The Greek Magical Papyri in Translation * Hans Dieter Betz (isbn 0226044475)

A while ago I started to write an article about the ‘Papyri Graecae Magica’. This article could not be finished without this complete English translation with its marvelous introduction. A minor point is that there is only the translation, while my German Merkelbach/Totti has both the Greek text and the German translation, but then not of all texts. The Betz translation does have all texts that were known in his 1996 (second edition). Betz (of course) draws upon the complete German version of Preisendanz, but not only the Greek texts, but also the Demotic. Earlier translations left out the Demotic texts, even thought the Greek and the Demotic texts are sometimes on the same papyri. Roughly said the Greek texts are more magical, the Demotic more practical (often medical). All in all there are almost 100 papyri, some longer, some only a few lines or even only a (letter)figure.

The texts themselves are a hard read. They are texts with a lot of strange incantations (so called “voces magicae”), which seem to be Egyptian written in Greek letters, but half of the words are names of gods, demons, sometimes recognisable, sometimes strangely combined. The incantations are sometimes written in letter-figures (like the Kabbalistic tetragrammaton-triangle Y-YH-YHV-YHVH), sometimes within drawings, but Betz does not often give them in such a form.

Still the PGM are extremely interesting. I suppose that they are written in Alexandria. They mix Egyptian, Greek, Jewish, Gnostic and Babylonian magic, so you get a good idea of what was known in the multicultural city of Alexandria. Many names of gods are used right through eachother. Egyptian gods such as Thoth, Isis, Horus, Anubis; Jewish gods like the very popular Iao (YHVH), Sabaoth or the archangels Michael, Raphael and the like; the Gnostic god Abraxas is one the the most popular in the papyri, but also Sophia is sometimes mentioned; then we have of course Greek gods like Zeus or Hekate and Olympus is mentioned more than once; even Babylonian gods like Ereshigal are not forgotten. Besides all this we have typical PGM gods like Ablanathanalba (there is a preference for palingdromes) and the mysterious headless god. My personal interest further has Mithra(s), who is mentioned here and there and one text is called ‘the Mithras liturgy’ by investigators (PGM IV 475-829) of who some think it really was what the title says (the text is very kindred to the other PGM though).

Also interesting is the fact that the texts are obviously a collection made by one of more persons who has been looking for and tested the spells. Remarks such as “another” (spell of this kind), “I know”, “tested” nicely prove this. The texts have been discovered in our own time in two large sections that have been bought by different museums and later many separate texts have come to light and still do, so it is hard to say how many ancient collectors there have been.

The magic itself is also worth studying. It is obvious where Medieval magic has its sources when the PGM speak of amulets, spells, gods of the hours of the day and night, preparations, equipment, the use of (parts of) animals, incense, herbs, etc. The magic in the PGM is of a very practical nature. They contain many love-spells and spells for the benefit of the magician, diseases or business. Further there are nonsense spells like “to make man who have [been] drinking at a sympion appear to have donkey snouts to outsiders, from afar” (PGM XIb 1-5).
What is also interesting is that PGM XIII 1-343 is called “eight key of Moses” where we know Medieval grimoires under the titles “sixth” and “seventh book of Moses”. Further there are references to the unknown “key of Moses” and an Hermetic book called “Wing”. Also there are symbols that remind a bit of Enochian.

What I don’t know much about myself is that it is said that authentic Greek and Egyptian folkbeliefs can be found in the texts, so also for anthropologists these texts are interesting.

For more information see my article.

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