Reviews of

The Concepts of the Divine in the Greek Magical Papyri

In Eleni PACHOUMI, Magic, Mohr Siebeck, Papyrology, Paul Linjamaa, review on May 30, 2017 at 3:09 pm

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2017.05.11 | Eleni Pachoumi, The Concepts of the Divine in the Greek Magical Papyri. Studies and Texts in Antiquity and Christianity 102. Tübingen: Mohr Siebeck, 2017. XVI, 258 pages. ISBN 978-3-16-154018-9.

Review by Paul Linjamaa, Lund University.

This monograph is devoted to the many and varying forms of ancient magical papyri – spells, hymns, amulets, rituals, remedies, and mythological and liturgical elements, from the Greco Roman Egypt of second century BC to the seventh century CE.  The focus is, as indicated in the title, to investigate the “concepts of the divine”. The study comprises revised parts of the authors’ doctoral dissertation (chapter 3?) and “some articles” (chapter 1 and 2?) (9). The central concern, as stated on the back, is to investigate how “philosophical, religious and mystical assimilations affect the concepts of the divine in the Greek magical papyri”. The study includes an introduction, three central chapters, followed by an epilogue and appendices (comprising of a mind map of how the magical papyri were used and an assortment of lists pertaining to the source material used in the study).

In the introductory chapter the general character of the magical papyri is discussed and Pachoumi gives a brief introduction to the different modern editions and the translations of the material. A brief background is also given to the ancient manuscripts themselves, much of which were bilingual (Greek and Egyptian). Pachoumi concludes that what the large quantities of manuscripts and papyri, referred to as the Greek Magical Papyri and the Demotic Magical papyri, have in common is ritual magic that is “not designed by a formal arm of the state in order to create a symbolic reality, impose collective emotions and feelings and so reinforce its power and status”, but “designed by individuals” and thus “refers to individuals” (7). This could perhaps be said to represent the theoretical framework of the book in question.

The first chapter examines the religio-philosophical concepts of the personal daimon, which is often referred to in the magical papyri and elsewhere in the Hellenistic world. The mention of union between this personal daimon and the individual is investigated, and Pachoumi discusses its conception in Pre-Socratics, Stoics and Neoplatonic material. Here I would have expected the inclusion of Valentinian material that mention a union of a person and their “aion” or “angel” (like Tripartite Tractate or Excerpta ex Theodoto), especially since Pachoumi uses “Gnostic” material and Nag Hammadi-texts as comparandum. Pachoumi concludes that the concept of daimon in the papyri is parallel to what one finds in Platonism and Stoicism, but that the ritualistic side of the magical papyri includes a series of transitional processes at a cosmic level which implies Egyptian, Orphic and Chaldaeo-Person magical beliefs (31–32, 172).

The second chapter discusses the character πάρεδρος, a divine assistant mentioned in some of the magical papyri. Pachoumi investigates the relation between this character and the divine as well as the individual performing the ritual. She concludes that previous scholars, chiefly Hans Dieter Betz, has inadequately restricted this character to an assistant daimon. Pachoumi studies the mention of the πάρεδρος in many (all?) of the magical papyri – including the association with Eros or Osiris for example – and convincingly shows that this character cannot be restricted to a daimon (even considering the wide range of definitions applying to the phenomenon daimon). Pachoumi concludes that the role of “the assistant” (πάρεδρος) in the world-view represented in the magical papyri was to aid in creating “unity from diversity”; by associating with the πάρεδρος the practitioner was aided in internalizing the divine.

Next follows the chapter that motivates the whole study (and which comprises half of the book). Chapter three examines “the concept of god” in the Greek magical papyri, focusing on the “religious assimilations” in order to address the question “What religious tendencies do these religious assimilations reveal?” (63). The mention of several gods is examined – for example Helios, Eros, Aion, Hermes, Isis, to name just a few – and the assimilation of many of these is addressed; for example, Helios and Horus (or possibly other Egyptian sun deities) is merged when Helios is described in one papyri as “holding the reins and steering the tiller, restraining the serpent”. This reveals Egyptian influence, as it was common to have the image of the Sun pushing back the night serpent Apophis, however, the Sun as the chariot and the sun god as a charioteer is widespread in ancient religions overall (65–66, 84–85). After highlighting several assimilations in the papyri, Pachoumi poses the following question in the conclusion: “how coherent are all these religious and philosophical assimilations”? Previous scholars have given different answers, often describing the religious phenomenon in the papyri as “syncretistic” and/or as reflecting “popular belief”. Pachoumi identifies different levels of assimilation: one is the merging of different polytheistic systems, as the Greek with the Egyptian, where the Greek gods are identified with their Egyptian equivalents (as already noticed and discussed by several ancient authors). Another level identified by Pachoumi includes the merging of polytheistic and monotheistic systems, when Helios-Horus is identified with Sabaoth and Iao, or Jesus, for example. All this, Pachoumi concludes, “reveals a tendency towards henotheism”, and influence from the Neoplatonist concept of “the One” (164–169).

Pachoumi’s study is interesting and informative. The number of motifs studied and commented upon within the scope of this limited study is impressive. I am also convinced of the general conclusion, that the magical papyri draw on a theme that became fairly common in late antiquity, that of plurality seen as an extension of the oneness of the divine. However, whether this reflects a “Neoplatonic influence”, I am less convinced (how would one even go about proving that?) – not to mention the influence from the Nag Hammadi-texts – and I would have remained content if the similarity were merely observed, or perhaps discussed in light of the common context they share. In fact, one could interpret the “influence” the other way around: that the magical papyri reflect this general late antique tendency over a long period of time (200 BC – 200 CE), which only later is crystallized and explicated in the Neoplatonism of the third century CE. Nevertheless, Pachoumi’s study of the different portrayals of the divine characters in the papyri is meticulous and impressive.

There are, however, some methodological drawbacks to the study. The three chapters do not merge without difficulty. This is perhaps understandable considering the fact that the monograph actually comprises three different studies that have been compounded into one. One also would have expected some comment on what motivated choosing the specific papyri that founds the study.  Furthermore, the conclusion of chapter 3 would have benefited from a deeper discussion concerning the concepts of monotheism versus polytheism (perhaps somewhat dated heuristic categories that could have been made more relevant), but in particular “syncretism” which is addressed in light of the assimilation of different gods that the chapter is devoted to. As shown by scholars such as Jonathan Z. Smith and others, the term often carries with it an essentialist assumption, a discourse which would have been relevant and important to comment upon. Apart from this, there are some serious problems in the handling of the Nag Hammadi-material as comparandum (and which is at times treated as representing one form of religiosity). An awareness of the debate concerning the term “Gnosticism” is lacking, which becomes evident when Pachoumi uses terms like “the Gnostic Nag Hammadi Library”, “Gnostic Jesus”, and “Gnostic Gospel of Thomas” without explanation, references or problematizing the category. Furthermore, the reference to Interpretation of Knowledge in the discussion concerning the relation between a “womb and knowledge” in chapter 1 (and the topic of union between the daimon and the individual) is indeterminate – the text is badly fragmented and the most recent and thorough transcription and translation (by Funk) has a completely different rendering (without a “womb”) of the passage that Pachoumi uses (NHC XI, 1:3). Apart from these drawbacks the study is a welcome work devoted to the very interesting magical papyri that we are fortunate to have preserved and that deserve much more attention and study.

Paul Linjamaa
Lund University
paul.linjamaa [at]


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