Roman Magic
by: M. Horatius Piscinus
Here are some examples of magical practices that were accepted by the Romans. You will run into them occasionally. I will begin with the one spell given by Cato in De Agricultura CLX

Luxum ut ex canles: To cure a dislocation by a charm. If any joint is dislocated it will be made well by this incantation. Take a green reed four or five feet long, split it in half and let two men hold the halves at their hips. Begin to sing a charm: MOTAS VAETA DARIES DARDARES ASTATARIES DISSUNA PITER until the halves come together. Keep brandishing a sword over them. When they have come together and one half-reed touches the other, seize them in the hand and cut them off to the right and left, bind them on the dislocation or fracture and it will be cured. However, go through the form of incantation daily over the man who has suffered the dislocation. Or use this form: HUAT, HAUT, HAUT, ISTASIS TARSIS ARDANNABOU DANNAUSTRA.

This last incantation seems to be archaic Latin and may have been HUAT HAUAT HUAT ISTA PISTA SISTA DAMNABO DAMNA USTRA, or in Classical Latin AVET AVET AVET ISTA PESTIS SISTAT DAMNABO DAMNA VESTRA, meaning "I pray, pray, pray, may this trouble cease; I will harm what harms you"

The person who studies the art of magic and other occult arts was mostly called a magus (when he studies and practiced magic). A magus could summon Gods, Daemons, Heroes, souls, if they were eager to help or serve the magus by means of his magical knowledge, technique and experience. When he summoned daemons, heroes and souls- he could either help, heal, destroy and/ or kill. One of the important concept in magic is sympathy. Not compassion but cosmic sympathy as it means action and reaction in the universe. Even Wiccans know this that when magic is used to create an action, one might always suspect that there will be a reaction coming your way. So the magi protects himself from this reaction. Just as the microcosm reflects and reacts to the macrcosm because both influence one another and share a deep affinity. This was held with variations by pythagoreans, Stoics and Platonists. Another example of sympathy is being described by Tacitus upon the death of the popular emperor Germanicus under mysterious circumstances. When the people found out that magic wasn't excluded as a possible answer to the mysterious death, the people went to the temples, and kicked out the statues of the gods to let their Gods know their pain and to react on it. According to George Luck, this is still done today by Italian fishermen. Theurgy as it was described by Iamblichus in his work "On the mysteries of Egypt" as it means "higher magic". He defines it as a activity surpassing the understanding of man , an activity based on the use of silent symbols that are fully known only to the gods but isn't quite understood by the higher magus or theurgist. In fact the Theurgist uses the cosmic sympathy to work through him and allow him to work. The secret lies is "power through sympathy" and "sympathy through power" as G. Luck says. In fact he gives us 4 different positions on the relationship between magic and religion that were argued.

1) Magic becomes religion
2) Religion tries to reconcile personal powers where magic has failed to do so.
3) Magic and religion have common roots.
4) Magic is a degenerate form of religion.

There is a difference between the magi and a religious person. When a religious pray for something and thank the deity in question later on, he does this in a somewhat submissive manner while the magi can do this as well but sometimes he uses threats to compel the Gods to do his bidding. This isn't always the case. The magi can be like the religious person and be submissive and grateful towards his Gods. The difference between the two lies in how they approach their Gods. One does is through prayers and rituals (which is also kind of magic) to strengthen his request while the magi uses magic to put strength behind his request he wants to make to his Gods. Although there are 4 different fundamental positions mentioned by George Luck in Arcana Mundi, which I did mention here, one thing is certain and I agree with the author that the roots of magic lie in prehistoric times and will survive any religion and civilisation under one form or another. This I'm certain of. I think what I said here also applies to the Hellenic religion concerning magic.

