Leda Ciraolo and Jonathan Seidel, eds., Magic and Divination in the Ancient World.
(Ancient Magic and Divination II; Leiden: Brill, 2002), xii, 152 pp. Hardcover. ISBN: 90-041-2406-3. $69
Reviewed by Scott B. Noegel
University of Washington

This volume brings together ten papers first delivered in 1994 at an interdisciplinary conference on Magic and Divination in the Ancient World held at the University of California at Berkeley. It represents, along with a few other recent titles,1 a still burgeoning interest in the field of magic studies. The essays in this book, like the conference from which they derive, cover broad geographical and chronological ranges (from ancient Mesopotamia to late antique Greece). Since the book’s essays are so diverse, I shall provide a brief synopsis for each contribution.

Opening the volume is Joann Scurlock’s “Soul Emplacements in Ancient Mesopotamian Funerary Rituals.” Here Scurlock examines the use of portrait statues and chairs designed to provide the deceased with a temporary abode for their ghosts during funerals. By culling evidence from literary and ritual texts, grave inscriptions, archaeological sites, and a host of other comparative data derived from funereal practices in modern China and Japan, Scurlock suggests that ancient Mesopotamians, like many other peoples, paid special ritual attention to the liminal period that marked the time between the death of a person and his/her entrance into the underworld. Scurlock also points out that such rituals were accompanied by the lighting of a lamp, a ritual act intended to light the path of the deceased while en route to the underworld; another practice found in other world cultures (e.g., Classical Greece and Rumania).

In “A Severed Head Laughed: Stories of Divinatory Interpretation,” the longest piece in this collection, Ann Kessler Guinan investigates the historical context, development, and exegesis of the so-called “Prodigies of the Fall of Akkad” by examining their relationship to other Mesopotamian omen collections (especially Shummu alu) and the esoteric scholarly activity of Nabu-zuqup-kenu (ca. 708 bce). Her conclusion that the Prodigies represent an expanded use of omen collections like Shummu alu (itself undergoing expansion up to this time) provides a springboard for a discussion of typological and methodological difficulties that beset the study of divination, and its connection (or lack thereof) to “magic” and science. In an excursus, Guinan offers insights into the process of divinatory thinking by appealing to modern studies on the cognitive aspects of genre, in which “generic expectations are triggered and they operate in the mind to organize the observation into a signifying structure that makes attribution of divinatory meaning possible” (p. 22). Drawing upon the work of Roland Barthe, Guinan further argues that fait-divers, or coincidental and “odd little anecdotes that are used as fillers in newspapers” (e.g., “woman slips and drowns in her wash bucket,” p. 22), share much in common with the cognitive organizational principles and structures that underlie Mesopotamian divination. As she posits, both encapsulate two-step processes that embody “conjunction of coincidence” and paradox that “are framed and defined by cultural categories” (pp. 23, 24). Guinan goes on to compare the process of divinatory thinking and textual development with omens that are created as a result of post-traumatic stress. Concluding her contribution are appendices containing an interlinear comparison between the Prodigies of the Fall of Akkad and a portion of Shummu alu, as well as a transliteration of the Prodigies’ recensions.

In “Inquiring for the State in the Ancient Near East: Delineating Political Location,” Joel Sweek addresses the issue of the role and degree of individual agency in Mesopotamian divination. His primary interest is in the amount of creativity exercised by the diviner when delivering his or her oracles. Based on references to diviners and their arts in Mesopotamian and biblical texts, Sweek concludes that

diviners played a quasi-ministerial role in political events in the ancient Near East; that they were not ‘passive’ functionaries in a word of total, despotic monarchies; but that they were strong, competitive players in the intertwined activities of cult and state (p. 56).

Thus, when considering the divinatory process in the ancient Near East, we must allow for “… a significant amount of freedom, or ambivalence, in the face of the stereotypical notion of divination” (p. 43).

In his essay “Hittite Oracles,” Richard Beal offers a detailed survey of the types, origins, and significance of divinatory practices in Hatti. Types of divination discussed include extispicy, sheep behavior (or “bed”) oracles, bird oracles, HURRI-bird oracles (performed differently from other types of augury), snake oracles, and symbol oracles, among which only the latter three, according to Beal, appear to be Anatolian innovations.2 The others came to Hatti from Mesopotamia via the Hurrians. With only a few exceptions, most of the evidence for divination in Hatti dates to the latter part of its existence. Dream oracles, however, though practiced in Hatti,3 are not discussed. In an effort to provide a preliminary typology of Hittite omens, Beal points out the presence of patterns of circumstance that appear to demand specific types of divination (e.g., military campaigns appear to have required symbol oracles, often checked by extispicy or augury [see pp. 80–81]).

