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Magic in Ancient Greece

The word ‘magic’ has as its Indo-European predecessor the word ‘magh-‘ which means ‘To be able, to have power’. In Greek the name ‘Menelaus’ (Μενέλᾱος) is translated ‘Abiding men’ by Liddell and Scott. This seems to relate the ‘mene-‘ part to the ‘magh-‘ derivation. Thus a number of ancient women have this as part of their name: Clymene, Alcmena, Antimene. This seems to form a tentative relation to women and magic.

The following story is found in Hesiod’s Catalog of Women:

“Erysichthon, the son of Triopas, cut down the grove of Demeter; she became angry and made him develop a great hunger, so that he never ceased from starvation. He a a daughter, Mestra, a sorceress, who could transform herself into ever kind of animal, and her father used her as a way to deal with his hunger: for he would sell her every day, and from this he would feed himself; but she would change her shape again and would flee and go back to her father. Erysichthon was called Aethon, as Hesiod says, because of his hunger.”

Though we cannot be certain the Indo European source of the name ‘Mestra’ may be ‘magh-‘,’To be able, to have power’ and ‘strebh-‘, ‘To wind, turn’. This, at any rate would be consistent with the story. The story does reveal something about the power used by Mestra. This is because the Greek which is translated ‘sorceress’ is ‘φαρμακίδα’. This word is related to the English ‘pharmacy’ so there can be little doubt that Mestra used drugs to achieve her results. The Greeks were heavily into herbal medicine and the powers of the herbs.

The difficulties of this type of translation are revealed by the phrase ‘Erysichthon was called Aethon, because of his hunger’. The ‘Ae’ part may relate to ‘aiw-‘ which translates ‘Vital force, life, long life, eternity’ and is related possibly to the Greek ‘ἀεί’, ‘always’. The ‘thon’ part seems to relate to the English word ‘hungry’. But no Indo-European root is given. Something like ‘dheu-1’, ‘to rise in a cloud’ is suggested as root for both the Greek and the English word. Thus the name would be translated ‘always hungry’.

To the ancient Greeks magic was a kind of power. It was not necessarily a supernatural power as it is considered today. Certainly a power of a deity would be considered supernatural. Thus in The Bacchae of Euripides Dionysus exerts supernatural power when he says,

"                And with them all
The seed of womankind from hut and hall
of Thebes, hath this my magic goaded out."

The story of Circe in Odyssey of Homer has several examples of magic.

  • 10.135 “…fair-tressed Circe, a dread goddess of human speech”. Plainly the power of Circe is supernatural as she is a goddess.
  • 10.210 “Within the forest glades they found the house of Circe, built of polished stone in a place of wide outlook,1 and round about it were mountain wolves and lions, whom Circe herself had bewitched; for she gave them evil drugs.” Part of her power is the use of drugs.
  • 10.235 “Now when she had given them the potion, and they had drunk it off, then she presently smote them with her wand, and penned them in the sties.” Now a wand is used as part of her power. The suggestion is that the wand is a symbol of transformation. We commonly see a star at the end of a fairy wand but the suggestion is that the wand of Circe has a butterfly on its end as this is the symbol of transformation for the ancient Greeks.
  • 10.275 “Hermes, of the golden wand, met me as I went toward the house, in the likeness of a young man with the first down upon his lip, in whom the charm of youth is fairest.” Now the god Hermes has used a wand to transform Odysseus. This must also be supernatural power.
  • 10.285 “Here, take this potent herb, and go to the house of Circe, and it shall ward off from thy head the evil day…So saying, Argeiphontes gave me the herb, drawing it from the ground, and showed me its nature. At the root it was black, but its flower was like milk. [305] Moly the gods call it, and it is hard for mortal men to dig; but with the gods all things are possible.” Here Hermes gives Odysseus some of his supernatual power in the form of a drug to use against Circe.
  • 10.320 “So she spoke, but I, drawing my sharp sword from beside my thigh, rushed upon Circe, as though I would slay her.” Here Odysseus uses his mortal power to subdue the goddess.

