Is Cursing a Magical Act?

In a recent post at the Ancient Curses blog, I talked about the categorical difficulties inherent in the term “magic.” I took the view that many of the distinguishing features which scholars use to define magical practices often apply to normative religious phenomena in antiquity. Thus, when talking about the ancient world, it is not so easy to separate magic from religion. Indeed, many of these constructions are contextual.

It does seem, however, that some practices could be considered more “magical” than others. Cursing, with its definite goals and specific practices, would appear to be an instance of “real” magic.

However, even cursing turns out not to be so magical. In fact, curses were used by nearly everyone in antiquity, and were even somewhat common place. In this way, cursing was one practice among many that could be used to address difficult life circumstances. Furthermore, in many cases it is hard to distinguish cursing from religion. The practice of cursing, thus, does not offer a clear-cut case of magic, but rather illustrates how problematic the category of magic is.

Read the Full post at AncientCurses.com!

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Defining the Magical Practitioner in Antiquity

When we think of curses, we think of a magician, or even a witch, who’s up to no good in the dark of the night. Ancient literature teems with this figure: the witch of Endor, Medea, even followers of Jesus figure into this portrait of the evil magical practitioner (Gordon 253).

I want to set aside the specific question of cursing for a moment, and look at how we define the magical practitioner in antiquity. I would argue that we can’t define such a person—or at the very least, that it’s hard to pinpoint such a figure.

While I may not draw a hard and fast line between religion and magic, others have attempted to define what separated magicians from their religious counterparts. I want to look at some of these categories and determine whether or not they are useful for analysing magic in antiquity. In many ways, these categories reflect the similarities between the two spheres rather than any inherent differences.

Read the full post at Ancient Curses…

Photo via Wikimedia Commons.

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Curses as Divine Authenticator: The Wrath of Moses in the Book of Numbers

Much of the Hebrew Bible (aka the Old Testament) is devoted to Moses—who he was, his miraculous deeds, and stories which affirm his leadership in the Israelite community.

The Book of Numbers, in particular, highlights this last dimension of Moses’ leadership skills. Time and again, Moses is depicted as having a special relationship with the Hebrew god, one that reaches an intimacy not afforded to other Israelites or other worshipers.

I want to look at two examples where God curses those who dare to question Moses’ primacy: These events are recounted in Numbers 12 and 16, and detail what happens when Moses leadership is challenged…

Read the full post at the Ancient Curses blog!

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Announcing the Ancient Curses Project!

Ancient CursesI’ve been very fortunate in my time at York to work with some amazing professors who have encouraged me to research areas that are not always accessible to undergraduates. This year is no exception, and I am currently undertaking a directed research project on Curses and Curse Stories with Professor Tony Burke. Obviously, this fits in well with my general research interests and gives me the opportunity to pursue these phenomena from a variety of angles.

Part of my course mark involves a digital humanities component. So yes, this means that there is a companion website to by research project. Of course there is.

So without further ado, I am happy to announce AncientCurses.com! This website will serve multiple purposes. On the one hand, it will act as a repository for the material I collect as I move through this project. As such, you will find handy resource guides to curses found in classical literature, Biblical stories, and other materials. It also provides research resources, such as bibliographies, online digital libraries, and other relevant websites. There is also a blog where I explore in more detail some of the more interesting curses I find and also sort through some of the issues which surround the study of curses.

While some of the pages are admittedly sparse, the website is already up-and-running. Obviously, what’s there is a work-in-progress and I’ll be adding to it throughout the year (and maybe even thereafter).

Here’s an excerpt form the first blog post:

This blog will mostly cover curses and curse stories as I encounter them in my research and attempt to understand the role of curses in ancient society. The study of cursing in antiquity is fraught with methodological issues. How do we define curses? Who practiced them? Why are similar phenomena labelled differently depending on the context? These are just some of the questions which confront those who study this area. The editorial colour which shades these practices must be noted, for what often lies underneath the rhetorical veneer are many shades of grey.

