Night's Black Agents: Witches, Wizards and the Dead in the Ancient World

July 10, 2008

Daniel Ogden is the leading home-grown British expert on Ancient Greek and Roman magic and, as such, is part of an international boom in scholarly interest in a subject that spans the Western world. This makes it all the more astonishing that his latest book opens with a diatribe against colleagues in that movement, never naming people or publications but giving an impression of their utter worthlessness. Almost all its intended readership is likely to gain nothing from this except an unpleasant impression of general academic rancour.

Having got this out of his system, Ogden presents a splendid general survey of beliefs concerning magic and witchcraft in the classical ancient world, with a look at beliefs in ghosts as well. It covers a thousand years of Graeco-Roman culture, from the vase paintings of archaic Greece to the papyri of late Roman Alexandria and the hagiographies of early Christian saints. Famous literary texts are treated with the same confidence and skill as archaeological discoveries such as amulets and curse tablets, and common themes are found to link these differing bodies of material.

As well as a good scholar Ogden is an excellent storyteller, exploiting the narrative value of spells and charms as well as that more obviously provided by poems, plays and novels. With perfect ease he pulls off the trick of producing a book that is at once a primer for anybody who knows little or nothing about the subject, introducing famous texts and summarising their contents, and also a contribution to learned debate.

Newcomers get to meet characters such as Circe, Medea, Canidia, Erictho and the witches of Apuleius for the first time, while colleagues can enjoy the glosses that are put on them. In an important sense this is a book for people interested in Western attitudes to the supernatural in all periods because, as Ogden points out, the Graeco-Roman concepts of the witch, werewolf, vampire and sorcerer became the staple set employed within all later Western civilisation because of the massive influence of classical literature.

The greatest single contribution of the book to scholarship is to amend the recent consensus that the Western concept of magic, and of magicians, was developed only in 5th-century BC Greece. What it shows is that the concept of male sorcerers seems to have appeared only then, associated strongly with foreigners, from older and more theocratic civilisations such as Egypt and Babylon.

Developed literary portraits of male magicians are not found for half a millennium more. By contrast, however, the image of the female witch seems prehistoric and is found in the earliest European literature and art, although with the cultural difference that Greek witches or enchantresses were more glamorous and morally ambivalent, and Roman witches more physically repulsive and unequivocally evil.

This makes a very good fit with the pattern found as soon as records begin across the rest of Europe, excluding the far North and East: men are believed to learn magic from a learned and external tradition, whereas women simply embody and wield it naturally. We seem to be on the verge of being able to speak of a distinctive European (or perhaps even Indo-European) model of witchcraft and magic. It is a sign of how much this relatively short book achieves that it has made a significant contribution to that model, along with much else of specific interest to ancient historians.

Night's Black Agents: Witches, Wizards and the Dead in the Ancient World

By Daniel Ogden
Hambledon Continuum
248pp
£25.00
ISBN 9781847252302
Published 15 May 2008

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