In This Article Expand or collapse the "in this article" section Magic in the Ancient Greco-Roman World

  • Introduction

Classics Magic in the Ancient Greco-Roman World
Radcliffe Edmonds
  • LAST REVIEWED: 11 October 2019
  • LAST MODIFIED: 27 July 2016
  • DOI: 10.1093/obo/9780195389661-0107


The study of magic in the ancient Greco-Roman world has blossomed in the decades since the publication of the translation of the Greek magical papyri by Hans Dieter Betz and his team in 1987. Although a scholarly interest in magic flourished at the turn of the 19th century, resulting in the editing and publication of collections of texts, the recent waves of scholarship have employed new methodologies drawn from anthropology, literary criticism, and comparative religion, focusing more on the social contexts of this material, as well as the cultural ideologies and constructs revealed. Because “magic” is a term coming from Greco-Roman antiquity that has meant many different things to many different people at many different times, one of the fundamental issues in the field is the demarcation of that field of study. Not only is the definition of magic still hotly contested, but scholars might dispute the inclusion of any of the bodies of evidence listed in this bibliography as appropriate for a study of magic.

Collections of Primary Texts

The primary texts that provide the evidence for magic in the ancient Greco-Roman world range from Egyptian papyri to lead curse tablets to learned manuals on astrology and alchemy. The scholarship on ancient magic has followed the editing and publication of the primary texts, especially when translation and commentaries have made these difficult materials accessible to a wider scholarly audience. Although many of the papyri and defixiones have been translated, much still remains accessible only to scholars with a command of the ancient languages (not just Greek and Latin, but also Demotic Egyptian, Hebrew, and other languages of the ancient Mediterranean).

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