You are here

Magical Power, Cognition, and the Religion of the Intellectual in the Roman Imperial West

Andreas Bendlin

University of Toronto

Exploring the relationship between religion and social identity, my paper discusses cognitive aspects and reconsiders the socio-religious context of two texts concerning “magic”: the recently discovered invocation of omnipotentia numina by their self-styled “guardian,” Verius Sedatus (Autricum, Lugudunensis, late Ip/early IIp: AE 2010.950), and Apuleius’s Apology.  

First, cognition: I sketch—through the lens of cognitive studies—Sedatus’s invocation ritual (material context: Joly et al. 2010) and Apuleius’s recognition of the ritual power of “magical acts” (e.g., Apol. 26.6), whereby in a cognitive perspective ascriptions of non-ordinary power are made to achieve non-ordinary goals.  Scholars of ancient “magic” have traditionally considered anthropological approaches but rarely engage with recent critical thinking that applies cognitive (Sørensen 2007) or attributional theories (Taves 2014) to “magical rituals.”  I engage these approaches to explore Sedatus’s ritual and Apuleius’s exegesis.

Second, socio-religious context: scholarship has highlighted the imperial-period mobility of the ritual expert, the textualisation of Egyptian magical knowledge, and its dissemination through the medium of the book outside of Egypt (Gordon 2015: 378–380; Nagy 2015: 211, 218–220).  The reception—by way of migrant experts, ritual texts or objects—of the Graeco-Egyptian magical tradition in the Latin West since roughly the second century CE appears confined to a small number of data (e.g., gems and a few curse inscriptions).  That tradition may have been attractive primarily to an affluent, educated audience, who conceptualized Egypt as one of the places of origin of magic (Gordon, Gasparini 2014: 50f.).  I outline how Sedatus, who rudimentarily applies techniques (the use of voces magicae) from that tradition as early as the late first/early second century, and Apuleius, who is familiar with the concept of nomina magica (Apol. 38.7f.), also illustrate this process of reception.

Merging cognitive analysis and socio-religious contextualization, I illustrate how communication with the divine world operates at two interrelated levels, epistemic and ritualistic.  Apuleius—in a rhetorical performance of “high intellectualism” (Bradley 2012: 12–17)—defends magia as an epistemic endeavor whereby the philosopher acquires privileged access to the divine.  As recognized by Apuleian scholarship, his argumentation foregrounds the philosopher’s epistemic control of magia.  However, Sedatus’s invocation ritual and the ritualistic competence that emerges from Apuleius’s Apology also demonstrate the bricolateur’s innovative ritual agency.  Both individuals have been claimed as “magicians” or quasi-professional ritualists.  I suggest that find spot (Sedatus) and literary context (Apuleius) rather suggest learned domestic appropriation of the magical tradition by non-professional bricolateurs.  Their respective religious portfolios thereby included elements of what I label “the religion of the intellectual”—one facet of ancient religious identities historians often ignore.

In conclusion, I propose that we read Apuleius’s Apology as conceding the precarious position of the intellectual in a contemporary field of social practice which increasingly criminalized the notion and any alleged acts of magia (Rives 2003).  Scholars (since Winter 1968; cf. Graf 1997: 65–88) sometimes misapprehend the reasons for the Apology’s marginalization of the magical tradition’s ritual potential, whereas in reality Apuleius’s pillorying of the persona of the magus, as a societal “other,” may aim primarily at averting suspicion of his own ritualistic expertise.  Sedatus’s recently discovered invocation ritual should warn against concluding too rashly that Apuleius did not experiment with some learned ritual himself.

Session/Panel Title

God the Anthropologist: Text, Material and Theory in the Study of Ancient Religion

Session/Paper Number


© 2020, Society for Classical Studies Privacy Policy