Magic, Religion, and Social Stigma

Medea by Frederick Sandys

Magic, Religion, and Social Stigma

By Fiona Green


James Frazer, a visionary classicist and anthropologist, reshaped the academic landscape with his profound insights in the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries (Segal 1). In his book The Golden Bough, Frazer proposed a conception of the distinction between magic and religion. Magic, he argued, was akin to science because it trusted in fundamental laws which governed the world and could be used to one’s advantage if one knew how to manipulate them. A magician uses these laws to compel gods and supernatural beings, whereas religion consists of  “a belief in powers higher than man and an attempt to propitiate or please them” (Frazer 50). Thus, for Frazer, religion consists of submitting to and persuading supernatural beings, while magic centers on controlling them. Although Frazer’s antithesis may be partially valid regarding overall trends in the classical world, it falls short in other ways, primarily by failing to recognize the role of social stigma in differentiating magic and religion.

There is much evidence supporting Frazer’s antithesis by showcasing how magicians did threaten, control, and compel deities in the classical world. In Lucan’s fictional work Pharsalia, the Thessalian witch Erictho is not afraid to compel the supernatural to make her spells work. When resurrecting a dead man for information, she beats the corpse with a snake and threatens various gods including Hecate. She claims Hecate shows herself to Olympus’ gods only after adorning her face and tells the goddess, “I will show you to them and forbid you to alter your hell-face” (Lucan  6.719-830). Although this threat is comically extreme, Lucan uses it to make fun of tropes of witchcraft, including excessive threats to the gods. Still, it should be noted that even among her various compulsions and curses, Erictho tells the gods to “obey my prayer” (Lucan 6.667-719). In this sentence, the very forceful word “obey” is in line with Frazer’s antithesis that magicians force the supernatural to do their bidding, but it is combined with a very religious word, “prayer.” This fusion blurs the lines between the two concepts, adding complexity to the distinction.

A papyrus attraction curse from sixth-century Egypt is also prime evidence for the compulsion of the supernatural that Frazer describes. A man named Theon wrote the curse, attempting to enchant the woman Euphemia into loving him. Within the papyrus, Theon calls upon nekydaimones to bind the woman to him, telling them that “If you ignore me and do not quickly accomplish what I tell you, the sun does not set beneath the earth, and neither Hades nor the universe exist” (Suppl. Mag. 45). This is not submissive language. Theon treats the supernatural with no sense of reverence or deference. He merely threatens and controls them as if they were tools for him to use. This spell very much exhibits the characteristics of magic as Frazer defines it, fitting right in with his description of how magicians interpret the world. It is governed by laws and rules to be utilized, not individuals to be appealed to. Thus, from these examples, we can conclude that Frazer’s antithesis accurately describes and organizes many of the common characteristics of magical spells. However, while this was the typical behavior of classical magicians, Frazer himself acknowledges the existence of various instances which blur these boundaries, illustrating the complexity of categorizing such practices.

Numerous spells exhibit characteristics that Frazer’s antithesis has reserved for religion rather than magic. This can be seen in a lead separation-curse tablet from fifth-century B.C. Macedonia. In this curse tablet, the spell operator (presumably a woman named Philia, although it cannot be known for certain since the name on the tablet is illegible) attempts to separate her beloved Dionysophon from other women, and in particular, a woman named Thetima. The spell operator desires Dionysophon to marry and have eyes for her alone. But, what is most interesting about this spell is how Philia appeals to the demonic agents of her magic. She tells them, “I am a supplicant woman before you. Take pity on <Phil-[?]>a, dear demons” and “I have no friends or family and am all alone” (Voutiras 1998, 8). With these declarations, Philia both recognizes the existence of a power higher than man, the demons, and attempts to please them through supplication. Thus, this spell fulfills Frazer’s criteria for religion. Similarly, Philia appears to see these demons as having their own agency and ability to make decisions. She attempts to persuade them to pity her. There is even a kind of intimacy and vulnerability within this interaction between Philia and the demons which is not characteristic of typical magician behavior as described by Frazer.

