Author Archives: William P Schedl

No Bears: Greek Magical Papyri

I am working with the Greek Magical Papyri, a collection of transcribed papyrus fragments found in Egypt that probably date from the late Ptolemaic period to Late Antiquity (100 B.C. – 500 A.D. or thereabouts), but we don’t know much about the circumstances of their original creation or even their semi-modern discovery. In any case, they represent fragments of several corpora of texts written in Greek and Demotic (the language of the Egyptian people as distinct from the Greek ruling class in Alexandria) with magical and/or ritual significance (the line between the two is frequently blurred). They were collected originally by German and Dutch scholars in the late 19th and early 20th centuries (Albrecht Dieterich, Richard Wünsch, and Karl Preisendanz), and translated into English by Hans Dieter Betz (Figure 1).

Figure 1: The title page of my copy of the Greek Magical Papyri

Attempts to perform the spells and rituals have not, to my knowledge, been attempted, though I have confidence that drunk Classicists have indeed chanted phrases from the Greek edited edition, though to what degree of success has not been recorded. I was hoping to do as scientific a study of the texts as possible, but this led me to note several problems.

Figure 2: The first spell from the Greek Magical Papyri: a rite to summon a daemon

Looking at the text of the first document provides an illuminating look at why performing the spells have several barriers (Figure 2). Even if you were willing to shave your head and pull two of your fingernails off (ew), the case of the Circaean falcon is more difficult. Circaean refers to Circe, the minor goddess from Homer’s Odyssey, which presents problems of how one would get a falcon from a goddess that at the very least is not friendly to guests. This is probably referring to the place where she is reported to have lived, but that proves difficult as well, and several places in the Mediterranean (Corsica, southern Latium near Rome, etc.) have connections with where the Romans at least though Circe might have lived. Would it have been enough to get a falcon that is migratory to the western Mediterranean? It could also refer to Mt. Circeo in Italy, which might prove to be a more useful harvesting place for falcons if one was so inclined. Someone in Egypt attempting to source a falcon from a particular place in Italy would presumably have difficulty obtaining it, unless there was a market for this particular bird. Perhaps your local magic shop has a stack of Circaean falcons behind their eye of newt and wolf collar-bones (this also raises the possibility of the existence of magic-oriented stores, and begs the question of what happened to them when frequent legislation against magic was implemented: though given the frequency of anti-magic legislation, it seems to have been not very effective).

The next problem comes from the next instruction. If I were to go to Italy and hunt a falcon on Mt. Circeo, for example, how might I go about deifying it? Unfortunately, we do not have much from the ancient world about religious or magical ceremonies, especially for deification. If one does not do this step correctly, will the spell not work properly?

Sourcing milk from a black cow would have been easier in a society with more connection to animals, but possible for a modern individual (though probably would have to source it from an organic cow. Attic honey (Figure 3) is available on Amazon, but this also begs the question of whether the bees in Attica today take nectar from a completely different set of flowering plants than two thousand years ago.

Figure 3: Attiki honey, supposedly sourced from hives in Attica (area around Athens) in modern Greece.  One of many strange searches that has resulted in strange suggestions by Amazon’s search algorithms

Papyrus and frankincense are similarly easily available at our local neighborhood magic store,, but myrrh is a continual problem in many of the spells. It seems that the plant that we consider to be myrrh today is simply a different plant from the Classical definition, and we don’t know what fragrant plan the ancients thought of as myrrh. Basically, this makes any spell with this problem difficult to complete.

This particular spell also has the problem of having many lacunae in the text, mostly because despite being found in the Egyptian desert, the papyri have degraded over time (Figure 4) and have physical holes in the text.  Sometimes the editor makes a guess based on the formulae that exist in the other texts, but other times the lacunae are more problematic (the edge of a page is missing, or the second half of a page is missing).  At this point, does the ritual need to have all of the pieces perfectly together to work?  If so, then many are not reproducible.  If not, what does that mean about the nature of the spells themselves?

Figure 4: Greek text of a magical spell with physical holes in it, creating lacunae in the text (from the British Library)

How to perform the rituals also present difficulties since we do not have records of how magical ceremonies were performed.  The one Classical source I could find on this, Theocritus II, has a description of someone performing a magical spell, but it is meant as a parody, and perhaps has limited utility. Nevertheless, here is the beginning (trans. J. M. Edmonds in the Loeb Classical Texts):

[1] Where are my bay-leaves? Come, Thestylis; where are my love-charms? Come crown me the bowl with the crimson flower o’ wool; I would fain have the fire-spell to my cruel dear that for twelve days hath not so much as come anigh me, the wretch, nor knows not whether I be alive or dead, nay nor even hath knocked upon my door, implacable man. I warrant ye Love and the Lady be gone away with his feat fancy. In the morning I’ll to Timagetus’ school and see him, and ask what he means to use me so; but, for tonight, I’ll put the spell o’ fire upon him.

