, specifically in the Greco-Roman era. The article focuses on this specific era because it represents strong magical elements. Unlike the Egyptian civilization, sufficient evidence about the practice in the Greco-Roman period has survived to date. The paper begins by cataloging definitions and descriptions of magical terms and practices. Notably, magic in ancient times had both positive and negative connotations, depending on those who interacted with it. The paper also considers the existing evidence on artifacts associated with magical practices, including amulets, curse tablets, curse figurines, symbols, magician handbooks, and hymns, among others.

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The paper examines the two distinct types of magic practices in ancient times; theurgical and goetic, and they have also been categorized as either high or low magic. In regards to magic’s connection to science and philosophy, this essay finds that philosophers were interested in magical practices from the very beginning. Some ancient philosophers also made the practice part of their doctrines, while scientists struggled to describe the art of magic in its entirety. Some of the most notable magical personalities in ancient Greece are also presented in the essay. The practice of magic within specific confines, such as Christianity and Judaism, is also discussed in this essay. The conscription of magical practices in both negative and positive lights is subject to discussion, whereby the root causes of this duality are not immediately apparent. In late antiquity, the magic found a new lease of life through occult sciences, whereby it also garnered significant connections with intellectual nuances. The paper concludes by noting that in ancient times, magical practices were mostly subject to misunderstandings


Magic in ancient Greece and Rome has been studied keenly in the last four decades. Most of the modern interest in magic comes from the 1987 publication of the Greek ‘magic manual’ “Papyri.” Nevertheless, magic was an essential aspect of Greco-Roman religions and cultures. There is no wholesome definition for magic because this concept cannot be accommodated within the known sciences. The meaning of the term ‘magic’ can change depending on the underlying context. In the end, it becomes challenging to make a clear distinction between magic and religion in the ancient world. Ancient Egypt is often considered as the overall authority in magic culture. Historical studies reveal that magic has evolved in various aspects over time.

Consequently, the overview and consideration of magic in ancient cultures have changed from being dominated by commonplace rituals to scientific and philosophical status. It is often argued that magical practices predate Greek culture and its subsequent glory, but they were never regarded in high esteem. Historically, magic and its accompanying beliefs gained prominence in Greece after the era of Alexander the Great. Literary material in the subject of magic and magical powers indicate was primarily found in Egypt, but the Greek and Roman scholarship later revived ancient interest in the matter. Within the Greco-Roman cultures, magic was later to form an independent tradition.

Moreover, the Greco-Roman culture accommodated several magic antiquities strands, including Christian, Jewish, Greek, Roman, and Greco-Egyptian magic. These subgenres of magic often interact with each other to produce other forms of magic. This essay examines magic in antiquity, especially in reference to ancient Greek and Roman cultures.

Definitions and Descriptions of Magic

From the beginning, it was considerably difficult to achieve consensus on what constituted magic in ancient times. However, most of the available scholarly authorities indicate that magic was cast negatively in ancient society. From the Romans, Pliny argued that magic was a fraud and associated the practice itself to questionable characters (Murphy 45). Also, Pliny found it challenging to pinpoint the origins of magic to a specific discipline. Ancient Greek culture and its scholars also found it hard to trust magic because it was subject to vulgar practices and preposterous propositions. On the other hand, practitioners of this ancient art viewed it positively and categorized it according to the powers it yielded. These classifications are responsible for bestowing magic with a philosophical outlook.

Ancient Greek culture has several terms that are attributed to magic, including pharmakeia, goeteia, and mageia. These terms can be used to track Greek magic affiliations to Persians and Medians. The term Magush can be used to describe a tribe of magicians that were Persians. A more sophisticated outlook of these tribes later considered them to be high priests, astrologers, and diviners, among other descriptions. The intersection of the two cultures includes Plato and Aristotle’s considerations of magicians. While Plato views magicians positively, the other philosopher views magic in a negative light (Graf 291). Aristotle’s negative connotation of the term magic appears to have survived to date despite the attempts of several magicians to cast their art in a positive light.

