Both the Greeks and the Romans believed in and practiced magic. By doing so, they thought they could control the environment and influence the outcome of events. The performance of magic often included complicated rituals* and rites that reflected the religious practices of the times.

There was an important difference between the religious and magical rites that the Greeks and Romans practiced, however. Religion usually involved gods and goddesses who, the ancients believed, controlled nature. These deities* might or might not respond to the prayers of the individual. Magic, on the other hand, bound or constrained nature if certain rituals were performed carefully and in accordance with tradition. Magic usually operated through semidivine “intermediaries”—supernatural forces somewhere between this world and that of the gods. Many of the magical beliefs of the ancients survive to the present as popular superstitions. For example, the belief that a black cat crossing one’s path brings bad luck is rooted in the ancient past.

The idea of magic existed from the beginning of human history. The Persian magus, or magician, had mysterious (but not necessarily evil) powers. In Greece, the idea of the magus evolved into the evil sorcerer, who was considered a fraud. Greek thinkers, such as Plato, rejected magic and sorcery and demanded that those who practiced them be punished. Other branches of philosophy such as Skepticism, Epicureanism, and Cynicism also criticized the use of magic. Nevertheless, the practice of magic was widespread in all classes of society in both ancient Greece and Rome.

* ritual regularly followed routine, especially religious

* deity god or goddess

The Greeks and Romans practiced several forms of magic. The two most common forms were black magic and white magic. Black magic was destructive. It was intended to harm an individual or bring about the destruction of property. A curse was the most obvious kind of black magic, and the Greeks and Romans were masters at devising creative curses for every occasion. Other forms of black magic were potions, poisons, and spells. In most cases, the ancients called upon demonic* spirits to help work black magic. A witch was believed to have extraordinary powers of black magic. Some of the powers attributed to witches included calling on the dead and the powers of the underworld, reversing the flow of water, controlling the weather, and turning people into birds or animals by night.

White magic was the opposite of black magic. It was used to protect an individual against harm, bring good fortune, or cure someone of an illness. The ancients used diverse rituals in white magic. Some of these rituals included purifications (cleansings) with water and fire, the casting of spells and calling out of strange words (incantations), and the use of amulets or charms, often in the form of ornaments that were worn. The preparation of magical potions from herbs and plants was often important to healing. In this respect, white magic came very close to the ritual medicine used by ancient physicians.

Guarding against the “evil eye” was the most widespread type of white magic in ancient times. Parents placed amulets on their babies to keep them from attracting envy or hatred. Farmers were regular users of white magic. They cast spells to bring forth rain, danced special dances to bring forth a bountiful crop, and poured libations, or offerings, into the soil to appease the gods. Thus, magical practices often closely followed the religious rituals performed by priests.

Magic had many dos and don’ts. For example, one was advised to touch the earth when it thundered and to smooth out one’s bed on rising. The first was to prevent a lightning strike and the second to prevent the impression of the body from being used to cast a black-magic spell. To avoid misfortune, the Greek thinker Pythagoras warned against eating beans, picking up objects that fell to the floor, and wearing rings. The literature of ancient Greece and Rome is filled with comments on magic. (See also Divinities; Religion, Greek; Religion, Roman; Ritual and Sacrifice.)

* demonic referring to demons or evil spirits


Curses written on lead tablets— lead being a heavy, dark metal— and buried in the ground were a common type of black magic. The Roman sports fan who wrote the following curse must have had little faith in his team's chances of winning the weekly chariot race. (The Green and White are the names of chariot teams.) I invoke you, Spirit, whoever you are, and lay it upon you from this hour, this day, this moment that you torment and destroy the horses of the Green and White, kill and crush the charioteers,... leave no breath in their bodies.

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