Did They Actually Believe This?

I’ve always wondered the extent to which religious beliefs are, well, believed. Mark Twain famously observed in his Notebook of 1879, “Religion consists in a set of things which the average man thinks he believes, and wishes he was certain.” Several of the spells in the Greek Magical Texts I’ve been reading reinforce my wonder. Perhaps the most dramatic in this regard is a spell in which one is instructed on how to make one’s self invisible (PGM 1:247-62). One rubs the eye of an ape or of a corpse and a rose together with “oil of lily” and says an incantation. Then, whenever one wants to become invisible, one rubs the resulting concoction on one’s face. And lo and behold, well actually, anti-lo and anti-behold, one is invisible!
The spell begins with a statement that it is “tested.” Really? Exactly how?
Now for the weird part: This is followed with instructions on what to do to become visible again. Here one says a cryptic “name” and asks to be made visible; “immediately, immediately; quickly, quickly!” Then we are told, “This works very well.” What works very well? The spell to make one visible? Of course it does. I just tried it and Shirley assured me that I was visible. Not only did I try the prescribed spell, I also tried several others that I made up without the assistance of any ancient text and they all worked equally well. In each case I was visible; immediately, immediately; quickly, quickly. But I must be doing something wrong with the ape’s eye, rose and lily for no matter how much I make myself pure and how sincerely I say the incantation, I can’t for the life of me make myself invisible. And I very much doubt that the folks who wrote this spell or those ancients who followed it did any better.
Despite the fact that the spell to make one invisible was tested or perhaps because it was tested, I’m very sure that everyone who tried it knew that it didn’t work even once. So what was its function? Was it part of a magic show where the magician cast the spell and then did something else to make it appear that he had disappeared? There’s no sign of that. From the standpoint of a belief system, what is going on? Was this something that the average believer somehow believed but those in the know knew wasn’t so?

9 thoughts on “Did They Actually Believe This?”

  1. Jim,
    Thanks. I’m sure Phillips’ book is relevant. Now, I need to decide how much time I want to give to something that is really outside my research area and skills. It is wonderful stuff.

  2. I think about this issue somewhat differently, coming from the perspective of ancient astrological texts.
    The texts themselves complain about how difficult to understand the other texts are. They are indeed quite difficult to follow, unless you are initiated into the ways of thinking involved. Bear in mind also that many texts, such as the medical texts of Galen, were disseminated by a master-pupil relationship, where the pupil made notes on the master’s comments, and paid the master for teaching. Galen comments that the textbooks being used (and sold!) by his pupils were often imperfect. The teacher had no incentive to be clear, and every incentive not to be, in order to receive teaching fees the longer.
    In consequence anyone coming into possession of a book of technical information had to know that his source was always likely to be incomplete and imperfect. Faced with a recipe which did not seem to work, he would naturally suppose that the text was incomplete, or had not reached him in a perfect form.
    Indeed those of us who trawl the web for solutions to programming problems encounter the same problem. When you see a page which gives examples of ways to fix your problem, and they do not work, you tend to suspect yourself first. It takes a lot of work to conclude that the “solution” is bogus and never worked.
    So, I suspect, it was with ancient magical texts and astrological texts, and alchemical texts. The real, working version was always just out of reach.

  3. Roger,
    Thanks. That’s an interesting perspective. But it does seem that somewhere in the transmission of such spells someone wants someone else to believe that there was some truth in them. Otherwise, why would there be comments about testing and about working very well? Perhaps your analogy with online software partially answers this question. I come to these texts from a perspective of Mesopotamian divination and magic (primarily medical texts in the case of magic) in the neo-Assyrian/neo-Babylonian period and earlier. In that tradition, there was an awareness that things might not work but they seemed to have a backup plan in many cases. Also, I haven’t come across a case where a coloration between practice and desired result wasn’t at least possible. If sick, I might not get well following some ritual but, then again, I might. I wouldn’t ever become invisible following some ritual.

  4. Oil of lily, would be like garlic or onion juice. Maybe the idea is to cover yourself with one of those and everyone will smell you coming. They will run from the stench and won’t be able to see you.
    Well, it was an idea.

  5. Interesting thoughts — I know nothing about these earlier magical texts.
    I wonder what “tested” referred to. Perhaps the answer is to assemble a corpus of such remarks, and see what, in the round, they tell us. You and I might suppose, naturally, they mean “I tried the spell out and it worked.” Maybe that is what is being said — but have you more examples? Always willing to believe in my own inability to read and understand … 🙂

  6. Roger,
    If all there were to this was the idea of testing the spell, I’d be okay with not knowing exactly what that meant. But we are also told that it works very well. The two together make one wonder how much room there is for misunderstanding here. I rather guess that the two together also indicated that there just might be a problem with all this or at least the diehard skeptic just might raise a word or two of caution. Your methodological suggest is, of course, a good one. I half wish I had never run across these texts. The technical language skills and the experience needed to understand them meaningfully are beyond anything I want to devote much time too. The pain of relearning Akkadian, Ugaritic, Hebrew, and Hellenistic Greek, to say nothing of French and German, after 30 years of atrophy was bad enough. I recently added to that a crash course Ionian Greek and a little (very little) Hittite for a paper on which I was working. I’m just not ready to take up late Hellenistic Greek, Coptic and Demotic and the late Egyptian and Roman divinations traditions in the hope of becoming invisible!!!!

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