On the Arbitrary Appellation of Magic in Antiquity

adjective ˈär-bə-ˌtrer-ē, -ˌtre-rē
1: depending on individual discretion (as of a judge) and not fixed by law
2 a: not restrained or limited in the exercise of power; ruling by absolute authority b: marked by or resulting from the unrestrained and often tyrannical exercise of power

~ Merriam-Webster

The nature of magic in antiquity is a much varied thing. Not only do different practices get called magic, but the varying terminology for these activities makes it even harder to put such practices in a box. Furthermore, many practices get labelled such, not by those who practice them, but by other—often more powerful—observers who use such terms pejoratively.

This is a point elaborated by Kimberly B. Stratton in an essay titled Magic Discourse in the Ancient World, which is included in the book Defining Magic: A Reader. (You can read the paper here at Academia.edu). Stratton disagrees with the view that there is a single magic in antiquity, especially when one takes into consideration the power-structures that define what constitutes magic. By trying to pin magic down to a single phenomenon, she argues, we ignore the social landscape that produced the so-called magical act in the first place.

Here’s what Stratton has to say:

I propose that magic is best understood as a discursive formation—a socially constructed body of knowledge that is enmeshed in and supports systems of power. What gets labelled magic is arbitrary and depends upon the society in question. Once the label is affixed, however, it enables certain practices to become magic by virtue of being regarded as such by members of the society. (Stratton 246-247)

While we tend to think of arbitrary as meaning something like “capricious,” what it really means is noted above. There is an implicit power-dynamic within the word, which suggests a particular value judgement that lacks universality because it is created within a specific context. Hence, defining magic in antiquity becomes an arbitrary exercise, where what is magic, and to whom it appears to be magic, are constantly changing variables.

Now, if one didn’t study magic in the ancient world, one might be tempted to say that, because it can be labelled, there must be some concrete concept of magic that is being discussed. But this misses the point. While a good definition suggests that magical practices are rites and rituals that exist on the margins of cultural norms (Dickie, 38), the point is that, when we look at the evidence, what is labelled magic is a moving target. The label stays the same, but the content changes depending on the situation at hand. The label is not so much about the practices themselves, but rather about the status of those practices.

In fact, when one looks at what was considered “magic” in antiquity, one quickly sees that a wide variety of practices fall under this banner. For example, I put together the following list of practices which were considered magic in the ancient world:

As should be obvious by now, there is no single “magic” to speak of. What is even more interesting is that several of these practices were actually components of mainstream Greco-Roman culture (sacrifices, purification, prophecy, and others). Therefore, the practices are not a threat in and of themselves—they require something else to tip them over into the category of “magic.” And now we can begin to see how these practices become enmeshed in power structures which define them as “magic.” Either they threaten to edge-in on existing practices, or they derive from sources which were marginalized in antiquity, such as women, lower classes, or foreign peoples (Dickie 65, 88, 134).

While Stratton’s article mainly relies on representations of women and magic in antiquity to show how these constructions are created, I would like to add two more examples to show how the appellation of magic can be applied arbitrarily:

  1. The Necromancing Pythagorean
  2. Jewish and Christian Holy Men

These two examples of “magic” illustrate how different phenomena fall into this nebulous category. They suggest that magic is not a codified set of practices, nor are those doing the defining of magic or practice of magic similarly fixed. These examples are both located within relationships of power, but their power structures and “magical” practices are different.

The Necromancing Pythagorean

I’m going to start with my favourite example, that of the Necromancing Pythagorean. In this case, the magical object being defined isn’t static, and we’ll see why this is soon enough.

This example involves a Roman named Publius Vatinius, who was a political figure aligned with Julius Caesar in 48bce, when Rome was making its historic transition from republic to empire. Needless to say, Vatinius wasn’t exactly popular with some other politicians, namely Cicero, who accused Vatinius of all sorts of corruption. But Rome was sorta already corrupt, and Cicero needed something else to paint Vatinius as the ultimate bad guy, so he accused him of necromancy.

This wasn’t any random charge of necromancy. It was directly tied to Vatinius’ Pythagorean leanings. Vatinius dressed like a Pythagorean, wearing a black toga which visually identified his beliefs. Cicero used the black toga to make two accusations against Vatinius. The first was that he was up to no good politically, and that he wore this toga out socially to torment Cicero by insinuating he was scheming against him. The second charge was that, as a Pythagorean, he sacrificed boys and consulted their dead spirits. Thus, not only was Vatinius a political agitator, but a murderer who used the spirits of corpses for his own aims (Dickie 170). With a reputation like that, it’s a wonder he had any friends in the senate. Vatinius, that is.

