One of the most astounding and significant collections of material for understanding the written tradition of magic is the Greek and Demotic magical papyri. Written a few centuries before and after Christ, these present a syncretic mix of Egyptian and Greek magical techniques and procedures studded with Hebrew names. The majority of these, collected from a tomb in Thebes, seem to have been the property of a nearby temple aimed at assisting the priests’ clients. Most of the corpus has been compiled and printed, first by Karl Preisendanz (the first edition available here and here) and later in English translation, edited by Hans Dieter Betz.
Since their publication, the papyri have been surrounded with a burgeoning literature on these works’ history and significance. None of these publications is particularly wieldy for the non-specialist reader, however, and the Betz edition lacks even an index, making casual reading difficult. This has led to a number of more popular works intended to bridge the gap, including Stephen Flowers’ Hermetic Magic, Tony Mierzwicki’s Graeco-Egyptian Magic, and Michael Cecchetelli’s The Book of Abrasax (the latter of which I have not seen). The latest and most comprehensive addition to this library is Stephen Skinner’s Techniques of Graeco-Egyptian Magic, of which I received a review copy. As the latter is an expanded version of a portion of his Ph.D. dissertation on magical texts, this makes it of particular interest.
Those seeking a book of spells and incantations they can pick up and use will be disappointed here. This was not the author’s intent, and a copy of Betz is necessary for those who wish to pursue the original text. What we have here instead is a comprehensive and up-to-date discussion of the papyri in the context of their times, with extensive notes as to their organization and context.
Skinner begins with a definition of magic specific to the papyri, followed with a summary covering their history and origins. Next comes an in-depth discussion of the different techniques used in magic, including purification, magical circles, equipment, and spoken words and names, including their relation to similar processes used in other places and times. This work forms part of Skinner’s larger work in demonstrating the connections between the magical techniques of the ancient world and the procedures of ritual magic laid out in the grimoire tradition.
The bulk of the work is taken up with a breakdown of the various rituals by type, each with a summary of the techniques for each and a comprehensive table providing the spirit names called upon, the numbering of the rite in the PGM series (making it much easier to locate similar rituals), and a brief description of that ritual. We could break down the rites in different ways, but what makes Skinner’s handling of this compelling is his use of the Greek and Demotic index terms in the original papyri, giving us the categories as the original practitioners might have considered them. All of this is followed with a number of other useful tools, including a list of nomina barbara (barbarous words), a comprehensive bibliography covering the papyri in depth and also touching upon key works in the fields of Mesopotamian, Egyptian, and European grimoires.
All of this is a welcome and significant addition to the literature on this topic. My only disagreement is with the material in the first chapter, on the definition of magic to be used. Defining magic is always a tricky task, however, and the use of more up-to-date sources on the topic might have made for a better section. Then again, this is only a brief section and hardly necessary for the rest of the book, which is really top-notch.
Make no mistake – this is not a beginner’s book. A basic knowledge of the topic, along with a copy of Betz ( which most grimoire collectors should have anyway), are necessary to enter into this work with any degree of success. For readers with those prerequisites, however, this is a feast of material illuminating a corpus of material with great significance in the field of Western esotericism.