Ancient Roman Magic: Superstitions and Mystical Symbols

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Table of Contents

Magic and Religion in the Roman Society.

In ancient Roman society, the realms of magic and superstition occupied a unique and often complex space. Far from being peripheral, they intertwined deeply with the daily lives, religious beliefs, and socio-political structures of the Romans.

The Roman religious landscape recognized a multitude of numina (divine forces) and venerated a vast pantheon of deities. Alongside this structured religiosity existed practices that modern observers might classify as magical or superstitious. For instance, Romans widely practiced divination, attempting to discern the will of the gods through omens and auguries.

Protection against harmful forces was sought using amulets and talismans, like the bulla worn by male children or the ubiquitous protective symbol of the phallus. At the same time, there was societal awareness and condemnation of harmful magical practices, termed maleficium, with laws like the Twelve Tables explicitly outlawing such acts.

Daily life was infused with superstitions, with certain days deemed auspicious or inauspicious for various activities. As the empire grew, its embrace of foreign cultures introduced additional layers of magical practices and superstitions, leading to a rich syncretic blend.

For the Romans, the boundaries between religion, magic, and superstition were often blurred. While certain practices like sacrifices at official temples were viewed as normative and religious, others, particularly those performed in private or with specific magical intent, could be labeled as superstitious or even illicit.

At the same time, Roman authorities held a wary view of certain magical practices, particularly those seen as threatening to the state or societal order. Official stances on what constituted acceptable religious practices versus illicit magical rites often shifted based on political climate and the particular beliefs of those in power.

Related article: Gods and Goddesses of Ancient Rome

Image depicts Emperor Marcus Aurelius and the Imperial family performing a sacrificial ritual in thanks for their victories over the Germanic tribes
Emperor Marcus Aurelius and the Imperial family performing a sacrificial ritual in thanks for their victories over the Germanic tribes, source

Historical Context

The Romans, much like other ancient cultures, did not see the world through a strictly empirical lens. They believed that divine forces permeated every aspect of their lives. From the whisper of the wind to the flight patterns of birds, the Romans discerned omens and portents, interpreting them as messages or signals from the gods. Natural events such as earthquakes or eclipses were often perceived as manifestations of divine displeasure.

Interaction with Other Cultures

As the Roman Empire expanded, it came into contact with a variety of different cultures and their myriad spiritual and mystical traditions. This cross-cultural exchange invariably left its mark on Roman magical and superstitious practices, blending native beliefs with foreign elements to create a unique syncretic system.

Egyptian Influences

The cult of Isis, an Egyptian deity, became particularly influential in Rome. Originating from the Nile valley, the worship of Isis spread through trade and cultural interactions. Roman followers of Isis would participate in grand processions, dawn rituals, and purification ceremonies. Moreover, the deity Serapis, a Hellenistic-Egyptian god, was also revered in the Roman Empire, symbolizing the synthesis of Greek and Egyptian religious concepts.

Greek and Persian Influences

The Romans were deeply influenced by Greek magical practices and deities. Oracles, inspired by the famous Oracle of Delphi, were sought for guidance. Furthermore, the Mithraic mysteries or Mithraism originated from Persia and found a significant following among the Roman military and elites. This religion centered around the god Mithras and involved intricate initiation rites, hierarchies, and a belief in celestial dualism.

Large-polychrome-tauroctony-relief-from-the-mithraeum-of-S.-Stefano-Rotondo-end-of-the-3rd-century-AD-Baths-of-Diocletian-Museum-Rome
The Mithraeum of San Clemente in Rome, source

Related article: The Mithraeum of San Clemente in Rome

Etruscan Influence

One of the most profound impacts on Roman religious practices came from the Etruscan religion, practiced by the Etruscans who were neighbors to the early Romans.Etruscan haruspicy, the act of divining the future from the entrails of sacrificed animals, was adopted and integrated into Roman state rituals. The Etruscans were also known for their elaborate tomb paintings and belief in an afterlife, concepts which influenced Roman funerary practices.