One reason I posted Cato's spell is to illustrate that it does not have the character of the kind of magic employed by magi or theurgists, nor does it admit to a subserviance that Orcus has posed of religious prayers. Roman prayers are described as contractual because they are often not submissive at all. As part of the contract, too, there is in Roman practice what Orcus mentions, that men could punish gods for not fulfilling their end of the bargain. Approach, as Orcus says, can be used to distinguish between magic and religions, but I do not think Roman practice would fit either definition that he gave, or that George Luck provides.

The first part of Cato's spell uses sympathetic magic, a kind sometimes referred to as natural magic. It does not use symbols, or correspondences in the manner used in theurgy. He mimics an action he hopes will be duplicated in something else; that is, he acts with the natural properties of the reeds in order to effect an action on the injured body.

Cato's prayer or incantation, carmen can mean either, is not a submissive prayer, since it threatens to do harm to whatever is causing the injury, and includes a statement of will, his will for the body to heal, rather than calling upon any god or daemon to effect a cure. There is implied that some supernatural agent is at work, that caused the injury and could heal it, which he threatens. There is implied that he can do harm to whatever the agent of injury is, and that he can do so through a magical power of words. Since the prayer contains an either/or condition, heal or be harmed, it may be said to be contractual. Yet it is not the typical sort of prayer we normally see in the Religio Romana. The implied agent here is probably a lemur, or one of the evil manes; that is, the spirit of a deceased person who delights in mischief by harming others. Cato does not call on some higher daemon or deity to compel the agent of injury, or the lemur, to reverse the harm it has caused, as a magi would. Instead he deals directly with the lemur, in the same way that Ovid describes the rite of Lemuria when he makes an offering to the Manes but also orders them to leave. Cato's prayer does not fall under the kind of rites performed to celestial deities as in the cultus civile. But it does fall into a category of practices in the Religio Romana that deal with the Manes, primarily in the culti geniale, and so there is a religious element in Cato's spell. But the salient feature is Cato's willing the leg to heal. He does not ask. He does not leave it to the gods to decide. He acts in a magical way to affect a natural process.

One place where practice in the cultus civile may be considered magical in nature is with all the tabus placed upon the flamen Dialis, as recorded by Aulus Gellius in Attic Nights X.15.1-25. One of those tabus was that "the nail parings of the Dialis and his hair trimmings are buried in earth under a fruitful tree." Elsewhere there is mention of a distinction being made between "fruitful" trees and other trees considered to be evil or cursed. Certain trees were regarded as protective, purifying, or beneficial. The whitethorn was carried in bridal processions as one means to protect the bride from the evil eye of onlookers, and was also hung over the lintel of the grooms house as a means of guarding his house from evil influences. The "Sabine herb" mentioned in marriages rites and purifications was the variety of juniper. Pliny said that its odor, when burned or rubbed on the skin, would repel the approach of serpents (Hist. Nat. 24.36) which is also mentioned by Virgil (Geor. 3.414) Certain religious articles were required to be made from specific trees. The fetiales carried spears made of cornel (Livy I.32.6-14). The fasces were made of elm (Plautus Asinaria 262-4). The lituus of augures was made of a single tree branch, without knots, and having a natural curl, taken from a "fruitful" tree. What were these "fruitful" trees is mentioned by Veranius, Ex Pontificalum Quaestionum Libris, quoted by Macrobius. "The beneficial trees (felices arbores) are thought to be the oak, the forest oak, holm oak, cork tree, beech tree, hazel, service berry tree, white fig, pear tree, apple tree, the vine, the plum tree, cornel (red dogwood), cherry tree, and the Italian lotus (Sat. 3.20.2)." Other trees also bore fruit, were considered beneficial, and had medicinal, protective, or other magical properties, such as the elder and rowan, but were not, in the context of the Religio Romana, especially with the cultus civile, regarded to be among the "fruitful" trees.

