The Association for the Study of Esotericism has posted the schedule for its conference taking place June 19th-22nd at Colgate University. The line-up suggests the conference will be filled with interesting lectures, not the least of which will be the plenary address by classical scholar Sarah Iles Johnston.
Sarah Iles Johnston has done extensive research on religion, divination, and the afterlife in the ancient world. Not content to stop there though, some of her recent work looks at Neopagan movements which worship the old gods and how these traditions are reconstructed from scholarly sources. In my opinion—and of course I am biased!—Johnston is a great score by the conference organizers. Her work appeals both to those interested in esoteric phenomenon in antiquity as well as those who examine the reception of ideas by modern religious movements.
Other notables include a second plenary by Jean-Pierre Brach, who has done a ton of work on the esoteric theory of numbers; Richard Kaczynski, who will speak about how esoteric groups construct their histories; and Wouter Hanegraaff, who needs no introduction for readers of this blog.
And I will be speaking on Sunday morning, so prepare yourselves accordingly.
The preliminary conference schedule can be found at the ASE website, as well as other details about the conference.
Photo by Colgate University.
The number of ESSWE networks appears to be growing steadily. The latest addition to the organization’s constellation is CEENASWE, the Central and Eastern European Network for the Academic Study of Western Esotericism.
This network will be launching itself formally in July with a colloquium in Budapest. For those of you who want more information, here’s what the organizers have to say:
The East-Central European members of ESSWE (The European Society for the Study of Western Esotericism) have decided to establish a branch organization, CEENASWE – Central and Eastern European Network for the Academic Study of Western Esotericism
To mark this development, the official launching of CEENASWE will include a scholarly colloquium, hosted by the CENTER FOR RELIGIOUS STUDIES OF THE CENTRAL EUROPEAN UNIVERSITY in Budapest, on 4-5 July (Friday-Saturday), 2014, highlighting the theme
WESTERN ESOTERICISM IN CENTRAL- and EASTERN-EUROPE – OVER THE CENTURIES
20 minutes’ paper proposals should be sent to Karolina M. Kotkowska email@example.com and firstname.lastname@example.org (with author’s affiliation and a short abstract) by April 15, 2014.
Apparently the group has a Facebook page, but since I am not on Facebook you will have to investigate this avenue on your own!
Of course, I feel this is an appropriate time to remind you that NSEA—the Network for the Study of Esotericism in Antiquity—is still going strong. You can visit us at AncientEsotericism.org or on the Twitter.
Photo by George M. Groutas.
adjective \ˈär-bə-ˌtrer-ē, -ˌtre-rē\
1: depending on individual discretion (as of a judge) and not fixed by law
2 a: not restrained or limited in the exercise of power; ruling by absolute authority b: marked by or resulting from the unrestrained and often tyrannical exercise of power
The nature of magic in antiquity is a much varied thing. Not only do different practices get called magic, but the varying terminology for these activities makes it even harder to put such practices in a box. Furthermore, many practices get labelled such, not by those who practice them, but by other—often more powerful—observers who use such terms pejoratively.
This is a point elaborated by Kimberly B. Stratton in an essay titled Magic Discourse in the Ancient World, which is included in the book Defining Magic: A Reader. (You can read the paper here at Academia.edu). Stratton disagrees with the view that there is a single magic in antiquity, especially when one takes into consideration the power-structures that define what constitutes magic. By trying to pin magic down to a single phenomenon, she argues, we ignore the social landscape that produced the so-called magical act in the first place.
Here’s what Stratton has to say:
I propose that magic is best understood as a discursive formation—a socially constructed body of knowledge that is enmeshed in and supports systems of power. What gets labelled magic is arbitrary and depends upon the society in question. Once the label is affixed, however, it enables certain practices to become magic by virtue of being regarded as such by members of the society. (Stratton 246-247)
While we tend to think of arbitrary as meaning something like “capricious,” what it really means is noted above. There is an implicit power-dynamic within the word, which suggests a particular value judgement that lacks universality because it is created within a specific context. Hence, defining magic in antiquity becomes an arbitrary exercise, where what is magic, and to whom it appears to be magic, are constantly changing variables.
Now, if one didn’t study magic in the ancient world, one might be tempted to say that, because it can be labelled, there must be some concrete concept of magic that is being discussed. But this misses the point. While a good definition suggests that magical practices are rites and rituals that exist on the margins of cultural norms (Dickie, 38), the point is that, when we look at the evidence, what is labelled magic is a moving target. The label stays the same, but the content changes depending on the situation at hand. The label is not so much about the practices themselves, but rather about the status of those practices.