The Religion of the Etruscan People
Mural in the Tomba François, Vulci, source
Italo-Roman Tribes and Their Influence

The fabric of Roman religious beliefs was also woven with threads from neighboring Italic tribes. The Sabines, for instance, contributed to early Roman rituals and festivals. The Samnites, fierce adversaries and later allies, introduced elements of their mountainous deities and practices. The Latins, closely related to the Romans, shared a similar pantheon, and their joint worship of deities like Jupiter Latiaris signified their close bond.

Celtic and Indo-European Elements

As Rome expanded into Western Europe, they encountered the Celtic tribes with their distinct pantheon and druidic practices. Over time, some of these deities, like Epona, the horse goddess, were incorporated into the Roman religious framework. There were also shared elements between early Roman practices and other Indo-European traditions. For instance, both cultures practiced similar fire festivals and revered deities associated with natural elements.

Bregenz, Vorarlberg Museum, Epona relief, 70-100 AD
Bregenz, Vorarlberg Museum, Epona relief, 70-100 AD, source

However, this process of integration was not always smooth. There were instances of tensions, especially when foreign rituals or beliefs were seen as challenging the established Roman order. Traditionalists often viewed these new practices with suspicion, deeming them to be potential threats to Roman moral standards and political stability. For example, the Bacchanalian rites, inspired by the Greek god Dionysus, were once suppressed in Rome due to concerns about their disruptive nature.

Political Instrumentalization of Superstition

Superstitious beliefs have often been harnessed as tools for political manipulation and strategy. Such beliefs, deeply ingrained in the cultural psyche, held sway over the masses, and their strategic use could influence popular sentiment and decision-making processes.

For example, during the tumultuous era of the late Republic, Gaius Julius Caesar was forewarned by a soothsayer about the Ides of March, which turned out to be an eerie harbinger of his imminent assassination. This incident, imbued with superstition, precipitated political aftershocks that altered the course of Roman history.

Another striking instance comes from the reign of Emperor Augustus. Recognizing the importance of symbolism and divine favor in securing his rule, he emphasized his divine lineage by claiming descent from the goddess Venus and the hero Aeneas. In a society where the divine and superstitious played a pivotal role, this proclamation bolstered his position, lending him an aura of divine legitimacy.

Similarly, the prodigies (unusual phenomena interpreted as signs from the gods) recorded during the Second Punic War against Hannibal served as tools of psychological warfare. The Roman Senate responded to these prodigies by carrying out public expiation rituals to placate the gods and rally Roman morale. This underscores how deeply superstition was interwoven into the political fabric, shaping responses to crises and influencing strategic decisions.

Roman Law and Magic

The Ancient Roman legal system demonstrated a nuanced attitude towards magic. While some benign magical and superstitious practices were widely accepted or even incorporated into daily life, others, especially those deemed harmful or malevolent, came under the scrutiny of Roman law. A significant piece of legislation in this context was the Lex Cornelia de sicariis et veneficiis (Cornelian Law on Assassins and Poisoners). Enacted in 81 BC by the dictator Lucius Cornelius Sulla, this law specifically targeted and criminalized certain harmful magical practices.

Central to the provisions of the Lex Cornelia was its condemnation of acts involving poisoning and cursing. Individuals found guilty of using such practices, particularly if they resulted in the death or serious harm of another, faced severe penalties. The framing of this legislation within the broader context of addressing assassins highlights the gravity with which Rome viewed the threat of malevolent magic. Indeed, in an empire where personal and political rivalries often played out in public and private arenas, the use of magic as a covert means of harm or manipulation was a concern not just for the individual, but also for the stability of the state itself.

An ancient artifact resembling a phallus, displayed at the National Archaeological Museum of Naples
An ancient artifact resembling a phallus, displayed at the National Archaeological Museum of Naples

Imperial Sponsorship and Opposition

The Roman emperors’ attitudes towards magic and superstition were multifaceted and evolved over time, influenced by personal beliefs, political imperatives, and the broader socio-religious contexts of their reigns.