That Circe uses drugs and wands to achieve her power is a testament to the Greek concept that even divinities are subject to the rule of law. They cannot be arbitrary in their behavior but must behave in ways set out for them by fate or necessity.

In Eumenides by Aeschylus line 344 there is a reference to a binding chant as follows:

"ὕμνος ἐξ Ἐρινύων,
δέσμιος φρενῶν, ἀφόρ-
μικτος, αὐονὰ βροτοῖς."

The translation is literally:

Music of the Furies
binding frenzy, melancholy
music, withering mortals

The context of this chant is that the Furies want to torment Orestes because he murdered his mother.

There are several examples of magic by Athena in Ajax by Sophocles:

  • line 65: “It was I (Athena) who prevented him, by casting over his eyes oppressive notions of his fatal joy, and I who turned his fury aside on the flocks of sheep and the confused droves guarded by herdsmen, the spoil which you had not yet divided.”
  • line 68: “I (Athena) will turn away the beams of his (Ajax) eyes and keep them from landing on your face (Odysseus).
  • line 84: There is this exchange:
    Odysseus --
    How could that be, if he still sees with the same eyes? 
    Athena --
    I shall darken them, though their sight is keen. 
    Odysseus --
    It is true: all is possible when a god contrives.

In The Oedipus Tyrannus of Sophocles, line 310, Oedipus tells Tiresias:

“So do not begrudge us the voice of the birds or any other path of prophecy”

Now prophesy is plainly magic yet the voice of birds may refer to the relation of the birds to the weather and the seasons. The birds were thought to be close to the devine because they could fly and their behavior could be used to predict weather and other seasonal events. This is because there is a causal relation. But here the voice of birds would have been used for more magical prophesy. Interestingly for ‘prophesy’ is the Greek ‘ἔχεις ὁδόν’, which seems to mean literally ‘viper path’.

“I took my place on my old seat of augury [1000] where all birds regularly gather for me, I heard an unintelligible voice among them: they were screaming in dire frenzy that made their language foreign to me. I realized that they were ripping each other with their talons, murderously—the rush of their wings did not lack meaning. [1005] Quickly, in fear, I tried burnt-sacrifice on a duly-kindled altar, but from my offerings Hephaestus did not blaze. Instead juice that had sweated from the thigh-flesh trickled out onto the embers and smoked and sputtered; [1010] the gall was scattered high up in the air; and the streaming thighs lay bared of the fat that had been wrapped around them. Such was the failure of the rites that yielded no sign,…” Antigone of Sophocles, line 999.

It is interesting to investigate terms of magic as to their roots:

  • gonteia — γοητεία — ‘charm’ from Indo-European ‘gē(i)- : gō(i)- : gī-‘, ‘to cry, sing’ and ‘tā- ‘to melt, decay, dissipate’
  • gontiyo — γοητεύω — to bewitch, beguile, enchant from ‘gē(i)- : gō(i)- : gī-‘, ‘to cry, sing’ and ‘tā- ‘to melt, decay, dissipate’
  • katakeleo — κατακηλέω — to charm away (Soph. Trach. 1002) from ‘1. kat-‘, ‘to link, plait, weave; chain, net’ and ‘keleu- ‘, ‘to wander; way, path’. This suggests that to charm is to perform an act similar to what the fates do – weave a life thread.
  • katara — κατάρα — a curse perhaps from Indo-European ‘1. kat-‘, ‘to link, plait, weave; chain, net’ and ‘3. er- : or- : r-‘, ‘to move, set in motion’
  • keleterios — κηλητήριος — charming, appeasing, Soph. Trach. 575, From Indo-European ‘kēl-‘ ‘to deceive, dumbfound, enthrall’ and ‘ēter-‘, ‘intestines’ (might mean love potion).
  • mageyo — μαγεύω — to be a Magus, use magic arts, cast a spell
  • magissa — μάγισσα — sorceress
  • pharmakon — φάρμακον — drug, posison, potion, of obscure origin.
  • philtro — φίλτρο — potion related to ‘phulax’, ‘watcher guard’, Greek noun of unkown origin.
  • phylachto — φυλαχτό – talisman, amulet from ‘phulax’, ‘watcher, guard’ Greek noun of unknown origin.
  • rabdi — ραβδί — wand
  • sterghema — στέργημα — ‘a love-charm’ from ‘sterg-‘, ‘to care for, pay careful attention to’ and ‘sēmi-‘, ‘half’
  • thelgoo — θέλγω — charm, enchant
  • thelkterion — θέλκτήριον — charm, spell, of the girdle of Aphrodite. Perhaps referenced at Soph. Trach. 585, ‘dhelgh-‘, ‘to hit’ and ‘tek̑þ-‘, ‘to plait’