In his book, Mystery Religions in the Ancient World, Joscelyn Godwin proposed a definition of magic that differed significantly from Frazer’s. He argued that magic is “the science of affecting the unseen worlds through operations conducted on this one” (22). This definition is significant because Godwin uses it to include the practice of sacrificing under the umbrella of magic. Sacrifice (typically of animals) was a common religious ritual aimed at supplicating, appeasing, and thus winning the favor of a god. Another example that undermines Frazer’s antithesis consists of a fifth-century B.C. curse deposited in the main temple of Oserapis, at Memphis. Within this curse, the woman Artemisie begs for justice to be enacted upon the father of her daughter for denying their daughter a proper burial. She calls out to Oserapis to enact this justice, calling him “master Oserapis” and refers to her curse as a “supplication” as well as “my clamor for help” (PGM XL). These phrases serve to show her deferential attitude towards the supernatural deity. Her curse shows how desperate she is, and calls for aid, rather than commanding or compelling. This example is considered to be a prayer for justice, which by its very description invokes a religious ritual. Yet, it is found along with other spells in the Greek Magical Papyri. Another excerpt in the Greek Magical Papyri retains these religious qualities.  This excerpt contains a Hidden Stele glorifying the god Aion. It includes the characteristics of enchantments, such as voces magicae, “RŌMIDOUĒ AGANASOU ŌTHAUA” (Greek Magical Papyri IV.1115-66), and yet its main purpose appears to be to hail the god: “I glorify you, god of gods” (PGM IV.1115-66). It also excessively flatters Aion by enumerating the many ways in which he is great. By referring to Aion as “god of gods” along with other compliments, the author indirectly supplicates the divine. If the magicians simply wanted to use the divine as a tool, threatening and coercing it, then why would they employ flattery here? Frazer characterizes these examples as rare exceptions, but they are numerous, and, even as exceptions, their existence complicates and foils Frazer’s antithesis.

So, if Frazer’s method for distinguishing between magic and religion is unreliable, what could increase its reliability? Despite addressing what is taboo in other areas of his work, Frazer here fails to fully take into account the element of social stigma. Certain things are perhaps viewed as more magical than religious because of the negative attitudes and stereotypes surrounding them. Going back to an earlier example, the witch Erictho is described as “The impious Thessalian” (Lucan 6.588-624) and as “Dour Erictho” (Lucan 6.624-642) who “shrouded her miserable head in a filthy mist” (Lucan 6.624-642) and spat with “her dread mouth” (Lucan 6.667-719). Even more explicitly, she describes “Elysium, the reward of no Thessalian woman” (Lucan 6.667-719) and Lucan goes out his way to state how “it remains uncertain whether she is able to look upon the Stygian shades by virtue of drawing them up or by virtue of going down herself to them” (Lucan 6.642-667). Through all of these descriptions, Lucan makes it clear that Erictho is somehow wrong. What she is doing is perverse and dark. Like many magic operators, she deals with the dead and the underworld,1 already a very stigmatized topic since dead bodies were seen as unholy in much of pagan Greece and Rome.2 Lucan highlights the violence of Erictho’s spell, as the man she brings back to life lingers in great pain and only longs to be dead again. Her companions watch her in terror. She is explicitly immoral, banned from a pleasant afterlife. Such stigmas are not as directly associated with religion, and thus they could easily play a very large role in why her spellwork is considered spellwork instead of religious practice.

Furthering this argument is the fact that Erictho is a powerful woman. In an essay about the politics of pleasure, Lesley Dean-Jones delves into different conceptions of female sexuality in the classical world. Engaging with Foucault’s discourse on the history of sexuality, she describes how “It was a man’s moral responsibility and to his own ultimate advantage to avoid being dominated by another’s or his own sexual pleasures” (111). Dean-Jones also capitalizes on how “penetration was not disgraceful for a woman, and subjection to another’s desires … was her proper role” (111). From this, one can piece together how the men of classical times resented being dominated, and women were expected to be dominated by men. A domineering and powerful woman, particularly in the sexual realm, goes against both of these societal values. Therefore, these women are innately threatening and taboo. They are surrounded by social stigma and subsequently often associated with witchcraft.

Beyond Erictho, another domineering woman can be seen in Apuleius’ The Golden Ass. The novel’s protagonist, Lucius, is warned by a friend of his mother’s, Byrrhena, about a suspected witch. Byrrhena tells Lucius that he is in danger of Pamphile’s “witchcraft and her vicious seductive ways” (Apuleius 2).  Byrrhena claims that “the moment (Pamphile) sees a nice-looking young man, his attractiveness becomes an obsession for her: she’ll have her eye on him and her heart set on him. She’ll toss her lures in his path, storm his soul, and lock him up for all time in shackles of inexhaustible passion” (Apuleius 2). Pamphile’s witchcraft is linked to her sexual assertiveness. She goes against the classical ideals of femininity described by Dean-Jones; she not only refuses to fulfill the role of “subjection to another’s desires,” but her sexual desires actively dominate both the men she finds attractive and herself. Since Dean-Jones lists it as a man’s “moral responsibility” to avoid being dominated, it is clear why Pamphile is viewed as threatening by a patriarchal society. Thus, much social stigma surrounds her, she is viewed in a negative light, and she is subsequently known to practice witchcraft rather than religion.