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Magic Antiques

Magic antiques in ancient Greek and Roman cultures are to be found in the form of various items such as artifacts, texts, and symbols. Some of these items are currently held in museums around the world and the hands of private collectors. An example of a magic antique is the amulet. An amulet is a talisman item that contained potent magic powers. In ancient times, an amulet was often worn around arm or neck, and it was used to avert evil forces or increase magical powers for a deity or an individual. An amulet’s shape was mostly random, but it mainly was a body part, divine representation, or a figurine. These items were primarily used in ancient Egypt, although they were common in other areas and subcultures.

Curse tablets were other common antiques in ancient times, and their primary purpose was to cast spells. Curse tablets are to be found in Homer’s Iliad and other corners of ancient Greece. A curse tablet was usually inscribed with a formula involving the person’s name to be cursed and that of the one cursing him. The artifact was then dumped in a place where it was likely to interact with the dead’s spirits. A curse tablet had various applications such as eroticism, power struggles, and sports competitions. In the beginning, curse tablets were applied simplistically, but they became more complicated with time.

Another artifact associated with the curse tablet was the curse figurine, and it was often modeled in the shape of the person to be cursed. Curse figurines resemble the more modern voodoo dolls because to curse a person. One often-used poked the figurine with sharp objects while repeating ‘magic words.’ In ancient times, curse figurines garnered popularity within erotic magic. Incantations were also part of magic antiques, and they often consisted of prayers, chants, and magical formulas. Examples of incantations can be found in ancient literature, including the papyri. Reports indicate that these oral devices were used “in medicine (healings, exorcisms), weather magic, cultic invocations of gods and demons, and erotic magic” (Karivieri 402). Some schools of philosophy and philosophers in the Hellenistic era recognized incarnations.

Another form of surviving antiques is magician handbooks, such as the great magical papyri. Magician handbooks often “consist of descriptions of spells that can be used by magicians or be learned by lay practitioners” (Karivieri 402). Rituals are also described extensively in magical handbooks, including those for the initiation, deification, and séances with gods, and acquiring assistants. Some handbooks offer instructions for solving everyday problems such as healing illnesses, getting rid of bedbugs, catching thieves, winning races, and becoming successful in business. One of the most outstanding magic handbooks is the “Mithraic Liturgy” (Betz 39). This book baffles historians because of its undeniable connections to both the “Eighth Book of Moses” and the Mithraic Cult.

Other magic antiques include hymns, which resemble incantations. Nevertheless, hymns often accommodated dramatic magical practices, when they were sung to deities. Magical symbols also make up a significant amount of the surviving magic antiques. It is important to note that the explanations of most of these symbols are still unknown or misleading at times. In some cases, it is often difficult to attribute a symbol to a specific type of magic, such as Jewish, Christian, and other ancient cultures. Tools also make up the list of magical antiques, such as the artifacts that were later discovered in Pergamum.

Types of Magic Practices

In antiquity, “there were two types of magical practices; theurgical and goetic. Theurgical practices often involved priests and ceremonies” (Otto, 134). These ceremonies continued under the umbrella of a divine being and often for religious purposes. In these types of practices, trances and out-of-body experiences were common. On other occasions, it was common for the person performing the ceremony to transcend in a dream or when awake. The other form of magic practice is the goetia, and it involves individuals, who were often known as lower-class practitioners. These individuals were able to do amazing things through their connection to the divine. Theurgical practices had a philosophical relationship through the Theurgists, who were known to be practical philosophers or ‘actuators of the divine’ (Betz 16).

Connections to Science and Philosophy

Philosophers are curious by nature, and they like investigating anything about the universe. Consequently, ancient philosophers took their time exploring the nature of magic, starting with Socrates and others. Some philosophers who have been preoccupied with magic include Heraclitus, Empedocles, Pythagoras, and Democritus. For example, some of the spells listed in the Greek Magical Papyri are named after these philosophers. Nevertheless, Pythagoras is the first philosopher in ancient Greco-Roman times to have a verifiable connection to magic. Philosophy in Ancient Greek often stood in contrast to magic, and the leading philosophers repeatedly rejected the phenomenon at the time. However, philosophy gradually softened its stance when exploring magic under recognizable disciplines such as astrology, demonology, and mantic. Later on, some philosophers such as Proclus and Iamblichus found uses for magic, thereby integrating it into their doctrines.

