Review: Techniques of Graeco-Egyptian Magic

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.

Published in: on October 12, 2014 at 1:19 pm  Comments (5)  
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5 CommentsLeave a comment

  1. Thanks as always for an insightful and penetrating review, Dan!

    I’ve also been enjoying Skinner’s new work, it’s quite impressive. I heard a rumor that it’s the first of a projected two-volume set, with the second devoted to magical ritual. Have you heard anything about this?

    You listed three modern iterations of the source materials and your readers may also enjoy this as well:

    “The Seven Faces of Darkness,” by Don Webb

    For additional source material, I also highly recommend the following:

    “The Mithras Liturgy: Text, Translation and Commentary,” by Hans D. Betz

    “Ancient Christian Magic: Coptic Texts of Ritual Power,” by Marvin Meyer

    …. and lastly, while not a spell book, this mystical work was considered an essential source by many Late Antique magical practitioners and theurgists:

    “The Chaldean Oracles: Text, Translation and Commentary,” by Ruth Majercik

    Your blog is much appreciated, Dan! I am eagerly awaiting “The Book of Oberon,” and look forward to seeing more advance reports from you on this if possible.


  2. Its been years since I picked up a book that gave me the feeling this one did. I truly felt that I was learning something completely new and very illuminating. This is a great companion type book to the Betz edition. This work will become a classic and now that I have one I would feel that I was lacking something significant in my collection if I didn`t have it, I feel it`s that good. There are two good quality editions from `Golden Hoard Press`. There`s the unlimited Hardback edition and the leather Limited Edition of 100 signed & Numbered copies. The ground shook when this book arrived on the scene and for a very good reason!

  3. i want sixth and seventh book of Moses and how to use it

  4. […] while ago, I reviewed Stephen Skinner’s Techniques of Graeco-Egyptian Magic, noting that it was the first published work based upon his […]

  5. Wow, just done reading this blogpost. Very great information you got there. Totally following your web! Thank you a lot.

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