Why particular varieties of trees held significance is described by Pliny the Elder. "Trees were the templa of the gods, and, following ancient established rituals, country places even now dedicate an outstandingly tall tree to a god. Even images of shining gold and ivory are worshipped less by us than forests and their silence. Different types of trees are dedicated to their own deities and these relationships are kept for all time. For example, the Italian holm oak is sacred to Jupiter, the laurel to Apollo, the olive to Minerva, the myrtle to Venus, and the poplar to Hercules. We also believe that the Silvani and Fauni and various goddesses are, as it were, assigned to forests by heaven (Hist. Nat. 12.3)."

Thus there is the idea that trees can hold the numina of a specific god, depending on the kind of tree, or that they are inhabited by or protected by certain di inferi. By bringing parts of these trees into one's house or ritual you also bring the influence of the deity. Rustic shrines we are told had rough cut wooden images of gods, or simply smooth planks, for the same reason. By templum Pliny does not mean an edifice or house of a god, but a holy item associated with a god. By bringing the wood of a particular tree into your shrine you also brought the numen of that deity, whereby a connection was made to the deity himself. In addition to trees, herbs and certain stones were considered in the same way, associated with specific deities and offering certain magical properties. Pliny the Elder is a treasure trove of such associations. Although you might argue, as I have done in the past, that there is some differences to be drawn, this conception of the properties of trees is very close to Hermetic correspondences, and the manner in which they were employed in the Religio Romana would have to be regarded as magical in nature.

A binding spell generally refers to a kind of love spell, binding another person to you. There is another type of binding spell that inhibits a person from taking certain actions or speaking, but from its nature it is used referred to as a curse or defixio.

The supernatural agents generally used in Roman magic would be the Manes and Di inferi. In later periods, that is, during the imperial era, numina were directly callled upon almost as though they we separate entities so that they might appear to be a supernatural agent in their own right. But a numen is always a power extending from a god or goddess. In Cato's case, there is an assumption that ills are caused by the action of some supernatural being. Plague, in Livy's record, is always viewed as a divine punishment. Illness of an individual, or with Cato an injury, some lesser supernatural being is usually thought to be the cause. This has to do with a bigger question I suppose, "Why do bad things happen to good people?" The Romans most often thought such things happened by the action of wicked individuals, either living or dead. Defixiones call upon the deceased to act in a vengeful manner. Brides are covered with protective amulets to prevent the jealous eyes of others to do her harm. Then too is the provision of the XIITabulae against harmful witchcraft. Some actions that could not be attributed to any living person were believed to be the work of the larvae who were simply evil spirited ghosts, but ghosts nontheless. Most, if not all really, magical practices of the Romans is in the nature of protection against evil magic, or in healing which can be viewed as protective magic as well. Elsewhere there is some love magic found, employing natural charms, but most spells of that nature are foreign introductions.

With the Romans the supernatural is populated with greater and lesser gods and goddesses of the heavens, the greater and lesser gods and goddesses of the earth called the Di inferi, then the semi-divine creatures of the earth like the fauni and silvani, and there are the spirits of the dead, the Manes, who may be placed into different categories. There are no other supernatural agents recognized by the Romani.

Here are a few thoughts and observations on the legality of magic in the Roman world. This doesn't address just what was and wasn't magic to the Roman legal mind, in some ways they never answered the question themselves. Regarding the legality of magic however, the Romans expressed a distrust of magical rites. The Twelve Tables of the early republic outlawed most, if not all magical practices and made them a capital offense. While these tables are fragmentary, the table on crimes, Table VII (?) and the table on public laws, Table IX contain the seminal laws that influenced later rulings.

During the period of the late republic, the Senate pronounced several senatusconsulta banning or expelling non-Roman cults thought to employ magical rites. Livy gives a detailed account of the suppression of the Bacchic cult in 186 BC in book XXXIX of his History. Valerius Maximus (1.3) records the expulsion of magi – astrologers 139 BC. Other measures passed include one in 33 BC by Octavian and Agrippa banning magicians and astrologers (from Dio Cassius 49.43).

