Magic and Religion Revisited:
Gender and Dream Divination in the Ancient Mediterranean

Laurel Holmstrom-Keyes

"Magic does not historically follow after religion, neither it is earlier: religion contains magic, as one specific religious form."


For many years scholars have been claiming that there is a distinction between magic and religion and have spent considerable effort defining these categories as different. Rather than following in this traditional approach, this paper provides an alternative viewpoint. Using the example of dream divination in the ancient Mediterranean and its relationship to gender and power shows that the use of the term "magic" to designate certain spiritual practices tells us more about the manipulation of symbols by elites than actual human behavior. Our notions about magic, inherited from the ancient world, have made it problematic to study these behaviors as a valid form of spiritual practice and prevents a clearer understanding of the history of "magical" ideas in Europe. Anthropologist Clifford Geertz's theory of religion as a symbol system 1 provides a framework for understanding the connections between dream divination, gender and power.


Geertz's definition of religion as a symbol system begins with the notion that a unique aspect of human mentality is the necessity we have for making sense out of the world through symbolic processes. Because we do not have the strong specific behavioral imprinting of other animals, symbolic processes help us build and order our existence and are essential to our very survival. Religious symbols help us mediate our ethos, the intellectual understandings we have of our world, with our world-view, the emotional experience we have of our environment. Human beings are extremely uncomfortable with the absence of structure in ultimate reality. We may hold very different beliefs about reality, but we will always have a belief. Having our ethos and world-view in harmony helps us make sense out of our existence and keeps us from the despair of a meaningless world. Geertz argued further that religious symbols are noted for their ability to create moods and motivations in people that translate into social and psychological behavior. These moods and motivations are especially potent in ritual activities where the symbol system takes on an "aura of actuality" and is experienced as "the way things are." Whoever is in the position to write or speak authoritatively about the sacred holds tremendous power over the meaning of religious symbols and therefore have a stake in the social and psychological trajectories created by the symbols.


One way to see this power in action is by examining the practice of dream divination in the ancient world. Divination was an important way to acquire knowledge in the ancient world. Divination was not only used to discover future events or outcomes, but was also used to put past events into an understandable perspective and to gain useful information for present situations. A wide variety of divination practices and prophetic activities were found in the ancient world ranging from augury (sign and omens) and haruspicy (examining the entrails of sacrificial animals) to astrology, public oracles, such as Delphi, and dreams. Dream divination was very common. Dreams, in this context, include dreams during sleep, but can also refer to visions and waking dreams.2 Plutarch refers to dreams as the "oldest oracle" 3 and they were thought of as "natural divination" by Cicero.4

In the ancient world divination was a technique whereby humans could communicate with the Divine. How we know what we know has a significant impact on the final meaning of knowledge. For example, in our modern culture one of the most validated ways to know something is through scientific inquiry. For many people in the ancient world, divination held the same sense of "truth" since divination was communication from the Gods.

For those of us who are not living in a time where dream divination is validated, it seems useful to consider when dream interpretation becomes divination. If a dream is perceived to be communication from a divine source and is not obvious in its meaning, then the dream needs to be interpreted, the meaning divined. As such most dream interpretation encountered in ancient writings is divination since Pagans, Jews and Christians alike believed in the divine origin of at least some dreams and the only dreams worth interpreting were ones from the gods.

Dream divination was used to decide correct future action, know personal fate, diagnose and heal illness, gain spiritual insight, validate political power and know God's will. Even morality was associated with dreaming. The Neoplatonist Synesius stated "make your bed on a Delphic tripod and you will lead a nobler life." 5

Sources for information about dream divination in the ancient Pagan world range from Homer in the 8th century B.C.E. to Artemidorus in the 2nd century C.E. and the Greek Magical Papyri, some of which were written in the 4th century C.E. Two significant examples of classical Pagan attitudes toward divination by dreams are found in Cicero's De divinatione and Artemidorus' Oneirokritika.

Even though Cicero's text argues against divination in general, the person he argues with provides a generous explanation of Stoic beliefs about dream divination with numerous examples which may represent actual historical instances or popular folklore. One example states:

"And who pray can make light of the two following dreams which are so often recounted by Stoic writers? The first one is about Simonides, who once saw the dead body of some unknown man lying exposed and buried it. Later when he had it in mind to go on board ship, he was warned in a vision by the person to whom he had given burial not to go and that if he did he would perish. Therefore, he turned back and all others who sailed were lost." 6

Artemidorus' five books 7 are a compilation of dream interpretations that he collected from a variety of sources and then classified in a system. It was presented as representing a synthesis of knowledge of dream interpretation at the time. He categorizes dreams as enhypnia and oneiroi. Enhypria are anxiety or petitionary dreams and not significant; oneiroi are dreams which predict the future. Oneiroi are further distinguished as theorematic or allegorical. Theorematic dreams are obvious and resemble the actual events that will occur and allegorical dreams "hint at something in the manner of a riddle." 8 Artemidorus' definition of dreams clearly includes a divinatory aspect. "A dream is a motion or a formation of the soul with many aspects, hinting at good or bad things to come." 9

