Sunday, May 3, 2009

Traditions of Magic in Ancient Antiquity



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Amulets -- protective devices worn around the body, or placed next to other objects, to protect them from various evils -- were common in all societies and all periods of antiquity, and their use was accepted as normal by secular, religious, and "scientific" authorities (i.e., the physicians). Almost anything could serve as an amulet -- a red string wound around the wrist, a stone carried in a small pouch around the neck, or a piece of iron tied to one's bed. Such amulets could be prepared at home, and called for no special knowledge or technical skills. Given their mundane nature, such amulets often are hard to identify -- for when we come across a decorated ring, for example, how can we tell whether it was an amulet or merely a piece of jewelry?


The study of ancient magic can teach us much not only about ancient society, but about human nature and human social structures in general, especially as they relate to the generation, accumulation, and transmission of knowledge about the powers above and the powers below. Magic, after all, is just another manifestation of the innate human desire for control -- to control our natural environment, to control our social world, and eventually to control our own destiny. The techniques may have changed over the last fifteen centuries, but the goals remain the same.

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The exhibition is divided into three sections: one deals with manuals of magical practices, another presents various protective devices, and the third presents some of the more aggressive uses of ancient magic.

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