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Recipes for Domestic Rituals in the Greek Magical Handbooks

Christopher Faraone

I aim to complicate the renewed work and interest in “personal” or “private religion” by emphasizing the neglected role of “domestic religion”, as a tertium quid that is either ignored entirely, or assumed without discussion to be part of “private” cult in contrast to “public”.  One pitfall of ignoring the domestic is revealed in a popular trend in the study of the more complicated recipes of Greek magical handbooks, where, despite the suggestion of Fritz Graf that these handbooks contain a wealth of information about ancient household cult, few scholars have been interested in studying this phenomenon, in part because of another, more influential model, articulated in different ways by J.Z. Smith and D. Frankfurter to the effect that these rituals are in fact displaced from national cults that by the Imperial period have either been destroyed (Israel) or eroded (Egypt) under Roman rule.  According to this model, then, much of the PGM handbooks reflect civic or priestly ritual that has been miniaturized, so it can benefit a single individual – the transfer, in short, goes from the temple to the individual, without any discussion of the household.  

For my presentation, I will begin by focusing on a pair of PGM recipes for the creation of small wax images of gods that were already in pre-Roman times used to protect or prosper houses and workshops: Egyptian Pantheos (PGM IV 3125-71) and the Roman image of Mercury offering his purse (PGM IV 2359-73), showing that these two recipes continue two much older domestic traditions. The only changes to them are, I will show, superficial and aim at widening the appeal of these guardians to non-Egyptians and non-Romans: giving the god a new name or epithet from a different cultural tradition.  In the second half of my paper, for purposes of contrast, I will examine two sets of PGM rituals concerned with images used in dream incubation, one of Sarapis (PGM V 447-58) and one of Bes (PGM V 447-58, VIII 64-110 and CII 1-17).  In the first case we do seem to have a case of a civic ritual – dream incubation in Sarapis’ temple in the presence of the seated statue of the god – that has been miniaturized into a personal ritual for obtaining curative dreams from the same god, by holding to your ear a ring with the same image of Sarapis as you sleep.  In the second case, however, I will argue against suggestion of Frankfurter (1998) 169-74 that the PGM dream-incubation rituals focused on images of Bes developed in similar fashion as miniaturizations of a unique temple oracle of Bes at Abydos.  I will argue, to the contrary that these domestic dream-incubation rites simply derive from Bes’ Egyptian role as a guardian of the bedroom, who among other things wards off bad dreams and nightmares.  It is far more likely, in short, that in this case, at least, the tradition of domestic dream incubation rites in private bedrooms survives in PGM recipes and gave rise to the Bes oracle at Abydos.

Session/Panel Title

Ancient Greek Personal Religion

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