Another source for dream divination was incubation, the practice of sleeping in a temple to obtain a dream from the Gods for healing. Incubation was widespread over the ancient Greek and Roman world. Testimonies of the dreams and what they healed were preserved as inscriptions in the temples of Asclepius and we can see by these that both men and women slept in the temples. For example:

Arata, a woman of Lacedaemon, dropsical. For her, while she remained in Lacedaemon, her mother slept in the temple and sees a dream. It seemed to her that the god cut off her daughters head and hung her body in such a way that her throat was turned downwards. Out of it came a huge quantity of fluid matter. The he took down the body and fitted the head back on the neck. After she had seen this dream she went back to Lacedaemon where she found her daughter in good health; she had seen the same dream. 10

Timon wounded by a spear under his eye. While sleeping in the temple he saw a dream. It seemed to him that the god rubbed down an herb and pour it into his eye. And he became well. 11

The practice of incubation continued in Christian churches and instances were still reported at length in 1906 in the Mediterranean. 12 When the Christian churches took over this practice, the Pagan gods were replaced by the Virgin and the Saints, but a similar explanation of the reason for effective cures was offered. Christians would use incubation on feast days as "the belief prevails that the Virgin and the Saints are more accessible on their feast days. They are thought to descend to earth then and confer favors on their suppliants." 13 Pagans generally believed that a person's "spirit" would leave the body during sleep and be able to communicate with the Gods in such a state. 14 While the direction of communication is reversed-- Pagans move up, Christians saints come down -- the essential act is still communication with the divine realm.

In Judaism information about dream divination is found in the Hebrew Bible and the Babylonian Talmud. In the Hebrew Bible dreams play an important part in the history of the Jews, 15 particularly as the motif of Jewish dream interpretators in a foreign court. In Kings 3:5 Solomon received a dream from Yahweh who asks what he may give Solomon. Solomon asks for the wisdom for which he became famous. Jacob 16 dreams of the gates of Yahweh's heaven and Yahweh promises Jacob land and blessedness for his people. Joseph's dreams in Genesis are prophetic and play an integral role in his brothers' anger and conspiracy to kill him. The brothers say "Here comes the dreamer. Come now, let us kill him and throw him into one of the pits, then we shall see what will become of his dreams." 17 Later, Joseph plays the role of dream interpretor to Pharaoh, which we will return to later.

Daniel's dream visions illustrate how faithfulness to Jewish practice brings divine aid to triumph over enemies. In Joel, the God of the Jews declares that dreams are a valid form of spiritual information, " I will pour out my spirit on all flesh; your sons and your daughters will prophesy, your old men shall dream dreams and your young men shall see visions. . ." 18 In Numbers, Yahweh declares that he speaks to prophets in visions and dreams, however this story is singling out Moses as a leader because God speaks to him "face to face."

In the Talmud, there are 217 references to dreams covering "the origin of dreams, their purpose and meaning, wish-fulfillment in dreams, the relation of dreams to reality, the technique of dream interpretation," and so forth. 19 Incubation was also practiced among Jews during the Greco-Roman period as the Talmud has record of rabbis preaching against it.

Dreams play a smaller role in the New Testament, although the birth narrative in Matthew 1:20 and 2:13 show dreams playing a central part in determining Joseph's actions. Also in Matthew's passion narrative, Pilate's wife "suffered a great deal because of a dream about him [Jesus]." 20 Later, we have the story of Perpetua, a Christian martyr, who was imprisoned for her beliefs. In the narrative, her brother visits her in her cell and says "dear sister, you are greatly privileged; surely you might ask for a vision to discover whether you are to be condemned or free". Perpetua agrees, asks for and receives a vision. Thus dream divination was an important spiritual practice for Greco-Roman peoples as well as for Jews and later for Christians. 21

The practice of incubation along with dream reports in Biblical and Talmudic writings show dream divination in a "religious" contexts. Dreams were seen as the medium whereby the Divine realm communicated with human beings. When ancient people used dream content to describe contact with diety they were working with symbols that pointed to their notions about ultimate reality. When dream divination proved true, then these people experienced harmony between their ethos and worldview.

There is also evidence for dream divination in "magical" contexts. The Greek Magical Papyri are replete with rituals to induce oracular dreams and this may show a form of incubation performed outside the temples. 22 PGM VII 250-54 states:

Request for a dream oracle, a request which is always used. Formula to be spoken to the day lamp: NAIENCHRE NAIENCHRE, mother of fire and water, you are the one who rises before ARCHENTECHTHA; reveal to me concerning NN matter. If yes, show me a plant and water, but if no, fire and iron. Immediately, quickly.