Social stigma goes beyond the realms of gender, ties in with culture and race, and is reflected in perceptions of what is magical and what is religious. Daniel Ogden, in his introduction to a chapter on “Alien Sorcerers,” describes how sorcerers in the Greco-Roman literature were often depicted as Near Eastern or Egyptian, and he attributes this to the tendency to “project attributes regarded as bizarre among free Greeks onto alien peoples” (33). Indeed, in 55 B.C., Catullus wrote in Latin of the Persian mages. He describes how they are born from “the unspeakable union” and that “a mage should be born from mother and son (if there is any truth in the impious religion of the Persians)” (Catullus 90). The subject matter Catullus chooses to address, as well as his word choice of “impious,” and “unspeakable” reveal an attitude of “othering,” of viewing these foreigners as bizarre, and extenuating their oddness. Even when their depiction is not explicitly negative, Greco-Roman authors take pains to emphasize foreigners’ differences rather than similarities. They depict them as strange and exotic. This can be seen in The Golden Ass when Apuleius shares an anecdote of an Egyptian seer bringing a dead man temporarily back to life. The seer is described as wearing “a linen robe, and slippers made from palm leaves” (Apuleius 2). Also, “his head was shaved to a gleam” and he only agreed to cast the spell “for a substantial consideration” (Apuleius 2). By including these details about the Egyptian seer’s appearance and dress, Apuleius emphasizes how different and mystical he appears compared to the natives around him. Apuleius makes it clear how “other” he is. There is also a subtle moral judgment cast upon the seer through the detail that he is paid a large sum of money. He furthers this moral judgment when the seer later gets angry at the resurrected corpse, bullying and threatening him.3

Although Frazer’s antithesis encapsulates general characteristics and trends of many spells, it falls short by the many exceptions to its established rule, and by failing to take into account the massive role of social stigma in determining whether something is considered magical or religious. So then, what is the true distinction between magic and religion? By exploring the major factor of social stigma in determining how each is categorized, it can be surmised that perhaps there is no definite distinction between the two. There are only attitudes imposed by society that cause them to be viewed differently.


Fiona Green is a senior English major and Ancient Greek and Roman Studies minor at the University of California Berkeley.



1. Chthonic deities and beings were very often involved in spell work. Curse tablets would usually be deposited in graves or underwater (within the earth therefore close to the underworld.) Chthonic deities and nekydaimons would often be called upon as agents, the beings that would make the spell work.

2. For this reason, dead bodies were often buried outside the city limits as opposed to the Christian tradition of burying their dead near a church. Having the dead lie in or near a place of worship would have been viewed as a kind of desecration and frowned upon by pagan Greeks and Romans.

3. This connects to how social stigma also surrounds moral judgements. When magicians conjure dead people, curse others, or force someone to love them, they are often doing morally questionable things. Thus, people who practice such things are more likely to be deemed practitioners of magic over religion.


Works Cited

Frazer, James George. The Golden Bough: a Study in Magic and Religion by Sir James George Frazer. Abridged ed. New York: Macmillan, 1949.

Dean-Jones, Lesley. “The Politics of Pleasure: Female sexual appetite in the Hippocratic Corpus,” in Women in the Classical World : Critical Concepts in Classical Studies, Sharon L. James and Sheila Dillon, editors. New York: Routledge, 2017.

Cohen, David. “Seclusion, Separation, and the Status of Women in Classical Athens,” in Women in the Classical World : Critical Concepts in Classical Studies, Sharon L. James and Sheila Dillon, editors. New York: Routledge, 2017.

Isaac, Benjamin. “Conclusions to Part 2.” In The Invention of Racism in Classical Antiquity, 492–501. Princeton: Princeton University Press, 2013.

Beard, Mary. “The Classic Woman – What was life like for women in Greece and Rome.” History Today 43 (1993): 29–35.

Godwin, Joscelyn. Mystery Religions in the Ancient World. 1st U.S. ed. San Francisco: Harper & Row, 1981.

Bowden, Hugh. Mystery Cults of the Ancient World. Princeton: Princeton University Press, 2010.

Segal, Robert. “Sir James George Frazer.” Oxford Bibliographies (2018), 1.

The Greek Magical Papyri in Translation: Including the demotic spells. Hans Dieter Betz, editor. Chicago & London: The University of Chicago Press, 1997.

Apuleius. The Golden Ass. Translated by Sarah Ruden. New Haven and London: Yale University Press, 2011.

Ogden, Daniel. Magic, Witchcraft, and Ghosts in the Greek and Roman Worlds. Second Edition. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2009.

Lucan. Pharsalia 6. 588-830. Translated by Daniel Ogden. Selection 155 of Magic, Witchcraft, and Ghosts in the Greek and Roman Worlds. Second Edition. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2009.

Suppl. Mag. 45. Translated by Daniel Ogden. Selection 207 of Magic, Witchcraft, and Ghosts in the Greek and Roman Worlds. Second Edition. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2009.

Voutiras 1998 8. Translated by Daniel Ogden. Selection 197 of Magic, Witchcraft, and Ghosts in the Greek and Roman Worlds. Second Edition. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2009.

Greek Magical Papyri XL. Translated by Daniel Ogden. Selection 190 of Magic, Witchcraft, and Ghosts in the Greek and Roman Worlds. Second Edition. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2009.

Catullus. 90. Translated by Daniel Ogden. Selection 38 of Magic, Witchcraft, and Ghosts in the Greek and Roman Worlds. Second Edition. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2009.