Here’s the funny thing: The feuding politicians eventually made up.

And as you can probably guess, as the animosity disappeared, so too did the charges of impiety and murder.  In fact, in a speech made two years after the one where he accused Vatinius of all sorts of unholy deeds, Cicero changed his tune. Not only did Cicero now praise Vatinius, he praises his Pythagoreanism and dismisses his earlier allegations, which no longer seem to be a threat (or existent in reality, for that matter) (Dickie 170).

This example is important for showing how allegations of magic are constructed within a specific power dynamic. Not only that, this dynamic is not static. When Vatinius is Cicero’s enemy, he is an evil Pythagorean necromancer. When he is Cicero’s ally, he is commended for his beliefs.  Interestingly, as the power-dispute weakens, the allegations of magic drop-off. Thus, what are once marginalized practices are no longer abhorrent, but perfectly acceptable. The context creates the definition, not the practice.

Jewish and Christian Holy Men

This next example also illustrates how what is considered to be magic can shift depending on one’s perception. In this case, the magical activity appears to be the same. We have two miracle workers who claim to heal debilitating medical conditions and perform exorcisms. One however, is a Jew from Samaria, Simon Magus; the other is a Christian holy man, Philip the Evangelist.

Now, Simon Magus was famous enough to be made mentioned of on several occasions. He’s been connected with Philip in the Acts of the Apostles. He is also famous for having a magical showdown with Peter, in the Acts of Peter. According to Acts 8:9, Simon Magus has some serious powers and the Samarians have witnessed and revered his magical abilities. Simon Magus is, to put it bluntly, truly amazing.

But the Samarians are fickle and Christianity is right around the corner. Spoiler: It doesn’t go well for Simon, who receives an unfortunate write-up by these Christian authors. His fantastic magic skills, with which he had been dazzling the Samarians, are nothing compared to Philip’s abilities. Philip’s abilities make Simon’s look amateurish and he becomes the new hero of the people. There’s a catch, though. It’s Christianity. But the Samarians have no problem converting because Philip is so amazing. Even Simon Magus converts. And everyone lives happily ever after.

As Jack N. Lightstone observes, “One cannot escape the conclusion that Simon did much the same thing as Philip before the latter’s arrival…Acts, however, quite clearly qualifies Simon’s success. Philip’s accomplishments were real, that is, divine power acted through him; Simon’s, in spite of the recognition he had achieved, were illusion and trickery” (13).  The moral is clear, if you’re like us, your skills originate from our God. If you are not like us, your practices—even if they are the same in many respects—are deceptive, wicked, and unholy. In this case, the author of Acts is taking a common phenomenon in antiquity, the Holy Man, and making the Christian version palatable (while denigrating other competitors). Lightstone suggests that, “to observe that Jews and other Late Antique Yahwehists were known among early Christians as adept magicians…shows us that Jews and others were beyond the pale of Christian society” (13). Thus allegations of magic are essential in group boundary formation, sorting out what is proper religious practice and what is not.

Naming Magic

To summarize, the notion of magic in antiquity isn’t limited to a single phenomenon and is often a pejorative designation given to those who practice activities outside the cultural norm. We find labels of magic used to define and maintain social boundaries. The examples above show that what is called magic is not a fixed phenomenon, rather, magic is a constructed idea that serves to maintain ideological and religious boundaries. While one can certainly come up with a variety of practices that could fall under the banner of magic, these practices are not, in and of themselves “magical,” rather it is their place in society which makes them so. The decision to label a practice magic is, in a word, arbitrary.


Dickie, Matthew W. Magic and Magicians in the Greco-Roman World. Routledge. 2001.
Lightstone, Jack N. The Commerce of the Sacred: Mediation of the Divine Among Jews in the Greco-Roman World. Columbia University Press. 2006.
Stratton, Kimberly B. “Magic Discourse in the Ancient World” in Defining Magic: A Reader, eds. Bernd-Christian Otto and Michael Stausberg. Acumen. 2013.

Photo by Fran Simó.

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