We do not know exactly what was said in the Pagan temples or Christian churches by the priests and thus it is hard to determine whether the PGM are mirroring those rituals or are showing a separate tradition.

The PGM also shows recipes for sending dreams to another person. The user of the papyri compelled daimons, angels and gods to communicate information to another person in the form of a dream. One begins, "Charm of Agathokels for sending dreams: Take a completely black cat that died a violent death, make a strip of papyrus and write with myrrh the following together with the dream you want sent, and place in into the mouth of the cat."23 Once the magic words and dream content are written on the papyrus, a charm is spoken to call on the divine forces to carry the dream to the desired recipient.

. . .Hear me, because I am going to say the great name, AOTH, before whom every god prostrates himself and every daimon shudders, for whom every angel completes these things which are assigned. Your divine name according to the seven is AEEIOYO IAYOE EAOOYEEOIA. I have spoken the glorious name, the name for all needs."

Dream divination in the Greco-Roman world was also bound up with early notions about magic and magicians. The word magic, in its earliest form, meant the art of the magus, a specialist in religion from Persia. Herodotus claims that these magoi formed a secret society in Persia who were responsible for royal sacrifices, funeral rites, and for the divination and interpretation of dreams. 24

All these religious/magical systems clearly indicate that dreams can be communications from the unseen world, whether from gods, spirits or saints. This perspective clearly puts dream divination into a significant role for mediating notions about ultimate reality.


Since dreams are available to anyone and are such a personal experience, people in the ancient Mediterranean and Near East were concerned about what constituted a truly prophetic or meaningful dream. One of the earliest theories about true dreams appears in the Odyssey. Penelope speculates that false dreams come through gates of ivory and true dreams through gates of horn. The dreams through ivory gates are less clear since ivory is opaque whereas dream through horn are more intelligible since horn can be somewhat transparent. As noted earlier, Artemidorus categorized dreams by temporal notions. Dreams about the present were unimportant. Dreams which predict the future were worth consideration. He further states that virtuous, serious people don't have enhypnia, but rather theorematic dreams which do not even need interpretation. Allegorical dreams, on the other hand, do require assistance to understand and thus the need for dream interpretation books. In the Talmudic tradition true dreams are "dreams in the morning, the dream someone else has about you and the dream which is interpreted by another dream."25

Beyond these notions particular significance was attached to dreams of the elite. Since dreams were defined as communication from the divine realm, then elites were seen as the natural recipients of "true" dreams. In the ancient Near East it was assumed that kings received clear and unambiguous 'message' dreams while the common people needed their dreams interpretated. 26 In Homer, "Agamemonon's dreams are, on account of his social qualification of being a king, to be taken more seriously than the dream of a commoner." 27 Aristocratic Greek families kept books of dream interpretation and Van Leishout argues that " a special gift for receiving reliable dreams is attributed to only two categories of people: the Selloi (priests of Dodona) and royalty." 28 David Potter asserts that dreams, oracles and other portents ". . .were an important part of life [in Rome] and they revealed the interest that the gods took in the fortunes of the rich and famous. . . . .the ability to claim a direct connection with divinity was clearly important and worth talking about." 29 Often the dreams that elites have legitimate some political activity they wish to carry out 30 and, whether these people actually had such dreams or not, the symbolic weight of saying that ones plans were validated by a dream was significant.

In the Hebrew Bible, status is conferred on particular Israelite characters through their ability to interpret dreams. These dreamers may not be "elites" in the context of the story, but are framed as religious role models for the reader. Joseph wins favor with Pharaoh by correctly interpreting his dream of seven lean and seven fat cows. 31 This story not only gives Joseph status, in the readers' eye, because he is close to the Hebrew God, but it also diminishes the spiritual and political authority of Pharaoh by showing that he cannot interpret his own dreams. A similar motif is found in the book of Daniel. King Nebuchadnezzar cannot interpret his own dreams nor can any of his court "magicians." Daniel gains status, in the court, by his ability to interpret the dreams which he is able to do because of his relationship to the Hebrew God.

Yahweh himself describes his superiority over other Gods in terms, among others, of his ability to know the future:

I am the Lord, that is my name;
my glory I give to no other,
nor my praise to idols.
See, the former things have come to pass, and new things I now declare;
before they spring forth, I tell you of them 32

Isaiah 41:22-23 further declares:

Let them bring them [Pagan Gods] and
tell us what is to happen.
Tell us former things, what they are
so that we may consider them,
and that we may know their outcome;
or declare to us the things to come.
Tell us what is to come hereafter that we may know that you are gods.