Nero (Nero Claudius Caesar Augustus Germanicus) was a prominent figure in this narrative, with historical records indicating his frequent consultations with astrologers and soothsayers. Notably, some historians posit that these advisers might have shaped several of Nero’s contentious decisions, given the significant influence they held over him.

Conversely, Emperor Augustus (Gaius Octavius Thurinus) exhibited a nuanced view towards these esoteric practices. Historical sources acknowledge Augustus’s own occasional consultations with astrologers. However, his broader policy stance veered towards caution. Recognizing the potential subversive power of astrologers, who could both influence public sentiment and predict the fates of the elite, Augustus instituted a ban on astrological practices within Rome. This was less a move against superstition, and more a strategy to control the potential political machinations of such practitioners.

Historical records highlight Tiberius (Tiberius Caesar Augustus)’s deep-rooted superstitions, exemplified by his association with astrologers and diviners on the island of Capri. Nevertheless, Tiberius’s attitude shifted with time. Spurred by the prophecies of an astrologer named Thrasyllus of Mendes, who ominously predicted a threat from a “Gaius”, Tiberius initiated a subsequent crackdown against astrologers in Rome, underscoring his growing mistrust.

Julian the Apostate (Flavius Claudius Julianus), the Roman Empire’s last pagan emperor, was distinctly supportive of mystical and magical practices. His reign, albeit brief, heralded a renaissance of polytheistic religions and associated ceremonies, showcasing a clear form of imperial endorsement.

In stark contrast, Christian emperors such as Constantine the Great (Flavius Valerius Aurelius Constantinus Augustus) exhibited pronounced opposition to many traditional Roman magical and superstitious practices. Deeming them incongruous with Christian doctrine, the reigns of Constantine and his successors marked periods of suppression and dwindling influence for many of these ancient customs.

Distinction between Religion and Superstition

In ancient Roman society, the lines between official religious practices and superstition were often blurred. However, a closer examination reveals distinctions between what was sanctioned by state or community norms and what was considered individual or marginal beliefs. The difference between Roman religion and superstition was not merely about the beliefs themselves but more about their social and institutional contexts.

Lupercalia, Andrea Camassei, circa 1635
Lupercalia, Andrea Camassei, circa 1635, source

State-Sanctioned Religious Practices

Roman religion was a public affair, deeply embedded in the political and social structures of the state. Civic religion was characterized by:

  1. Temples and Altars: Dedicated to official gods and goddesses, these were often grand structures funded by the state or wealthy citizens. For example, the Temple of Jupiter Optimus Maximus on the Capitoline Hill was central to state-sponsored worship.
  2. Public Rituals and Festivals: Regularly scheduled events like the Lupercalia or Saturnalia, which had specific rites, ceremonies, and societal importance.
  3. Priesthoods: Formal religious roles, such as the Pontifex Maximus or the Vestal Virgins, who performed essential religious functions and rituals.
Saturnalia by Antoine Callet
Saturnalia by Antoine Callet, source

Superstition and Personal Beliefs

In contrast to the public nature of official Roman religious practices, superstitions were more private, often practiced at the individual or family level. These included:

  1. Omens and Portents: Individual Romans might believe that certain events, like a black crow flying overhead, foretold good or bad luck.
  2. Household Spirits: While state religion focused on grand gods and goddesses, many Romans also believed in spirits like lares (guardian spirits of the household) and penates (spirits of the pantry), offering them daily devotions at household shrines.
  3. Personal Amulets and Talismans: Many Romans carried objects like the bulla, a protective amulet worn by Roman children, or phallic symbols meant to ward off the evil eye.