[10] So shine me fair, sweet Moon; for to thee, still Goddess, is my song, to thee and that Hecat infernal who makes e’en the whelps to shiver on her goings to and fro where these tombs be and the red blood lies. All hail to thee, dread and awful Hecat! I prithee so bear me company that this medicine of my making prove potent as any of Circe’s or Medea’s or Perimed’s of the golden hair.

Wryneck, wryneck, draw him hither.

[18] First barley-meal to the burning. Come, Thestylis; throw it on. Alack, poor fool! whither are thy wits gone wandering? Lord! am I become a thing a filthy drab like thee may crow over? On, on with the meal, and say “These be Delphis’ bones I throw.”

Wryneck, wryneck, draw him hither.

The spell goes on in the same way. Interwoven with prayers and invocations similar to those in the text of the papyri spells, the woman casting a spell here seems to be chanting the words out loud.  It also seems to include gibberish phrases (such as abracadabra) so it does have some relevant connection to the spells preserved in the papyri that we have.  Since we do not know how spells were performed, it’s hard to discern which parts of this are real and which are attempts at satire, but I’ll take the basic elements of chanting that Theocritus presents.  More modern ideas on how to cast spells (Figure 5) probably aren’t as useful as they come from a different tradition, though they were interesting to consider.

Figure 5: the WikiHow page on how to cast a spell comes from a medieval European/psuedo-Druidic tradition of magical performance (as far as I can tell)

A final problem is language and pronunciation.  As far as language goes, the spells were largely written in Greek, but some existed in Demotic (and Coptic), and there are references to spells in Latin as well.  Some of the spells are bi-lingual, meaning that the particular language wasn’t as important as the ritual itself.  This begs the question of whether I should speak/write the spells in Greek as they were written down, or whether the gods speak English now and would prefer that language (I solve this by doing both Greek and English versions: see below).

Pronunciation of the Greek is a much bigger problem.  I know (in a rudimentary manner) the two ways that Greek is pronounced today: Modern Greek, following the conventions of modern speakers of the language, and Erasmean, the way developed by the Dutch humanist who developed the style of pronunciation in an attempt to replicate the metrical and accentual values of the ancient language so that poetry from 400 B.C. sounds metrically okay.  Neither in any way replicate what actual Hellenic Greek sounded like, let alone what was spoken in Ptolemaic or Roman Egypt.  If spells have a “wingardium lev-I-O-sa, not lev-i-o-SA” capacity where pronunciation is important, then I think I’m out of luck.

To attempt to mitigate this, I tried for my first spell, a written one (Figure 6), that seems fairly straightforward.  I enlisted the help of a friend from undergrad (and another friend’s hat; see figure 7) and we attempted some oral spells, but spent the most time working on a “Request for a dream oracle.”

Figure 6: The first spell

Figure 7: My friend, Kassie Maxeiner, and I performing oral spells

The spell calls for writing a formula on papyrus (also bought from Amazon; apparently sourced from real Egyptian papyrus trees) and finishing with writing the name of a 30-lettered god in a pyramidal shape (See figures 8-9).  The spell requires that you tell it what you want to have an oracle about.  Since I have recently decided not to pursue a Ph.D, I’m a little bit lost on the future profession front, so I thought I would ask for what job I should go into (I consulted several Greek-friendly people and we agreed on a translation in ancient Greek).

Figures 8-9: The spell written in English on one side and Greek on the other

The final step was to put the spell under my lamp (Figure 10) and hope to have a dream vision of what job I should go into.

Figure 10: The spell under my lamp

Finally, on to whether it worked or not.  I’m slightly concerned, since the spell tells me to “give answer to no one,” that if I say what that clarity might be, the spell will be rendered moot, so I am going to be unnecessarily obtuse to keep with the spirit of the spell.  On the one hand, I do not recall having any dreams that night, or any of the subsequent nights that I had it under my lamp (I rarely remember dreams, if I have them).  On the other hand, I have since then had more clarity on options and possibilities for the future.

Perception and Seeing

Something I like to think about on my own time is the relationship to seeing as a human with eyes, and seeing as a photographer through a lens onto either physical film, or a digital reconstruction of light particles that hit a sensor (working, technically, much like light-sensitive film).  Especially when I was younger and did photography less for fun and more as an exercise because I saw others doing it, I was mad when what I saw through my own eyes was not very well represented by my 1st generation Kodak Easyshare (though my much more modern and expensive camera has generally the same problems).  I later saw this as an opportunity for cool things, but I found myself with the same gut reaction when I was looking through the microscope camera as compared to what I had just seen under the microscope “with my own eyes” (though, obviously, my eyes were aided as they always are, with powerful corrective lenses…oh yeah, and a microscope).  I had not thought that particular annoyance in a while and was interested in why it had happened.