Here the very definition of Divine Being is equated with divination - the ability to know the future, to divine what is to come and make sense out of what is past. Thus divination is not an insignificant practice in the Hebrew Bible as it is an ability of God, the apex of authority.

In the ancient Mediterranean, and its environs, important dreams were seen as direct communication from the divine realm to elites. Information gained in this manner, by these people, particularly if it indicated future time, was assumed to be important and valuable. Such a situation gave elites the power to manipulate religious symbolism through dream content and have a strong influence over perceptions of reality. One example of how religious symbols were manipulated to construct reality can be seen by considering the evidence for women's role as dream interpretors and in the image of women as practitioners of magic. This will lead to a discussion of why magical practices are better seen as a specific form of religious practice than as a separate domain from religion.


Information about women as dream interpreters or women's dream content is sketchy at best. References found in Mesopotamian literature strongly suggest professional female dream interpreters and a technical term for female interpreters existed in Mesopotamian culture - sa'Ãl(t)u. 33 One of the oracles in Jeremiah (29: 8-9), speaking directly to Jews in Babylon, admonishes them not to listen to their dreamers; these dreamers are explicitly feminine in the original Hebrew. 34 Fredrick Cryer suggests Israelite dream patterns were influenced by Mesopotamian systems, but also argues that divination is not a "foreign" practice to the Hebrews. He shows how the Hebrew words for divination, soothsaying and necromancy are not found in the "foreign" groups surrounding the Hebrews. If the Hebrews had picked up these practices from neighbors, one would expect to see some language influence. Instead the language influence appears to come from Mesopotamian, the very area where divination is speculated to have originated in the ancient Near East 35, or the earliest use is found in Hebrew. 36 Since Mesopotamian culture had female dream interpretaters and Hebrew culture had female prophets, it is suggestive that Hebrew women may have been involved in dream interpretation or divination. Whether the female prophets in Hebrew literature are receiving their information by dreams, however, is unclear. We do have one specific reference to a female diviner in the Hebrew Bible, the so-called Witch of Endor. In the original Hebrew the term used for her is best translated as necromancer, one who divines by the dead. She is Saul's last resort since he cannot get the information he needs through normal means. Note that inquiring of the Lord and receiving an answer in a dream is a normally expected response.

"When Saul inquired of the Lord, the Lord did not answer, not by dreams, or by Urim or by prophets. Then Saul said to his servants, "Seek out for me a woman who is a medium, so that I may go to her and inquire of her." His servants said to him "There is a medium at Endor. "( 1 Sam 28: 6-7)

Here a woman is directly associated with divination, although not specifically dream divination.

In the pagan world, Greece had a tradition of female prophets whose activities may have influenced the Sibylline books so important to the Roman world.37 However, there is no data on their use of dreams. While folklore cannot be directly taken as evidence for ancient religious practices, John Lawson's account of a custom observed in Greece 1964 provides a speculative link between a St. Catherine's day observance and the ancient Roman rites of Bona Dea. Lawson reports that Girls gathered on the eve of St. Catherine's day, November 26th to feast on salt cakes and drink wine. They then went to sleep with the specific intention of dreaming of their future husbands. 38 High status women gathered in early December to celebrate Bona Dea in ancient Rome and Bona Dea had a counterpart in Greece. At this rite, it was apparently well known that women drank "unmixed" wine and became drunk. Whether they used divination by dreams is not known as the rites were secret and no written records exist from participants.

Also known from the little information we have on the Bona Dea cult is that Vestals, who officiated at the rites, could interpret omens. Plutarch relates the story of Cicero's prosecution of the Catilinarian conspirators with a tale about Cicero's wife at the rites of Bona Dea.

. . .on the altar where the fire seemed wholly extinguished, a great and bright flame issued forth from the ashes of the burnt wood; at which others were affrighted, but the holy virgins called to Terentia, Cicero's wife and bade her haste to her husband and command him to execute what he had resolved for the good of his country, for the goddess has sent a great light to the increase of his safety and glory. 39

We also have a fictional account of a Vestal Virgin's prophetic dream from Cicero's De Divinatione. But we have no direct evidence that Vestals were dream interpreters or that their own dreams were considered special as with male elites. As mentioned previously Penelope in Homer's writings theorized about how to interpret dreams. This could suggest that women were dream interpretators in the archaic period. However, this notion is highly speculative.

Artemidorus' dream interpretation books do discuss the implication of certain images in dreams for women. But the bulk of the books are focused on men's dreams and Artemidorus, though validating the existence of prescient dreams is uncertain whether they are of divine origin. Therefore, women's dream content in his book could not hold the same power as elite men's dreams of an earlier period.

