Barry McNamara  |   Published October 21, 2020

‘Ancient Magic and Witchcraft’

With Halloween approaching, Adrienne Hagen’s class investigating the mystical manipulation used by Greeks and Romans.

MONMOUTH, Ill. – Ancient Greeks and Romans didn’t go door-to-door dressed in costumes, asking for sweets from their neighbors, but they celebrated a holiday in which they could be someone other than themselves and they believed in what we might call the “scary” practices of curses and magic.

Those topics are addressed by Monmouth College classics professor Adrienne Hagen in a popular course she teaches titled “Ancient Magic and Witchcraft.”

ADRIENNE HAGEN: Classics professor teaches popular Ancient Magic and Witchcraft' course... ADRIENNE HAGEN: Classics professor teaches popular "Ancient Magic and Witchcraft' course.Hagen said that understanding the psychological appeal of Halloween is useful in understanding the importance of mysticism in ancient times.

“We know there are all these difficult things in the world. We know that horrible things happen,” she said. “I think that we can, in some ways, learn how to process the bad things that do happen by reframing them in a way that’s a little bit more accessible or a little bit more palatable. Then Nov. 1 rolls around and Halloween’s over and nothing’s scary anymore. We’re able to find some kind of release from that.”

She said the Greek word for that is “catharsis.”

“They would say that’s kind of purging yourself of negative emotions that are inside of you – giving them a name, putting them out there so that you can move on from it,” said Hagen.

Romans celebrated Saturnalia – a December festival to honor Saturn, the god of plenty and wealth – which Hagen said was similar in some respects to Halloween.

“Saturnalia wasn’t a scary holiday, but that was a holiday about inversions in society, where people had certain types of freedoms they didn’t have the rest of the year,” she said. “Greeks also had the festivals for Dionysus where people drank a lot and went wild and danced all night. I think societies in general like to have moments when we can concentrate those energies and express them and get them out and then move back to our normal state.”

Even in ancient times, that “normal state” featured some themes associated with Halloween.

“If you’ve fallen in love with someone from afar and they’re not paying any attention to you no matter what you do, you, in the ancient world, could go and get a love spell created to try to get their attention,” she said. “We’ve also talked in the class about women using magic to achieve things that were denied to them by the patriarchal society they were in. We’ve looked at examples of enslaved people turning to magic to try to exercise some type of power over their lives, since they were denied formal power of movement and freedom of action.”

Curses on your rivals

And much like the story of Chicago tavern owner William Sianis, who was ejected from Wrigley Field in 1945 along with his goat, Murphy, setting off the famous curse of the Chicago Cubs, there is documentation of curses in the ancient sporting world, along with other attempts at mystical manipulation, written on small lead tablets.

“One of the common kinds of curse tablets we have is people cursing the other team’s chariot team and their horses,” said Hagen. “One of the nice things about these tablets and writings is that we do get a window into daily life that way. It’s not all grand, epic literature – it’s also real people having to go in front of a court of law or rooting for their team, falling in love, trying to protect themselves from envy, trying to cure particular medical problems that they’re facing. It’s nice how much of a slice of life we can get from these very personal little documents that we don’t always get when we focus on the big authors like Homer and Vergil and Ovid.”

Do you believe in magic?

Hagen said something she frequently discusses with her students is the distinction between magic and religion, and how much of it boils down to perspective.

“A lot of people looking at religious practices from the outside perspective will call something ‘magic,’ when people within that practice will call it religion or spirituality,” she said. “So what we might call magic was certainly practiced at the highest levels of government in Greece and Rome. For them, it’s state-sanctioned, it’s religious observance, it’s built into society and government.”

'TIS THE SEASON: Earlier this month, Monmouth psychology students took a break from their stu... 'TIS THE SEASON: Earlier this month, Monmouth psychology students took a break from their studies to paint pumpkins outside the Center for Science and Business.The students have also learned about Roman government officials conducting various divination practices such as watching the flight of birds in order to try to determine the will of the gods, or making sacrifices of animals and studying the animals’ entrails.

“It’s a complicated issue, but various kinds of things that we would term ‘magic’ were practiced in all levels of society by all people, privately, publicly, for all different types of goals,” said Hagen.

Whether it’s magic and witchcraft in ancient times or our modern Halloween, Hagen said people have always been fascinated by the “dark side.”

“I think there’s something intrinsically interesting to a lot of us about the darker side of things,” she said. “What people do when they don’t have some of the normal avenues available to them and the kinds of alternative approaches they take to try to achieve some type of goal.”

Listen Up …

Hear Adrienne Hagen discuss her “Ancient Magic and Witchcraft” course.

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