Figure 1: Lichen on redwood that looked much more interesting, in my opinion, through the microscope with the eye than this photographic representation

I play around a lot with focus in my free time as an amature photographer (see figures 2-5 below) to force myself and those viewing my photos to perceive something different (or at least a different way of perceiving the same thing).  The close distances that we were working on with the microscopes was a completely different story, however.  The depth of field was in the millimeters, which made the photographer in me really reevaluate the way that I perceived the object, as well as how I wanted to present the objects in a photograph.

Figures 2-5: The Acropolis, Athens from the Agora with several different depths of field (November 2013)

This abstraction of clarity in the image does not so much distort the the image in my view.  Yes, some things are not as clear in the image, but that lack of clarity either illuminates them to the attention of the viewer or causes the viewer to give them a second look that would not otherwise have been taken.  Alternatively, the objects in focus are that much more brilliant in comparison to what is out of focus and that makes them more interesting as well.  I feel similarly about these objects that are in the nature lab, even if they are brought into a different context.  Yes, they are missing their natural context, but I would argue that when we view living things, we often think about them without their greater context.  If I picture an animal, say a deer, in my head, I might have a vague picture of a forest in the background, but I’ve actually probably seen more deer on the side of the road than I have in forests. The context isn’t unimportant, but focusing in on the animal itself has its own utility as well (and as another example, I’ve seen many amethysts, but I have no idea what their original context is).  Yes, our objects may be so zoomed-in that their whole form is obscured.  But, like the forced focus of the above pictures, this allows us to view the objects in a different way, to mentally focus in on an aspect that would have been overlooked or missed entirely (more likely the latter given my eyesight) while viewing something as a whole.  In other words, something may be lost, but something else is gained as well.

My partner is a Ph.D student at the University of California Berkeley in Molecular Biology (and apparently will feature significantly in these blog posts), and part of her job is removing the brain from a mouse that she is studying and slicing it into extraordinarily small slices (she said, about the thickness of the skin of a grape).  From there, she can see, under a microscope, the ways her treatments or the disease she is studying affects the brain of this mouse. It occurred to me that at such a close distance as we were looking at the various objects in the microscope last week, everything that we perceived resembled these tiny slices of clear reality.  Each photo represented a tiny fraction of clarity and a large degree of distortion because of the alien nature of the microscopic world (i.e. in the above pictures, a flower is easily perceivable as a flower even when thoroughly out of focus; a grasshopper eye is more foreign, and the area around the eye even harder to perceive because of the drying and the materials that lay on the grasshopper when it was trapped).

Figures 6-9: Grasshopper Eye at four different focal points

I was initially very excited at looking at the grasshopper eye using the fancy camera on a track that compiled the photographs using multiple focal lengths and compiling them into a single, in-focus frame, but I was struck at the photos that I did take and how they represented this brain-slice sized frame of perception, and I decided that I liked these more.

I also found that my perception of objects changed drastically between levels of magnification.  At different scales, the objects were more interesting to look at.  The seedpods I looked at (see figures 10-11 below) were hard to see in their out-of-origional-context location in the box where they were stored.  Presumably, if they had been in nature, they would have been even more difficult to find, given that they are less than a centimeter in length.  When looked at with some magnification, they had an entirely different appearance (Figure 10), looking almost insect-like.  When the magnification increased, they changed appearance again (Figure 11), and presumably, at Scanning Electron Microscope levels, they would look completely different to a much greater degree given that their visual structure would be completely changed.

Figure 10: Seedpod

Figure 11: Seedopod

This rather simplistic conclusion led me to think of the context of the objects in different ways.  What if the objects had not been removed from their natural contexts.  The changes of scale could also reflect a greater context.  Or what if the samples had not been dried out?  In particular, a seaweed sample that revealed an interesting straw-like character (Figure 12) might have an entirely separate structure if still filled with the water it grew and lived in.

Figure 12: Seaweed

Our visual perception of objects revolves around so many different contexts that I had not thought about before.  Perhaps something is lost in the removal from one context to the next, but something may also be gained.  The reason RISD has such a collection of objects  and a nature lab is, at least in part, to study and to create art out of the objects in whatever context the artist wants to use the object.  We can bring in live plant samples, liquids, sand, etc. look at them in a different way, and then use that different perspective to create a piece of art in an entirely new context.  To a historian at least, that is part of the artistic process.

My pictures of amethysts up close, just because I think they look like galaxies/nebulas


Figures 13-21. Amethysts


The Queen’s Closet Opened—Not A Lesbian Anthem

The Queen’s Closet Opened is a compendium of “secrets in physick [medicine], chirurgery [surgery], preserving, and candying, etc.” that was supposedly presented to Queen Henrietta Maria (wife of Charles I) and compiled into a book in 1655 (our version is from 1671).  It is not, as many of the people I told of my assignment this weekend, related to the queen coming out.  This phrase ‘out of the closet,’ at least according to Gay New York (Chauncey 1995), has its origins only in the 1960s, so unfortunately, this is not a secret Lesbian anthem from the 1650s.

