Magic & Witchcraft in Ancient Greece & Rome – Prof. Marguerite Johnson – 7 Lecture Course

In this special seven-part course, Marguerite Johnson takes us on a magical mystery tour of magic and witchcraft in ancient Greece and Rome, with a sprinkling of Egyptian occult practices. Each lecture introduces a particular type of magic; is extensively illustrated with archaeological evidence; features excerpts from ancient writing; and includes a fascinating reading list for those interested in pursuing the topics in more detail. 

Circe Offering the Cup to Ulysses’ (1891). Oil on canvas, 148 cm × 92 cm. Gallery Oldham, Greater Manchester, England. Public Domain

Attendees will receive a recording of each lecture valid for 4 weeks.

Curse Tablets, Binding Spells and Poppets in Antiquity : March 28th – Lecture I

 In this illustrated talk, Professor Marguerite Johnson takes us on a tour of the intriguing and widespread practice of cursing in the ancient Mediterranean. The focus is on curse tablets and binding spells; a discussion of the many examples of curse tablets and binding spells; the uncanny poppets that sometimes accompanied these spells; and a deep dive into the many and varied reasons for employing them. Finally, we ask: Did they work?  

For a peak preview of some of the topics we’ll be looking at, read Marguerite Johnson’s ‘Spells, charms, erotic dolls: love magic in the ancient Mediterranean’, The Conversation, June 27, 2018: https://theconversation.com/spells-charms-erotic-dolls-love-magic-in-the-ancient-mediterranean-98459 

You may also like Kate Murphy’s ‘Secrets of Ancient Magic’, Expedition Magazine 58.1 (2016): http://www.penn.museum/sites/expedition/?p=23548 

The Louvre Doll. 4th century CE, clay and bronze. E 27145b. Louvre Museum, Paris. 

Ghosts in Antiquity and in Magic: April 30th – Lecture II

Ghosts played a major role in the belief system of the ancient Greeks and Romans. They featured in magic, helping spell-casters to ensure their curses were enacted and successful. They haunted all sorts of places – from battlefields to houses and the crossroads – sometimes to such an extent that professional magicians (and sometimes priests) were called upon to exorcise them. We end this lecture with some ancient ghost stories.   

For a peak preview of some of the topics we’ll be looking at, read Evelien Bracke’s ‘How the ancient world invoked the dead to help the living’, The Conversation, October 28, 2016: https://theconversation.com/how-the-ancient-world-invoked-the-dead-to-help-the-living-67519 

You may also like Kate Murphy’s ‘Secrets of Ancient Magic’, Expedition Magazine 58.1 (2016): http://www.penn.museum/sites/expedition/?p=23548 

The Greek Stoic Philosopher Athenodorus Rents a Haunted House. Henry Justice Ford, c. 1900. 

Spell Books in the Ancient World: May 28th – Lecture III

In ancient Greece, Rome and Egypt, spell books were expensive, precious and a major item in the toolkit of the professional magician. Despite various emperors attempts to rid the ancient world of these collections of papyri, several significant artefacts still remain, including the famous Greek Magical Papyri. In this illustrated talk, Professor Marguerite Johnson discusses the collection known as the Greek Magical Papyri, a spell book belonging to a magician from Graeco-Roman Egypt, which was buried with him (perhaps to assist him in working magic in the afterlife). The features of the Greek Magical Papyri, such as the inclusion of magical words, potent drawings, and sigils will be discussed to shed light on some of the intricacies of ancient magical practices.  

For a peak preview of some of the topics we’ll be looking at, read Jessica Nadeau’s ‘Curious and Unusual Spells from the Greek Magical Papyri’, Ancient Origins, April 8, 2022: https://www.ancient-origins.net/artifacts-ancient-writings/greek-magical-papyri-0016618 

You may also like Federica Micucci’s ‘Love spells in the Greek Magical Papyri’, Medieval manuscripts blog, February 13, 2021: https://blogs.bl.uk/digitisedmanuscripts/2021/02/love-spells.html 

Magical Handbook (P.Lond. I 121 = Greek Magical Papyri VII), Egypt 3rd Century CE. British Library.

