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“Hiss At Some Length”: Onomatopoeia, Mimesis, and Other Noises in the Greco-Roman Magical Tradition

Britta Ager

Colorado College

The spells of the Greek magical papyri exhort magicians to make a variety of odd sounds: hisses, claps, laughs, popping noises, drawn-out vowels, imitations of birds and animals, and of course the voces magicae, the largely unintelligible magical utterances which make up a significant portion of some texts. While the voces magicae have long been the subject of discussion, the complexity of the other utterances has received more scrutiny in recent years. In particular, the 2014 volume Noms babares I (Tardieu, Van den Kerchove, and Zago) has usefully recontextualized some of these sounds within Egyptian tradition, such as a mimetic exclamation of “Chi chi chi tiph tiph tiph” in “falconic” language (PGM XIII.1-343) which imitates the piping cries of birds and evokes the divine voice of Horus (Tardieu). The texts attribute strange noises to divine beings, who moan, echo, neigh, and laugh in the historiolae of the spells; they tell the magician to make such noises as part of rituals; they equate noises with complex drawings which represent the sounds visually (e.g., PGM XIII.1-343: “The two elements, popping and hissing, are represented by a falcon-faced crocodile and the nine-formed god standing on it”); and they identify such noises with the gods themselves, whose names the noises are “companions of” (PGM VII.756-94).

In this paper, I argue that while many of the sounds of the papyri originate in Egyptian symbolism and Egyptian conceptions of the relationship between words, objects, and sounds, these utterances appealed to Greek-speaking magicians and entered the Greco-Roman magical lexicon because of pre-existing classical notions of the noises which accompanied supernatural encounters. Greco-Roman gods were less likely to make animal sounds themselves than to be accompanied by animals, whose barks, shrieks, and twitters are often reminiscent of the noises which accompany the appearance of supernatural beings in the magical papyri (e.g., appearances of Hecate accompanied by dogs; c.f. the barking in PGM VII.756-94). Nor were the Greek gods themselves silent, and the papyri refer to, among other things, Zeus’s thunderclaps and the “shrill-screaming” voice and doglike howling of Selene/Hecate (PGM IV.2241-2358). Their worshippers and those possessed or touched by them may also make animal sounds; thus the author of On the Sacred Disease complains about attempts to diagnose epilepsy patients as possessed by various deities according to whether they make goat, bird, or horse-like noises, in a potentially interesting parallel for initiation texts in the PGM. The Greek idea that the gods have a language of their own which humans do not share (found repeatedly in Homer; e.g., Il. 1.403-404) parallels the “falconic”, “baboonic”, and “sacred” languages which supernatural beings speak in the papyri. The dead are sometimes thought to make wordless noises of distress; thus the souls of Penelope’s suitors shriek like bats (Od. 24.6-10) and the untimely dead “hiss wildly” in a magical hymn to Hecate (PGM IV.2708-84). In short, Greek magicians were a receptive audience for the variety of wails, grunts, bangs, tweets, and so forth found in Egyptian spells, and the ways in which strange noises are deployed in the papyri shows a richly creative and syncretic tradition. Lastly, silence itself may be best regarded as a special kind of noise in both the papyri and Greco-Roman religious contexts.

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