Intersection of Religion and Superstition

Despite their distinctions, there were areas where religion and superstition overlapped:

  1. Divination: Both state religion and personal superstition held that the future could be foretold. Official priests, like augurs, would interpret the will of the gods by observing bird flights or examining animal entrails. At the same time, individuals might consult haruspices or soothsayers for personal guidance.
  2. Sacred Spaces: Places like crossroads or groves, while not necessarily tied to major deities, were still considered sacred and might be sites for both official rituals and superstitious practices.
  3. Public vs. Private: Even within the state religion, there was a recognition of the personal aspect of belief. For example, while temples to major gods were public spaces, many also had small shrines or side altars where individuals could make personal offerings or prayers.

Everyday Superstitions

In the complex mosaic of ancient Roman society, common superstitions were integral in shaping the behaviors and convictions of its citizens. These superstitions covered an extensive spectrum, ranging from omens predicting forthcoming events to customs associated with daily practices. Many of these beliefs were firmly rooted in the Roman consciousness, affecting choices of both trivial and major consequence.

Omens and Portents

Omens were considered signs from the gods and were thought to foretell future events. For instance, unusual bird behavior, especially from birds like the eagle (considered sacred to Jupiter) or the raven, could be interpreted as omens. Similarly, the direction from which birds flew, or a bird’s sudden appearance during a significant event, held particular importance. Furthermore, unexpected natural phenomena like lightning, especially when it struck particular objects or places, were taken as indicators of the gods’ favor or anger.

Dream Interpretation

Dreams were another domain where the Romans sought meaning. They believed that dreams could provide guidance or warnings from the divine realm. Special books, such as the Oneirocritica (Interpretation of Dreams) by Artemidorus, provided interpretations for various dream themes and symbols. For example, dreaming of riding a white horse could signify upcoming success or elevation in status.

Household Rituals and Beliefs

The household was a center of various superstitious practices. The Lares, protective deities of the household, were honored with small shrines and offerings in many Roman homes. It was considered unlucky to sweep the house after sunset, as it might offend the spirits. Moreover, to ensure good luck and prosperity, a coin might be thrown into a new home upon first entering.

Birth and Death

The moments of birth and death, seen as transitions between worlds, were accompanied by a multitude of superstitions. It was considered unlucky, for instance, to mention the dead by name without adding a protective phrase or gesture. At birth, rituals like placing an amulet around the newborn’s neck or having the father accept the newborn into the family by lifting them were essential to ensure protection and favorable fate.

Evil Eye and Protective Measures

The concept of the evil eye (‘malocchio‘ in later Italian), a malevolent gaze that could bring harm or misfortune, was deeply rooted in Roman beliefs. To counteract its negative effects, Romans used various protective amulets. One common amulet was the bulla, worn by Roman boys. Another was the fascinus, a phallic symbol believed to deflect the evil eye.

Roman Amulets and Talismans

Amulets and talismans played a significant role in the daily lives of ancient Romans. Derived from the Latin word amuletum, these objects were believed to offer protection against harm, evil spirits, and misfortune, as well as to bring luck and other beneficial effects. The Romans were not unique in this regard; many ancient cultures made use of similar protective objects. However, Roman amulets and talismans had their distinct characteristics and significances.

An-image-of-a-Roman-bulla-a-protective-amulet-traditionally-worn-by-young-boys-in-ancient-Rome-to-seek-divine-safeguarding
Image of a Roman bulla, a protective amulet traditionally worn by young boys in ancient Rome for divine protection

Materials and Designs:

Roman amulets and talismans were made from a variety of materials, including gemstones, metal, bone, and clay. The choice of material was often connected with the specific protective power attributed to it:

  • Gemstones: Certain gemstones were believed to possess specific protective properties. For instance, carnelian was thought to provide protection against bleeding, while jet was believed to guard against snake bites.
  • Bullae: Roman boys, prior to reaching manhood, often wore a protective gold or leather pouch called a bulla around their necks. It contained amuletic objects believed to safeguard them from evil influences.
  • Phallic symbols: One of the most ubiquitous amulets in ancient Rome was the fascinus (a phallic symbol). It was believed to protect against the evil eye and other negative influences. Miniature fascini could be found hung around necks, attached to bracelets, or even placed around homes.

