[PBP2013] A: Apotropaic Magic

This is the elephant in the room for many Hellenists, and it goes like this:

Goofus: ‘So, yeah, and one more difference between Hellenismos and those filthy Neopagans is we don’t do magic —or “magick”. It’s, like, miasma or something, and we just don’t, cos it’s thus “impure” and threatens the integrity of the One True Hellenismos!’

Gallant: ‘Er…. That’s not exactly true. While most magic, especially anything that was apparently for selfish gains, was certainly a taboo in mainstream Attic culture, as well as other places in ancient Hellas, not only is it impossible to divorce Hekate, one of the most revered Goddesses that Hesiod even said Zeus placed above Himself, from Her status as a Goddess of Magic (it would be like trying to separate Ares from His identity as a God of War), even in The Odyssey, Hermes is described as leading Odysseus specifically to “magical” herbs that were to counter–

Goofus: [hands over ears] ‘LALALALALA!!!! I CAN’T HEAR YOU!!!’

Gallant: ‘And the cult of Kirke?! On the Witch-Islands?! Why are you ignoring this?’

Goofus: ‘CAN YOU HEAR THE DRUMS, FER-NAN-DOOHHHH????’

And indeed, there’s plenty of evidence that apotropaic magic was all over, and well-accepted in ancient Hellas, even Athens. From Hekate, at the crossroads and garden gates, warding off the malevolent spirits, to the heads of Gorgons over the threshold, to the apotropaic eye on drinking vessels, there is no shortage of a clear acceptance of this form of magic in ancient Hellas.

The head of the Gorgon actually predates the Perseus myth by about a century, and the myth may have developed to justify the practise —though whether that means it was intentionally imagined by humans or Divinely inspired by a Muse is certainly a question to reflect on. Similar images go back to the 15th Century BCE, to the Knossos palace on Crete. The Gorgon was put on pediments of temples, and even on breastplates of armour from various local Hellenic armies, clearly with the intent that the image alone could contribute to the protection the building or the wearer as a magic that wards off.

Now, sure, one could argue the technicalities of how the word ‘magic’ was related to the rituals of the ‘magos’, the followers of Zoroaster, and this it’s ‘foreign’ to Hellenic religion, and aren’t you just a clever little monkey? Sure, that would be a great arguement if we were speaking in Attic Greek and the word was ‘magikos’. Unfortunately for that arguement, the language is English and, unlike certain other words I’ve argued against with etymology, ‘magic’ in English has a clear meanings, including ‘supernatural powers’, which is the intent behind the apotropaic imagery and rituals perfectly accepted in even the most austere Hellenic homes of Athens, ‘unsullied’ by ‘foreign influence’ (which, if you think about it, would’ve been pretty hard to find, as Athens was kinda like Greece’s New York City), with the hopes of banishing those who would harm oneself and family and property.

While apotropaic magic certainly wasn’t the only magic to be found in ancient Hellas, it was, for all practical purposes, the only universally accepted magic in Hellas.

About Ruadhán McElroy

Ruadhán has been a traditional Hellenic polytheist for almost a decade, and has also maintained devotions to Eros most of that time. He also paints, makes music, and writes novels set in the Mod Revival subculture of the early 1980s. He also gets a lot of odd little experiences that he jokes will forever render him an insufferable Goth.
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4 Responses to [PBP2013] A: Apotropaic Magic

  1. Elani Temperance says:

    Oh boy, this, so very much this.

    I’ve been meaning to get a post together about this (I’ll probably save it for the ‘M’s) because this specific kind of magick was, indeed, very prevalent throughout ancient Hellas. Does that mean that Hellenismos and modern witchcraft are compatible… not to me, but certain parts of it certainly are.

    Thank you!

    • Oh, indeed! Apotropaic magic was the most widespread and socially acceptable magic; no, that doesn’t make it compatible with modern witchcraft, but magic was certainly there, even before we get to the less mainstream practises.

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