With that out of the way, The Queen’s Closet Opened is a small book, published by N. Brooke for the specific sale of an individual named Charles Harper whose store(/residence?) was on Fleet Street in London (the description of his location is detailed; no cross-streets, but near a church at the “flower-de-luce”—fleur de lis—presumably a symbol on his store/residence?).  It is especially cool because it has both a table of contents (organized not how we would have with chapters, but by the names of the individuals who donated the recipes and the pages they appear on) and an index of recipes (pictured below).  The book has many recipes on a variety of important things such as several plague cures, breaking up kidney stones, curing ‘melancholy,’ a cure for the “Purples,” a way to “preserve a woman with child from miscarriage and abortion,” and even a recipe for Almond Milk.

Figures 1-4: The Queen’s Closet Opened (clockwise: title page, print of the publisher?, index, table of contents.

The purpose of publication is a little unclear, but the British Library suggests that in the aftermath of the dissolution of the monarchy by Oliver Cromwell, many people were out of a job, and writing/contributing to a book may have been a way to make money, as they were “able to release the secrets hidden in the cabinets of the aristocracy.”  Indeed, the note to the readers (below) seems to suggest that there was interest in what was “above common Repute.”

Figures 5-7: Note to the readers

I thought that I could take this opportunity, given a certain lack in artistic ability, to use the verb ‘replicate’ to approach this work.  Unlike Natural Magick, which had confusing and not always straightforward directions, it seems like there was an attempt to make The Queen’s Closet Opened a work whose recipes could actually be used and replicated by individuals with access to the various ingredients contained in the book (of course, you also had to be able to afford the book itself).  This, I would find, was no simple matter.

I decided it might be fun to make Almond Milk (recipe below), which seemed to make use of a number of ingredients that I was unfamiliar with.  There were three recipes, two of which were easily eliminated because they took several weeks to make.  The last presented an interesting challenge because of particular ingredients, some of which were noted by a name that was either very specific to a certain area in Britain (and presumably unavailable in the US), or very broad (Maidenhair could mean either two types of ferns, two types of berry-bearing shrubs, or a huge number of flowering plants or moss).  Another difficulty was acquiring barley, which I thought would be easy as this weekend I was travelling to Iowa to attend my partner’s cousin’s wedding.  As it turns out, barley is not a crop widely grown in Iowa (mostly soybeans and corn), and none of the grocery stores I went to had any or knew where I could find some.  So much for almond milk.

Figure 8: Almond Milk Recipe

Instead, I decided on a much simpler recipe, the “syrup of Pearmains, good against melancholy.”  Pearmains, a type of apple was not available at the famous Iowa City grocery store Hy Vee, but I was able to substitute for another type of apple.  “Citrons” was a bit harder (did they mean oranges? lemons? What exactly was available to 17th century English upper-class individuals?).  I finally decided on lemons after some cursory research into the use of the word in the 17th century.  The roots and leaves of Borrage were even more difficult; no one I knew in Iowa City (i.e. my partner’s family) had a crop of Borrage and I apparently was supposed to attend the wedding, so my time to search for it was limited.  Eventually I ended up in a local supplement store that had, surprisingly, borrage powder, which the lady at the counter assured me had both the roots and leaves of the plant (making me even less certain about the validity of supplement stores).  Unfortunately, borrage root (or whatever this actually was) is incredibly bitter, and when combined with the other three ingredients (sugar, apples, and lemon), it had a very bitter taste, which was not widely appreciated among my partner’s family (making a good impression!).  That and the realization that the syrup (really more of a bitter applesauce) was a liquid/gel and did not pass the TSA’s regulation for the transport of 17th century medicine made me not want to bring it back to Rhode Island (I decided the taste would not be improved by me putting it into an emptied 3 oz. shampoo container).

Figure 9: Recipe for Pearmain syrup

This study could certainly be translated into a semester-long project (maybe it would take that long to grow some real Borrage—a surprisingly ubiquitous ingredient in the Queen’s Closet Opened) of replication, though I’m not sure what ultimate good this would achieve.  Perhaps more interestingly for me, it would be cool to look into who had access to what ingredients.  Are there records of what plants/ingredients were sold at shops in London in the 17th century?  Could I identify which recipes were full of luxury ingredients and which could be found relatively easily?  Are there records of people actually utilizing the recipes?  Could I find out about who owned our copy and who he was and how much access he had?  I think determining this could lead me to a better sense of whether these recipes were actually as accessible as I thought in the beginning of this post.