The conception of magic in the Apology of Apuleius


Depending on the situation in which each person finds themselves, they will have one perception or another about magic. And this perception, subjected to a series of social mechanisms, will end up being reflected in a conception of magic different from that of the rest of the world. The conception of a Catholic priest will not be the same as that of any of his parishioners, nor will the conception of a European Wiccan be the same as that of a Haitian houngan, and the same would happen between an atheist and an agnostic, and so among multiple groups. of population that we can imagine, both in the present and in the past.

Next we will deal with a book already known to those who are regulars of ABRA, Apologia sive Pro se de magia liber ("Apology or Book on magic in self-defense"). This is a literary expansion of the judicial speech delivered by Apuleius during the government of Antoninus Pius (Imp. 138-161 AD) in a lawsuit that sought to accuse him of mageia, whose sentence, according to Roman law, consisted of being burned alive in a bonfire. In this book, which is the only one that the scientific community is completely sure was written by the philosopher Madaura, you can see different conceptions of magic that can be summarized in two positions: Apuleius's position, being skeptical and rational before the affirmations of his accusers; and the position of the litigants themselves, which is completely distorted and taken to the absurd, but which is still an indication of some of the popular beliefs that were held about magic. Shortly, we will proceed to explain in more detail some of the most relevant points regarding this question, but not before detailing some brushstrokes of the dominant cosmological conception of his time and with which Apuleius himself agreed.

The Latin treatise De Mundo ("On the World"), attributed to Apuleius, is a translation of a pseudo-Aristotelian treatise written in Greek with the same name. It shows a mixed cosmology of the world following both the Platonic and Aristotelian school parameters. It defines a spherical cosmos in three layers: earth and water are in the center, a mediating layer in which air is found, and a layer that surrounds everything in which ether is found. It explains the circular movement of the sky by an axis that crosses all these layers that would go from the northern region of the sky (Septentrion (Northern) are the "Seven oxen" or stars that make up the constellation of the car) to the Antarctic (literally "Opposite the Bear" ).

Although each layer is dominated by an element, it does not mean that there cannot be others in it, such as water in the clouds or fire on the earth, but due to the weight of each one of them, some tend to move to the upper layers and others to the lower ones. From this perspective, the gods, like humans, animals and plants, are composed of matter, only that those are composed of ether and the others of earth, mainly. This means that the gods and humans are completely isolated from each other and cannot establish any communication. But behold, the figure of the demon appears. The demons are intermediate divinities whose conforming matter is the air and this is precisely their field of action. Some are messengers and carry the prayers of mortals to the gods; others are guardians who advise and guide humans (like Socrates' famous demon); there are also agents of the divine will; but there are also evil ones, like larvae or lemures. The human soul itself can become a demon itself if it does not ascend to heaven when the time comes to free itself from the prison of the body.

These principles and other principles on which we are not going to expand here were well known to ancient philosophers and are the basis of what is known as the hypothesis of universal sympathy, according to which all spheres of the cosmos influence each other. , but the influence that happens from the superiors to the inferiors is greater than vice versa. This means that the position of the stars could have a real influence, but for that the existence of those minor divinities called demons would be needed. And among ancient philosophers, especially all those who accept the postulates of Platonic allegorists, the existence of demons is proven by the case of Socrates, a person who was able to speak directly with his demon. All this belief system is not at all a good point in favor of Apuleius as a person who does not practice magical rites, since he even goes so far as to postulate that the effectiveness of the multiplicity of religions is precisely due to the existence of various demons to which they let themselves be seduced by rites, unlike the gods, who are incorruptible. But let us now see what exactly Apuleius is accused of.

The conception of the accusation.

The truth is that from the accusation we only have the fragments that Apuleius himself cites in his speech: brief sentences that summarize the arguments of his opponents, out of their original context and, in some cases, distorted to sarcastically ridicule the position of their opponents. With this we must reconstruct the conception that those have of magic and with which they sustained their accusation. As Apuleius himself mentions, the accusation of magic "is very easy to denounce and, on the other hand, it is very difficult for the accused to prove his innocence" (Apol. 2, 2), not only because it is impossible to prove the cause-effect relationship of magic rituals, but because the concept itself is not perfectly defined.

There are three types of actions for which Apuleius is accused of magic: knowing, manipulating and attracting, all for his own benefit and, therefore, to the detriment of others. It attracts because it manipulates and it manipulates because it knows. All the elements cited by the accusation try to show that this is so, while Apuleius defends himself by explaining that this does not mean that he is a magician, but that this is so because of his condition as a philosopher and writer, and that the accusation would not have doubts about it if it were not for his deep ignorance, coming to publicly question the concept of evil of Emiliano, the head of the litigants (Apol. 66, 8).

