Mara Dabrishus


Incantations and Prayers for Salvation on Inscribed Greek Amulets


I. Basics of Amulets

A. Used for protection and deliverance from disease

1. Usually used as a last resort in the classical period. Critics thought of amulets as "superstitious."

a. Pericles was persuaded into wearing amulets during the plague.

b. Bion used several amulets during the last days of his life.

B. Amulets were in demand for everything.

1. Could serve to introduce desirable qualities (love, wealth, power, victory)

2. Usually used to cure medical complaints.

C. Amulets

1. Organic substances or simple compounds

2. Application accompanied by spoken prayers or incantations

II. The combined use of incantation and amulet

A. When and Where

1. Written charms are traced to ancient Egyptian and Near Eastern rituals

2. Greek traders came into contact with these cultures.

3. It is not certain when the Greeks picked up this idea.

B. Mentions (incantation separate from amulet)

1. Homer: Autolycus stops the bleeding of Odysseus' leg by binding the wound and with an incantation.

C. Mentions (amulet and incantation)

1. Pindar: description of Asclepius' medical methodology (incantation, charm or drug, and surgery)

2. Plato's Charmides where Socrates reveals the recipe for a headache amulet

3. Certain charms are only effective if used with incantations.

III. Early inscribed amulets: the Ephesia Grammata

A. very little evidence

1. Perishable material

2. gold and silver were reused, as well as other metals

B. Early Evidence

1. Rings

a. Antiphanes mentions a ring for digestive pains

b. Aristophanes alludes to markets for inscribed rings

2. apotropaic or evil-adverting spells

a. used to expel demons

b. Croesus recited them to save himself from being burned at a pyre.

3. Written Charms

a. It is not certain on what or in what manner written charms were carried in general.

b. An Ephesian boxer wore the letters tied to his ankle.

c. Letters put on a lead tablet, which was folded six times, and turned into a charm.

IV. Amulets with incantations in the Roman Empire

A. Between the Hellenistic age and the Roman Empire, inscribed amulets became very popular.

B. The Philinna Papyrus: contains two incantations that are antecedents of some of the inscriptions found on amulets.

1. First incantation was used against inflammation

a. An Incantation of the Syrian Woman from Gadara where initiates of a mystery religion are set aflame and doused with water.

b. historiolae: short stories recounting mythological themes that sympathetically persuade the sufferer's illness to cease.

2. Second incantation: The "Flee" Formula

a. Something is being told to flee and the infected area is touched with a amulet.

C.Pliny's Historia Naturalis

1. Numerous folklore remedies are described.

V. The Magic Lamellae

A. Slips of gold and silver foil with protective charms that came highly recommended.

B. Basics

1. Orphic lamellae

2. date to the late classical period

3. were not at first amulets, but instead they were placed on corpses to protect the dead in the afterlife and the rebirth cycle.

C. Evidence toward traditional amulets

1. gold tablets found enclosed in tubular necklaces

2. gold tablet for Caecilia Secundina that was rolled with Greek text of six lines that contain portions of the Orphic formula.

3. protection for the dead in the afterlife could have switched to protection against death for living humans.

VI. Social Context

A. Charms, although little is known about their content or purpose, are concerned with health and cure disease or prevent them.

B. Interest in recording the specific malady on the charm (required proper diagnosis)

1. Socrates' leaf and Eudemos' ring

2. Later Lamellae spells

C. Magical papyri did not differentiate between a specific ailment and the demonic influence.

1. mostly focused on the evil spirits instead of the ailment.

D. Diseases

1. Epilepsy

a. sufferer must wear the amulet at all times

b. the spirit of the epilepsy is called to depart

2. Gout

a. Names must be written on a tin lamellae with a special stylus and on a Sunday bind the amulet on the foot of the patient, then again in 36 days. On the 36th day, untie it.

b. If a golden lamella is engraved while the moon is in Libra or Leo, the sufferer will recover.

3. Extreme Paranoia.

a. Some amulets list a number of medical complaints

b. The spell will summon a god, conjures "all spirits, every falling sickness, every hydrophobia, and the evil eye." Also, it includes a reference to a violet demonic attack.

VII. Prayers for protection

A. Prayer Formulas

1. Text usually calls for the invocation of the god with use of the imperative. It bids the deity to take action.

B. Blurring of earthly protection and eternal salvation

1. The prayer formula aims at persuading a god to bring about the desired result.

2. The incantation was believed to act automatically on the disease through some sympathetic process.

3. It is impossible to distinguish the function of prayer and the function of incantation

Return to Main Page: CLST 4003H. Spring, 2002