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Various ancient scientific encyclopedias list some magical practices and beliefs. Pliny’s “Natural Science” lists magic in the section “Magicae Vanitates” (Otto 30). In this section, Pliny also lists some of the possible cures to magic spells. Historians have also discovered that Apuleius, “Apologia,” is a book about magic, although it is structured like an apology. The author is also considered to be a reliable authority on ancient magical beliefs.

Magic and the Law

In ancient times, magic and its associated practices were not proscribed by the law. Consequently, magicians could go on about their business unperturbed. Nevertheless, magic was used as a tool during notable trials. In ancient times, ancient magicians often suffered the same fate as philosophers and other dissidents. However, the charges for most of these personalities did not include their practices, but a contradiction to well-accepted deities. Socrates’ trial is an excellent example of how individuals were sentenced to poisoning because he failed to honor the gods (Dickie 49).

Nevertheless, a person could be tried for harming a fellow human being using magic. This legal provision can be found in the laws that Plato drafted. The Roman Empire also recognized the illegality of damages brought about by magical interferences with the weather and agriculture.

The Actualization of Magic in Ancient Times: Classical Greece

Although the conceptualization of magic in ancient Greece can be attributed to Homer, there are other various examples of magical practices in this region. Pythagoras is the most prominent non-mythical figure who is associated with magic in ancient Greece. Pythagoras was a famous philosopher and mathematician, who is also noted to have had magical powers, as witnessed by various sources, including Aristotle (Luck 20). Not all the available information about Pythagoras’ connection to magical powers is reliable because it contradicts other occasions. In his lifetime, Pythagoras is said to have accomplished various magical things, including being seen at two places simultaneously, being greeted by a river, making accurate predictions, and interacting with a poisonous snake, among other things. From these accounts, it is also evident that Pythagoras also had a sense of divinity within him.

Another notable magic figure in ancient Greece was Empedocles, and surviving sources indicate that he had mystical powers. Empedocles could heal the sick, restore youth, manipulate the weather, and summon the dead (Luck 92). Some scholars have argued that because Empedocles was a pioneer scholar, observers might have mystified his abilities. Magicians that came in Late Greek antiquity were not bestowed with a wide range of magical powers. Later, magicians only had a few powers, such as prediction, healing, and animal mastery. Plato’s laws reflect this diminishing regard for magicians when he reckons that their powers do not give them any unique stature among human beings.

Magic in Judaism

Judaism as a religion existed in a region where neighboring religions such as those in Babylon and Egypt held magic in high regard. Consequently, as a form of rivalry with other religions, Judaism is considered magic by others negatively. On the other hand, religion had positive consideration for the magical acts that were accomplished by its deity. In the bible, Moses has to match the magic acts performed by Pharaoh’s magicians (The Bible, Ex. 7:1–15). Unrecognized magical acts are also encountered in other biblical stories, including those of Nebuchadnezzar, Manasseh, the witch of Endor, and Jezebel. The relationship between Judaism and other ancient religions with respect to magical practices is somehow contradictory. For instance, Judaism is heavily influenced by other ancient religions. For example, there is heavy employment of magic in Judaism, especially by prophets such as Moses, Elijah, and Elisha. Some magical concepts in Judaism, such as Urim and Thummim, are borrowed from other religious epics. Other traces of magic within Judaism also exist in the form of amulets, rituals, curses, and use of magic words. The only difference is that these magic practices are all attributed to Yahweh, Judaism’s only deity. Consequently, whether the Jewish religion rejects or accepts the concept of magic, it is apparent that it is a vital component of the ancient religions.

Magic in Christianity

Just like its predecessor, Judaism, Christianity also debuted to a society with flourishing magical practices. Nevertheless, it was apparent that Christians were going to carry on with Judaism’s negativity towards magic. However, there were evident magical aspects within the Christian religion as its core belief was routed in the miracles of its adherents and some certified sacraments. Interestingly, the connection between Christianity and magic is that the religion’s founder, Jesus, was mostly known for his miracles. Some Jewish observers also accused Jesus of being under the influence of demonic powers of Beelzebub. From the beginning, Christians had been at pains while trying to prove that Jesus was more than just an ordinary ‘magician.’ Therefore, one of the core aspects of Christianity includes attributing the miracles that Jesus did to a more significant power than usual magic.