The main accusations that have to do with manipulation refer especially to living beings. The knowledge and manipulation of plants, of which only the case of a toothpaste made with a mixture of plants from Asia (Apol. 6) is cited. He is also accused of having caused illnesses and fainting in a slave named Talo (Apol. 42, 3) and a free woman (Apol. 48, 1) based on enchantments. Another manipulation of life, to which Apuleius devotes a greater effort to defend is the question of fish. According to the accusation, they are fish used to make magical filters because their names designate the feminine, virginal, and masculine sexual apparatus, veretilla (Apol. 34, 5). Apuleius does not deny that he was looking for fish and that he dissected them, but that he has done it many other times before (Apol. 40, 6), but also that he does not do it secretly, but with public and scientific intentions (Apol. 40, 7 ), which comes to refute that it is magic, since magic cannot be something that does not imply a secret (Apol. 47, 2). Nor does he hide the fact that he has studied fish and how much he knows about them (Apol, 38), ignoring the interest they may have for magical practice (Apol. 30-31), since he only wants them, he affirms, to expand and correct the peripatetic natural studies while he himself was working at that time on one on the organs of animals (Apol. 36, 3-6; 40, 5).

With all this, he explains the reason for his practices, but possibly, from the point of view of the accusers, it could have seemed strange and, therefore, suspicious to look for fish for any reason other than to eat, to open them raw and examine its interior as if it were a fish augur (Apol. 41, 1-3). But not all the practices and manipulations of which Apuleius is accused are public. He is also accused of performing rituals with magical objects wrapped in cloths at the table in the lares of his recently deceased stepson Ponciano (Apol. 53.2). He is also accused of worshiping a demonium represented as a skeleton which he calls basileus (Apol. 61, 2). To all attempts to accuse him of doing and knowing secret things, Apuleius will respond by implying that not everything secret and hidden is bad (like mystery rites, Apol. 55, 10), and that not everything that seems to some to be knowledge hidden are, indeed, hidden, but are available to everyone who wishes to know them (Apol. 90, 1-2). It can be intuited that in the conception that the accusing party has of magic there is room for impiety, since with the accusation of worshiping a demonium they can try to imply that Apuleius has a preference towards intermediate powers rather than divinities and civic rites (in a similar way to what happened to Socrates, accused of introducing new gods into the city).

It is not that it was prohibited to carry out rites that were not those regulated by the community, but there is a concession of suspicion towards those who perform them as they are practices whose objectives may not be those pursued by the group of citizens. Those that are completely prohibited are private nocturnal rites, and this is an accusation that Apuleius also has to face, being one of the strongest points of the accusation itself (Apol. 57, 1-2). The defense presented by Apuleius on this point is not very extensive or difficult to resolve, since he takes advantage of the fact that the witness is not there to attack him by turning his testimony around, which had been read at the trial before those present and in which he claimed to be absent when such events occurred.

But the most relevant element, which is found throughout the entire defense and in many parts of the accusation, is erotic attraction, very possibly due to the high frequency that erotic curses tend to have throughout the Mediterranean. We find it from the first element of the accusation cited by Apuleius: being a handsome and eloquent man in the Greek and Latin languages (Apol. 4). Then we find the fact of writing erotic poetry (Apol. 9), owning a mirror (Apol. 13) and the names of the fish, previously mentioned. These accusations, which seem very simple from a distant perspective, take on another meaning when we take into account other elements that try to insist on the nullity of the marriage between Apuleius and the Pudentila. According to the accusation, she did not wish to marry after being widowed, she confessed that she had been forced to do so by enchantment, she had married at sixty years old and therefore sterile, the marriage had taken place in a country house, far from the city, and that Apuleius had extorted her to obtain a large dowry from her (Apol. 67, 3-4). One by one, Apuleius will answer each party and demonstrate the legality of the marriage and that the information offered by the accusing party is corrupted

While it is true that no clear conclusion can be drawn regarding Apuleius's guilt, it seems true that the accusation of magic is nothing more than a pretext to achieve goals that have nothing to do with it. Magic was not something unknown, no matter how hidden these practices were defined, a lot was known about it and, possibly, many people knew who practiced one form or another of magic, but knowing it should not be the only reason to denounce it. The fact of designating the magician as maleficum, the one who does evil, also gives us information about the conception that the magician had, that is, the one who does not do good. In fact, when Apuleius has to defend himself for having been in contact with the epileptic woman, he affirms that it is normal for the philosopher to know the diseases, their causes and their remedies and that for this reason he tries to cure the sick (Apol. 51, 8). He points out that the magician's own thing is to attack, not to heal, therefore, since Apuleius has tried to cure diseases, he is not a magician (Apol. 51, 9-10).

Being such a versatile person also helped the accusers. He studied a large amount of knowledge and tried to write in as many literary genres as he knew, although only six complete works of him are preserved, a poem in the Latin Anthology with the title Anechomenos (712), and some fragments cited by other authors. And most of the complete works are interpreted translations, the most original being Apologia itself and the Flórida. This, together with the fact that he was a person with a very active and not very stationary life (Apol. 72, 5; 73, 7) make him an uncontrollable and unstable social element, which in a world like the ancient one, which is especially fixist, easily translates into a center of suspicion.

