From Black Magic to Mystical Awe

Casting Spells

From a book of spells, early fourth century:

Spell of Attraction: it attracts those who are uncontrollable and require no magical material and who come in one day. It inflicts sickness excellently and destroys powerfully, sends dreams beautifully, accomplishes dream revelations marvelously. . . .

Take a field mouse and deify it in spring water. And take two moon beetles and deify them in river water, and take a river crab and fat of a dappled goat that is virgin and dung of a dog—faced baboon, two eggs of an ibis, two drams of storax, two drams of myrrh, two drams of crocus, four drams of Italian galingale, four drams of uncut frankincense, a single onion. Put all these things into a mortar with the mouse and the remaining items and, after pounding thoroughly, place in a lead box and keep for use. And whenever you want to perform a rite, take a little, make a charcoal fire, go up on a lofty roof, and make this offering as you say this spell at moonrise and at once she comes.

Spell: “Let all the darkness of clouds be dispersed for me, and let the goddess AKTIOPHIS shine for me, and let her hear my holy voice. For I come, announcing the slander of NN, a defiled and unholy woman, for she has slanderously brought your holy mysteries to the knowledge of men. Go to her, NN, and take away her sleep and put a burning heat in her soul, punishment and frenzied passion in her thoughts, and banish her from every place and every house, and attract her here to me, NN.”

And after these things, sacrifice. Then raise loud groans and go backward as you descend. And she will come at once. But pay attention to the one being attracted so that you may open the door for her; otherwise the spell will fail.

Hexed

From a small lead tablet from Britain, second century:

A memorandum to the god Mercury [erased: “Mars Silvanus"] from Saturnina, a woman, concerning the linen cloth she has lost. Let him who stole it not have rest before/unless/until he brings the aforesaid things to the temple, whether he is man or woman, slave or free. She gives a third part to the aforesaid god on condition that he exact those things which have been aforewritten. A third part from what has been lost is given to the god Silvanus on condition that he exact this, whether the thief is man or woman, slave or free.

Saved by divine love

A poem of thanksgiving to a local Gallic deity, Mars Lenus, first or second century:

While I am unable to bear the dire pangs of body 
And spirit, wandering forever near the edges of death, 
I, Tychicus, by Mars’ divine love, am saved. 
This little thanks-offering I dedicate in return for his great caring.

The stay of star-spangled heaven

A hymn to Zeus from the first century:

Zeus of the flashing bolt was the last to be born and the latest. 
Zeus is the head and the middle, of Zeus were all things created. 
Zeus is the stay of the earth and the stay of the star-spangled heaven. 
Zeus is male and female of sex, the bride everlasting, Zeus is the breath of all and the rush of the unwearying fire, 
Zeus is the root of the sea, and the sun and moon in the heavens, 
Zeus of the flashing bolt is the king and the ruler of all men, 
Hiding them all away, and again to the glad light of heaven 
Bringing them back at his will, performing terrible marvels.

Between sleeping and waking

Aelius Aristides, a well-known speaker of his day, describes a religious experience he had in Pergamum, at a shrine of the god Asclepius, in 146:

For there was a feeling as if taking hold of him [the god] and of clearly perceiving that he himself had come, of being midway between sleeping and waking, of wanting to look, of struggling against his departure too soon, of having applied one’s ears and of hearing some things as in a dream, some waking; hair stood straight, tears flowed in joy; the burden of understanding seemed light. What man is able to put these things into words?

To health!

A third-century copy of a hymn to the god of health, Hygieia, by Ariphron of Sicyon 
(originally written in the fourth century B.C.):

Hygieia, most reverend of the gods among mankind, 
Would that I may dwell with you for the rest of my life! 
Be present and well-disposed to me, for if there is any delight in money or in offspring 
Or in royal rule, equal to that of the gods among men, or in desires, 
That we hunt with hidden traps of Aphrodite, 
Or if any other delight has been revealed to man from the gods, or any relief from pains, 
It is through you, blessed Hygieia, that they are all flourishing and are brilliant in the Graces’ speech. 
Apart from you no man counts as blessed.

Religious Resort

A description of a rural shrine, about 30 miles from Rome, 
by Pliny the Younger, early 100s:

The banks are thickly clothed with ash trees and poplars, whose green reflections can be counted in the clear stream as if they were planted there. The water is as cold and as sparkling as snow. Close by is a holy temple of great antiquity in which is standing an image of the [river] god Clitumnus, himself clad in a magistrate’s bordered robe; the written oracles lying there prove the presence and prophetic powers of his divinity.

All round are a number of small shrines, each containing its god and having its own name and cult, and some of them also their own springs. . . . The people of Hispellum, to whom the deified Emperor Augustus presented the site, maintain a bathing place at the town expense and also provide an inn, and there are several houses picturesquely situated along the river bank.

Everything in fact will delight you, and you can also find something to read: you can study the numerous inscriptions in honor of the spring and the god, which many hands have written on every pillar and wall. CH

By Ramsay Macmullen and Eugene Lane

[Christian History originally published this article in Christian History Issue #57 in 1998]

Reprinted by permission from Paganism and Christianity, 100–425 C.E.: A Sourcebook, edited by Ramsay Macmullen and Eugene Lane, copyright 1992 Augsburg Fortress.
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