Amulets in the Ancient World: June 25th – Lecture IV

Considering the widespread practice of magic – both healing and harmful – in ancient Greece, Rome and Egypt, the use of amulets was widespread. From charms to protect babies and children, to the ithyphallic wall plaques in Pompeii to protect homes and business, amulets adorned and decorated the bodies and buildings of antiquity. In this lecture we look at some of the most precious and ornate amulets, to the cheaper ones for people on a budget, as well as some examples of instructions on how to make them as preserved in magical papyri.   

For a peak preview of some of the topics we’ll be looking at, read Marguerite Johnson’s ‘Scarabs, phalluses, evil eyes — how ancient amulets tried to ward off disease’, The Conversation, September 15, 2020: https://theconversation.com/scarabs-phalluses-evil-eyes-how-ancient-amulets-tried-to-ward-off-disease-143842 

You may also like Michael Arnold’s ‘The Magic Amulets of Ancient Egyptian Mummies for Eternal Life’, The Collector, October 20, 2020: https://www.thecollector.com/egyptian-magic-amulets-and-mummies/ 

Potions (pharmakeia) of the Ancient World: July 23rd – Lecture V

Potion-making or pharmakeia was a common theme in the fantasy literature featuring witches in Greek and Latin literature. While the effects of such literary potions are incredible and amazing, the ancients did employ potions in real life. From mundane poisoning to the use in magic and occult rituals, pharmakeia involved extensive preparations and sometimes extraordinary ingredients. Additionally, the process of making potions reveal the extensive knowledge of plants in antiquity. In this talk, we look at all forms of pharmakeia, including some real spells. 

For a peak preview of some of the topics we’ll be looking at, read Shelby Brown’s ‘Potions and Poisons: Classical Ancestors of the Wicked Witch Part 1’, Getty, October 19, 2015: https://blogs.getty.edu/iris/potions-and-poisons-classical-ancestors-of-the-wicked-witch/ 

The Tools of the Ancient Magical Practitioner: Aug 27th – Lecture VI

While we may think that magical wands, effigies or poppets, spell books and animal parts are the stuff of our imagination when it comes to witchcraft, all such things were used to work magic in the ancient world. From the magisterial wands from Mycenaean Greece to the exotic ingredients required for spells (including hair and other items from an intended victim, to bats, toads, feathers and eggs), the practitioner of magic possessed a cornucopia of tools. In this talk we consider some of these necessary items in the magician’s tool kit and think about the ways in which they were used.  

For a peak preview of some of the topics we’ll be looking at, read Kiran A. Williams’ ‘The Wand Chooses the Wizard: Distinctions of Greco-Roman Staffs, Rods, and Wands in Ritual and Myth’, The Macksey Journal, 2021 https://mackseyjournal.scholasticahq.com/article/28009-the-wand-chooses-the-wizard-distinctions-of-greco-roman-staffs-rods-and-wands-in-ritual-and-myth 

Magic in Greek and Roman Literature: Sept 24th – Lecture VII

In the west, the stereotype of the witch as a hag or, alternatively, as a femme fatale, has a long history that extends as far back as ancient Greece and Rome. Beginning with Homer’s exotic goddess-witch, Circe, to the murderous Medea, through to the truly horrifying and abject witches of Latin literature, we trace the origins of this stereotype and consider some of its most dangerous and deadly legacies as evident in the persecutions of later centuries.   

For a peak preview of some of the topics we’ll be looking at, read Caroline Tully’s ‘Erichtho: Wicked Witch of the West’, Necropolis Now, October 16, 2016: https://necropolisnow.blogspot.com/search?q=Erichtho%3A+Wicked+Witch+of+the+West 

You may also like Shelby Brown’s ‘Potions and Poisons: Classical Ancestors of the Wicked Witch Part 2’, Getty, October 31, 2015: http://blogs.getty.edu/iris/potions-and-poisons-classical-ancestors-of-the-wicked-witch-part-2/ 

Evelyn De Morgan, The Love Potion, 1903, De Morgan Centre, London

Mar 28th 2023 7:30 pm - 9:00 pm
Apr 30th 2023 7:30 pm - 9:00 pm
May 28th 2023 7:30 pm - 9:00 pm
Jun 25th 2023 7:30 pm - 9:00 pm
Jul 23rd 2023 7:30 pm - 9:00 pm
Aug 27th 2023 7:30 pm - 9:00 pm
Sep 24th 2023 7:30 pm - 9:00 pm

£55 - £33

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