Later in Christianity, the story of Perpetua, mentioned previously, shows divination by dreams in a very favorable light. Her brother, asks her to "receive a vision" about what will be the final outcome of their imprisonment. What is interesting about this story is the matter-of-fact attitude of her brother's request, and by her answer we can assume that she may have done this before. From the detail of her vision, we might also speculate that she was very experienced in this type of divination. Further, since much of her story is written in the first person, scholars believe that it may be genuinely from her hand and an accurate account of her life as a martyr rather than fiction.

That women's dreams were rarely reported or addressed in dream interpretation books points to a couple of interpretations. Women may have had their own resources for dream interpretation that have not survived the ages, and/or women's dreams as potentially divinatory was downplayed in the extant literature.


While information about women and dream divination is sparse and speculative, writings about women and unacceptable magical practices are much more common, especially in pagan literature. In Rome, women's affinity for superstition was often a theme in literature. "Allusions to old ladies superstitions (arilis superstito) were proverbial."40 Cicero writes that "the number of sorceresses and female magicians was legion." 41 Whether there were really "legions" of female magicians or not, this symbolic construction of ideas about women is important for this discussion.

Stories of women practicing unacceptable magic begin early in Greek literature with Circe whom Odysseus encounters on his journey. She uses drugs and a magic wand to turn his companions to pigs. Medea "sang songs of incantation, invoked the Deamons of Death, the Swift Hounds of Hell" and used the evil eye. 42 Simaetha's love spell in Theocritus's Idylls uses a magic wheel to draw her unfaithful love back to her and offers herbs and libations to the moon goddess. Horace writes of a human sacrifice performed by witches who kidnapped a boy in order to use his liver for a love spell. 43 In another piece by Horace, witches "summon up the souls of the dead and make them answer questions." 44

In Jewish literature we have images of women prophets and allusions to magical practices. Female prophets are attested in early Old Testament writings. Miriam was an ecstatic prophet during the Exodus who challenged Moses' authority. (Exodus 15:2) and Deborah acted as a prophetic judge during a transitional period for the Israelite tribes. (Judges 4) We have already met the female necromancer of 1 Samuel. Specific references to unacceptable magical practices appears in Deut 18:10-12 "No one shall be found among you who makes a son or daughter pass through fire, or who practices divination or is a soothsayer, or an augur, or a sorcerer, or one who casts spells or who consults ghosts or spirits, or who seeks oracles form the dead."

The Talmud represents females as particularly prone to witchcraft. In Abot 2:7 Hillel comments ". . .lots of meat, lots of worms, lots of property, lots of worries, lots of women, lots of witchcraft. . ." and he offers testimony of a rabbi hanging eighty witches in the 1st century C.E. 45 "Two women seated at a crossroad facing each other across the highway are certainly engaged in witchcraft" states another passage in the Talmud. 46 In 1 Enoch we have a story about the sons of heaven coming to Earth, mating with women and teaching them enchantments. What is interesting in this story is that the knowledge of magical acts is portrayed as divine knowledge, describing again a link between magical practice and divinity.

In early Christianity we do not have specific references to women and unacceptable magical practices, but we can consider notions about gender and magic separately. While scholars are still debating the role of women in the Jesus movement itself and in the early churches, we can see the negative shape female gender takes that eventually informs dominant Christian discourse in the New Testament. In the early Christian writings of Paul, there appear to be women holding leadership roles in the household churches, but already in Paul's writings we can see discontent with this role for women.

"As in all congregations of God's people, women should not address the meeting. They have no license to speak, but should keep their place as the law directs. If there is something they want to know, they can ask their own husbands at home. It is shocking that a woman should address the congregation." (I Cor 14:33-36, New English Bible translation)

Christian ideas about female gender focus on Eve. In 1 Timothy we find:

I permit no woman to teach or to have authority over a man; she is to keep silent. For Adam was formed first, then Eve; and Adam was not deceived, but the woman was deceived and became transgressor. (I Tim 2:12-15)

Augustine cannot find a reason for the creation of woman beyond procreation 47 and Tertullian describes the appropriate behavior of women in his essay On the Dress of Women, using Eve as model:

"She would only carry herself around like Eve, mourning and penitent, that she might more fully expiate by each garment of penitence that which she acquired from Eve - I mean the degradation of the first sin and the hatefulness of human perdition. 48

Whatever the outcome of the debate about women's role in the early Christian churches, it is clear that any notions of sexual equality found in the early history of the beginning of the Christian movement met fierce resistance as time went on.

Magic as sorcery in the New Testament is associated with fornication, impurity, licentiousness, idolatry, strife, anger, envy and drunkenness. 49 These are all categorized as works of the flesh and people who live by the desires of the flesh are not good Christians. According to Revelations 22:15, sorcerers are definitely outside the city of God. Acts 19:19 describes the citizens of Ephesus publicly burning their magical books when they hear how powerful the name of Jesus is in combating evil spirits.