My approach is a bit minimalistic: A curse, is a curse, is a curse. My view is that plenty can be said about curses and the societies that produced them without resorting to caricatures, hagiography, or convoluted taxonomy. Thus, this project will cover a large range of material in an attempt to comprehensively survey the subject matter and find points of convergence as well as roads of departure.  Among the sources are Near Eastern curses, literary curses (from classical and Biblical literature), and materials such as curse tablets and other forms of sympathetic malediction practices.

I hope you have the chance to stop by an let me know what you think of the site. In my opinion, the best part is the random curse generator on the sidebar—so you can get cursed anew with every visit.

Posted in Academic, Ancient, Curses | 2 Comments

Associations in the Greco-Roman World, a Sourcebook

GRAI wanted to bring your attention to a book that may be of some interest to readers of this blog. It’s by a professor I’ve worked with at York, Philip Harland, and since I was hired as a research assistant on this project, I can personally vouch for its contents!

The book, Greco-Roman Associations: Texts, Translations and Commentary, is the second volume in a series (The first volume can be found here). It collects inscriptions from Asia Minor and the north coast of the Black Sea and is a valuable resource for those seeking to understand antiquity from the ground up. Topically, this volume focuses on associations, a broad category which includes religious groups, trade guilds, and funerary associations among others.

Here’s an excerpt from the introduction on the topic of religion and associations:

While immigrant, occupational, and familial associations are sometimes easier for the social historian to identify, others are less so. In particular, with many groups, all we know is that numerous individuals joined together regularly to form a society, to honour a particular deity, or to be initiated into the mysteries of a deity. And in many of these cases no further information is available concerning how these individuals may have been connected before the formation of the association. This latter situation has often led to the rather unhelpful scholarly category of the “cultic association” or “religious association,” with, in some cases, scholars debating whether or not this or that group was “religious” enough to be called a “cultic association,” or whether a particular group was merely a “club,” or a “political association,” or what have you. Although it is true that a given group may have focussed more on honouring certain deities than some other group, these distinctions are, now, largely unrecoverable for the historian. We shall see that immigrant groups, occupational guilds, neighbourhood associations, and others were similarly concerned with honouring the gods, so virtually all groups discussed in this work had a cultic function and were, in some sense, “cultic associations.” (Harland, 3)

What I think is really valuable about this text is that this material is not the most easily accessed of ancient sources—the translations can be tricky and the source material is often partial, and they lack the “star power” that our regular sources, such as Livy or even (ugh) Tertullian, possess. It is this latter aspect that I think provides the most value to scholars in that these inscriptions offer a glimpse into the everyday lives of those living in the Hellenistic era and Roman Empire.

If this sounds like your thing, you can get the book at the DeGruyter website, though be warned it’s quite pricey.

This being my blog, I am going to take a moment to highlight my important work on this book: I indexed sections IX and X, as well as did a bit of proofreading. Perhaps one day I will also have my own book of translations, but until then I’ll content myself with a nice mention in the acknowledgements section.

