Joe Ratner's Outline of Magika Hiera Chapter 10

"Nullum Crimen sine Lege: Socioreligious Sanctions on Magic"

by C. R. Phillips III

I. Modern Classicists see magical elements in Greco-Roman literature and religion

a. Evidence of repression of magic in ancient sources creates assumption that ancients were universally and strongly against "magic"

b. Nineteenth century idea of magic as "primitive" and "bad" religion or "bad" science still common

c. "Magic" is practices that are not in accord with "developed" religion

d. Accept ancient texts against magic as valid

e. Assumption ancients had universal standards and what was "magic" then is "magic" now

f. Unsanctioned religious activity was common, unlike Christian view of magic as opposite of religion, ancients were tolerant.

g. Repression was based on specific circumstances, not general.

II. Legal definitions and Sanctions

a. Evidence for legal action against magic is sparse

i. Reflects societal acceptance or

ii. Inability to achieve legal consensus

iii. Will look at ancient and modern view of "magic"

b. Using modern definition of "magic" in regard to ancient beliefs problematic

i. Define that which does not conform to Judeo-Christian ideas or modern science as magic

ii. Ancient religion and science did not provide framework for law

1. Various labels could be applied to unsanctioned religious activity

2. Unsanctioned religious activity not necessarily illegal

3. If you could make the charge of magic stick, than it was magic

c. No ban on magic per se in Greek law

i. Legal action against asebeia (impiety) based on specific action

ii. Examples

1. Pharmaka could be actionable as asebeia, but not called magic; could be viewed as part of religious ritual or not

2. Diopeithes' law c.432-1 B.C.E. and prosecution of Anaxagoras involved astrophysical observations and may have been aimed at Pericles

3. Alcibiades profanation of mysteries was asebeia

4. Socrates trial (399 B.C.E.) involved accusations of 1) refusal to recognize state gods, 2) introduction of new divinities, 3) corruption of youth

5. Theft of sacred objects could be asebeia or just theft

d. All societies have norms of behavior

i. Ancients legitimized norms with divine sanction

1. Secular transgression = religious transgression

2. Pagan religion did not clearly define "orthodoxy" and "heresy"

3. Polytheism and syncretism prevented rigid "right" and "wrong" regarding religious practice

4. Cult rules did not preclude other religious associations

ii. Beyond theft of sacred objects and transgression of religious ordinances unsanctioned religious activity vague

1. Three examples above have secular political agenda

2. Charge of impiety was strong social control

3. Science did not provide framework either (unlike early modern Europe)

iii. Without universally accepted religious or scientific basis, local and personal standards prevailed

1. Plato "It is not easy to know the truth about these and similar practices, and even if one were to find out, it would be difficult to convince others; and it is just not worth the effort to try to persuade people whose heads are full of mutual suspicion"

e. Socioeconomic elite could act against unsanctioned religious activity

i. Literature reminded elite of this activity

ii. Unsanctioned religious activity were a given in daily life

iii. Elite not likely to take action unless social order in danger

f. Bulk of "magical" relics precludes large-scale repression

g. Elite contempt for lower classes limited scrutiny

h. Roman evidence punishes result, not means

i. Law only applied where complaint was made. Murder by poison, for example, was outside secular norms and so implied unsanctioned religious activity

i. Astrology labeled as magic by moderns

i. Common in ancient world

ii. Sanctions were practical, not theological

iii. Not practical to repress

1. Repeated expulsions of astrologers from Rome indicate lack of continual repression

2. Only when someone came to authorities attention for a particular reason

j. In late antiquity, rise of Christianity gave norms (though competing) of religious activity and hence defined unsanctioned activity

k. In general

i. Unsanctioned religious activity was common

ii. Repression was infrequent

iii. No general ban, only specific activities

iv. Legal action unusual

v. Example of legal reaction to obscenity in U.S.

1. Religious definitions do not apply due to separation of church and state

2. Scientific definitions lacking due to indifference to legal issues

3. Supreme Court said "contemporary community standards" of "prurient interest" applied

4. Later questioned "prurient interest" as subject to person defining them

5. Definition avoids theory

vi. Ultimate legitimacy relied on traditional authority, which was applied by those in power vii. Thus legal system functioned without definition

III. Religious Definitions

a. Pagan antiquity did not have a universally accepted sacred or theological law

i.. Definitions and norms varied

ii. Criminality depended on who, what, when, and why

b. Modern definitional problems

i. Human religious thought evolved from irrational, savage magic

ii. Influence of nineteenth-century Christianity

1. Greco-Roman ideas not Christian and therefore magic by definition

2. Some exceptions for Plato and Aristotle

3. Evolved to Christianity

iii. Anthropological tradition

1. Anticlerical agenda

2. Religion evolved from magic, but had further evolved into science

3. Evidenced by evolution theory and technological achievement

iv. Magic was thought system of early society

v. Contemporary "primitive" societies had practices similar to "magic" of antiquity

vi. To clerics "magic" evolved into science (bad religion)

vii. To anthropologists "magic" evolved into religion (bad science)

viii. Conclusion, they couldn't think clearly and classical religion =magic

c. What constituted "magic" in antiquity needs rethinking

i. Only what they labeled as magic, not all unsanctioned religious activity

IV. Scientific Definitions

a. Modern science is "true"

i. What we can explain and earlier societies could not explain naturalistically was "primitive religion" or "magic"

b. Evolution of scientific thinking replaces old paradigms with new

i. Therefore science is relative to its time and not a valid criteria

c. Ancient science was not separate from religious thought and philosophy

i. Lacked symbolic language, so meaning could be vague

ii. Labels depended on point of view of source

V. Conclusions

a. No universal religious and scientific norms

b. Unsanctioned religious activity not subject to comprehensive legislation

c. Ancients called small subset of unsanctioned religious activity "magic"

d. Sanctions were based more on motive than practice

e. Sanction was usually against specific activity

f. Point of view of ruling elite was basis for sanction

g. No specific legal, religious, or scientific definition of unsanctioned religious activities

h. Only modern Christian theology attempts to rigidly define magic

i. We should look at specific activities and prosecutions of unsanctioned religious activity which might or might not have been considered magic.


Return To Main Page: CLST 4003 H. Spring, 2002. Greek Religion Honors Colloquium.