Demons and Delusions, Frauds and Phenomenology. The Psychology of Magic in Roman Egypt

9 Nov 2016
5:00 pm - 7:00 pm

470 Stephens Hall

Event Type

Korshi Dosoo
Labex RESMED, Sorbonne Paris-IV

Hundreds of magical papyri survive from Roman Egypt, providing rich evidence of the survival of Pharaonic beliefs and practices, as well as their interaction with the traditions they existed alongside – Greek, Roman, Jewish and Christian. These texts provide us with evidence for the crises of daily life – social conflict, disease, and uncertainty about the future – and their magical solutions: love spells, curses, healing amulets, and divination. But as modern readers of these texts we are presented with a serious problem– how could the people of late antique Egypt have believed in these impossible rituals? Were the magicians who used these spells con-men who tricked their clients? Or is there some possibility that some of the spells might, sometimes, have worked? This paper will discuss a range of attempts to explain magical rituals, including functional analysis deriving from the work of Emile Durkheim and Bronisław Malinowski, and concepts of performativity deriving from the work of Stanley J. Tambiah. It will be suggested that neither of these approaches is fully satisfactory, and as a text case the author will focus on the strangest magical rituals from Roman Egypt – in which gods were summoned to appear and speak to the magicians – and explore their plausibility through parallels drawn from later attestations of these practices in Elizabethan England and Victorian Egypt. This discussion will explore how the psychology of dreams, perception, and hypnosis may help us to understand how magical rituals could have sometimes worked, and how even their failure could leave a belief in their reality intact.

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This event is sponsored by CSTMS.
Additional sponsorship comes from:  Ancient History & Mediterranean Archaeology • CSTMS • Department of Near Eastern Studies

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