Magic in the work of Petronius (II): magical practices and beliefs


Most of the magical examples in Petronius' Satyricon are love or sexual practices due to the very theme of the work, as could be seen in the first part of this article. In book I, the already mentioned magician Quartilla appears accompanied by two servants.

«Ascyltos, at a time when the conversation was winding down, intervenes: So what? Don't I deserve a drink? The servant, compromised by my smile, applauded saying: (...) Is it true -asks Quartilla- that Encolpius drank all the satyrion?».

Fragment 20, Petronius, The Satyricon.

From what we can find in this fragment, it can be thought that the name of the drink given to Encolpius and the name of the work are closely related. But investigating we have found that satyrion is one of the most famous aphrodisiacs in Greek and Roman antiquity, which is extracted from the bulbs (testicle-shaped) of orchids in order to have greater fertility.

Now we will see a small loving practice:

« Psyche pricked my cheeks with a hair pin, while the maiden, with a satiryon-soaked brush too, kept Ascylto at bay.».

Fragment 21, Petronius, The Satyricon

We do not know exactly why they carried out these practices in ancient times, but we can think that if it was not used for its primary function, it could be very harmful. We can think, for example, that they are sexual references.

The most notable magic practice is found near the end of the work. In this case, the magical practice is carried out by an old woman who accompanies the slave Crisis, we assume that it is Enotea but it is not said who she is. Now Encolpius is immersed in a practice to recover the virility he has lost:

«The next day I got up without physical or moral discomfort and went down to the same avenue of banana trees, (...) when Crisis appeared dragging an old lady with her. The old lady took from her bosom a net woven with threads of various colors and threw it around my neck. Then he kneaded a little powder with saliva and, placing the paste on his middle finger, he marked my forehead despite my disgust...».

Here we assume that there are more parts of the magical practice performed by the old lady, but they have not been preserved for us. The importance here lies in the elements that are used, let's look closely. A colored network, which in magic is sometimes used for protection and other times as tying spells, that is, of a loving type. It also uses saliva, which was known not only for its healing properties, but also for its magical properties (even Jesus in the gospels heals the blind man with saliva and mud, it was a widespread idea in ancient times). He points to him with the cordial finger, that is, with the heart, because they relate the loving with the sexual, and the longest finger symbolizes the penis. Before it was a protective symbol against the evil eye, but nowadays... it's not exactly good.

In the next paragraph he continues with:

«Concluded this enchantment, she ordered me to spit three times and put three times in my pocket some pebbles previously enchanted by her and wrapped in purple; then, feeling me, he began to feel my "strength"».

Fragment 131, Petronius, The Satyricon.

Here is the saliva again, and the act of spitting, which helps to "expel" everything bad. Obviously the number three is also a magic number. As for the little stones, since he does not specify what they are, it could be some gem or stone that is believed to have effects on manhood, or simply stones enchanted to "harden what has to harden." We find here sympathetic or homeopathic magic, like that of the figurines or the definitions but with a more healthy objective than a bad omen.

These specific episodes are related to a change in the imperial vision of witchcraft, in which women who dedicate themselves to magic are related to the god Priapus and sexual issues, which is why he makes a sexual magic spell.

- Other magical and esoteric elements in Satyricon:

In the second part of the work, which belongs to Trimalchio's dinner, a magical story is told that happened to Nicerote, Trimalchio's friend:

«He was a brave as hell soldier. We went out at night (...) Then, turning to my companion, I see that he had undressed... In this, he formed a circle of urine around his clothes and instantly turned into a wolf. When it had turned into a wolf, it began to howl and disappeared into the forest.» 

Fragment 62, Petronius, The Satyricon

In Latin text, we read brave as "Orcus", a Roman divinity and punisher of false oaths who lived in the Roman underworld. The most logical thing is to think that the soldier urinates to magically protect himself, or to mark territory like the animal he is going to become, or that it is a sign of contempt, since pissing on something was a Roman gesture to humiliate. As for it doing it in a circle, perhaps it is for protection or by association with the moon.

