Witches, Warlocks, and Magic

Key Takeaways

There is a lot to think about when you think about magic, magicians, and witches, so here we’ve tried to list a few things you might want to concentrate on as important while you try to get through a different arrange of sources

  • Magic was practiced by almost everyone in the ancient world, even if they wouldn’t call what they were doing magic;
  • Some forms of magic were respectable and seen as Roman (agricultural magic to increase yields or protect your farm);
  • It is hard to separate magic from other areas such as medicine and religion,[1] though magic can be sometimes seen as an UnRoman way to practice either;
  • Witches and wizards might be members of the community, but they could be marginal members in some way – perhaps they were older, female, slave, or an outsider originally. This means that they could be more prone to being marked as unRoman in their personality and behaviours.

Magic was practiced and believed in by many peoples and groups across the ancient Mediterranean and over the regions that Rome eventually conquered and controlled. It took many forms and was very syncretic, which means that various magic traditions were very happy to borrow and learn from each other. That means that magic as it was practiced could be combination of many different groups practices and beliefs. That did not stop some Romans, like Pliny the Elder in the following section, as identifying its origins with particular people and places, usually in the East somewhere. Babylon was especially popular, but Egypt was also a common place to identify with the birth of magic. Both of these cultures were very ancient and literature cultures, and deeply influential (and seen as such by the Romans) in many different ways across the Eastern Mediterranean in particular, so it is perhaps natural that magic, which was a literate and learned field in some ways, was identified as arising from them. There was also, of course, some ethnic slur in identifying the practice of magic, especially in certain ways and by certain figures like women and non-Romans, as coming from the East.

This section does not necessarily tell you much about how non-Romans practiced magic, or even how Romans practiced it. It does show you how some magic was practiced in Rome, Roman beliefs about magic and magical workers and practicioners, and how certain forms of magic were seen or described as ‘unRoman’. If you are interested in magic more generally you might find this short piece from Smithsonian Magazine by Derek Collins, a noted scholar of ancient magi, useful as an introduction. But if you want to research further outside the material we talk about in the following chapters, you might want to look at this excellent guide to ancient magic from CUNY, Brooklyn.

Read on to find out more about witches and wizards…. But remember that this is not Hogwarts and Harry Potter, and it is often heavily focused on sex and violence.

Bibliography and Further Reading:

There is a huge amount out there on Roman magic, and this is an area where new items and texts are found all the time, so it can be (for the field of Classics) rather fast changing, as you don’t know what will be next discovered and give us new information on how magic was used. Some of the most classic older works of scholarship are sadly not that accessible, i that they expect you to know a fair bit of background on the cultures and also, sometimes, Greek and Latin. I suggest anyone interested start by reading the sources which are available in a range of translations. Here are ones that students have used and found accessible:

Hans Dieter Betz. 1992. The Greek Magical Papyri in translation, including the Demotic Spells. Volume I: Texts. Second Edition. Chicago.

This is what you read if you want to go through the glorious world of the spells that the Greeks and Romans actually used. It is a translation of a collection of old spells written on papyri from Egypt. Just plunge in and see what spells you could buy and which ones were used and against whom.

Odgen, Daniel, 2009. Magic, Witchcraft and Ghosts in the Greek and Roman Worlds. A Sourcebook. Second ed.  New York. (This information is for the second edition; the first edition is fine, however – the second adds more material.)

A great collection of different types of sources, and with accessible introductions. Probably the most accessible of all the material listed here in terms of how widespread it is in libraries. Definitely worth your time, although it contains a great deal of Greek material.

His secondary scholarship is very good and quite accessible, and is always very good at explaining context and meanings; it does help to have a little background on the Greeks and the Romans, however, before you dive into it. Here is his website, in case you are interested to learn more about him and his work.

I hesitate about recommending a great deal of secondary scholarship because it is not that accessible to undergraduates in Classics, let alone to those with little knowledge about the Romans. Some of it also has some very unexamined and odd ideas about female sexuality and desire, as well as non-elite people. In the following chapters we give some specific bibliographies for each topic, however.

Finally, this entry on the Blog Eidolon is not a bad way into one of the most popular areas of magic, erotic magic.



  1. This website from Kelsey Museum shows some of the ways that magic and medicine overlapped. It is worth looking at just to see the range of ways that magic could be used in healing.


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