Wisniewski (2015 Congress)

Brett Lawrence Wisniewski
(New York University)
Voces Magicae in Greek Magical Papyri:  Performance, Literacy, and Authority”

Abstract of Paper intended to be presented at the 2015 International Congress on Medieval Studies
Session on “Magic Sung, Spoken, Inscribed, and Printed”
Sponsored by the Research Group on Manuscript Evidence and the Societas Magica
Organized by Frank Klaassen (University of Saskatchewan)

2015 Congress Events Announced and 2015 Congress Events Accomplished

[Published on 30 March 2015 with update on 22 May 2015; the speaker did not attend the session and did not deliver his paper]

Voces magicae or mysticae are strings of letters representing words or terms found in the corpus of Greek Magical Papyri and curse tablets (defixiones) of the ancient Mediterranean.  While these words make up considerable portions of some spell recipes and curse tablets (especially ones dated from the first century CE onwards), they are not examples of ordinary language, and bear only passing resemblance to Greek, Latin, Hebrew, Egyptian or other languages of the time.  While it is certain that the ancients believed that language had pragmatic affects on reality, and that they recognized certain foreign or obscure languages as being especially powerful, there was among ancient scholars (and there remains among modern scholars) doubt as to the use and origins of such words.

The unintelligibility of these words may have had several benefits.  Their obscurity would have lent an air of authority to the ritual expert in the event that there were spectators for the ritual, and foreign sounds of the words would have bestowed upon the practitioner an air of literacy beyond the local.  A client would be left to assume that this special knowledge was the domain of the ritual expert alone.  Another way of understanding the use of voces magicae was that they represent a language of the gods or otherworldly beings that serve as agents to the ritual expert, and that those involved would see the unintelligible language as being something communicating with beings more powerful than humans.

One notion that has not been commonly explored by scholars is the connection between voces mysitcae and glossolalia.  I will contend that it is possible that voces mysticae, in addition to the above stated uses, may have arose from spontaneous production of speech during a trace state.  While specific knowledge of trance states among the ancients is not easy to pin down, examples such as the Pythia of Apollo at Delphi, the vocalizations of Cassandra as represented by Aeschylus, and most importantly the act of speaking in tongues as attested by Paul of Tarsus will go some way to understanding that voces mysticae may have been produced, or meant to induce, a frame of mind special to the ritual experts who employed them.  My paper will explore the ancient evidence as well as some examples from modern practice and theories of modern scholars.


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