This blog is very lite on talk of magic, and that is for good reason: I am of the rather strong opinion that modern witchcraft has no place in Hellenismos--especially when that witchcraft is defined as acts which allow humanity influence over their lives and those of others, outside of the realm of the Gods. I call anything else 'praying', and if you need tools for that, than I take no issue besides the fact that it's non-Traditional--save for when it is. Recently I was asked about magic, though, so I've collected some existing words from this blog into a more cohesive blogpost on the subject. The question was:

"Did the ancient Hellenes practice magick? Is it ok to practice magick as a Hellenic polytheist? If so, is it then better to keep the Theoi out of the practice even though it involves their relms for example Poseidon and sea magic or Demeter and earth magic. Why is this a taboo subject in Hellenismos but not in Asatru for example. The Nordic people saw their Gods as the source of magic. Is this opposed to our ideas of the nature of the Theoi? Yet again we can never know their true nature."

Something I often hear about the ancient Hellenic religion, and prescribed about its modern equivalent, is that there was no magic in ancient Hellas. This is true. It's also a lie. It all depends on your definition of magic, and for the purpose of this reply, we are going to see magic as a form of prayer and ritual, conducted outside of the usual ritual steps. The Theoi were always invoked, but for magic, the sacrifices were usually to the khthonic, or Underworld Gods. When reading this post about a very specific subset of this type of magic, try to disassociate it with the modern use of the word: the same goes for 'spells', 'cursing', and 'binding'.

The ancient Hellenes were a competitive people, and struggled with many of the issues we do today: the urge to perform well, the desire for justice to be served, and a need for love. Prayers for these things were made often, usually in their normal ritualized form at the house altar. If these requests were made against, or at the expense of another person, however, they were generally taken out of the realm of regular worship and kharis, and into the realm of the khthonic. The preferred form were katadesmoi.

Katadesmoi are relatively small tablets, inscribed with a desire asked of the Theoi to fulfil. The Katadesmoi that have survived were generally made out of very thin sheets of lead, which were then rolled, folded or pierced with nails. Wax, papyrus, stone, precious metals, and precious minerals would also have been used as a medium. Some katadesmoi were accompanied by a small doll representing the intended victim or even a lock of their hair, especially in the case of love spells. In general, the katadesmoi always included the name of the intended victim and the name(s) of the appropriated Gods--most often Hades, Kharon, Hekate, and Persephone. Exceptions have been found, of course.

There have been around 1600 katadesmoi found around the whole of Hellas, and the practice was wide-spread. In fact, for the Olympic Games, competitors had to vow to Olympian Zeus that they would not cheat, and curse their opponents. Divine retribution would befall those competitors who did. A large percentage of the katadesmoi found contained love spells ("I want [name] to love me beyond all others"), or legal desires ("May [name] stumble on his words in defence of himself"), but many other ill wishes have been found.

Katadesmoi were usually deposited where they would be closest to the Underworld: in chasms, pools of water, wells, caves, temples to the deity in question, buried underground, or placed in graves. The latter was usually a special form, however, and the katadesmoi placed with the dead were usually requests to avenge the death of the deceased.

In general, katadesmoi were used out of desperation: regular channels had been exhausted, human courts would never convict the perpetrator of a crime, or the murderer could no be found. Pleading with the Gods--who knew more, saw more, ad had a much farther reach--was considered the only alternative to get justice. This was even the case in many love spells. Katadesmoi were not made willy-nilly: there needed to be a strong incentive to make one.

One other such incentive was the fear that a katadesmos curse had been placed upon you. In this case, the subject of the curse could make their own, and ask that the perpetrator of the katadesmos may suffer for it, and that his or her katadesmos may have no effect at all, except maybe to backfire on them. In this case, the katadesmos acts as a binding curse.

There is magic in the Classics as well; the most famous witch in Hellenic mythology is undoubtedly Kirkê (Κιρκη)--better known by her Roman name, Circe. She is the woman whom Odysseus comes upon on the island Aiaia, who turns his men into pigs, and keeps Odysseus with her--and in her bed, no less--for a year before she helps him get back to his quest to return home. The account of Kirkê is one of the founding myths for the modern witch stereotypes: she is the evil temptress, free with her sexuality, and freer with the magic that women possess by nature. She seduces Odysseus while beguiling his men, transforming them into docile animals--de-humanizing them, and stripping them of their masculinity. In the end, Odysseus overcomes her, and leaves, outside of her grasp forever. At least, that is the modern interpretation of her character.

Kirkê, in the time of Hómēros was not evil at all, yet she was dangerous. Kirkê, when looked at through the lens of ancient Hellenic society, is Odysseus' superior by far. It may seem a bit off-topic to go into this, but I must to make my point. Kirkê is the daughter of the Sun God Helios--which makes her a Goddess in her own right, but a more accurate term would be 'Nymph', putting her in control of nature. Her pedigree--by default--means that Odysseus can never master her, as Odysseus may be the favourite of the Gods, but he is not divine himself.

So, what of her magic? Kirkê is a Goddess whose powers manifest through herbs; what she does to men is not much different as many other--more powerful--Gods do unto humans as well with just a thought; Hellenic mythology is full of humans who get turned into animals (or plants) for their protection, or for the protection of the God in question. It's important to note that in the Odysseia, Kirkê's 'victims' are happy and domesticated; they are friendly and curious to visitors and Kirkê alike.

Kirkê's status over Odysseus takes her away from being a witch in the modern sense; she is a Goddess, and as someone lower in standing, Odysseus' wishes are something she can take into advisement but only needs to agree upon out of a sense of honour, not because her magical hold over him has broken. She never controls Odysseus--the moly potion/herb Odysseus is given establishes that--and they work out an agreement where they are on roughly equal footing, with Kirkê forever having the upper hand, but bound by her personal honour and oath to Odysseus. Her magic--her divinity--is made a moot point between them.

The Odysseia gives plenty of reasons why the words 'witch' and 'witchcraft' are dangerous for modern interpretation. These powers--and those that use them--are established as divine, taking these powers fully outside of the realm of humanity. Yes, there was 'magic' and 'witchcraft' in ancient Hellas and its mythology, but not in the way we know it now; this was divine magic; a manifestation of a trait major Gods manifest with a thought. These lesser deities require a medium to manifest their powers--especially in the case of Kirkê--but their powers are still the powers of a God. This is exactly why I feel we, as Hellenists, should pray to the Gods for any aid we might require, and blessings we would wish upon our lives; to practice magic ourselves would be to equate ourselves with the (minor) Gods, and Hellenismos is clear upon the status of humans: we are human, not divine. To practice magic is to practice hubris, and that is decidedly dangerous in a Hellenistic context.

Again, I want to stress that this concerns Traditional Hellenismos--as everything on this blog does. That is my practice, and it is what I understand best. If you want to practice magic; go for it. Who am I to tell you can or cannot do something? As for Asatru; it's hard--and in my opinion useless--to compare ancient cultures like this. The people were different, the thoughts about the divine were different, and unless you are a soft polytheist who conflates all Gods and Goddesses, lumping them and their culture together is detrimental to all Gods in question. Again, my opinion. Magic is a touchy subject in Hellenismos because it borders on hubris, and as a Traditional Hellenist I find myself shying away from everything that could possibly induce hubris and damage my kharis with the Gods. I gave up my magical practice--as sporadic as it was--once I progressed into Hellenismos. It's a personal choice, but one that was very clear for me. How you decide is up to you.