Magic and Medicine in the Ancient World

Interactions, Convergences and divergences in a Complicated Romance

International Conference, Vitoria-Gasteiz, September 18-19, 2019

In Antiquity, as is still very much the case today, illness and disease could trigger a personal crisis in which a range of emotions from uncertainty and restlessness to hope played a leading role. Given that in such situations plagued with anxiety no one remedy was often enough to put the ill at ease, the suffering often took recourse to all available resources, both terrestrial and supernatural, in order to obtain a longed-for cure. Accordingly, in many times and places medicine has gone hand in hand with magical-religious practices. Indeed, since the effectiveness of medical and therapeutical remedies were largely seen to depend on the favorable intervention of a deity, these two types of procedures were thought to work in tandem to bring about a patient’s recovery.

If medicine is a discipline that seeks to restore an individual’s health through empirical observation and the application of therapeutic remedies, magic purports to influence a patient by supernatural means. Both medicine and magic attempt to act upon the body, where these two forces can either cooperate or, alternatively, vie with one another. Therefore, while magical-religious practices could certainly work in conjunction with medical treatments to cure the body through the use of amulets or apotropaic objects, it is equally true that those same practices could be used to attack the body, bombarding it with all sorts of spells and curses.

The ways in which medicine and magical-religious practices were perceived to work together during Antiquity undoubtedly vary depending on the specific historical and cultural context. In Assyria, Babylonia and Egypt, arcane medical practices, for instance, are characterized by the equally important role played by medical and magical-religious practices. This helps explain why preserved recipes contain spells meant to cure diseases caused by gods or demons. The magical aspects of these diseases, which are clearly seen in the perceived causes and cures of these illnesses, are always accompanied by (presumably) curative ingredients. Despite the undeniable advances in medical knowledge, Greek and Roman societies, for their part, lent enormous importance to supernatural manifestations. Even after the birth of scientific medicine in sixth and fifth-century Greece, the link between magic and medicine did not dissolve. In fact, this link was influenced by new theories about diseases and cures as well as by skepticism towards already accepted theories. Something similar is afoot in Rome: upon its arrival to the urbs in the third century BCE, scientific medicine lived side-by-side with popular medicine, which was strongly influenced by magic, in the contemporary clinical theories that prestigious Greek doctors expounded. By the second century CE, however, Galen denounced the quacks that practiced a type of medicine based in spells. The vehemence of his condemnation betrays the success of this type of medical practice in second-century Rome.

While throughout Antiquity we can trace patterns of interaction and influence between magic and medicine that result from historical cultural idiosyncrasies, we should not run the risk of suggesting that this relationship was static at any point: on the contrary, in any cultural context the relationship between medicine and magic is a fluid one whose limits and borders are often blurred and murky (see, for example, the particularly slippery lexeme φάρμακον, which not only can refer to a ‘poison’ or ‘medicine,’ as Derrida famously argued, but also to a ‘spell’, ‘charm’ or ‘philtre’). The relationship between both forces is undoubtedly an extremely rich and complex one, upon which a range of sources, such as clay tablets, literary and juridical sources, iatromagical papyri and the epigraphic record broadly speaking, shed light.

This workshop seeks to provide an interdisciplinary forum in which new approaches to the relationship between magic and medicine can be discussed and debated. We invite scholars of antiquity (e.g. historians, epigraphers, archaeologists, papyrologists, philologists, cultural theorists and philosophers) who have completed a doctoral dissertation and have a developed academic interest in the topic to submit an abstract on the interaction between magic and medicine in ancient Mediterranean cultures. We are eager to receive proposals that tackle this question from early Mesopotamian cultures and Egypt all the way through Late Antiquity. We welcome scholars working with any type of evidence (literary, archeological, epigraphic, papyrological, etc.).

Those who are interested in participating in the workshop should send an abstract (ca. 250-300 words written in Spanish, English, French or Italian) to Speakers will be allotted 20 minutes to present their research as well as an additional 10 minutes to field questions. Abstracts should be sent by June 30, 2019. As soon as the organizing committee has reviewed all proposals, speakers will be contacted in July.

Best wishes,

María Ángeles Alonso Alonso.

Juan Santos Yangüas.

Celia Sánchez Natalías.

Citer ce billet
Pierre Diouf (2019, 13 mai). Magic and Medicine in the Ancient World. IATRICA. Consulté le 28 février 2024, à l’adresse

Publié par

Pierre Diouf

Enseignant-Chercheur à l'UCAD Dakar-Sénégal Associé à HiSoMA UMR 5189 CNRS Docteur en Langues, Histoire et Civilisations des Mondes Anciens

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