John Gee’s focus in “Oracle by Image: Coffin Text 103 in Context,” is the use of a drawn or sculpted image to inspire oracular dreams or visions. In particular, Coffin Text 103 is designed to raise one’s own soul (Egyptian b3) from the underworld, in order to have it appear to someone among the living in the form of an “effectual glorified spirit” (p. 85). As such, the text represents a variation on execration texts, which serve to send someone else’s soul (Egyptian b3) to the underworld (p. 84). Though usually considered unique, Gee suggests that one may find a parallel in a 3rd century ce Roman ritual designed “to cause the person to whom the dream is sent to stop sleeping” until a glorified spirit appears to him (p. 87); a reference that also shares similar accompanying rituals.4 The primary difference between the Middle Kingdom and Roman texts is in the soul that they intend to send; the former aiming to send one’s own soul, the latter someone else’s soul (p. 88).

In “Necromancy in Ancient Egypt,” Robert K. Ritner challenges the tendency of Egyptologists to see necromancy in Egypt as a late and non-indigenous practice by showing how later references to necromancy in Demotic texts represent “the culmination of native beliefs and acts regarding the empowered dead” (p. 90). Ritner demonstrates that Egypt enjoyed a long history of invocation and consultation of the deceased, especially kings and princes, beginning already in the Old Kingdom. According to Ritner, “by the time of Ramses III, the consultation of deceased royalty for popular instruction was a commonplace affair” (p. 93). Such oracles were sponsored “by the state for public benefit” … since “… other deceased kings became the focus of public oracles” as well (p. 94). Moreover, animal corpses also were invoked for oracular purposes. Ritner ends his study with a comparison between Egyptian necromancy and Israelite necromancy as related in the biblical story of the “Necromancer of Endor” (1 Samuel 28). As he concludes:

Thus paralleled in context, methodology, practitioner, result and underlying theology, the biblical and Egyptian practices are distinguished chiefly by legality, variety and frequency. For if Saul’s consultation was illicit and unique, comparable Egyptian practices were legal, normative, multiform and omnipresent. If Egyptologists have chosen not to recognize a discreet category of necromancy in Egypt, it may well be because the range of associated actions is simply too broad to warrant a restrictive designation. Permeating funerary cult, literature, judicial practice and theology, ‘necromancy’ in ancient Egypt is perhaps too pervasive a phenomenon to deserve marginalization by a term still tinged with ill repute.” (p. 95).

Jonathan Seidel continues the discussion of 1 Samuel 28 in “Necromantic Praxis in the Midrash on the Seance at En Dor,” by turning his attention to its representation in later rabbinic literature. In particular, Seidel attempts to unpack the story’s “stagecraft” and later exegesis of it in order to ascertain the “social and psychological dynamics of necromantic praxis” (p. 97). After examining the translations of the technical term for necromancer in a number of textual witnesses, the protocol and procedure for raising the dead, and the possible use of divinatory assistants, Seidel concludes that while the midrashic representation of the seance at En Dor can tell us little about

its resonance with the facticity and historical practice of summoning the dead … the threefold demarcation of roles, including the person who requests the ghost, the medium, and the speaking ghost itself, corresponds with significant ethnographic descriptions of necromancy and is part of a larger global custom of mantic communication (p. 106).

In “Under Homer’s Spell: Bilingualism, Oracular Magic, and the Michigan excavation at Dimê,” Gregg Schwendner investigates the “interpenetration of Greek and Egyptian culture” and the “transference of oracular prophecy from temples to books” (p. 108), by focusing on the site of Soknopaious Nesos in the Egyptian Fayyum region—a site that has yielded a great deal of papyri with archeologically secure contexts.

The excavated texts at Dimê have not only the general provenance typical of Greek papyri from Egypt, but a specific findspot, that tells us in what house each text was found, and what other texts were found with it. This means we know not only who paid their taxes and how much they paid, but more interestingly who read Homer and who read traditional Egyptian literature (p. 108).

