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The Athlone History of Witchcraft and Magic in Europe, Volume 2: Ancient Greece and Rome

Edited by Ankarloo and Clark, published by The Athlone Press 1999 at £18.99. 395pp. ISBN: 0-485-89102-6 (Reviewed by Brian Hoggard)

This is a really fascinating book. Written by four respected scholars of the classical period and (strangely) edited by two experts on primarily early modern witchcraft, this book looks at many different angles of witchcraft and magic in ancient Greece and Rome. The first chapter deals with written charms, curses (mostly written on tablets) and what have become known as voodoo dolls. Very illuminating stuff indeed. Many of these small charms reveal something very personal and emotional about their creator while at the same time revealing much about the nature of the society in which they existed - not to mention how much they reveal about magical practices at that time. I don't normally get terribly enthused by classical history, but this chapter certainly grabbed me from the start - well done to Daniel Ogden for ‘personalising' the classical period for me. My only criticism of this chapter is the shortage of illustrations or photographs. There are some but not nearly enough.

George Luck in the second chapter takes a look at representations of witches and magicians in literature of the period. One of the most interesting things I learned from this chapter was the wide variety of terms that both the Romans and Greeks had for different kinds of sorcerer or witch. Luck's expertise clarifies the historical status of many famous miracle-workers like Simon Magus and Appolonius of Tyana and discusses what was different about these people. My interest was captured throughout this chapter by the many different magical acts and ‘miracles' which were attributed to various of these characters.

In the third chapter Richard Gordon explores magic and witchcraft in a slightly more philosophical way, looking at structures in society and how they supported a belief in witchcraft and magic. This chapter is one of those attempts by modern scholars to ‘explain' how those poor Greeks and Romans ended up believing in ghosts, magic and witchcraft. The title of this chapter, ‘Imagining Greek and Roman Magic', suggests the approach taken by the author here. Very interesting arguments are put forward here which aim to explain the processes of thought which ‘allowed' magic in this period, but I couldn't help feeling that this chapter generalised too heavily and that it was written too densely in comparison with the other chapters - a very revealing line of argument though. An interesting and provocative read.

Finally, Valerie Flint's section was like a breath of fresh air. Written in an accessible style and on an interesting topic, ‘The Demonisation of Magic and Sorcery in Late Antiquity'. Flint explores the way in which sorcerers and magicians were progressively associated with demons and hence ‘evil'. Descriptions of demons and their powers and other bizarre events occur throughout this most interesting chapter.

This book charts a huge period in history from the ‘high point' of sorcery and magic through to the demonisation of magicians in late antiquity. The chapters in this book, whatever their individual characteristics, work well together and provide the reader with a broad understanding of the key themes and issues relating to witchcraft and magic in this period. This is an excellent book which should be snapped up fast while it is still in print. A first class introduction to Witchcraft and Magic in Ancient Greece and Rome. If you've got an interest in this period - buy it now!