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Naming the Witch: Magic, Ideology, and Stereotype in the Ancient World

Kimberly B. Stratton
Copyright Date: 2007
Pages: 312
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  • Book Info
    Naming the Witch
    Book Description:

    Kimberly B. Stratton investigates the cultural and ideological motivations behind early imaginings of the magician, the sorceress, and the witch in the ancient world. Accusations of magic could carry the death penalty or, at the very least, marginalize the person or group they targeted. But Stratton moves beyond the popular view of these accusations as mere slander. In her view, representations and accusations of sorcery mirror the complex struggle of ancient societies to define authority, legitimacy, and Otherness.

    Stratton argues that the concept "magic" first emerged as a discourse in ancient Athens where it operated part and parcel of the struggle to define Greek identity in opposition to the uncivilized "barbarian" following the Persian Wars. The idea of magic then spread throughout the Hellenized world and Rome, reflecting and adapting to political forces, values, and social concerns in each society. Stratton considers the portrayal of witches and magicians in the literature of four related periods and cultures: classical Athens, early imperial Rome, pre-Constantine Christianity, and rabbinic Judaism. She compares patterns in their representations of magic and analyzes the relationship between these stereotypes and the social factors that shaped them.

    Stratton's comparative approach illuminates the degree to which magic was (and still is) a cultural construct that depended upon and reflected particular social contexts. Unlike most previous studies of magic, which treated the classical world separately from antique Judaism, Naming the Witch highlights the degree to which these ancient cultures shared ideas about power and legitimate authority, even while constructing and deploying those ideas in different ways. The book also interrogates the common association of women with magic, denaturalizing the gendered stereotype in the process. Drawing on Michel Foucault's notion of discourse as well as the work of other contemporary theorists, such as Homi K. Bhabha and Bruce Lincoln, Stratton's bewitching study presents a more nuanced, ideologically sensitive approach to understanding the witch in Western history.

    eISBN: 978-0-231-51096-7
    Subjects: Religion, History

Table of Contents

  1. Front Matter
    (pp. i-vi)
  2. Table of Contents
    (pp. vii-viii)
    (pp. ix-xii)
    (pp. xiii-xvi)
    (pp. xvii-xx)
  6. one Magic, Discourse, and Ideology
    (pp. 1-38)

    In their nocturnal howling, conjuring chaos around a cauldron, the three weird sisters encountered by Macbeth exemplify a type recognizable to almost everyone. Their strange countenances and vile activity connote witchcraft or magic in the Western imagination, where disheveled old women, diabolical cooking, and mischievous manipulation of the human will constitute attributes of magic. But where did this portrait come from, and has it always existed?

    This book illuminates the emergence of powerful and enduring stereotypes in Western cultural history: namely, the magician and witch. It argues that these stereotypes were constructed over several centuries through repeated representation and coincide...

  7. two Barbarians, Magic, and Construction of the Other in Athens
    (pp. 39-70)

    Our brief review of ancient terminology in the last chapter suggested that the fifth century in Greece constituted a watershed in the emergence of magic as a discursive formation. This historical period was punctuated by two defining wars (with Persia and later between Athens and Sparta), the development of democracy as a form of government, and the rise and fall of Athens as an imperial power. In the context of emergent democracy and imperial prosperity, definitions of citizenship also became pressing, forcing new citizenship legislation into effect and limiting enfranchisement to men who could demonstrate two Athenian parents—mother as...

  8. three MASCULA LIBIDO: Women, Sex, and Magic in Roman Rhetoric and Ideology
    (pp. 71-106)

    Cavorting in cemeteries, committing infanticide, transforming former lovers into beavers, or themselves into predatory birds, animating the dead and stealing their body parts for use in necromantic rituals—these are merely some of the practices attributed to sorceresses in Roman literature. As the list suggests, women’s magic in Roman imagination evolved beyond the dangerous yet largely defensive pharmakeia employed by women in Athenian literature. It became grotesque, predatory, and cruel. In this chapter I consider the factors that contributed to shaping the Roman deployment of magic discourse, arguing once again for local contributing factors rather than universal patterns.

    In the...

  9. four MY MIRACLE, YOUR MAGIC: Heresy, Authority, and Early Christianities
    (pp. 107-142)

    Beginning with this account of Simon from the Acts of the Apostles, magic functions in Christian writings as the discourse of alterity par excellence.¹ From its earliest appearance in the New Testament until the witch hunts of the early modern era, magic has been equated with demonic power and Satan. Charged in this way by the dualism of Christian cosmological thinking, magic discourse has been enlisted to demonize virtually any and all opponents of Christian “truth.” Early in Christian history the accusation of magic was used to undermine the ancient and venerated cults of Greece and Rome. Simultaneously, magic discourse...

  10. five CAUTION IN THE KOSHER KITCHEN: Magic, Identity, and Authority in Rabbinic Literature
    (pp. 143-176)

    The previous three chapters trace the operation of magic discourse from classical Athens, where it emerged part and parcel of the discourse of barbarianism, through lurid portrayals of libidinous women in Roman literature and its use as a trumped-up accusation in imperial politics, to magic’s appearance in early Christian polemic, where it served as a foil for the claim to legitimacy and authority. Magic, however, was not universally regarded as negative and could sometimes operate in positive ways to signify divine power and special knowledge or ritual technology. Such was the case of the Babylonian Talmud.

    The distinguishing feature of...

  11. EPILOGUE: Some Thoughts on Gender, Magic, and Stereotyping
    (pp. 177-180)

    This book has examined the development of magic as a discourse of alterity in the ancient Mediterranean. While, to a certain extent, stereotypes of the magician and witch crossed social boundaries in the ancient world, the specific details of a community’s magic representations emerged out of and reflected local factors and concerns. For this reason, magic discourse varied from period to period and location to location, evolving and adapting to the ideological exigencies of each situation. As a constellation of terms and ideas designating Otherness, illegitimacy, and danger, magic constituted a key element in the construction of notions about legitimate...

  12. NOTES
    (pp. 181-246)
    (pp. 247-276)
  14. INDEX
    (pp. 277-290)
  15. Back Matter
    (pp. 291-291)