Of specific interest to Schwendner is how to explain Greek magical texts that rely on the authority of Greek traditions, such as Homer, despite the probability that “all of the major magical texts that make up the Greek magical papyri come from an Egyptian tradition” (pp. 110–111). To explain, Schwendner argues that from the 2nd–3rd centuries ce the Eastern Mediterranean experienced a gradual preference for book magic (and other types as well) over for site magic, and that the Egyptian priesthood was bilingual, as well as familiar with, and inclusive of, Greek literary traditions.

Peter T. Struck’s contribution, “The Poet as Conjurer: Magic and Literary Theory in Late Antiquity,” focuses on Proclus’ (412–485 ce) response to Plato’s assertion that poets lead one away from the truth and knowledge, since they can only “represent” actual reality, and thus, provide only a shadow of the eternal form upon which their poetry is based. Struck argues that one cannot fully appreciate Proclus’ views, and his subsequent impact on literary theory, without understanding how he conceived of the “symbol” (Greek sumbolon), its literary use by Pythagoreans, theurgists, and allegorical critics, and the metaphysics of Plotinus’ emanationaist ideas in which Proclus’ conception is framed. According Struck, Proclus was the first to articulate into a single category the Pythagorean (anti-mimetic and catechismal), theurgist (magical), and allegorical (literary) conceptions of the symbol. Proclus was also innovative in that he asserts

a direct ontological connection from the signifying object to the meaning it indicates, one that is situated inside the emanationist theory of cosmic sympathy, and that circumvents the rhetoric of resemblance … The poet becomes for Proclus and his successors anything but a mere copyist. He has the power to conjure up the direct presence of the highest meanings and truths. Proclus makes the poet “creative” in an elemental sense of the term. The poet does not reproduce the world in the poem but invokes it and calls it into existence (p. 131).

The concluding essay, “Persons of Power and Their Communities,” by Anitra Bingham Kolenkow, attempts to offer a corrective to the oft-cited view that the magicians of late antiquity constituted a liminal, if not isolated group, by surveying the numerous and diverse communities of individuals who have claimed to possess divine powers or who have claimed to be divine. After discussing the common locations associated with magicians (e.g., temples and street corners) and their public and/or communal aspects, Kolenkow looks at how magicians “participate in recreating myth for themselves so that the larger society may be helped or may fear the powers of the gods and their representatives” (p. 141).

There is much in this volume that will benefit the interested comparativist. The article on Hittite divination, for example, would be useful to anyone working on Greek divinatory materials, and Peter Struck’s analysis of Proclus’ understanding of the symbol also raises interesting theoretical questions that might usefully be considered when examining “magic” in other cultures of the ancient Mediterranean world. With only a couple exceptions (notably the pieces by Guinan and Struck), the articles are descriptive in approach, attempting to survey, rather than analyze. Having said this, I add that the book might have benefited from a more formal introduction to the topic, one that provides readers with the theoretical, historical, and methodological background requisite for placing the volume’s essays more readily in the sociology of knowledge on the subject. Nevertheless, each of the articles in this volume offers useful insights into “magic” and divination in the ancient Mediterranean world.


[1] See, e.g., Ramón Teja, ed., Profecía, magia y adivinación en las religiones antiguas (Codex Aqvilarensis, 17; Palencia: Aguilar de Campoo, 2001); Paul Mirecki and Marvin Meyer, eds., Magic and Ritual in the Ancient World (Leiden: E. J. Brill, 2002); Scott B. Noegel, Joel Walker, and Brannon Wheeler, eds., Prayer, Magic, and the Stars in the Ancient and Late Antique World (Pennsylvania State University Press, 2003).

[2] It is unclear to me why Beal suggests that bird oracles are “an indigenous Hittite science” (p. 65), especially since bird omens are attested also in Mesopotamia.

[3] See, Annelies Kammenhuber, Orakelpraxis, Träume, und Vorzeichenschau bei den Hethitern (Heidelberg: Carl Winter Universitätsverlag, 1976).

[4] The relationship between funerary rituals and dreams is more thoroughly discussed now in Kasia Szpakowska, The Perception of Dreams and Nightmares in Ancient Egypt: Old Kingdom to Third Intermediate Period (Ph.D. Dissertation; Los Angeles, CA: University of California, 2000).