Magic in Myth: The Power of Words and Rites in The Ancient Greco-Roman World
Updated: Mar 27, 2022
by Anthony Guntert
For almost as far back as one can peer through the lens of history into the Greek belief systems of the past and those of almost all of humanity, they’d encounter a rich tapestry of magical ideologies weaving their way through all aspects of daily and spiritual life. Magic was believed to flow like energy throughout all areas of existence, used in all forms of life but truly wieldable only by those with true knowledge, power and/or wit. For the gods, lesser deities and even most of the more-than-mortal characters throughout the mythos, magic was separate from innate supernatural abilities; while many of the powers of these figures would seem magical to modern viewers, they were simply skills they were born with or that they acquired through mythic events and training. However, according to Powell, their very existence in mythical belief acted as a reinforcement in the belief of magical-like supernatural forces that were most often anthropomorphized versions of human aspects assigned to natural elements of the world around the groups that created them.
What was considered to be “real” magic in the ancient Greek world changed with the times but in the Homeric era, more often than not, it was centered on complex rituals, spells and magical objects like wands and herbs such as those given by magically related gods Hermes and Hecate. In early Greece, these magical rituals were seen as an unnatural attempt to control the natural and supernatural forces that governed the world. A well-known example of an early Greek story with a character who utilizes magic would be that of Circe, described as an incredibly powerful witch whose specialty is “tempting” and then shape-changing men. While she was seen as tumultuous and most definitely an adversary to be defeated by a hero, she was not necessarily evil, just an affront to the natural order and a user of magic with the goal of bringing both chaos and control.
By the sixth century and the dawning of classical Greece, men called magi began to be referenced throughout the Greek world as practitioners of the mystic arts that often coupled their teachings with their own brands of philosophy and specialties ranging from numerology to necromancy. One real life example from this varied group was Empedocles, a famous philosopher who is credited with originating the “four classical elements” as part of his cosmogenic theory of our world. On the more mythological side of the magi was Orpheus, the legendary musician who used a beautiful song and his enrapturing voice to (almost) bring his wife back from the underworld. Words, and in turn beautiful voices, were thought to have magical powers; the somatic component of most ancient magic was often the active ingredient, such as in a dying curse or a transmutation Circe style. According to Powell, emphatic beliefs and claims would come to pass if the speaker had the power and/or conviction to imbue the words with magic or gain the favor of a supernatural deity.
The Hellenistic period brought with it what’s seemingly an explosion of magical texts, beliefs, and traditions but what also might just be the result of a larger body of surviving records. A mix of Egyptian, Roman and traditional Greek magical practices rose to prominence including an interesting resurgence in the ancient belief of ghosts and their polluting abilities as “blood guilt” which the Greeks called “miasma”, especially in relation to murderers whose stink was said to even effect those in their presence according to Powell. This pollution of the soul and body ran in accordance with both the will of the gods and the natural order that they had varying degrees of influence over. Most importantly, the Greeks’ ancient and founding belief that all worldly events exist as a magically predestined and interconnected web within the natural order bled into the belief systems of their neighbors over time and ended up growing into a core tenet for many of the mystical and pagan religions in the region and farther abroad that emerged in later years.