In fact, when one looks at what was considered “magic” in antiquity, one quickly sees that a wide variety of practices fall under this banner. For example, I put together the following list of practices which were considered magic in the ancient world:
As should be obvious by now, there is no single “magic” to speak of. What is even more interesting is that several of these practices were actually components of mainstream Greco-Roman culture (sacrifices, purification, prophecy, and others). Therefore, the practices are not a threat in and of themselves—they require something else to tip them over into the category of “magic.” And now we can begin to see how these practices become enmeshed in power structures which define them as “magic.” Either they threaten to edge-in on existing practices, or they derive from sources which were marginalized in antiquity, such as women, lower classes, or foreign peoples (Dickie 65, 88, 134).
While Stratton’s article mainly relies on representations of women and magic in antiquity to show how these constructions are created, I would like to add two more examples to show how the appellation of magic can be applied arbitrarily:
- The Necromancing Pythagorean
- Jewish and Christian Holy Men
These two examples of “magic” illustrate how different phenomena fall into this nebulous category. They suggest that magic is not a codified set of practices, nor are those doing the defining of magic or practice of magic similarly fixed. These examples are both located within relationships of power, but their power structures and “magical” practices are different.
This will be the last MMM for the foreseeable future. My desire at the moment is to focus my time and energy on my academic work. I will, however, continue to write on topics related to my research—I truly find these articles a lot of fun and plan on posting more of them in the upcoming weeks and months. So please join me in bidding a fond adieu to the MMM and enjoy this final link round-up…
- Looks like the Carthaginians really did sacrifice children. (History of the Ancient World)
- This Renaissance prayer book finds a new market: The super rich. (The Economist)
- And you can have a look at the Rothschild Book of Hours here. (Christie’s)
- The Codex Seraphinianus seems to be a book about a mystical world…but no one can decipher its code. (So Bad It’s Good via @SakhmetK)
- Did a popular American author dabble in the occult? (Religion in American History)
- Here’s an interview with Buddhist Atheist Stephen Batchelor. (Humanistic Paganism)
- And a juicy opportunity to study New Testament Greek. (Hypotyposeis)
- What happened to Sophia, the Judeo-Christian female diety? (Guardian)
- Ethan Doyle White defends Pagan Studies from its critics. (Albion Calling)
- Meanwhile, Wicca enters the popular cultural sphere. (The Wild Hunt)
- Case in point: the Daily Mail takes a look at modern-day witches. (Daily Mail via @AnnaMcKerrow)
- Finally, for those who enjoy biblical food, here’s a recipe for Eziekel Bread, the carbohydrate favored by God in the Old Testament. Ingredients include a 1/2 cup of barley flour, 1 tsp salt, 4 angels and 1 chariot. (Haaretz)
Photo by Phil_Shirley.
- The latest comic book superhero is a Muslim woman. (NPR)
- Some new poems by Sappho have been found. Scholars are tentatively calling it “Lesbos: Poems Under Siege” or “Sappho 2: Electric Boogaloo.” (Daily Beast)
- Here’s what those old-timey alchemists might have been looking at. (BoingBoing)
- Marco Pasi brings you this webinar on Austrian novelist (and occultist!) Gustav Meyrink. (BPH)
- And Dan Brown visits the Ritman Library, where he finds the lost symbol and breaks the DaVinci code. (BPH)
- One parent is told her child should change faiths if he wants to fit in at school. (The Wild Hunt)
- And then the ACLU filed a lawsuit. (Shambhala Sun)
- Pope Francis is sometimes called a rock star, but how does he stack up against Led Zeppelin? (Killing the Buddha)
- And in the wake of Pigeon-gate, one scholar weighs in on the Roman practice of augury, or divination by the flight of birds. (PhDiva)
- The AAR’s call for papers includes one for Contemporary Pagan Studies. (LFHC)
- David Shoemaker will present a series of lectures in March at the William Blake Lodge. Come for the sex magick, stay for the luau. (WBOTO via @Frater_Puck)
- A lot of us owe a spiritual debt to Donald Michael Kraig, so let’s send him some good vibes as he fights cancer. (The Wild Hunt)
- Finally, the Super Bowl is this weekend, where God will choose one team to win, granting them endless touchdowns, while Satan leads the looser astray by causing them to fumble their passes. Or at least that’s what 50% of Americans think. Either that or that their favourite team has been cursed. Go Bears. (PRRI via @TeemuTaira)
Photo by Sébastien Gagnon.