After the New Testament period, we can find much clearer association between women and unacceptable magic. In the early Middle ages women were seen as cosmic beings linked to nocturnal powers and the moon. Concubines of the time were thought to use spells, amulets, potions and other magics to retain their lovers. By the time of the Inquisition in Europe, the association of women and unacceptable magic is powerfully fused. Thus in early Christianity we can see the beginning of this symbolic construction which had devastating affects later.

What reality is there to these associations between women and nefarious magical practices? The Greek Magical Papyri are one of our best sources for an internal view into magical practice and for this aspect of the discussion analysis is limited to the pagan world. The PGM, a compilation of approximately 500 spells, charms and rites, gives no indication that the intended users of these recipes would be females. There are some entries that are directed towards women’s health, but there is no sense that they are addressed to a woman. Many of the love spells are clearly male-gendered as the magician should anoint his phallus with some herb or ointment and then lie with a woman. 50

Fritz Graf has recently provided an excellent analysis of how magic is portrayed in literature and in the PGM. He uses Theocritus's poem "The Sorceresses" to show that what his Simaitha does in her magic ritual to win back the love of Delphis has no parallels in the PGM. Graf suggests that this poem is in the form of a binding spell, but does not follow any known forms from the PGM or defixios (binding charms). Among other things Simaitha's prayers are not complete and her use of a magical wheel, wax and string find no similar use in the PGM. Remarking about the dissonance between magic portrayed in literature and in magical texts, he states " This situation amounts to an astonishing reversal of what we find in the epigraphic texts and recipes on the papyri." 51

Graf offers a possible solution. He argues that these literary creations provided men an explanation for the strong emotional feelings they had for women which were contrary to the notion of appropriate male behavior at the time. Real men do not need magic spells to attract women, and further magicians were those only those foreign priests. He further suggests that "women, marginalized and excluded from the society of men, . . . .constituted a danger. They are capable of all sorts of disguised attacks. Threatening the life of their husbands or the body of some desired man." 52 Does this suggest that men knew they were marginalizing women and feared women's anger?

Barbette Spaeth notices that the images of women practicing magic in the ancient pagan world changes over time. In Greece, the witches are beautiful and potentially beneficent, but by the Roman era they are ugly and evil. She equates this to stricter gender roles in Greece. Witches represented chaos to the Romans and expressed the uneasiness with changing roles in an unstable society. 53

Another perspective on this dilemma is offered here. But first we must make a short detour and consider the relationship between votive religion, the mystery religions and magical practices.

Personal religious behavior in the ancient world among Pagans was based on what is termed votive religion. In votive religion, or the "practice of making vows" 54 people in some kind of distress or fear or, who are experiencing sudden affluence, make a promise to a deity and fulfill these promises by some sort of donation to the deity. Burkert argues that votive religion and the mystery cults are linked in the following manner: 1) "the practice of personal initiation, in motivation and function, was largely parallel to votive practice;" 2) "the appearance of new forms of mystery cults with new gods is just what one would expect as a result of these practical functions;" 3) "the spreading of the so-called Oriental mystery religions occurred primarily in the form of votive religion, with mysteries sometimes forming just an appendix to the general movement." 55 His statement that one would expect new gods to show up in this context refers to the notion that people would try out different religious practices in the ancient pagan world until they found the one or ones that "worked." And what or who worked in one instance may not work in another. This is an excellent example of Geertz's theory. If the problem one has is not helped by the first deity addressed, then changing the symbol until it does help will bring the world back into intellectual and emotional harmony.

This practical attitude toward religious behavior did not diminish the enormous emotional impact of votive religion for the people who practiced it. Making vows with votive offerings implies the wish to develop a personal relationship with deity for ostensibly practical results, but the emotional charge that illness, anxiety, death, and childbirth could elicit must be acknowledged. Burkert further argues that the meaning of the mystery religions lies in the overwhelming, life changing experience that mystery rites conferred on participants. The mystery religions offered a more powerful outlet for such emotions than personal votive offerings.

Fritz Graf argues that there are at least three common elements between ancient magic and ancient mystery religions. Both magic and mysteries are secret, they both seek direct contact with divinity and both use complex initiation ritual to achieve such contact. 56 In addition to Graf's argument for links between magic and mystery cults, it seems possible that votive offerings could easily turn into magical spells and the idea of procuring a supernatural entity to assist you in your life or do your bidding, as we see in the PGM, is a further extension of the desire to create a personal relationship with deity.

In Geertz's theory it is assumed that the symbols that mediate ethos and worldview are creating psychological ease. This suggests that there must be some semblance of empirical experience in this process or else the symbols would not work. Thus there must be some empirically based relationship between women and magical practices for the pagan literature to create women who practice nefarious magic. But since we do not see female gender signals in the magical writings of the time, there must have been some other mechanism that related women and magic in peoples minds. The relationship between votive religion, mystery religion and magical practice provides a possible avenue.