Indo-European Influences on the Ancient Greek Concept of Magic

Two ideas are basic to the idology of the Indo-Europeans, the ghosti-principle which involves the oblication of a guest and a host, and Xártus, which is the pattern of the universe. Read about this at click here The Greeks referred to Themis, goddess of justice, to provide the law and Zeus to enforce it. Thus existence was seen as just and law bound. The ghosti-princilpe requires gift giving by the host and guest which according to the law must be returned a favors. Though one would expect humans may fail in their consistency the perfect deities could not. If the mortal knows what favors a deity expects then the mortal can expect favors from the deity in return. The idea of the sacrifice then is that what is sacrificed is a known favor for a deity. The common knowledge in ancient Greece was that the smoke of the fat of a fresh killed animal roasting on a fire was a favor to the gods. The purpose of the sacrifice was to gain the favor of the deity. In book 3 of the Odyssey Athena asks only ‘a fair gift to every man of Pylos town’ in exchange for the sacrifice of nine bulls to Poseidon.

In the Indo-European culture Medicine was divided into three types, prayers and magic (first function), surgery (second function), and herbs (third function) as an example of the three function structure of Indo-European culture. Notice that Circe’s act of transforming men into pigs requires two of these. “Now when she had given them the potion, and they had drunk it off, then she presently smote them with her wand, and penned them in the sties.” Homer, Odyssey, book 10, line 237. Many drugs have power but each drug is specific as to its action. She must have the knowledge to know which drug has the desired result. Strictly this is not magic. But the wand presents a clear instance of magic. Thjough her name seems to identify her as a bird goddess her location suggests that she is a goddess of place. Her realm is the place where she lives, Ogygia. In order for her to carry out the transformation with the wand she might need to trade favors with another deity who controls the realm of such transformations. This might be Galetea whose name relates to such things. Similarly a mortal might use a wand in the same way. A sacrifice to Galetea would allow that goddess to empower a wand in the motal’s hand to act in the same way.

The ghosti principle appears at work in the following prayer “Hear me, god of the silver bow, who stand over Chryse and holy Cilla, and rule mightily over Tenedos, Sminthian god,1 if ever I roofed over a temple to your pleasing, or if ever I burned to you fat thigh-pieces of bulls and goats, [40] fulfill this prayer for me: let the Danaans pay for my tears by your arrows” Homer Iliad book I line 36. The spirit is invoked. The favors done for the spirit are specified. Finally what is desired in return is specified. Notice that this prayer is clearly a curse.

Nor is the ghoti principle confined to mortal relations to the deities. Hera states, “Sleep, lord of all gods and of all men, if ever thou didst hearken to word of mine, so do thou even now obey, [235] and I will owe thee thanks all my days. Lull me to sleep the bright eyes of Zeus beneath his brows, so soon as I shall have lain me by his side in love. And gifts will I give thee, a fair throne, ever imperishable, wrought of gold, that Hephaestus, mine own son, [240] the god of the two strong arms, shall fashion thee with skill, and beneath it shall he set a foot-stool for the feet, whereon thou mayest rest thy shining feet when thou quaffest thy wine.” Homer Iliad book XIV line 243 Each of the deities have a realm to which their powers are confined. When they wish an action in another realm they have to go to the deity of that realm and make a deal.