Christians themselves categorize any miracles that they do as being different from mere magic. For instance, when a Christian healed a sick person, like Apostle Peter, this act was attributed to the power of God or Jesus. However, if another person outside the religion performed a miraculous act (as was the case of Simon Magus), this act was downgraded to simple magic. There are various instances of magic in the New Testament, and they are often matched by acts of other denominations, cults, or disciplines. Some of the Christian rituals also resemble magical practices, including baptism, the coming of the Holy Spirit, and the partaking of the sacrament. In some instances, the Church leaders, such as Apostle Paul, were forces to explain the differences between their form of magic and miraculous acts by others (The Bible, 1 Cor. 1:10).

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During the second half of the Roman Empire, Christianity began adopting what can be considered magical antiques such as amulets, symbols, and signs. Apocryphal Gospels and Acts describe magic acts accomplished using some of these items (Czachesz 142). Offshoots of the Christian faith also appeared to embrace magical and superstitious practices more than the original Church did.

Magic and Late Antiquity Occult Sciences

One of the most notable magical movements in the Roman era was Gnosticism, and it involved the connection of magic and higher knowledge. Gnosticism practitioners often practiced this art with the view of the highest good and the need to rise above the ordinary. Gnosticism “meant to rise above all earthly things and thereby to lose interest in the body, its needs, functions, and emotions” (Martin and Barresi 48). These aspects of Gnosticism were similar to those of other philosophical and religious movements of the time. However, some reports indicate that some high-level Gnostics were adept at magical practices, including communicating with demons and invoking incantations. Although most scholars have attempted to connect the Gnosticism to occultism, more comprehensive research indicates that Gnostics were only interested in understanding how the universe worked and not manipulating it to work in their favor. Other sects connected with occultism include Platonists, a cult that revered Orpheus, and the Sibyl cult.


Magic in antiquity is a phenomenon that is associated with several other ancient disciplines, including religion, science, and philosophy. Consequently, magic as a standalone concept in ancient times is hard to explore. The ancient terminologies associated with magic have two common distinctions; they either portray it in a positive or negative light. Some of these semantics have survived to date because, in modern society, magic is often regarded in a negative light. Museums around Europe and the rest of the world are reminiscent of artifacts that had magical connections during the Greco-Roman era. One of the most withstanding aspects of magic in antiquity is its interaction with Christianity and Judaism, two of the most influential religions in history. In late antiquity, it wasn’t easy to separate magic with intellectual movements, as was occultism.

Works Cited

Betz, Dieter. The Mithras Liturgy. Mohr Siebrek Ek, 2005.

Czachesz, Istvan. “Explaining Magic: Earliest Christianity as a Test Case.” Past Minds: Studies in Cognitive Historiography, vol. 23, no. 1, 2011, pp. 141-165.

Dickie, Matthew. Magic and Magicians in the Greco-Roman World. Psychology Press, 2003.

Graf, Fritz. “Magic in the Ancient World.” Numen, vol. 46, no. 3, 1999, pp. 291-293.

Karivieri, Arja. “Magic and Syncretic Religious Culture in the East.” Late Antique Archaeology, vol. 6, no. 1, 2010, pp. 399-434.

Luck, Georg. Arcana Mundi: Magic and the Occult in the Greek and Roman Worlds: A Collection of Ancient Texts. JHU Press, 2006.

Martin, Raymond, and John Barresi. The Rise and Fall of Soul and Self: An Intellectual History of Personal Identity. Columbia University Press, 2013.

Murphy, Morgan. Pliny the Elder’s Natural History: The Empire in the Encyclopedia. Courier Corporation, 2004.

Otto, Bernd-Christian, and Michael Stausberg. Defining Magic: A Reader. Routledge, 2014.

The Bible. King James Version, Oxford UP, 1998.

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