Votive religion was the common base for personal religious expression in the ancient world. As Burkert suggests votive religion was often the main form of religious behavior surrounding the mystery cults and helped spread these cults geographically. The mystery religion's rites were an accentuated, special form of the votive practices. Women comprised a large portion of the participants in the mystery religions and it is reasonable to surmise that they also practiced votive religion. Since they had limited participation in the formal or state religions, the mystery religions were very attractive. Women's participation in the mystery cults validated the male attitude of the time that women were not capable of practicing "rational religion" and associated women with deviant religious practices. There is indication that the writers of the magical papyri were familiar with mystery religions and used terms for themselves that mirrored mystery cult language.57 Itinerant priests, who had roamed the ancient world since Plato's time, professed to provide personal initiation mysteries for people as well as perform "black" magic or rites that would bring the household back into spiritual balance through contact with the dead. Thus there is an association between the mysteries and magic from both within magical practices and from outside observers. This may be the association that linked women and magic: if women are so seriously participating in mystery cults then they must be also practicing magic. This suggestion does not necessarily mean that this was actually happening, but that this association could be made reasonable in the ancient male mind. The elaboration of women's magic in literature is apparently fiction, but made believable by women's spiritual behaviors.


Looking at magic and gender in the ancient world we begin with the assumption that women are capable, intelligent people. Since everyone can dream, it was necessary to conceptualize elite dreams as most valuable to maintain communication with the divine in elite hands. Elites, then, control the meaning of religious symbolism as expressed through the potent channel of dreams. This excludes non-elite males and most women from imaging any divine validation for power. Further, women symbolized as using nefarious magic in literature and associated with deviant religious practices showed that women were dangerous holding spiritual power.

It is hard to imagine that men of the time did not encounter capable, intelligent women and, as suggested by the fragmentary evidence, it is possible that women could have been having divinatory dreams. By not reporting women's dreams directly, this avenue to spiritual power for women was obscured. Gender constructions for males in the ancient world negated the possibility for strong emotional attachments to women. By associating women with "magic" through their participation in mystery cults, as argued earlier, the idea that capable, intelligent women would be irresponsible with spiritual power and thus use this power to control men as expressed in literature is made plausible. That women did participate in the mystery cults gave these notions an aura of actuality in Geertz's terms. Questioning this association of women with magic in the ancient world helps us understand that the use of "magic" to designate deviant religious practices tells us more about manipulation of religious symbols by elites to hide their behavior rather than portray actual human behavior since the PGM appear to be spiritual practices for men, not women. As suggested by Geertz's male elites control of religious symbolism obscured their own behavior that was contrary to correct male gender behavior of the time.

This examination of dream divination, gender and magic in the ancient world informs us about our own intellectual heritage regarding the distinctions we make between religion and magic. As we have seen dream divination spanned the boundary between religion and magic by appearing in temple practices and the PGM. Divination itself carries this dual function. Divination by the flight of birds or omens was appropriate and therefore practiced by priests, but necromancy, divination by the dead, was inappropriate and shows up in magical contexts.

As discussed earlier, the term magus referred originally to Persian religious specialists. For the Greeks, Persia was their enemy, so embedded in this term magus is a strong sense of "other" and more specifically a potentially dangerous "other." Later the magus is associated with itinerant priests, beggar priests, diviners and initiates of the mysteries of Dionysus by Plato. 58 These groups represented the fringe of religious behavior as opposite to the religion of the polis or state. Thus magical practices were presented as deviant, as not in accord with prevailing religious behaviors. These notions continue through the Roman era.

But the authors of the PGM saw themselves as initiates of mysteries, practitioners of knowledge gained through direct communication with divine and semi-divine forces. We might ask at this point why the PGM are termed magical at all in modern scholarship. Indeed, in PGM XII 160-78 the translation in the Betz edition states: "If you want to do something spectacular and want to free yourself from danger, stand at the door and say the spell, . . . ." The Greek word translated here as "spell" is logos. Logos has a wide range of meanings. It can mean "word" and was also used to designate Christ. Perhaps it is the context that encourages the translator to give logos the designation "spell", but that is not one of its normal associations. Certainly much more study would need to be conducted to determine if this is consistent in the translation of the papyri, but it does indicate that there may be reason to more carefully delineate why these papyri are deemed "magical" and not "religious."

We have here then, two different conceptions of magic. One contains the notions of "other", "deviance", and "danger." The other situates "magical" practices as techniques to encounter deity, to have a personal communication with divine and semi-divine forces for practical benefit. This second conception of magic in European religious history has been subsumed by the first. We have inherited an intellectual tradition that, from the outset, does not image "magical" religious behaviors as valid forms of spirituality worthy of serious study.

