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We still believe in magic

Written by Caroline Lawrence |

This week’s guest post is written by children’s author Caroline Lawrence, who was in the audience for the ICS’s ‘Ancient Magic’ public event on 31st October 2018.

Halloween was the date and London’s Senate House was the place for a fun evening session on Ancient Magic sponsored by the Institute of Classical Studies.

The event was introduced by Dr. Emma Bridges, Public Engagement Fellow at the Institute of Classical Studies. Emma was fetchingly arrayed as Hecate, and several other participants had also dressed up as Selkies, demons and sages. Emma told us that the first hour or so would be given over to short presentations by some of the most esteemed scholars of ancient magic plus author Roz Kaveney reading from Resurrections: Rhapsody of Blood, her latest spooky historical novel. Finally, fortified by a glass of wine, we would have a chance to indulge in some practical magic at the back of the lecture hall.

Professor Helen King from the Open University was our first speaker. Suffering from an ‘evil bug’, Helen wondered if someone had put a spell on her. She spoke about the blurred divisions between magic and medicine in ancient times with particular reference to the power of colour. For example, green is magically associated with life, spring and growth. But Galen, the hugely influential Greek-speaking doctor in the Roman world, believed in the power of green jasper to cure disorders of stomach and esophagus. The colour red, associated with blood and heat, is also a powerful colour. Helen cited a fifth century BC prescription for red wool or thread tied around a limb that came from a medical treatise rather than a magical text.

Helen shared many other gems – pun intended – and finished with the revelation that recent anthropological studies show that modern Westerners believe in the power of pills and capsules depending solely on the colour. A red capsule is considered stronger medicine than a white one, for example. Having recently seen the same study referenced in Michael Mosley’s documentary The Placebo Experiment, I believed her.

After Helen’s goodie-packed session, co-organiser Dr. Gabriel Bodard told us about ancient curse tablets, focussing on three particular categories:

  1. Conditional curse against yourself if you break conditions. E.g. ‘Cross my heart and hope to die…’
  2. Indefinite curse. E.g. ‘May whoever stole my mule suffer so-and-so…’ (The unfortunate cases of Hippolytus and Oedipus show the danger of not being indefinite.)
  3. Potential curse. E.g. ‘Curst be him who moves my bones’ on Shakespeare’s grave.

But would modern Londoners ever indulge in writing a curse tablet? Plenty did at his display table afterwards. My favourite example was this one, tweeted by Katharina (@nadelbaeumchen): #finally had the chance to curse the person who stole my #gameboycolour years ago at #ICSMagic’s Halloween event. I asked for explosive #diarrhea and no toilet paper.

Dr. Celia Sanchez Natalias enlightened us about magical figurines, the ancient version of Voodoo dolls used by Greeks, Roman and Egyptians to ensure the fidelity of the loved one. One alarmingly graphic recipe from the fourth century AD describes a female figure made of wax or clay with magical words etched into her to be pierced in various places with needles as the lover recites ‘I pierce X part of Y so that she may think of no-one except me alone.’

But would anybody in the audience dream of doing such a thing today? Plenty did at her display table afterwards. At the end of the evening, organiser Emma tweeted that Celia’s table full of bodies ‘looked like a play-doh graveyard.’

Dr Sophie Page

Dr Sophie Page, one of the curators of the acclaimed Spellbound exhibition currently on at Oxford’s Ashmolean Museum, asked us six questions:

  1. Do you have a lucky charm?
  2. Have you wondered about mysterious forces?
  3. Do rituals make you feel less anxious?
  4. Can an object bind love?
  5. Could you stab the image of a loved one?
  6. Do you worry about tempting fate?

Sophie gave us ancient examples of all these categories including the Mirror of Floron, a fascinating object of divination that involves young male virgins and a fallen angel. But what really grabbed my attention were how relevant to us many of these questions are. Take Question Four: Can an object bind love?

Research has shown that even if we publicly express scepticism about magical thinking, we will engage in it when we think nobody is watching, when there’s a lot at stake (no atheists in foxholes?) and when it becomes ‘invisible’ by virtue of being an accepted part of modern life. An example of this last category is the phenomenon of love-locks.

Love-locks are an example of a magical ritual that is practised today. You inscribe your name and what you want on a padlock, clip it to part of a bridge and then throw the key into the river. This has become so popular that in June 2014 part of the Pont des Arts in Paris collapsed under the weight of love-locks. I remember being there a few months before and snapping some photos. According to Sophie, authorities have recently put up warning signs on Leeds Centenary Bridge lest the same thing happen there.

Later at the ‘magic stations’, Gabriel Bodard in a hooded black cape was telling one girl to put her curse tablet somewhere deep  ­­– underwater or underground – where spirits of the underworld could take it on to infernal realms. Celia was helping eager punters make play-doh figurines and stick them with toothpicks. Sophie was wielding her replica Mirror of Loren, while Dr. Camilla Norman was helping people find direction for their lives via The Homeric Oracle. At the table next to her Dr. Valeria Vitale, AKA Circe (@nottinauta), was digitally turning men into beasts. She was so mobbed by female customers that I couldn’t even get close.

Several members of the Classics Library were also on hand: Barbara Roberts showed images of Greek Magical Papyri; Joanna Ashe (in an elegant mask) displayed a selection of books on magic; and Paul Jackson guarded the most valuable tomes under glass. These included Paul’s personal copies of Petronius’ Satyricon and a yellowed volume of Horace’s Satire I.8 which rudely mocks witches. Another book was open to show the first curse tablet to be discovered in Britain, one invoking the god Nodens to punish a certain Senicianus until he returns the ring he stole from Silvianus.

Senior librarian Sue Willets joined us and we got to talking about Sophie Page’s fifth question: Would you stab a picture of a loved one? The three of us agreed that we wouldn’t stab an image, not even one of a hated persecutor or enemy. But why not? After all, we are rational creatures and it’s just a picture. Still, something deep in our subconscious will not allow us to do it. It’s the same instinct that makes us believe a red and yellow capsule contains extra strong medicine. It’s the same impulse that makes us walk around a ladder, rather than under it.

That’s when the true message of the evening hit me: we still believe in magic!

For many more photos, revelations and highlights of the evening search for #ICSMagic on Twitter.


Editor’s note: Caroline Lawrence is best known for her million-selling Roman Mysteries series of children’s books, televised by the BBC in 2007 and 2008. A former primary school teacher, she is passionate about the Classics and storytelling, and has written nearly 35 books for children set in the ancient world. Recent finds from Roman London plus the reopening of London’s Mithraeum have sparked her interested in Roman magical thinking. Her next book will be a time travel book to Roman London featuring an apotropaic knife and a magic figurine. The Girl with the Ivory Knife launches on 4 April 2019 with a free live-streamed schools session sponsored by the Museum of London. You can find Caroline on Twitter @carolinelawrenc (no ‘e’).

[Images in this post by Emma Bridges and Caroline Lawrence.]