Traditionally, Romans were supposed to scorn such arts and not resort to them. Cato writes in his text De Agricultura that the owner of a farm should not bother consulting magicians and astrologers (I.5). The fact that he feels he needs to include this passage might indicate that many of Cato’s fellow farmers did consult such practitioners.

As Dictator, Sulla expanded the scope of the Twelve Tables with his Lex Cornelia de Sicariis et Veneficis in 82 BC. This measure apparently clarified and added to earlier measures that addressed homicide. A section of this law reiterated and expanded the definition of poison, which it formally outlawed. Poison was in some ways thought to be associated with magic. It also outlawed the use of charms and probably binding magic – defixiones.

During the Imperial period, there were a series of laws and imperial edicts issued by emperors that built upon the previous legal documents. In 16 AD, according to Suetonius, the Senate at the instigation of Tiberius voted to expel astrologers, sorcerers and diviners. In 69 AD both Vitellius and Vespasian pronounced edicts banning astrology and other arts (Tacitus 2.62 and Dio Cassius 65.4 (?)). Domitian also repeated this measure (Suetonius). Later, Diocletian enacted an empire-wide ban on magical practices in 296. The fact that these same laws were repeatedly enacted demonstrates the futility of the efforts to stop the practice of magic.

Legal pronouncements on the subject appear in later collections of Roman law. Justinian’s Codex records a pronouncement from Constantius II to his Caesar Julian in 357 concerning the matter of magic of all kinds (IX.xviii.5). Constantius forbade all uses and applications of it under penalty of death. The Jurist Julius Paulus discussed the use of magic and perhaps gives the most complete answer preserved of the penalties for using outlawed magic:

"Whoever performs or commissions unlawful nocturnal rites, in order to cast a spell, to curse or to bind someone, will be crucified or thrown to the beasts… It is the prevailing legal opinion that participants in the magical art should be subject to the extreme punishment, that is, thrown to the beasts or crucified. But the magicians themselves should be burned alive. It is not permitted for anyone to have in his possession books of the magical art. If they are found in anyone’s possession, after his property has been expropriated and the books burned publicly, he is to be deported to an island or, if he is of the lower class, beheaded (XXI.1-4)."

Paulus’s works date from the late 2nd or early 3rd century. His pronouncements, while harsh seem to be worded to allow some room for practitioners of “legitimate” magic, whatever that might be, freedom from the laws of the time. This might reflect a series of pronouncements stemming from the Jurist Ulpian (?) who reasoned that the study of magic should not be a punishable offence, however the practice of it should be. This thread is also found in some passages of the Codex (IX.xviii.2). As time passed the rulings against magic grew stronger, more harsh and more inclusive so that by the time of Justinian, most all the arts or practices that might be construed as magic were completely outlawed in practice and in theory.

Authors like Suetonius, Tacitus, Dio Cassius and Ammianus Marcellinus record various instances where members of the Roman nobility were accused and tried on charges of using or commissioning magical rites. These were often astrological forecasts or defixiones. Ammianus wrote of an attempt by several officers to determine who would succeed the emperor Valens and the savage response of the emperor when he discovered the results (Ammianus 29.1-17). It is also interesting to note that most of the archaeological evidence of magic in the Graeco-Roman world such as spell books, votives, tablets etc. come from the third to fifth centuries. Magic survived in some respects and even flourished despite the attempts to eliminate it.

From M. Terentius Varro Reatinus

Rerum Rusticarum de Agricultura I 2.27

If your feet hurt: "I think of you; heal my feet. May Terra restrain plague. May this health remain in my feet." Nine times must you recite this (charm), touching the earth, and then spit on the ground. This must be recited in due seriousness.


And for the season, a few defixiones

Appel no. 53: Against bath house thieves:

Proserpina, Goddess who is called Atacina in Turibrigia, through your majesty I ask, I pray, I implore that you vindicate me of each and every theft that is made against me, whosoever has altered my life, violated me, lessened me by taking these things that I have listed below: six tunics, "two cloaks, on of these being of Indian linen "I do not know (who took them). May you call down upon him the worst possible death.