A number of words used in ancient Greece described persons who might be described as magicians. These words include ‘μάντις’ — ‘diviner, seer, prophet, from Indo-European ‘3. men-‘, ‘to think; mind, spiritual activity’

  • Possible magicians described by the word “ὀλοόφρων” — meaning mischief, baleful in Homer
    • Atlas — Ἄτλας ὀλοόφρονος — Homer, Odyssey 1.52
    • Aeetes — ὀλοόφρονος Αἰήταο — Homer, Odyssey 10.137
    • Minos — Μίνωος ὀλοόφρονος — Homer, Odyssey 11.322
  • Possible magicians referenced by the word “μάντις” — diviner, seer, prophet
    • Calchas, son of Thestor — Homer, Iliad, 1.69
    • Polyidus the seer, a rich man and a valiant, and his abode was in Corinth. — Homer, Iliad 13.664
    • Telemus, son of Eurymus, who excelled all men in soothsaying, and grew old as a seer among the Cyclopes. Homer, Odyssey 9.509
    • Theban Teiresias, the blind seer. Homer, Odyssey 10.493
    • Theoclymenus — By lineage he was sprung from Melampus, Homer, Odyssey 15.225
    • Carnus — “For there appeared to them a soothsayer reciting oracles in a fine frenzy, whom they took for a magician sent by the Peloponnesians to be the ruin of the army. So Hippotes, son of Phylas, son of Antiochus, son of Hercules, threw a javelin at him, and hit and killed him.” Apollodorus, Library 2.8.3. Carnus, an Acarnanian by birth, who was a seer of Apollo. — Pausanias, Description of Greece 3.13.4
  • Possible magicians referenced by the word ” ἀρητήρ” — one that prays:
    • Chryses, the son of Atreus — Homer, Iliad, 1.10 “the old man prayed [35] to the lord Apollo, whom fair-haired Leto bore: “Hear me, god of the silver bow, who stand over Chryse and holy Cilla, and rule mightily over Tenedos, Sminthian god,1 if ever I roofed over a temple to your pleasing, or if ever I burned to you fat thigh-pieces of bulls and goats, [40] fulfill this prayer for me: let the Danaans pay for my tears by your arrows” So he spoke in prayer, and Phoebus Apollo heard him.” Homer, Iliad, 1.34
  • Possible magicians referenced by the word “ἱέρεια” – a priestess: (ἱερεύς — priest, sacrificer, diviner)
    • Theano, daughter of Cisseus, the wife of Antenor, tamer of horses; for her had the Trojans made priestess of Athene. Homer, Iliad 6.299
  • Possible magicians referenced by the word “φαρμακίς” — sorceress, witch
    • Medea — Apollodorus, Library1.9.23
  • Possible magicians referenced by the word “πολυφαρμάκου” — knowing many drugs
    • Circe — Homer, Odyssey10.276

Melampus is mentioned by Homer but his feats as a magician are detailed elsewhere. At Apollodorus, Library 1.9.12 he says: “but when Dionysus drove the women of Argos mad, he (Melampus) healed them on condition of receiving part of the kingdom,”.

An interesting example of magic is to be found in Aristophanes, Clouds : ” If I were to purchase a Thessalian witch, and draw down the moon by night, and then shut it up, as if it were a mirror, in a round crest-case,”

Plato, Euthydemus 290a, explains another form of magic: “The sorcerer’s art is the charming of snakes and tarantulas and scorpions and other beasts and diseases” The word for sorcerer used here is ἐπῳδίον – using charms or songs to heal”