Testing the Limits of Ritual Choices

Evidence is also available for individual appropriation of religion and embodied practice outside of public arenas. We find confirmation of domestic or even nearly invisible religious practice in the same period of the latter half of the first century BC if, as mentioned in the previous chapter, we take into account the evidence for and the discourse on magic. Research on magic in the Greco-Roman world is a growing field, and it has become increasingly apparent that magic was not a phenomenon restricted to the social and spatial margins of the Roman Empire—to Egypt, or to the poor, for example—but that it permeated all levels of society and was fully a part of what is useful to address as “religion” in antiquity.[1] This is true regardless of the clear differences between the professional magic of Egyptian papyri and the popular traditions with their individual appropriations in the (not only Latin) West. In the late 1990s an excavation at Rome revealed several curse tablets and special apparatuses deposited in a fountain sacral- ized in multiple ways.[2] Likewise, ashes from the sacrificial pit behind the temple of Mater Magna in a joint sanctuary of Isis and Mater Magna in ancient Mogontiacum (modern Mainz) has brought to light twenty-four texts on lead tablets and evidence that many more had once been deposited there.[3] These texts reveal the widespread use of certain prayer techniques, the diverse occasions to which these were applied, the variety of deities invoked (among which were the most prominent deities of the local panthea), and the figurative language and reasoning frequently adopted.

Yet I will not address this type of evidence here. Within the framework of this book my investigation does not concern the details of magic, its techniques and materials, but the position that magic occupied within the range of religious options available to individuals in the Greco-Roman world. Under what circumstances did individuals have recourse to magical practices and specialists of magic? How did they frame this recourse? Did they feel a need to justify it, or did magic simply enlarge the range of options available for individual action?

For the most part, my approach to these questions will be strictly philological and historical. Starting from the terms and phenomena we tend to designate as “magic,” I am interested in historicizing magic, that is, in investigating the theoretical concepts and pragmatics associated with magic in a specific society and period. I am interested in the “user perspective” of magic as an individual option in early Augustan Rome. As my approach is qualitative rather than quantitative, a single intelligent member of Roman society who is aware of the surrounding world will comprise sufficient material for study. Possible generalizations will be discussed toward the end of the chapter.

  • [1] See Gordon 2013, 107.
  • [2] For the concept of sacralization, see Rupke 2012f.
  • [3] Rome: Piranomonte 2002. Mainz: Witteyer 2004a, 2004b, 2005; Blansdorf 2005, 2008, 2009.
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