Purported Effects:

The effects attributed to these amulets and talismans were vast:

  • Evil Eye Protection: The evil eye, or malocchio, was a significant concern for Romans. Many talismans, including the aforementioned fascinus, were designed explicitly to counteract its ill effects.
  • Health and Well-being: Some amulets were believed to maintain or restore health. The serpent, a common motif, symbolized Asclepius, the god of medicine, and was thought to provide healing benefits.
  • Safe Travels: Certain amulets, often bearing depictions of particular deities, were carried by travelers to ensure safe journeys.

Popular Amulets and Their Uses:

  • Lunulae: Moon-shaped amulets worn primarily by Roman women and girls, believed to offer protection against evil spirits.
  • Bulla: As previously mentioned, this was worn by young Roman boys. However, emperors would also wear a golden bulla as a mark of distinction and for protection.
  • Dolphin Amulets: Symbolizing the protective power of the sea, dolphin amulets were commonly worn by sailors to safeguard them during their voyages.

Curses and Curse Tablets

The magical tradition of cursing was a complex facet of the Roman world. Curses, typically inscribed on materials like lead tablets, were employed for various personal, legal, and competitive motives. These inscriptions, often buried or submerged, represented the fringes of magical practice and illuminate the darker aspects of Roman beliefs about the supernatural.

Materials and Inscription Methods

The most common material for these curse tablets was lead. The choice of lead was not accidental; its durability ensured that the curse would remain in effect for a long time, while its metaphysical properties were believed to enhance the curse’s potency. Other materials, like wax or papyrus, were less commonly used due to their perishable nature.

The inscriptions were typically scratched onto the surface of the tablet using a stylus or a sharp-pointed tool. These inscriptions varied in length and detail but would typically include the name of the target, the nature of the harm desired, and sometimes even the name of the deity or supernatural force invoked to carry out the curse.

Purposes of the Curses

Curses were utilized for a wide array of purposes:

  1. Legal and Competitive Motivations: In the realm of public competitions or legal disputes, individuals might seek an advantage over their competitors or opponents. For instance, charioteers in the Roman circus or rival litigants in court were common subjects of such curse tablets.
  2. Love and Desire: Some tablets sought to induce love or bind a person’s affections. These are sometimes referred to as “erotic binding spells.”
  3. Retribution: Individuals feeling wronged might resort to curse tablets as a form of revenge. For instance, a scorned lover, a betrayed friend, or a cheated business partner might invoke harm upon the wrongdoer.
  4. Theft: If someone’s property went missing, they might use a curse tablet to bring harm to the thief until the stolen items were returned.

Geographical and Temporal Spread

While the use of curse tablets was widespread across the Roman Empire, they were especially prominent in Britain, North Africa, and Greece. The Bath curse tablets, discovered in the English city of Bath, are among the most famous. These tablets, often inscribed in Latin, beseech the goddess Sulis Minerva to punish thieves who stole from the temple bath.

The practice of using curse tablets seems to have reached its peak during the 2nd to 4th centuries AD, though it certainly predates this period and persisted, in altered forms, into Late Antiquity and the Byzantine period.

a gilt bronze head of the deity Sulis Minerva, the recipient of the curse tablets, discovered at her dedicated temple in Bath
A gilt bronze head of the deity Sulis Minerva, the recipient of the curse tablets, discovered at her dedicated temple in Bath, source

Religious and Supernatural Context

It’s noteworthy to mention that these practices, while magical, were not entirely divorced from the religious beliefs of the time. Gods, spirits, and other supernatural entities were often invoked in these curses. For instance, chthonic deities—gods of the underworld—were commonly summoned because of their association with the dead and the unseen forces of the earth.

Magical Practices and Rituals

The magical practices and rituals of ancient Rome encompassed a wide variety of activities, many of which were deeply intertwined with daily life. These rituals, often considered extensions of religious practices, served a range of purposes, from attracting love and success to preventing misfortune or illness.