Sex. Birds do it. Bees do it. Some claim it’s a biological imperative, or that it should only take place in certain contexts (between a woman and a man, or within the bounds of marriage, or if you are in luuuve). Others just want to get their rocks off—Wham! Bam! Thank you Ma’am! (Or, uh, Sir. Or both.)
Even Greek gods and Goddesses aren’t immune to physical passions. Duh. We all know about Zeus’ exploits with mortal women. As a god. As a swan. As a bull. Dude gets around. (And has a funny way of luring the ladies, but let’s not get into that. Keep it consensual, people!).
But today I want to talk about Aphrodite, the queen bee of love. In the Homeric Hymn to Aphrodite, the goddess is a bit of a trickster who compels the gods to mingle with mortals. To get even, Zeus gives her a taste of her own medicine, making her fall for the carefree, guitar-playing Anchises, a cattle herder in Troy. To make a long story short, there’s lust, and subterfuge, and an awkward day after.
So what’s so interesting about all this? Two things: One, in order to snag Anchises, Aphrodite has to hide her goddess-ness. Two: Sleeping with a goddess can get you into some real trouble.
When Anchises first meets Aphrodite, he thinks she’s a goddess. But Aphrodite, who has shrunk herself down to the size of a mortal, denies this and tells some cockamamie story about being a simple girl who was stolen by Hermes and brought to Anchises. This being ancient Greece, Anchises accepts this perfectly plausible explanation, and basically says he needs to have sex with her ASAP. (Though he does so in a very poetic way. Take note, fellas.)
Having left his cows in the pasture, he whisks Aphrodite to his home. Some steamy—yet questionable!—stuff ensues. I’ll share it with you:
οἳ δ᾽ ἐπεὶ οὖν λεχέων εὐποιήτων ἐπέβησαν,
κόσμον μέν οἱ πρῶτον ἀπὸ χροὸς εἷλε φαεινόν,
πόρπας τε γναμπτάς θ᾽ ἕλικας κάλυκάς τε καὶ ὅρμους.
λῦσε δέ οἱ ζώνην ἰδὲ εἵματα σιγαλόεντα
ἔκδυε καὶ κατέθηκεν ἐπὶ θρόνου ἀργυροήλου
Ἀγχίσης: ὃ δ᾽ ἔπειτα θεῶν ἰότητι καὶ αἴσῃ
ἀθανάτῃ παρέλεκτο θεᾷ βροτός, οὐ σάφα εἰδώς.
And when they went to his well-appointed bed, he took first from her body the shining jewelry—the curved broaches and the twisted flower-buds and her necklaces. And he loosened her girdle and stripped off her shining garments. And Anchises placed them upon the silver-studded chair. And then he, by the will of the gods and by immortal decree, laid beside the goddess as a mortal…he was not seeing clearly.
Homeric Hymn to Aphrodite, 161-167 (Translation mine)
Damn, that’s hot! Also—Duhn! Duhn! Duhn!—Anchises mistakenly slept with a goddess. If he had seen clearly, the passage implies, he would have known better.
But Anchises knows ignorance is bliss and passes into a deep sleep. Dude sleeps all afternoon while the other herdsmen are working. Who knows what happened to his cows. Maybe they ran away. Maybe they didn’t. The poem doesn’t tell us much with regards to this. What we do know is that—Duhn! Duhn! Duhn!—Aphrodite’s mortal shape wears off and she becomes a giant goddess again. At this point, she wakes up Anchises and demands to know if he thinks she’s fat. Ok, well, not exactly. But sort of. She inquires if she looks like the same kind of person he is. Spoiler alert: She doesn’t.
And Anchises knows he’s in trouble.
Here’s the deal: Dudes who sleep with goddesses don’t fare well. Whereas the women who consort with gods give birth to heroes, the men who bed goddesses meet with misfortune. And Anchises totally knows this. This is what he says:
αὐτίκα σ᾽ ὡς τὰ πρῶτα, θεά, ἴδον ὀφθαλμοῖσιν,
ἔγνων ὡς θεὸς ἦσθα: σὺ δ᾽ οὐ νημερτὲς ἔειπες.
