Greek Magical Papyri

The Greek Magical Papyri (Latin Papyri Graecae Magicae, abbreviated PGM) is the name given by scholars to a body of papyri from Graeco-Roman Egypt, which each contain a number of magical spells, formulae, hymns and rituals. The materials in the papyri date from the 2nd century BC to the 5th century AD.[1] The manuscripts came to light through the antiquities trade, from the 18th century onwards. One of the best known of these texts is the Mithras Liturgy.[2]

The texts were published in a series, and individual texts are referenced using the abbreviation PGM plus the volume and item number. Each volume contains a number of spells and rituals. Further discoveries of similar texts from elsewhere have been allocated PGM numbers for convenience.[1]



The first papyri in the series appeared on the art market in Egypt in the early 19th century. The major portion of the collection is the so-called Anastasi collection. About half a dozen of the papyri were purchased in about 1827 by a man calling himself Jean d'Anastasi, who may have been Armenian, and was a diplomatic representative at the Khedivial court in Alexandria.[3] He asserted that he obtained them at Thebes (modern Luxor), and he sold them to various major European collections including the British Museum, the Louvre, the Bibliothèque Nationale in Paris, the Staatliche Museen in Berlin and the Rijksmuseum of antiquities in Leiden. H. D. Betz who edited a translation of the collection states that these pieces probably came from the library of an ancient scholar and collector of late antiquity based in Thebes. Anastasi acquired a great number of other papyri and antiquities as well.[1] The "Thebes Cache" also contained the Stockholm papyrus and Leyden papyrus X containing alchemical texts.[4] Another papyrus (PGM III) was acquired by Jean Francois Mimaut and ended up in the French Bibliothèque Nationale.[1]


PGM XII and XIII were the first to be published, appearing in 1843 in Greek and in a Latin translation in 1885.[1][5]

In the early twentieth century Karl Preisendanz collected the texts and published them in two volumes in 1928 and 1931. A projected third volume, containing new texts and indices, reached the stage of galley proofs dated "Pentecost 1941", but the type was destroyed during the bombing of Leipzig in the Second World War. Photocopies of the proofs circulated among scholars. A revised and expanded edition of the texts was published in 1973-4 in two volumes. Volume 1 was a corrected version of the first edition volume 1, but volume 2 was entirely revised and the papyri originally planned for vol. III were included. The indexes were omitted, however.[1] The PGM can now be searched in the Thesaurus Linguae Graecae database and various concordances and dictionaries have been published. The most recent addition was the book Abrasax, published by Nephilim Press in 2012.


Many of these pieces of papyrus are pages or fragmentary extracts from spell books, repositories of arcane knowledge and mystical secrets. As far as they have been reconstructed, these books appear to fall into two broad categories: some are compilations of spells and magical writings, gathered by scholarly collectors either out of academic interest or for some kind of study of magic; others may have been the working manuals of travelling magicians, containing their repertoire of spells, formulae for all occasions. These often poorly educated magic-users were more like showmen than the traditional Egyptian wizards, who were a highly educated and respected priestly elite. The pages contain spells, recipes, formulae and prayers, interspersed with magic words and often in shorthand, with abbreviations for the more common formulae. These spells range from impressive and mystical summonings of dark gods and daemons, to folk remedies and even parlour tricks; from portentous, fatal curses, to love charms, cures for impotence and minor medical complaints.

In many cases the formulaic words and phrases are strikingly similar to those found in defixiones (curse tablets or binding spells, κατάδεσμοι in Greek), such as those we find inscribed on ostraka, amulets and lead tablets. Since some of these defixiones date from as early as the sixth century BC, and have been found as far afield as Athens, Asia Minor, Rome and Sicily (as well as Egypt), this provides a degree of continuity and suggests that some observations based on the PGM will not be altogether inapplicable to the study of the wider Greco-Roman world.

Throughout the spells found in the Greek Magical Papyri, there are numerous references to figurines. They are found in various types of spells, including judicial, erotic and just standard cursing that one might associate with Haitian voodoo (“Vodou”). The figurines are made of various materials, usually corresponding to the type of spell, but often with liminal properties, as is frequent in a number of elements of Greek Magic. Such figurines have been found “throughout the Mediterranean basin”, usually in places that the ancient Greeks associated with the underworld; “graves, sanctuaries or bodies of water”, all stressing the liminality of Greek magic. Some have been discovered in lead coffins, upon which the spell or curse has been inscribed.

Religion in Greco-Roman Egypt

The religion of the Papyri Graecae Magicae is an elaborate syncretism of Greek, Egyptian, Jewish (see Jewish magical papyri), and even Babylonian and Christian religious influences engendered by the unique milieu of Greco-Roman Egypt. This syncretism is evident in the Papyri in a variety of ways. Often the Olympians are given attributes of their Egyptian counterparts; alternatively this could be seen as Egyptian deities being referred to by Greek names. For example, Aphrodite (who was associated with the Egyptian Hathor), is given the epithet Neferihri—from the Egyptian Nfr-iry.t, "nice eyes" (PGM IV. 1266).

Within this profusion of cultural influences can still be seen classical Greek material, and perhaps even aspects of a more accessible "folk-religion" than those preserved in the mainstream literary texts. Sometimes the Greek gods depart from their traditional Olympian natures familiar to Classicists, and seem far more chthonic, demonic and bestial. This is partly the influence of Egyptian religion, in which beast cult and the terror of the divine were familiar elements; equally the context of magical texts makes such sinister deities appropriate.

See also


  1. 1 2 3 4 5 6 Hans Dieter Betz (ed), The Greek Magical Papyri in translation, University of Chicago Press, 1985, p.xli.
  2. Ronald Hutton, Witches, Druids and King Arthur, 2006, p.116: "The most famous of these texts is the so-called Mithras liturgy...".
  3. Fowden, Garth (1986). The Egyptian Hermes: A Historical Approach to the Late Pagan Mind. CUP Archive. ISBN 0-521-32583-8.
  4. Long, Pam O (2004). Openness Secrecy Authorship: Technical Arts and the Culture of Knowledge from Antiquity to the Renaissance. JHU Press. ISBN 9780801866067. ISBN 0-8018-6606-5
  5. C. Leemans, Papyri graeci musei antiquarii publici Lugduni-Batavi, 2 vols. Brill: 1843, 1885.


Further reading

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