Love Spells

Love spells were immensely popular in ancient Rome. These might include the use of love potions, charms, or spells to attract a lover or make someone fall in love. Ingredients might range from common herbs to more exotic substances. Some practices even involved invoking deities such as Venus to enhance the spell’s potency.

Protection Rituals

Protective magic was a mainstay of Roman life. Romans often used amulets and talismans (which will be discussed in greater detail in section 1.5) to safeguard themselves from harm. But beyond these objects, there were also rituals designed to shield individuals, property, or even entire cities from malevolent forces. The Lares, household spirits, were often invoked for this purpose, with families making regular offerings to them in exchange for protection.

Divination (Haruspicy and Augury)

One of the most respected forms of magical practice was divination. Haruspices, or diviners, would examine the entrails of sacrificed animals to read signs and predict the future. Similarly, augurs interpreted the flight patterns and behavior of birds. These practices, although considered magical, were also deeply religious and were sanctioned by the state.

Binding Spells and Defixiones (Defixio)

The ancient Romans employed defixiones (or curse tablets) as a primary medium for binding spells. These tablets, usually made of lead, had inscriptions that invoked the gods of the underworld to control or harm individuals. For instance, a defixio might be used to ensure that a charioteer in the Circus Maximus would lose a race. One example from Bath, England (then part of the Roman Empire), calls upon the goddess Sulis to bind the thief who stole Vilbia’s gloves: “May he who carried off Vilbia become as liquid as the water. May she who so obscenely devoured her be struck dumb.”

Healing Rituals and Incantations

For many in ancient Rome, healing was intimately connected to religion and magic. Temples dedicated to Asclepius, the god of medicine, were common across the empire, and the sick would often leave small votive offerings, shaped like the body part needing healing. Alongside mainstream religious practices, many turned to magical remedies. Amulets and charms, often inscribed with incantations, were worn to ward off illness. For instance, an amulet might be inscribed with the words “Abra Kadabra,” believed to have protective properties against diseases. Herbs like sage were believed to offer protection against evil spirits and were often used in healing rituals.

Dream Magic

In Ancient Rome, dreams were not mere flights of fancy; they were portals into the divine. Oneirocritics (professional dream interpreters) played an essential role in society, helping Romans decipher these nightly visions. One of the most famous works on dream interpretation from this period is Artemidorus Daldianus’s “Oneirocritica” (Interpretation of Dreams). This five-book series details various dream symbols and their meanings, offering readers insights into potential future events based on their dreams.

Ritualized Chants and Invocations

The power of the spoken word was highly revered in ancient Rome, and chants and invocations played a pivotal role in magical rites. By invoking deities like Jupiter or spirits such as the Lares (household spirits) and Penates (spirits of the pantry), Romans sought to tap into supernatural forces. For instance, during the Lemuria festival, the head of the household would toss black beans behind him and chant invocations to appease the restless spirits of the dead, ensuring they did not haunt the living. Such practices underscored the belief that the right combination of words, spoken with intent, could summon or appease supernatural forces.

Magical Professionals and Practitioners

The ancient Roman world was replete with individuals who claimed specialized knowledge in the magical arts. These figures were often sought after by Romans for guidance, protection, or even harm to others. Their roles varied from official and publicly sanctioned to secretive and sometimes even illegal.

Priests (Sacerdotes) and Augurs

Official religious practitioners, like the priests (sacerdotes), were often called upon to perform rituals and sacrifices to the gods. These were mostly seen as religious activities, but given the fine line between religion and magic in the ancient world, they could also be viewed as magical in nature.

Augurs were a special group of priests responsible for interpreting the will of the gods by studying the flight patterns of birds – a practice known as “taking the auspices” (auspicia). This could influence major decisions, such as whether to engage in battle or to enact certain policies.

Haruspices

The haruspices were another significant group of diviners, originally from Etruria. They specialized in reading the entrails of sacrificed animals, particularly the liver, to predict the future or determine the will of the gods.

