Category Archives: Papyri (documents from Egypt)

David Frankfurter on “fetus magic” in Roman Egypt

The most recent issue of Greek, Roman and Byzantine Studies (current issue not yet online) has a fascinating article by David Frankfurter (U. New Hampshire): “Fetus Magic and Sorcery Fears in Roman Egypt,” GRBS 46 (2006), 37-62. Frankfurter explores the case of one Gemellus Horion, a partially blind descendent of a Roman veteran who brought a formal complaint before the Roman strategos over an incident that occured in the village of Karanis in 197 CE. Horion’s not-so-friendly neighbours — the family of Julius — had on more than one occasion robbed Horion’s family of their harvest and had ensured that their thieving action would not be stopped by using magic. Not once, but twice, the neighbours had thrown an aborted or miscarried fetus (brephos) in order to “surround [the Horion family] with malice” and create a binding spell that would ensure that noone would stop them –apparently with success to the point of Horion’s petition for Roman action. The complaint on the papyrus, as translated by Frankfurter, reads in part:

“[Julius] again trespassed with his wife and a certain Zenas, holding a brephos (fetus), intending to surround my cultivator with malice so that he would abandon his labor after having harvested . . . Again, in the same manner, they threw the same brephos toward me, intending to surround me also with malice. . . Julius, after he had gathered in the remaining crops from the fields, took the brephos away to his house (PMich VI 423-424, lines 12-14, 16-18, 20-21, as translated by Frankfurter 2006:41).

Frankfurter goes on to discuss this incident of a binding spell within the context of local traditions of magical practice and shows how the fetus functions primarily as something completely out of place or “weird” and therefore impure (making use of Malinowksi’s principle of the “coefficient of weirdness”) (p. 52). I would highly recommend this and the many other solid studies that David Frankfurter has produced, including his Religion in Roman Egypt: Assimilation and Resistance (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 2000) and “Ritual as Accusation and Atrocity: Satanic Ritual Abuse, Gnostic Libertinism, and Primal Murders,” History of Religions 40 (2001), 352-381.

Frankfurter has a knack for picking interesting topics and solving important issues in the process, I would suggest.

An invitation from the god Sarapis: Banqueting with the gods

When the members of associations or guilds in the Roman empire gathered together for a meal, much more than simply satisfying the appetite or merely socializing was going on. Things that we moderns might separate into the categories of “social” and “religious” were intimately intertwined in antiquity, and the sacrificial meal is a case in point. The main way to honour the gods or goddesses was to make offerings of food or animal sacrifices, and in the majority of cases this, by default, included the accompanying meal of the worshipers.

In fact, in some cases it was even imagined that the god threw the banquet and was present with devotees as they shared in a communal meal. One banquet invitation on papyrus (ancient paper made from plants in Egypt) shows that the (Greco-Egyptian) god Sarapis sometimes sent out personal invitations for dinner: “The god calls you to a banquet being held. . . tomorrow from the 9th hour” (trans. by G.H.R. Horsley, New Documents Illustrating Early Christianity, vol. I no. 1). And this is one of those rare cases when an upper-class author (in this case Aelius Aristides of Smyrna) happens to clarify how the members of an association devoted to Sarapis might think about their god’s presence, whether in Egypt or in Asia Minor:

“And mankind exceptionally makes this god [Sarapis] alone a full partner in their sacrifices, summoning him to the feast and making him both their chief guest and host, so that while different gods contribute to different banquets, he is the universal contributor to all banquets and has the rank of mess president for those who assemble at times for his sake . . . he is a participant in the libations and is the one who receives the libations, and he goes as a guest to the revel and issues the invitations to the revelers, who under his guidance perform a dance.” Orations 45.27-28; trans. by Charles A. Behr, P. Aelius Aristides: The Complete Works. Leiden: E.J. Brill, 1981 (second century