Ancient Magic: A Practitioner's Guide to the Supernatural in Greece and Rome
Philip Matyszak
Thames & Hudson
208pp, 82 illustrations
Hardback, £14.95

Magic is in the air and it's not just thanks to JK Rowling and Philip Pullman. With recent exhibitions on amulets and witchcraft at the Ashmolean, and Smoke and Mirrors, which examines the relationship between magic and psychology, set to open at the Wellcome Collection on 11 April, it is as well to brush up on your spells, omens and oracles – and this compact volume will help you do so.

Dr Philip Matyszak has written many books on ancient history and also one on Greek and Roman myths, so he is well placed to show us how, in the past, casting curses and concocting love potions were an integral part of everyday life. And that is his point: with the constant threat of intervention by capricious gods and goddesses, people interpreted unusual or unexplained natural phenomena as having supernatural significance. Weather, especially thunder or lightning, the sight of a comet or an eclipse, the appearance of birds or beasts, of ill or good omen, could signify a battle to be won or lost. Augury was a skill in which even the great statesman Cicero was qualified.

There were many different ways to divine the future: you could consult an oracle, seer, or soothsayer. Dreams (which Cicero called 'wild magic') and visions were viewed as prophetic, but to summon magical power or protection you had to invoke the gods or talk to the dead or, a safer bet, engage the services of a sorcerer or necromancer. The role of magic was to ward off curses or catastrophe, to control or destroy enemies, and to heal the damage inflicted on the victim by gods, or other supernatural agency, man or Nature.

Lindsay Fulcher

 

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