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Magic and Gender Roles in Ancient World

Ancient World

For most of us, when we hear the word ‘magic’ we think of sparkling wands and rabbits coming out of hats. In reality, however, these are mere tricks used to entertain people. Magic is not something that people practice to entertain nor is it a stunt that the public would laugh at or enjoy.

The word ‘magique’ crept into English dictionary from French in the late 1300s. Majority of the definitions of this practice revolve around a single notion that it uses natural forces that are hidden otherwise.

Dark magic was practiced even in the ancient times but truth and lies are often mingled when it comes to history. It is difficult to unravel the complete truth since so much time has passed and the intentional secrecy around some facts makes it even tougher.

Historians from the 19th and 20th century were glorifying the Greeks and Romans so much that they deliberately kept their ugly truths very low-key. Anything contrasting their idealized view of these two civilizations was very efficiently brushed under the carpet.

One of the practices by Romans and Greeks that were intentionally never openly talked about was magic. The practice was widespread in the ancient Mediterranean but it was smartly skipped out. Today, however despite the forced discreetness, it is a legitimate area of study. The study of ancient magic practice reveals deep and dark secrets related to culture and social practices woven into ancient belief systems.

Magic was treated exactly in the same way as it is today; it was banned, punished, and was considered a taboo, even in ancient times, but it thrived no matter what! Historic findings show that the government or authorities ignored the power it held back then (despite condemning it).

 

Role of Women

 

Since women were destined to have a passive role in these ancient civilizations; there is far fewer evidence of them actively pursuing enchantments. Lack of evidence for women brought men into the limelight and it became one of the major reasons that magic has been hushed out by historians.

Roman and Greek men are glorified so much for their athletics and power games that there was no way for historians to think of them succumbing to magic. Men from both civilizations were depicted as warriors and knights in shiny armors which took away the realness from them to some extent.

 

Prevalence of Violence

 

Another noticeable thing in these spells is the language used. The spells are brutal and vehement and lack any sense of remorse. In the modern world, the words used are nightmarish, for instance, the spell inscribed on the tablet found with Louvre-doll.

It reads:

“Lead Ptolemais, whom Aias bore, the daughter of Horigenes, to me. Prevent her from eating and drinking until she comes to me, Sarapammon, whom Area bore, and do not allow her to have experience with another man, except me alone. Drag her by her hair, by her guts, until she does not stand aloof from me … and until I hold her obedient for the whole time of my life, loving me, desiring me, and telling me what she is thinking.”

There is hardly an indication of any emotion which can be related to love in such spells. These spells sound like seeking control and domination rather than asking for love. This points out towards the sexuality and gender roles in ancient times.
Since the subjects are mostly females hence, no repentance showed. It clearly is evident that men seeking women to show power and strength. It also shows that females were considered as the objects or possessions and were tried to be persuaded without consent (a tradition that never died).

 

Louvre-Doll

 

The spells which involve doll-making were also popular. These dolls depicted the object of desire which in most of the cases were women (being treated as objects since centuries) who might be unaware or resistant to their admirers. Literature has been found which have instructions on how to make enchanted dolls, what should be said over it, and where and how it should be deposited.

It is a form of sympathetic magic which is an enchantment operating on the lines of ‘like effects like’. When a doll is used in sympathetic magic, spell-caster believes that whatever has been done to the doll physically or psychically, affects the human it is representing in the same way.

The most notorious and well-preserved voodoo doll in antiquity is “Louvre-doll” dating back to 4th century AD. This doll is a female in kneeling position, hand and legs bound, and pierced with thirteen needles. It is made up of unbaked clay and was found in Egypt in a terracotta jar.

This figurine was found, accompanying a spell, inscribed on the lead tablet. The spell refers to a woman named Ptolemais and the one, who cast the spell or paid for it, is referred to as Sarapammon. The spell has been mentioned already and it is enough to get an idea about what value was given to women.

The enchanted text merely shows how badly sarapammon wanted Ptolemais without even considering once about her choices that he was even willing to cause her pain. Like several other discoveries, the ones related to magic also depicts the sad state of women in antiquity.

 

Homosexuality

 

There are two spells in Greek Magical Papyri which relate to the female same-sex desire. One spell dates back to second century AD called the gods Anubis and Hermes to bind Serapis (name of a woman) to Herais (name of another woman, who cast the spell).

The second spell, dated to third or fourth century AD, is again aggressively stating:

“Burn, set on fire, inflame her soul, heart, liver, spirit with love for Sophia, whom Isara bore, she, surrendered like a slave, giving herself and all her possessions to her, because this is the will and command of the great god.”
The same-sex spells cast a light on the desire among women in antiquity but there is no reference to whether these relationships were disregarded or tolerated?

The chances of it being acceptable are meek and maybe, this is the reason that magical help was taken. However, this is very less proof to know how same-sex relationships were looked at. The chauvinistic approach is loud and clear through whatever remains have been unearthed until now.

 

Most Common Magic In Past Civilizations

 

One of the most popular forms of magic were erotic spells. Yes, you read it right! One would think that those power-driven, control freak males would use magical charms to fulfill their hunger to seek greater influence but no! What they used spells for? Erotic love! And to assert their rule over the opposite gender.

There were professional magic practitioners who charged fees for their enchanted services. They used to make magical dolls, which are sometimes referred to as poppets, wrote charms, and even directed curses against love rivals.

 

Evident Male Dominance

 

Most evidence shows men as practitioners of magic and clients. Literature also shows that to practice magic one needs to be literate and women were mostly illiterate and didn’t have free access to any formal education. The sources are scarce when it comes to women in magic. Females were not allowed to roam freely or meet a lot of people which further limited their exposure to magic.

It is another example of the rigid system followed in ancient times where male dominance was applauded and females were given the passive role. Apart from the obvious gender roles many aspects of this secret enchantment business remain unearthed to date.

 

Greek Magical Papyri

 

There is a lot of archeological evidence available to attest the practice of magic in ancient times. Literature and spellbooks have been found from both Greece and
Rome. The Middle East and Egypt were not far behind, the literature dating back to ancient people from these regions, also proved the practice of magic.

There is even a collection of spells compiled from Graeco-Roman Egypt, known as the Greek Magical Papyri. The sources in this collection date back from the second century BC to fifth century AD. The large portion of this spell collection is dedicated to spells of attraction which are directed at, you guessed it!

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