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Prayers for protection against heretics? Two Greek amulets reconsidered

Michael Zellmann-Rohrer

I advance a new interpretation of two papyrus amulets from Byzantine Egypt by adopting a different comparative approach, applying evidence from later Byzantine medical recipes. In the process I identify an incantation motif that remained in use for nearly a millenium, comparable in contruction and purpose to the well-known narrative analogues (historiolae) employed in many magical texts. Both amulets are included in the collection of Preisendanz and Henrichs (Pap.Graec.Mag. P15a and b), and both contain an enigmatic claim in the first person, “I have a judgment” (δικάσιμον ἔχω or δικασμὸν ἔχω) with several “headless ones” (μετά τινων ἀκεφάλων) or “a headless dog” (μετὰ κυνὸς ἀκεφάλου). The angelic powers invoked by the amulets are asked to release the bearer and “take hold of” the opponent. Preisendanz, grouping these texts with Pap.Graec.Mag. P15c, interpreted them in a literal sense as curses or prayers against human adversaries: Christian heretics belonging to a schismatic sect who resisted the Henotikon of Zeno, namely the Akephaloi (“in ihnen sind wohl Anhänger der Sekte der Akephaloi oder Autokephaloi zu sehn”). I argue that both amulets were intended instead for protection against fever, and the “judgment” is not to be taken literally. This argument is based on the identification of three parallels for this phrasing in collections of later Byzantine medical recipes including instructions for prayers, incantations, and amulets for healing and protection, known from manuscripts now at Oxford (Bodleian Library cod. Auct. T.4.4), Paris (Bibliothèque nationale de France cod. grec 2315), and Vienna (Österreichische Nationalbibliothek cod. med. gr. 45). These parallels, which combine elements of prayer and incantation, refer to a metaphorical judgment between the patient, speaking in the first person, and the fever; the higher power invoked is asked to release the patient and bind the affliction. The Paris and Vienna manuscripts also invoke Mary as Theotokos, as does Pap.Graec.Mag. P15b. I also adduce Greek medical texts on the medicinal properties of clover, leaves of which were found enfolded in one of the papyrus amulets (Pap.Graec.Mag. P15b), as a febrifuge.

Session/Panel Title:

Culture and Society in Greek, Roman, and Byzantine Egypt

Session/Paper Number

9.5

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