Wise Women (Sagae) and Wizards (Magi)

Common in many ancient societies, wise women, known as sagae, were often consulted for their knowledge of herbal remedies, childbirth, and sometimes spells or charms. They played a crucial role in local communities, often serving as midwives and healers.

Magi, a term that originally referred to a group of priests from Persia, by the Roman period came to mean wizards or practitioners of magic more generally. These individuals might be sought out for their knowledge of spells, amulets, or other forms of magical protection or curse.

Soothsayers (Vates) and Oracles

Vates, or soothsayers, were individuals believed to have the ability to foretell the future. This could be through various means, from studying natural phenomena to being in a state of trance.

Oracles, though more associated with ancient Greece, also played a role in Roman society. Places like the Oracle at Delphi, though outside of Rome, were known to and consulted by Romans. Within Rome, the Sibylline Books were a collection of oracular prophecies which were consulted in times of crisis.

Astrologers

With the expansion of the Roman Empire into the East, particularly Egypt, astrology became increasingly popular. Astrologers, who interpreted the movements and positions of stars and planets, played a significant role in determining auspicious times for events or understanding a person’s fate.

Cuninae

A lesser-known aspect of Roman belief in magical practitioners includes spirits known as cuninae. These spirits were believed to watch over infants as they slept, and some families might have had dedicated practitioners who invoked these spirits for protection.

Roman Magic in Literature and Art

In ancient Rome, beliefs in magic and superstition were not solely limited to personal practices or clandestine curses; they were also prominently evident in literature and the arts. Such portrayals provide a comprehensive understanding of Roman perspectives on the magical and the supernatural, as well as societal beliefs, viewpoints, and apprehensions related to them.

Roman Literature

Roman literature is replete with tales of the supernatural, omens, and magical elements. Notable works include:

  • “Metamorphoses” by Ovid: This epic poem, spanning fifteen books, is a chronicle of the world from its creation to the deification of Julius Caesar. Magic and transformation are central themes, with many tales revolving around gods and mortals using magical powers to change forms or alter fate. The story of Medea, the sorceress, stands out for its vivid depiction of her spells and potions.
  • “Pharsalia” by Lucan: This historical epic tells of the civil war between Caesar and Pompey. One particularly notable scene involves the witch Erictho, who practices necromancy by reviving a dead soldier to foretell the outcome of the war.
  • “Satyricon” by Petronius: A fragmentary novel that offers a glimpse into the lives of the Roman lower classes, it has instances where magic and superstition play vital roles, like the episode where a banquet guest is turned into a werewolf.
The Fall of Icarus, fresco from Pompeii, 40-79 AD
The Fall of Icarus, fresco from Pompeii, 40-79 AD, source

Frescoes and Sculptures

Ancient Roman visual arts also reflect the culture’s fascination with the supernatural. Several examples include:

  • Pompeii and Herculaneum Frescoes: The remains of these cities, preserved by volcanic ash, contain numerous frescoes that portray scenes of magical and superstitious significance. One such fresco from Pompeii depicts the myth of Daedalus and Icarus, reminding viewers of the peril of challenging the gods and overstepping human boundaries.
  • Lararium: A household shrine found in many Roman homes, dedicated to the Lares, protective deities of the household. Often, these shrines would have frescoes or mosaics depicting scenes of daily life, intertwined with symbols of protection and good fortune.
  • Statues of Priapus: Often placed in gardens, these statues were thought to ward off evil and bring fertility. Priapus, a god of fertility, was depicted with a large phallus, symbolizing potency and protection against the evil eye.

Societal Perceptions and Fears

The depictions of magic and superstition in Roman literature and art were not just for entertainment or aesthetic appeal; they also mirrored societal beliefs and fears. For instance, the prevalence of amulets, talismans, and protective symbols in art suggests a society deeply concerned with warding off malevolent forces. The tales of transformation in Ovid’s “Metamorphoses” might be interpreted as allegories for the unpredictable and capricious nature of fate, reminding readers of the thin line between fortune and disaster.