Other mythological beings are also mentioned as it appears in the previous fragment, and the Strigae, which were evil beings that, according to popular belief, took children while they slept, and sucked their blood. The strigae could have many shapes, although they are often described as women or birds, hence their name, because strix means "scream". They are the Roman parallel to the Balkan vampire, although if they are talking about faraway regions here, it may be the other way around and based on Balkan folklore. The poet Ovid also mentions them in the Fasti.

«The boy's poor mother was crying for him and there were many of us who shared his sadness there: suddenly the Strigas began to whistle.»

Fragment 63, The Satyricon, Petronius, part II

To finish, say that there are more fragments that talk about oracles and superstitions that the Greeks and Romans had. In this fragment the name of Greek appears to refer to a foreigner because for the Roman conception, what is foreign is called Greek, just as the Greeks did when referring to the exotic, they called it barbarian. In imperial times the fusion of many Egyptian, Greek and Oriental cults attracted much attention. Also, Serapa is a name that sounds like Serapis, the Greco-Egyptian god, which is a cult that was in vogue, so it's suspicious. The Romans at first rejected astrologers, but later, with the Hellenistic culture, they became more interested in the Chaldeans, in the zodiac and predestination, although some philosophers, despite the fact that they could believe in the influence of the stars, did so. They criticized because in the end the only astrology studies were done through direct vision on a starry night, focused more on mathematical issues.To see what opinion the ordinary Romans had about the signs of the zodiac, Trimalchio shows his guests the star map that they had painted on a tray and in which he summarizes the characteristics of each animal of the zodiac about the people who are born under their signs:

«Trimalchio interrupted such pleasant news; (...)That sky that you see, where the twelve gods have their mansion, is successively transformed into so many other figures. First he becomes Aries. And so, everyone who is born under that sign has many herds, much wool; He also has a hard head, a shameless forehead and a very sharp eye cornea. Then the whole sky becomes Bull. Then the libertines, gluttons and drunkards are born, all those who only apply themselves to satisfy their brutal appetites. Those who are born under the sign of Gemini seek to mate, like the horses of the cart, the oxen of the cart, the two organs of generation, which equally inflame the two sexes. I was born under the sign of Cancer: that is why I walk on so many legs and have so many goods on land and sea, since one element suits the crab as well as the other. Under Leo, great eaters and those who like to dominate are born; under Virgo, women, the effeminate and easygoing destined for slavery; under Libra, butchers, perfumers and all who sell their merchandise by weight; under Scorpio, poisoners and murderers; under Sagittarius, the strabismic, who seem to contemplate the vegetables and take the bacon; under Capricorn, the porters whose skin calluses with work; Aquarius presides over the birth of shopkeepers and people whose brains are turned to water; and Pisces, the cooks and the rhetoricians».

Fragment 39, Petronius, The Satyricon

From what is shown in this fragment, there was a conception, similar to that of today, that if you were born on such a date and you were under a certain sign of the zodiac, the characteristics of that animal were innate to your being, therefore what you should dedicate to a certain task or your behavior was based on the sign to which you belonged. Of course, Trimalchio is also a nouveau riche who interprets everything to his liking, within the social criticism of his own work to his lack of culture, carelessly and shamelessly. Even so, all this has its influence from the East and the Babylonian calendar and the Chaldean astrology from which Greece and Rome drink, because they considered them somewhat exotic since it did not belong to their Mediterranean culture.

Ignacio Povedano Selfa - ignacio.povedano305@gmail.com

-Donoso Johnson, P., La Magia y Sociedad Romana en Tiempos de Petronio, 2010
-Ramiro, J.B. Un retrato social de las mujeres en el Satiricón de Petronio, UJI, 2014
-Rubio Fernández, L. (introd.) Petronio, El Satiricón. Gredos, 2010
-Turchi, N. La Religione di Roma Antica, Instituto di Studi Romani, Licinio Cappelli Editore, Bologna, Italia, 1939.

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