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Scent in the Magical Papyri

Britta Ager

Anthropologists and sociologists have heeded calls for a more “sensuous scholarship” (Stoller 1997) over the last several decades, citing the undervaluation of senses other than sight and hearing in Western culture and the greater importance of cultural systems of flavor, texture, and scent both in non-Western cultures and in the pre-modern West. (A few examples include Almagor; Classen; Corbin; Drobnick ; Howes 1991; Rasmussen; Silverman; Stoller 1989.) Scholars of living societies are obviously better placed to recover overlooked sensory experiences than classicists, although the tastes, smells, and textures of antiquity too have received increasing attention in recent years (e.g. Butler; Connors; Gowers). The study of ancient magic would do well to borrow from such approaches in considering ritual and the experience (and the cultural construct) of the magician in the Greco-Roman world, for inter alia, the magical texts of antiquity tell us a great deal about the taste, smell, feel, and sound of ancient magic, which have passed relatively unconsidered.

In this paper, I examine the fascination with scent exhibited by the magicians of the Greek and Coptic spellbooks. Greco-Egyptian magicians liked to conduct their rituals in a heavily scented atmosphere, with spicy and sweet odors predominating: spells in the papyri include instructions to burn incense, scented lamp-oils, fragrant woods, and even specially scented lamp wicks; compound special incense blends (for which recipes are given); sprinkle perfume; shake fresh branches from odiferous plants; wear flower and herbal garlands; acquire fragrant herbs; write with scented inks; and chew on aromatic seeds as they work. One brief vignette (PGM I.42-195), a single stage of a summoning ritual, instructs the magician to deploy frankincense, rose, heliotrope, myrrh, and myrtle scents, conveyed as incenses, perfumes, burnt material, and fresh branches. In keeping with the ritual’s emphasis on cleanliness and ritual purity in preparation for a divine visitation, the scents which the magician uses block out the everyday smells of life in an Egyptian town and substitute an aura of sweet perfumes more appropriate to a god’s visit. Magicians are particular about scents to use in different contexts; PGM XIII.1-343, for example, lists the incenses appropriate to different deities, and the perils of using an inappropriate scent are suggested in some of the slander spells in which the spellcasters’ victims are accused of burning horrible incenses, compounded of things like a dog’s embryo, the menses of a dead virgin, and mouse droppings (PGM IV.2622-2707). Spells are found which stinking incenses are in fact deployed in an attempt to coerce deities, after pleasant incenses have failed to persuade them. Perfumes and spices are used to preserve ingredients which may decompose, or at least to cover their more noxious scents, as with the eyeball rubbed with oil of lily in PGM I.247-62 or a lizard drowned in the same perfume in PGM VII.628-42. Incenses and perfume oils are applied to magical objects to purify them or to imbue them with magical power (PGM VII.429-58; PGM VII.740-55). Odor was sufficiently important to the magicians that in a few spells they are addressed as gods in their own right, as myrrh is in PGM IV.1496-1595, paralleling the evolution of charakteres from magical symbols to minor deities in the papyri.

Why the obsession with smell in the spellbooks? Anthropological work on odors suggests that fragrances—especially ones (such as incense) which practitioners were already conditioned to associate with religious rituals—may have helped to set the scene and to influence the magicians to enter a receptive state of mind in which communication with the supernatural felt more likely (Howes 1987). Evidence from the papyri supports the view that the magicians themselves were aware of the perception-altering properties of scent and used it deliberately in an attempt to induce trance states and divinatory dreams (see, e.g., PGM II.1-64; PDM xiv.1-92; PGM VII.628-42).

Session/Panel Title

Perception and the Senses

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