It is our inherited notions about magic, from the ancient world, that have made it difficult to study these human behaviors as another kind of religious expression. By studying practices that are thought to span these categories of religion and magic we can begin to discover what underlying assumptions about ultimate reality these two kinds of religious behavior suggest. Freed from inherited bias we can open our scholarship to a clearer understanding of the persistence of "magical" ideas throughout the history of Europe and their place in European spiritual heritage.


1. Geertz, Clifford. “Religion as a Symbol System”, in Lessa and Vogt, eds Reader in Comparative Religion, 2nd edition.

2. Mircea Eliade, ed. “Dreams” in Encyclopedia of Religion (New York: Macmillian, 1987).

3. Plutarch, Conv. Sept. Sap. 15

4. Georg Luck, Arcana Mundi: Magic and the Occult in the Greek and Roman World. (Baltimore: John Hopkins University Press, 1985).

5. Luck, p. 239.

6. Cicero, De Senectute, De Amicita, De Divionatione, Trans. William Falconer. (Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 1959). p. I: xxvii

7. Artemidorus. Oneirocritica. Translation and commentary by Robert J. White. (Park Ridge, NJ: Noyes Press, 1975)

8. Luck, p. 293.

9. Ibid.

10. E. Edelstein and L. Edelstein, Asclepius: Collection and Interpretation of the Testimonies (Baltimore: John Hopkins Unversity Press, 1945, 1998), p. 233.

11. Ibid.

12. Mary Hamilton, Incubation or the Cure of Disease in Pagan Temples and Christian Churches. (London, 1906)

13. Hamilton, p. 77.

14. Luck, p. 233

15. Gnuse, Robert, “The Jewish Dream Interpretator in a Foreign Court: The Recurring Use of a Theme in Jewish Literature”, Journal for the Study of Pseudepigrapha. 7 (October 1990): 29-53.

16. Genesis 28:12

17. Genesis 37: 19-20

18. Joel 2:28

19. Kelsey Morton, Dreams: the dark speech of the spirit, a christian interpretation (Garden City, NY: Doubleday, 1968)

20. Mathew 27:19

21. Mary Lefkowitz and Maureen Fant, Womens Life in Greece and Rome: a sourcebook in translation, 2nd ed., (Baltimore: John Hopkins University Press, 1992), p. 266-267.

22. Betz, Hans Dieter. The Greek Magical Papyri in Translation including the Demotic Spells. Chicage, University of Chicago Press, 1986. PGM VII 250-54, PGM VII 222-49, and PGM VII 407-10, 664-85 are a few examples.

23. PGM XII 107-21

24. Fritz Graf, Magic in the Ancient World. Translated by Franklin Philip. (Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 1997), p. 20-21.

25. Luck, p.232

26. Cryer, Frederick H.. Divination in ancient Israel and its Near Eastern environment : a socio-historical investigation. Sheffield, England : JSOT Press, c1994, p. 265.

27. Van Leishout, R.G.A., Greeks on Dreams, Utrecht: H&S Publishers, 1980, p. 167.

28. Van Leishout, p. 180.

29. David Potter, Prophets and Emperors: Human and Divine Authority from Augustus to Theodosius. (Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 1994), p. 168.

30. Ibid.

31. Genesis 41:16

32. Isaiah 42:8-9

33. Cryer, p. 157.

34. Personal communication with Dr. Wm. Poe, Sonoma State University

35. Luck. P. 230

36. Cryer. p. 256-261

37. Potter David. , p. 73

38. Lawson, John Cuthbert, 1874-. Modern Greek folklore and ancient Greek religion. New York, University Books, 196, p. 303

39. Lefkowitz, p. 253.

40. Scheid, John. An introduction to Roman religion ; translated by Janet Lloyd, Bloomington : Indiana University Press, 2003 p. 397

41. Cicero. On the Nature of the Gods.

42. Argonautica, Apollonius of Rhodes in Luck, p. 67

43. Luck, p. 73

44. Luck, p. 76.

45. The Babylonian Talmud ... Translated into English with notes, glossary, and indices under the editorship of I. Epstein. London, Soncino Press [1961] Sanhedrin 6.4, Hagigah 2.2 77d and Sanhedrin 6.9.23c

46. Ibid. B. Pes. IIIa

47. Deborah Sawyer, Women and Religion in the First Christian Centuries. (London: Routledge, 1996), p. 152

48. Sawyer, p. 154.

49. Galatians 5:20

50. See PDM 930-92; PDM 1046-55

51. Graf, p. 185.

52. Graf, p. 189.

53. Barbette Stanely Spaeth, From Goddesses to Hags: Representations of Witches in Classical Literature, unpublished manuscript.

54. Burkert, Walter, Ancient mystery cults. Cambridge, Mass. : Harvard University Press, 1987. p. 12

55. Ibid.

56. Graf, p. 99.

57. Ibid.

58. Graf, p. 21.