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Visualising Ancient Magic

Nicole Iu writes about the recent exhibition

Witches? Ghosts? Demons? Divination? Illusions? What do you think about when you hear the word ‘magic’? Where do you think these associations come from, and did you know that some of these magical ideas have an ancient origin? The ‘Visualising Ancient Magic’ exhibit aimed to showcase various objects which represent ancient concepts of magic.

The exhibit contained four display cases with the following themes: Mythology and art; Polemic and accusation; Texts; Objects and recipes. The first case, Mythology and art, presented four manuscripts from the sixteenth–seventeenth centuries from the Senate House’s collection: 

Homeri Ilias et Vlyssea cum interpretatione : variae lectionis in utroq[ue] opere, annotatio, ed. Didymus. (Basel: Apud Io. Hervagium, 1535) 

Euripidis Medea: ad fidem manuscriptorum emendata et brevibus notis emendationum potissimum rationes reddentibus instructa : in usum studiosae juventutis, ed. Richard Porson. (London: G. Wilkie, 1817) 

Q. Horativs Flaccvs: ex fide atqve avctoritate decem librorum manuscriptorum, ed. Michael Bruti. (Venice: Manutius, 1566) 

M. Annaeus Lucanus De Bello Civili, ed. Hugo Grotius/Cornelis Schrevel. (Amsterdam: Ex Officina Elzeviriana, 1658)

Each of these texts narrates the stories of several Greco-Roman ‘witches’ including Circe, Medea, Erichtho, Canidia, and Sagana. These depictions of witches present the early conceptualisation of ancient magic from Ancient Greece through Circe and Medea, while the later, Roman-originated witches display the evolution of the concept of magic through the centuries. From these accounts, it is possible to extrapolate some of the Greco-Roman social expectations of women and other gender norms. When female individuals, such as witches, are shown to act against these norms, they become more closely associated with the concept of magic.

The second case, Polemic and accusation, also contained two seventeenth century manuscripts which displayed Apuleius’ Apologia or Pro se de magia and Lucian’s Alexander seu Pseudomantis in (respectively): 

Lucii Apuleii Madaurensis Platonici philosophi Opera, ed. Julien Fleury. (Paris: Ad Usum Delphini, 1688) 

Luciani Samosatensis philosophi Opera omnia quæ extant. Cum latina doctiss. virorum interpretation, ed. Jean Bourdelot. (Paris, 1615) 

Alongside these manuscripts was a photograph of a hematite intaglio depicting Apollonius of Tyana. There was an additional photograph of the nineteenth century painting of Phryne before the Areopagus by Jean-Léon Gérôme. All of the individuals depicted were once accused of committing ‘magical’ crimes. Additionally, with the exception of Alexander, these individuals were even tried for their alleged crimes in legal proceedings. Depending on which sources are consulted, depictions of these figures can be particularly negative and refer to them as ‘magic practitioners’, using terms such as magus or goes, while other sources attest to their virtue and legitimate powers. This is often depending from which century an author is writing, and if they are speaking from the Christian or pagan perspective. In the case of Alexander, we only have Lucian’s in-depth account of his life, yet there is much material evidence that demonstrates that Alexander’s influence spread across the empire, and that he was highly revered. Therefore, ancient magic often bordered on what was socially and legally acceptable, and the marginal position of certain figures who were perceived as learned philosophers or as religious specialists could sometimes lead to incurring suspicion in certain contexts.

The third case, Texts, contained a replica of a Romano-British curse tablet which is a ‘Curse to Lady Nemesis’, a photograph of an Athenian Greek curse tablet which is currently kept in the British Museum, a 6th century Egyptian papyrus from the Harry Price Collection, and several photographs of various magical kharakteres in spell-books. These artefacts depict the everyday practice of ancient magic beyond that of the mythical witch and of the practice of the learned philosopher. Many of these spells often aim to ‘bind’ a target, so that the practitioner is able to exert a level of control over another individual. This presents another frequent element of ancient magic which is the exertion of control over others.

Finally, the fourth case on ‘Objects and recipes’ displayed a collection of replicas and photographs of ‘magical’ artefacts, such as the Karanis binding doll, the Louvre binding doll and accompanying curse tablet, various amulets, and different ingredients which are frequently mentioned in magical spells. Many of these objects have what are often perceived as ‘exotic’ or ‘foreign’ elements, such as of ancient Egyptian origin, like the symbol of the ouroboros. Because of these ‘exotic’ perceptions, these objects and ingredients were thought to be even more powerful in magical ritual. Moreover, this case also gave a sense of the muti-sensory experience of magical practice. 

From subversive religious behaviour to suspicious, exotic ingredients, this exhibit explored the various themes of ancient magic. As a result, these rituals also demonstrate the ongoing negotiation between private, magical ritual and public, civic religion and tradition. This temporary exhibit, curated by experts in Greco-Roman magical text and ritual, and running from March through May 2024, explored transgressive and marginal ritual practice in ancient mythology, literature, art, history, archaeology and theory. We showed examples and images of magical scenes, including 3D printed replicas, rare books from the Classics Library special collections, and notes giving translations, analysis and commentary. The aim was for this exhibit to be a fun and engaging view into the world of ancient magic. It offered the chance to learn about ancient magical practice and stereotype, to see the evidence, and catch a glimpse of the scholarship, old and new, on the ancient supernatural and occult. 


The exhibition space outside the entrance to the Institute of Classical Studies/Hellenic and Roman Library (Senate House, third floor) has showcased items from the Library's collections as well as external research and creative work. This project brought together the interests and expertise of three members of the ICS, and several other colleagues in the University of London, on magic in the Greek and Roman world. On March 4th, 2024, the exhibit was launched and was presented by Nicole Iu, Dr Gabriel Bodard, Professor John Pearce, and Dr Barbara Roberts, each of whom presented one of the cases, and how the objects displayed relate to their own research on ancient magic.