Decline and Christianization

With the rise of Christianity in the Roman Empire, attitudes towards magic and superstition began to shift dramatically. Christianity, rooted in the teachings of Jesus Christ and the Holy Scriptures, was inherently skeptical of pagan beliefs and practices, including magic and superstition. As Christianity became more influential, there was a pronounced effort to eradicate or assimilate these practices, leading to significant changes in the spiritual landscape of the Roman world.

The Early Christian Stance

Initially, Christianity was one among many religions in the Roman Empire. However, as its popularity grew, especially after the conversion of Emperor Constantine in the early 4th century CE, its relationship with magic and superstition became more contentious. The Christian scriptures, especially the New Testament, denounced sorcery and magical practices (Acts 8:9-24, Revelation 21:8). This established a clear dichotomy between “true” Christian miracles and “deceptive” pagan magic.

Eradication of Pagan Practices

The Roman state, now increasingly Christian, launched efforts to suppress pagan practices, including magic. Laws were passed against divination, sacrifice to old gods, and other pagan rituals. Temples were either destroyed or converted into Christian churches. The Theodosian Code (Codex Theodosianus), a compilation of Roman laws from 438 CE, explicitly outlawed many pagan practices and made them punishable offenses.

Magic in the Christian World

Even as Christianity denounced magic, the belief in magical practices persisted. Charms, amulets, and spells didn’t disappear; they simply took on a more Christian character. The use of relics, for instance, became widespread. These were physical remnants of saints or holy figures, believed to carry divine power. The faithful might pray to these relics for protection or healing, much in the same way Romans might once have used talismans or amulets.

Assimilation, Legacy, and Syncretism of the Pagan Rituals in the Fertility Rites of the Middle Ages and in Christianity

Syncretism refers to the merging or assimilation of religious beliefs, often resulting in new practices and rituals. Throughout history, the absorption of pagan elements into Christianity is a testament to the adaptable nature of religious practices. This assimilation not only enriched Christian traditions but also provided a means to integrate pagan communities into Christian society.

Hands of Sabazius

Hand of Sabazios
Hand of Sabazios, source

One notable example of this syncretism is observed in the hands of Sabazius, associated with Sabazius, the Sky Father God of the Phrygians and Thracians. These bronze artifacts, often shaped like hands and adorned with various symbols, were likely amulets or votive offerings. Over time, the symbolism of these hands was assimilated into early Christian art, where the hand gesture came to represent the blessing of Christ or the hand of God.

Easter and Ostara

Another prominent instance of syncretism can be observed in the Christian celebration of Easter. The name “Easter” derives from Ostara, an Anglo-Saxon goddess of fertility and spring. Many of the customs associated with Easter, such as the Easter egg, likely have pagan origins connected to fertility rites. The egg, a universal symbol of life and rebirth, became associated with the resurrection of Jesus Christ.

Christmas and Saturnalia

The celebration of Christmas on December 25th coincides with the Roman festival of Saturnalia, dedicated to the god Saturn. Saturnalia was marked by gift-giving, feasting, and a temporary inversion of social roles. While the birth date of Jesus Christ remains uncertain, the selection of December 25th for Christmas may have been influenced by the desire to Christianize popular pagan festivals.

Sources

Featured image: Mithraic relief, Tauroctony, about 160 CE, Royal Ontario Museum

  • Wikipedia
  • Jörg Rüpke (2007). “Roman Religion – Religions of Rome”. In A Companion to Roman Religion. Blackwell
  • Rüpke, “Roman Religion – Religions of Rome”
  • Alexandre Grandazzi, The Foundation of Rome: Myth and History (Cornell University Press, 1997)
  • Cicero, On the Responses of the Haruspices

Topics: Ancient Roman magical practices, Roman societal beliefs on magic, Difference between Roman religion and superstition, Role of amulets in ancient Rome, Transition from pagan to Christian beliefs in Rome, Depictions of magic in Roman art and literature

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