I’m reviewing a book this week called Vanishing Acts On Ancient Greek Amulets by Christopher A. Faraone. It’s a short monograph that’s incredibly rich in detail, using magical amulets in Greek, Latin and other languages to trace developments in how healing spells were spoken and written from the first century to the sixth century AD. In particular, the book gathers together and examines the amulets and other magical texts with ‘vanishing names’, where a name or magical word is reduced by one letter on each line, forming a triangle of text, until the name ‘disappears’. These texts seem typically to be spells for getting rid of problems like headaches, migraines, fevers and bleeding – or sometimes for banishing the demons which cause these complaints.
One of Faraone’s main arguments is that, in its earliest stages, this form of magic was an oral practice, with the name being spoken out loud in steadily shortening forms, until there was silence and the disease was banished. But even at this early stage, there were handbooks which wrote out the spell that needed to be used. Over time, these written forms were elaborated with the addition of other magical symbols and used as amulets themselves. Some were written on papyrus, but other were engraved on gemstones, with the colour of the gem chosen to suit the disease (haematite for bleeding; white or colourless crystal for fever; purplish lapis lazuli for sore throats).
As well as enjoying Faraone’s analysis of the ‘vanishing names’ which disappear line by line, I found the language of these texts fascinating. I work on a much earlier period normally, so it was a surprise to me to see a 6th century AD Greek magical text from Egypt which combined invocations of Jesus Christ, a demon called Erichthonius and a repeated chant of “white wolf white wolf white wolf” (even more alliterative in Greek than it is in English: lukos leukos lukos leukos lukos leukos). Faraone also draws on Aramaic and Hebrew spells which transcribe the Greek word for “headache”, but seem to have forgotten its meaning and just use it as a magic word for curing headaches. And Greco-Roman texts show the gradual soaking up of Egyptian religion too – over time, the Greek sun gods become gods of the underworld in these amulet texts, with influence over disease-spreading demons, reflecting the Egyptian idea that the sun travels through the underworld each night.
I also liked the versions where the magical word is just a list of the Greek vowels, repeated over and over. The fact that the vowels themselves – either as sounds or as letter symbols – could hold healing power really seems to speak of the semi-magical position that writing could hold in ancient societies (and reminds me of my work on writing as a symbol of the goddess Reitia in Venetic). The names of demons and gods were powerful of course, but letters could act as medicine all on their own.
It’s a fascinating book, and I’ll post a link to my full review when it’s out. But for now, I’ll just recommend it as an interesting (and only 85-page!) book if you’re interested in ancient magic, medicine, or orality and literacy.
Images from Vanishing Acts on Ancient Greek Amulets.