Greek Magical Papyri (I)


Many people believe magic has existed only after novels and fantastic literature, which is rising in modern days. But magic has existed since men started to search the purpose of life, asking questions about the world around, how storms were made and 'who' controlled earthquakes. During many centuries and on the first beginning of their adventure as collectors and as nomads, humans have connected with spirits of nature. Nature is the name that hunters called animal souls and which must be respected. Humans have asked for Nature's favor with sacrifices, making statues to worship and spells and charms to protect against what they called evil spirits.

Ancient Greece worshipped Olympic gods and this was related to the activities in any town government. The State was united with polis and many towns cult, religion was considered the main pillar for daily life. Greek people made sacrifices, they read on organs to predict luck or disgrace. They also used oracles, people who could make oneiric predictions or prophetic communications that consist in aknowledge future events by communicating with a deity. Nowadays there is little knowledge about if these mediums or oracles had direct conversations with deities or they were able to know what will happen in the future.

We have proof that magical literature is a full system with a long existence, older than magical papyri from I B.C and which continues on I A.C. However most of the papyri that were found with magical practices collected on GMP belong to III and IV centuries A.C.

«If we set a graphic to establish quantitative representation of magic literature between I and VII A.C centuries, we shall see the curve rises until IV century where it reaches the highest point. Then it drops to V, VI and VII centuries which are represented by a rare material with no relevant value » Introduction from José Luis Calvo Martínez and Mª Dolores Sánchez Romero, 1987.

«Juliano wanted to restore cult and traditions of paganism along with neoplathonic thinking» « The most relevant agent of the School, Maximus of Ephesus (...) who is more a sorcerer than a philosopher » Introduction from José Luis Calvo Martínez and MªDolores Sánchez Romero, 1987.

We found a lot of Christian papyri talking about amulets from V-VII centuries A.C. The magical symbols are substituted by Christian anagrams: the fish with Greek letters (iota,xi, phi, upsilon, sigma), others with the monogram of Christ or symbology used by the most archaic Christians. As we will see later, there are numerous references to Christian angels and archangels which are asked for help or invocation to help the wizard and garantee his wishes. We can see invocations to daily and night deities in the papyrus scrolls: Helios and Semele, goddess of the Moon, which bring good fortune and supreme gods who give benefit humans.

In magical papyri we won't find only one method to cast a spell or bring a benevolent spirit, not only one unique purpose to make an angel descend to help a sorcerer. Also, there is not only one sacrifice to make in order to gain attention from the deity. In GMP we can find variety of practices, from those that are complex to those individual units. In this group we would insert prayers or amulets, to other more simple with lack of relevant and usual components found in the texts. The practices found on the scrolls are different and each one of them has a main objective that requires specific task. The sorcerer must carry out instrumental practices in some of them, in others it is necessary to tie a demon to obtain whatever the wizard asks. To obtain external goods, it must indicate "to all purposes".

We also have lychnomancy practices, in which medium goes into a trance by looking the forms on the flames along with the effect of sorcerer's psalmody.

Examples of papyri


Spell of Ursa Major to all magical purposes

«I summon you, the most powerful force in heavens (...) Listen to me, Helios-Fre, sacred spell, you are the one who holds everything (...) eumen meni kēdeua kēpsēoi » (wishes) Papyrus IV, XI.

Among lychnomancy practices there are two methods: mantic communication with deity through a lamp or oneiric vision with help of the lamp, whose fire is summoned as a deity to send a night dream. Here we have Greek belief in which deities used dreams to send warnings or visions of the future to warn humans.

Lychnomancy or prediction forecast by using a lamp

Direct vision. The spell to say first, to sunrise, then on the lamp you must use the same spell at the moment you carry out adivination (...) Spell: «I salute thee, powerful dragon and lion, natural principles of fire (...) say yes, I beg you because I name the mistical symbols (vocals), Marmarauot, Laïlam. (...) and predict about that I ask to you by lychnomancy vision, through which I perform (name, vocals) ». Papyrus IV, VII.

Some sorceress carry out a hydromancy method which searches for mantic communication with deity through water in a plate or a pot, usually made of bronze which can have some symbols written on the bottom.

Hydromancy with an Aphrodite's plate

Getting an oracle by an Aphrodite's plate. Purify yourself during seven days, take a white plate and fill it with water and olive oil; first write on the bottom with myrrh ink: ēioch chpha, elampsēr zēl aeēïouō (25 letters), and on the external base you must write: Taquiel, chthoniē, draxō (18 letters) Repeat three times. It must be on the ground; look at it and say: I summon you, mother and lady of nymphs ilaouch obriē louch tlor; come, sacred light and give me an answer with your beautiful shape ». Papyrus IV, XXVIII.

Some sorceress try to take control of spirits with subjugations practices in order to make them work for them or to obtain love from a person, although gender of that person is not mentioned.

Maleficent practice of a magic spell from an enemy or a woman

«Take a hieratic papyrus or a lead sheet and an iron ring; place the ring on the papyrus and draw both the circle of the ring with a quill; (...) «Shall his/her mind remains tied no to "do whatever..." (...). While you are pointing magical symbols with the quill and make the tether, say: «I chain (.someone) to a thing, he won't speak, he won't resist, he won't say anything against, shall he won't look at me or speak against me. If it is about a woman: «to prevent her to marry (someone) » (your wish) ». Papyrus V, VII

Practice to domain both men and women.

« Eros Adviser. Eros making, dedication and preparing. He carries out these practices and sends dreams, creates insomnia. It is difference from an evil demon if you treat him properly and purify him (...) On the first day, when you have given and decorated the offering on the table as it is written (...) «I summon you, the one in the beautiful bed, the one from the desired home (...) ». «Come to me, you, Lord of Heaven that shines on the earth; (...) ». Papyrus XII, XXI.

During this article we have found different practices that Greek, Egyptians, Latins and possibly first Christians carried out to achieve their goals and obtain benefit. We know witch hunting, especially the one the Church carried out against heretics and those who allegedly made spells under the Devil or evil spirits influence. However, by thinking about how many years of Human History, magical practices have never really dissapeard. Even nowadays many of us think about good and evil spirits, souls of people that have stayed with us to guide us. We search for luck in four leaf clovers, in saints and martyrs and inside sacred books of different religions in our world.

We all still wonder why there are miracles in the world or how a person with cancer could survive and other could not. For sure many scientist could say that it is possible thanks to treatments and medical advances. Others would think it is due to different deities and destiny. We can still wonder about what happens on Earth and how lucky we are to live where we live, however we still think there is magic around us. We see it on fantasy novels or ancient magic texts. So magic is not dead and it will be with us as long as we are loyal to our true nature.

Ignacio Povedano Selfa -

Rachel Black - Translator -

-Calvo Martínez, J.L. y Sánchez Romero, M.D. (trad.) Textos de magia en papiros griegos. Editorial Gredos, Madrid, 1987
-Fernández Marcos, Motivos judíos en los papiros mágicos griegos, dentro de Religión, superstición y magia en el mundo romano, Encuentros en la Antigüedad, Dep. Hª antigua Univ. Cádiz, 1985
-Luck, G. Arcana Mundi: Magia y Ciencias Ocultas en el Mundo Griego y Romano, Gredos, 1995