On several occasions, Apuleius presents his case as a confrontation of ignorance against philosophy, he being the latter's defense attorney (Apol. 1, 3; 3, 5-6). It shows a conception of philosophy as an encyclopedic and universal knowledge, both of human, physical and sacred issues. It is a doctrine that participates in divine questions (Mun. Praef.) referring to it with the name of Universal Philosophy (Fl. XX, 4). It is the duty of philosophy to study the phenomena of the world and inquire into their causes (Apol. 16, 1) as well as investigate virtue and expel vices (Mun. Praef.). It encompasses such a great multitude of things within the name of philosophy that it is impossible to define its concept of magic, the magic-religion-philosophy triangle being an inseparable unit as we can see in the following cases

  • In Apol. 39, 1, speaking about the knowledge of fish, Apuleius expresses in a few brief lines that the Platonic philosopher is concerned with knowing everything in order to know how Providence acts on it, so as not to believe only in what traditional religion says about the gods.
  • In Apol. 25-27 makes an exposition on the conception of the magician, taking the meaning that it has in the Persian language: priest. Therefore, the magician is the expert in religious rites and ceremonies, the regulation of the sacred and divine right. This makes magic a science pleasing to the gods, while its adversaries try to defend that the magician is the one who, by being in communication with the gods, can do whatever he wants. He ends by stating that it is the ignorant and those who deny the existence of the gods who accuse the philosophers who study Providence and worship the gods of magicians in the bad sense of the word.

Within the Apuleian conception of the cosmos, magic is real and possible, but it remains inserted within the concept of religion. The intermediate situation of the demons makes them immortal, but, in turn, subject to the same passions to which humans are subject. For this reason they are variable and it is from their tastes and rejections that the different types of rituals and the differences between some religions and others are born (Soc. 13-14). Therefore, the ritual implies a communication with these powers, and the correct communication can allow men to achieve what some call magic. There are many examples that exist in his work of magical rites, and even in the Apology itself Apuleius will pronounce a curse against Emiliano, at a moment of the speech in which he is already sufficiently free of suspicion of magic or impiety (Apol. 64, 1-2).

There are also some details in Apology that are not considered magic because they are not aggressive practices. Apuleius cites the medicine of the ancients, when in Odyssey (XIX, 456 ss.) Ulysses is healed with bandages and an incantation, and adds that nothing done to save lives is worthy of censure (Apol. 40, 4).

Ritual power is not considered magic, not only in the case of healing acts, but also in prophylactic ones. Shortly after arriving at Oea, Apuleius made a declamation in which he praised the majesty of Aesculapius. As it is a healing divinity, this text became popular very quickly, the reason is not stated, but it cannot be difficult for us to admit that it is because it was used as a protective amulet, especially considering that when Apuleius requested that a fragment of that speech be read during the defense, the public itself offered the text, which means that they rarely left their homes without it (Apol. 55, 10-12).

And as for the mystery and soteric cults, which from their origins were in a liminal space, at that time they were already fully integrated into the general Roman society, Apuleius himself coming to mention all those in which he has started without any kind of impediment (Apol. 55, 8-10). Nor is the interpretation of dreams considered magic, since he mentions it as a possible excuse against the accusation of magic (Apol. 54, 2).

Throughout the Apology, Apuleius tends to take the elements of the accusation that can be used as evidence of magical practices in order to normalize them, highlighting their everyday nature and, at the same time, demystifying their magical use, even going so far as to incite the prosecution to invent any object that may seem magical, which he himself will discuss about its true nature (Apol. 54, 1).


The conception that the lower classes have of magic is loaded with prejudices, which are supported by the normative aggressiveness of magical practices, to such an extent that any rite that is to heal, protect or save is not considered as magic.

We have seen how everything that is related to magic is in a liminal space between the occult and the everyday, and its situation depends on the circumstances and the use of each element. What can be observed as magical, may not be depending on the point of view of the observer, which is perfectly taken advantage of by Apuleius in his defense.

As for Apuleius, he handles two different conceptions of magic, that of the Iranian maguš and that of the maleficus, the latter being the one most referred to in Apology because it is the same one used by the accusing party. However, we cannot affirm that magic has a special place in Apuleius' system of thought, but that it is blurred within the concept of religion: both are ways of communicating with the divine through intermediate powers, and if they do not give their approval, the requests will not be fulfilled. The difference between the two depends on the vision of the subject himself according to his philosophical background. The role of philosophy is fundamental, since by studying the order of the universe and of the divine powers it gives it a great advantage over the accusing party in a situation in which any other individual would have been condemned and, finally, executed.

Miguel Morata Mora -


- Apuleyo (1980): Apología. Florida [trad. S. Segura Munguía]. Madrid: Editorial Gredos.

- Idem (1983) [1978]: El asno de oro [trad. L. Rubio Fernández]. Madrid: Editorial Gredos.

- Idem (2011): Obra filosófica [trad. C. Macías Villalobos]. Madrid: Editorial Gredos.

Related posts:

>The punishment for magic in Rome

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

>Magic in Apuleius

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