Angela Robey


Chapter 9

Magic and Mystery in the Greek Magical Papyri

by Hans Dieter Betz


(Religionswissenschaft = religion science Religionsgeschichte= Religion (hi)story)


I. Magic and Mystery

A. A Theory about Religion

1. Humans thought as "primitive" at the beginning associated with negative magic

2. Explanations of this involvement with magic

a. Primitive mankind's' irrationality

b. Primordial stupidity (Urdummheit)

c. Mistaken science (correct observations, wrong conclusions)

3. Religion results from later enlightenment, becomes transitional phase between this pre-scientific ignorance and modern scientific world view (atheism/agnosticism)

B. Another Theory

1. Primitive religion was religion in purest form (human race was unspoiled)

2. Seduction of demons, caused corruption ­ such as magic

C. Alan Segal "its (magic's) meaning changes as the context in which it is used changes"

D. Religious Leaders and Social Scientists

1. One person's religion is another's magic

2. Social Scientists: whatever humans undertake is to gain power over others, assume posture of freedom from any interest in power

3. Religious Leaders: said to be only ones interested in distinguishing between religion and magic; maintain purity of religion; divide and conquer

E. Magic and Religion

1. Definitions of religion: narrow = worship of a deity wider = attitude toward reality

2. Magic is a Weltanschauung (worldview) "a particular way to understand things and their mutual connectedness"

3. If you assume the narrow definition of religion, can describe magic as pertaining to areas outside of religion

F. Magic and Science

1. Until 16th/17th centuries, magicians/Hermetists were leaders in sciences (ex. Isaac Newton involved in alchemy and Hermetism), many discoveries originated in their experiments/speculations

G. Magic and Western Civilization

H. "...definitions of magic and religion will always turn out to be a matter of personal, subjective preference

II. Magic in the Greek Magical Papyri

A. Magic and religion both positive; treated as a single entity

1. Positive Terms used:

a. hiera mageia (Holy Magic)

b. o macarie muste (O Blessed Initiate)

2. Other Descriptive terms used with positive connotations:

a. mageia (magic)

b. magikos (magical)

c. magos (magician)

B. Not all magic is considered positive

1. Selective process

a. Select texts that constitute an authoritative tradition

b. Discard texts no judged worthy of tradition

2. Concern of legitimacy of "forcing the gods"

3. Magician often admits fear of illegitimacy and danger; assures gods he's doing as commanded; keeps phylacteria (protective charms)

4. Classification of magic

a. Inferior = using tools

b. Superior = words only

C. Main concern is whether the magic "works"

D. Contain magical material of a syncretistic nature (ex. Greek, Demotic, Old Coptic)

III. Mystery Cults and the Greek Magical Papyri

A. No distinction between magic and mystery cult; magic is called mysterion (mystery); magicians call themselves mystes (initiates); outsides are called amysteriastos (uninitiated)

B. This relationship shows an interpretive tendency by magicians, mystery cult terms are of Greek origin, mystery cult material derives from Greek and was imported into Egypt

C. Magic was a fundamental element in the rituals of the Greek mysteries

D. Mystery cults invaded and transformed other cults into mystery cults

E. Hellenistic Judaism uses mystery cult terms and ideas (ex. Hellenistic Jewish wisdom literature, apocalypticism, the Testaments of the Twelve Patriarchs, Qumran, and Philo of Alexandria) Moses = mystagogos (mystagogue: someone who "leads" the initiates to the initiation)

F. Early Christian Literature uses word mystery examples p. 251 (Paul, Ephesians call Gospel itself a mystery, apocalypticism, Revelations, Mark, Matthew)

G. Mithras Liturgy

1. Creation of the syncretism of the Hellenistic era

2. Whole ritual called mysterion (mystery)

3. Core of ritual: preparation of ointment ­ to mega mysterion tou kantharon (the great mystery of the scarab) ­ anoint the face with mystery ­ conveys immortality

4. Albrecht Dieterich vs. Franz Cumont

a. Dieterich argues that it belonged to Mithras Cult

b. Cumont argues that the name Mithras was just inserted to the text, and had nothing to do with the rest of the material

5. Wealth of material indicating magical elements

6. Developed differently in different countries, possibly an Egyptian version

H. Jewish influences: Stele of Jeu the hieroglyphist, Eighth Book of Moses, these texts show Egyptian, Greek, and Jewish religious elements (a love spell in an invocation of the Jewish god refers to sex act as "mystery rite of Aphrodite"

I. Example of a "Slander Spell" (diabole)

1. In the great magical papyrus of Paris, contains two passages that contain religious slander

2. Addresses goddess Aktiophis

3. Announces slander of a woman who revealed the goddess's mysteries (notorious scandal to reveal them to uninitiated)

IV. Conclusions

A. Growing influence of Greek mystery cult terminology and ideas had a profound impact on the Greek magical papyri

B. Older Egyptian magic transformed from a highly valued "religion" to a lower level of mere "magic" (as a result of Greek encounter)

C. Greek older magic was transformed into a new and higher "religion"

D. Conscientious cult officials of the Mithras mysteries would be horrified by the Mithras Liturgy, which betrayed the Mithraic "religion" for "magic"

E. Theological issues determine the distinctions between magic and religion, along with their resulting definitions


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