ἀλλά σε πρὸς Ζηνὸς γουνάζομαι αἰγιόχοιο,
μή με ζῶντ᾽ ἀμενηνὸν ἐν ἀνθρώποισιν ἐάσῃς
ναίειν, ἀλλ᾽ ἐλέαιρ᾽: ἐπεὶ οὐ βιοθάλμιος ἀνὴρ
γίγνεται, ὅς τε θεαῖς εὐνάζεται ἀθανάτῃσι.
Immediately, from the first moments that I saw you with my eyes, Goddess, I recognized that you were a god—but you did not speak truly! But I entreat you, in the name of aegis-bearing Zeus, may you not allow me to live feebly among men, but take pity on me, since a man does not become strong who makes love with the immortal goddesses.
Homeric Hymn to Aphrodite, 185-190 (Translation mine)
Beyond Anchises anxiety, we also see here a distinct gendering of sexuality. In a note to this passage, Nicholas Richardson observes a handful of cases where the men who mate with immortal women meet with doom. Those who do so are stuck with impotence, or even death. Richardson observes that Odysseus fears he will lack, uh, vitality if he sleeps with Circe. And we have hints of that here, with the reference to physical strength and weakness. Impotence is bad enough, but there’s also the threat of death. Orion (who slept with Dawn) and Iasion (who bedded Demeter) are two examples of this latter consequence. As Richardson observes, “The idea that those who openly marry goddesses do not have a long or happy life is expressed by Calypso [in the Odyssey] in the complaint at the jealousy of the gods, who begrudge men such fortune” (243). In general, the gods get to sleep with whomever they want; the goddesses, however, spread woe when they hunker down with a human. The distinction is obviously cut along the line of gender.
We saw this portrayal of the murderous (and sexy!) woman earlier with regards to prostitutes, poisons and the patrons who love them. This depiction is further borne out by these tales of the goddesses and their relations with men. It is interesting to note that Anchises additionally is deceived in this story; he loses his agency to the temptation of a duplicitous woman. Like similar ancient portrayals, ladies will do nothing but lie to you and bring you trouble. Even the ones who are goddesses.
Women, they can’t get a break even when they’re superior beings!
Anyway, no wonder Anchises is concerned. Lucky for our cattle-herder, Aphrodite assures him that he won’t suffer because of their liaison. She promises to bear him a most-heroic child, and then leaves. Sort of. She says he’ll be struck with lightning if he tells anyone who the mother of his child is. In other versions of this story, that is exactly what happens: he is struck by lightning, made lame, or even killed for his afternoon with a goddess (Richardson 243). But here everything works out fine.
The Homeric poems date to around 700 BCE, and thus are among the earlier examples of Greek literature that we have. It is interesting to see such constructions of gender and sexuality embedded in these early works. What’s more, it is interesting to see these negative connotations of female sexuality applied even to those who transcend human parameters—the goddesses themselves. Mortal women may not have gotten a fair shake from the Greeks, but neither did the goddesses. That goddesses specifically bring misfortune to men through the act of sexual intercourse, suggests a negative view of women’s sexuality, one that is tied to tragedy, deception, and the threat of impotence or death for the men who sleep with them.
“Homeric Hymn to Aphrodite”. Ed. Nicholas Richardson. Cambridge Greek and Latin Classics. 2010.
Photo by Novowyr.
- Iraq adds Syriac to its list of official languages. (PaleoJudaica)
- The giant sculpture of Christ of the Redeemer in Brazil was recently damaged by storms. Here’s a breathtaking look at its restoration. (Hypervocal)
- Vicarious religion is just one model with which to analyze the beliefs of social groups. But, like all things, haters gonna hate. (RSP)
- Liberals say they are more special than those sheeple who go to church. (Religion Dispatches)
- What happened to the Ark of the Covenant? Is it now buried treasure? Probably not. (Live Science)
- The University of Toronto is hosting a series of lectures on religion and culture in the ancient world. Bonus: Jewish angels. (SCRA)
- And here’s a conference on Western Esotericism and Its Scholars, which is organized by some scholars of Western esotericism. (Amsterdam Hermetica via @WJHanegraaff)
- Why Egyptologists need to stop using Budge. (The Seven Worlds via @ARCE-PA)
- Zombies, eating braaaaaains and terrifying people since antiquity. (Graeco Muse)
- Statistics do wonderful things, like prove the veracity of the Icelandic sagas. (ASNØC)
- Finally, everybody freaks out over a questionable tarot reading, but I’d be thrilled if I had this tarot card in my future. Personally, I prefer my trump cards with double mushrooms, but why be picky. (Daily Drawings)
Photo by Susanne Koch.