Dea Atacina Turibrig(ensis) Proserpina, per tuam maiestatem te rogo oro obsecro, uti vindices, quot mihi furti factum est; quisquis mihi imudavit involavit minusve fecti eas [res], q(wae) i(nfra) s(criptae): tunicas VI "[pa]enula lintea II, in[dus]ium cuius I c v "m ignoro ia " [eum tu pessimo leto adficias (vel simile quid)].

Appel no, 54:
This I put before Your numen, I hand over to You, I consecrate to You, I sacrifice to You this ravenous wolf, this pimp who is called Caucadius, who is the son of Salusties, a bastard of Venus by a whore of Venus, in order that You, raging hot Water, with You Nymphs, who I call upon with whatever name You wish to be addressed, that You may destroy him, You may kill him within a year's time.

Letinium Lupum qui et vocatur Caucadio, qui est fi[lius] Salusti[es Vene]ries sive Ven[e]rioses, hunc ego put vostrum numen demando devoveo desacrifico, uti vos Aquae ferventes, siv[e v]os Nimfas [si]ve quo alio nomine voltis adpe[l]lari, uti vos eum interematis interficiatis intra annum itsum.

Appel no. 59:
I pray to You who reigns over the infernal regions, to You I commend Julia Faustilla, daughter of Marius, that You may quickly carry her off, abduct her to the nether regions and there may You count her among the spirits of the dead.

Te rogo, qui infernales partes tenes, commendo tibi Iulia Faustilla, Marii filia, ut eam celerius abducas et ibi in numeru tu abias .

Appel no. 56:
Gods of this Earth, to you I commend, if anyone (else) would propose holy rites or seek bonds of marriage with dearest Ticene, no matter what he may propose, may you put an end to all he says. Gods of this Earth, to you I commend these limbs, her complexion, her figure, head, and hair, her shadow, brain, brow, eye lashes, mouth, nose, chin, cheeks, lips, her speech, her breath, her neck, her sense of humor, shoulders, heart, lungs, intestines, stomach, arms, fingers, hands, navel, viscera, female organs, blood, ankles, the top of her feet, down to her toes. Gods of this Earth, if these I see begin to waste away, then a sacrifice I'll gladly make on the anniversary to you gods of our fathers 'may you waste (her) property.

Di iferi, vobis, comedo, si quiccua sactitates hebetes ac tadro Ticene Carisi, quodquod agat quod imcidant omnia in adversa. Dii inferi, vobis comedo ilius memra, colore figura caput capilla umbra cerebru frute supercilia os nasu mentu bucas labra verbr alitu colu iocur umeros cor fulmones intestinas ventre bracia dititos manus ubblicu visica femena genua crura talos planta titidos. Dii iferi, si vider tabescente, vobis sactu ilud libens ob anuversariu facere dibus parentibus ilius ?ta peculiu tabescas.

But if you're into magical healing there is Marcellus Empiricus

De Medicamentis

Neither blood nor bile the ant has, chase (him) away from these ovaries, (that) the cancer will not consume you.

Formica sanguinem non habet nec fel, fuge uva, ne cancer te comedat.

(To cure a sore throat)

Come forth! Today Daughter, the One before the Daughter
Today created, before she was created,
This sickness, this disease,
This pain, this swelling, this redness,
This goiter, these tonsils,
This tumor, these little tumors,
This swelling gland, these swelling little glands,
With pious rite I call out, I summon; I entice with songs that You come forth
From these limbs, from these bones, (from this body).


36.70 Chase away, chase away, gout and all the pains of the sinews from my feet and from all my limbs.

Fuge, fuge, podagra et omnis nervorum dolor, de pedibus meis et omnibus membris meis.
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