Posted in Academic, Ancient, Greek, The Mysteries | Leave a comment

Satyrs and Maenads: Themes in the Mysteries of Dionysus

The Greek wine-god Dionysus was a popular figure, both in public religion as well as in more private settings, such as with his mysteries. Scholars look to many sources to understand his mysteries, with artistic evidence—such as that found on murals or vases—comprising one way to understand what his worshipers did and believed. Common themes are often found in this art. There is Dionysus, who is wreathed in ivy and attended by fawn-skinned cloaked maenads, female worshipers who carry thyrsoi and fend-off the advances of satyrs, half-man/half-goat creatures of Greek mythology. These characters find themselves in a variety of situations, one of which is that of the “sleeping maenad.” The sleeping maenad appears on vases and in statues, and also on reliefs. The trope here is as follows: The maenad sleeps while some horny Satyrs look on—often with lewd results. We know the Satyrs are horny because they are depicted with giant erections. If you are squeamish about that last sentence, I recommend not reading any further because the rest of this post is totally not safe for work. So the maenad sleeps and the satyrs do whatever they do. In one case, a Satyr gropes the thigh of an underwearless-maenad, as his stimulated companion eagerly looks on (ARV 188/68 at the Musée de Antiquitiés in Rouen—but you can find it closer to hand in Barbara Goff’s Citizen Bacchae, pg. 269). For those who are wondering, yes this was pretty rape-y, but it was the ancient world and you could do awful things to women back then. Sometimes the satyrs didn’t physically assault the sleeping maenad, which brings me to another situation which is, well, perplexing. I am referring to a relief found on a Roman sarcophagus which depicts this common theme of sleeping maenad/horny satyr. But this time there’s a twist: The satyr pleasures himself with a statue. See, um, below. Satyr Here the maenad sleeps, and the Satyr watches on. But instead of taking a swipe at the lovely lass, he appears to be mounting himself on the erect penis of a statue behind him. Obviously, there’s a lot going on here. The Satyr is partially shielded by a curtain, which appears to be held by another Satyr, while grape leaves and pine cones decorate the scene, making a clear connection to Dionysus. The maenad reclines while another satyr emerges in the background, but she appears unscathed. The rest of the sarcophagus appears to depict some sort of nighttime revelry connected with the mysteries of Dionysus: there are torches, a woman carries the sacred basket on her head, and one man is unable to stand up without a bit of help—perhaps he was overpowered by some initiation rites or maybe he indulged in too much wine. Bacchanalia This sarcophagus presents a great example of the problems which surround studying the mysteries in that it combines both mythological themes with actual human activities. Do the activities of the Satyr represent ritual activity? Are they simply part of the teachings that might have been revealed doing initiation? Did women play a passive role in these mysteries? And the big one: Was it only about sex or was it an allegory with a deeper meaning? That such a graphic image would be found on funerary item is shocking to our modern sensibilities. Regardless, these scenes were of great importance for the person to whom this sarcophagus belonged, and tapped into a theme that was widespread in antiquity: the horny satyr and sleeping maenad. I do not know if the “statue penetration” is a common theme as well, but here it gets play within what was an otherwise common story.

Posted in Ancient, The Mysteries | 4 Comments

Blogroll Update: Summer 2014

The blogroll is constantly a work in progress—new finds get added, dead links are taken away, and sometimes the overall shape changes as Invocatio itself changes.

Over the past little while, I’ve added some new blogs to the sidebar and I wanted to bring a few of them to your attention in a more formal way. So here goes:

Albion Calling
Most readers of this blog will already be familiar with Albion Calling, the blog of British archaeologist Ethan Doyle White. In addition to providing a back-door look at the academic study of paganism, he features interviews with up-and-coming scholars in the field as well as more established academics, like Ronald Hutton. This is a welcome addition to the field in so many ways and I encourage you to give it a look if you haven’t already.

Apocryphicity
This is the blog of Christian Apocrypha scholar (and York professor) Tony Burke. Full Disclosure: I worked with Burke on the York Christian Apocrypha Symposium and he’s also supervising me on a project this year—so perhaps I am biased. Nevertheless, Burke is a mover and shaker in the field of non-traditional biblical studies, best exemplified by his efforts to create a scholarly dialogue around the (you guessed it) Christian Apocrypha and other non-canonical Christian literature. If you want to know more about Jesus was doing outside the pages of the Bible, then this is the blog for you.

Three Principle Rounds
When I first met Sheldon Kent at ESSWE4, we discussed the world of academic blogging. Kent was working on such an interesting research topic (Mormonism! Esotericism! Esoteric Mormonism!) that I immediately suggested he consider starting a blog of his own. I am so happy to see that he has followed through! Three Principle Rounds combines both academic-y posts on the subject as well as his observations on current trends in the Mormon community as it adapts to the 21st century. His perspective is a much-needed one and provides a knowledgeable—and objective—angle that significantly differs from first-person sources or straight journalistic coverage of Mormonism.

All these blogs are worth a read and if you haven’t had a chance to get to know them, I strongly suggest you do. In addition to the above-mentioned blogs, there are a few other new links to peruse and, of course, I welcome your suggestions for blogs I might have missed. Enjoy!

 

Posted in Culture | 2 Comments