With so much interest in things magical (from card games to Harry Potter) and mystical (from Celtic chants to Zen monastic biographies) I have been surprised that this book is not better known, and yet it remains, despite a prestigious university press pedigree (Princeton University Press) and marketing by one of the powerhouses of publishing (HarperCollins, their HarperSanFrancisco division here) a relatively unknown text. Not perhaps coincidentally, many of the texts contained herein were, for most of Christian history, relatively unknown. Indeed, it is virtually unknown that, in many parts of Christendom, magic was not only tolerated, but expected of the priestly class; miracles, after all, often seem magical events, much to the chagrin of rational theologians who try to explain them metaphorically, symbolically, or any way other than as Houdini-esque happenings.
In particular, the Coptic Christians, who were concentrated mostly in Egypt, spreading (as all Christians were wont to do) throughout the Roman and non-Roman world from a centre not too far from Alexandria, one of the major cities of the world of the time. The Coptics never really died out, but always remained a strange Christian aberration from orthodoxy on the fringes of East and West. The texts contained in `Ancient Christian Magic: Coptic Texts of Ritual Power', by Marvin Meyer and Richard Smith, come from these people.
These texts contain the whole slate of magical utterances -- rites, spells, amulets, curses, recipes. The magical practices contained herein include a spell for protection against headless powers, an invocation to a thundering power to perform every wish (shades of the `Prayer of Jabez' here), an amulet to protect against the mischief of evil spirits, and even an erotic spell for a ma to obtain a male lover (lest we think that modern controversies in the church have no historical bases or parallels).
Lest we think that the magical period of Christianity was only in the remotest of history, this collection includes texts as early as the first century after the time of Jesus to the twelfth century -- more than half the span of Christian history. Almost all texts are from Egypt, centre of the Coptic and Gnostic communities.
The users of these texts, the authors contend, had the same disdain for 'magic' as traditional Christians have for 'magic' today -- magic is usually assumed to be alien, evil, something dark and probably demonic. Yet, these texts were used in much the same way, with an intention rooted in Christianity that somehow would serve to make the practice acceptable, even holy.
Within this text are 135 Coptic texts. They originated in Old Coptic, Greek, and Gnotic texts. This volume combines them in three sections.
Ritual Power in Egypt
These texts come from various sources, manuscripts held in museums all over the world, including the Great Magical Papyrus of Paris, texts from Cairo, Berlin, Cologne, Amsterdam, Florence, and Oslo, and of course, the Nag Hammadi collection.
Other interesting texts in this section spells for seeking vengeance, spells for ascending through the heavens, spells to drive out demons and various amulets and prayers.
Coptic Texts of Ritual Power
Most of these texts are individual constructs; i.e., spells or curses from a particular person to a particular person or need. However, many are templates, with placeholders or blanks to be filled in later. Often these (perhaps a precursor to indulgences later) were for sale. There are spells to help a woman conceive, and spells to help a woman avoid pregnancy. There are several spells and charms to woo a woman; there are several curses directed at barreness and impotence. Life was harsh!
Coptic Handbooks of Ritual Power
This section consists of masters and collections, like the cookbook from Cairo, and the hoards, portfolios and books of spells held at other major museums. `In a world where ritual dominated the resolution of most crises in life, these handbooks seem to have been a prized component of private collections and the mainstay of temple libraries ` Many of these collections were loose-leaf collections, and sometimes short on Christian imagery. `While this neglect of Christian traditions might suggest that the handbooks' owners worked independently from the monasteries, it may also reflect the type of language and symbolism that worked in the villages beyond the monasteries.'
Unlike our sense of magic as being something devious or sneaky, in fact magic has more often intended to be useful and practical. Thus, these rituals were meant to invoke power and meaning into the lives of those using it .
A joy of a book will have a bibliography, an index, and appendices that give further guidance. This book magically has much here to commend it. It does lack an index, which is less critical here than in many texts, but one would hope that a future edition would have one.
The appendix contains previously unpublished Coptic texts from the Beinecke Library at Yale. These are annotated but not translated, so brush up your ancient languages for this one. Thirty pages of textual notes expand the translations in the earlier sections. A good glossary is provided, which is useful for this and other Coptic and Gnostic texts. The bibliography is a gem, and one could devote years to follow-up research based on the hundreds of items contained herein.
The book is not lavishly illustrated, but it does have original drawings, a few photographic representations, and original language sections that enhance the readability. This is a book which is both scholarly and fun, interesting and educational. Mysterious combination, indeed!