Curse Tablets and Dread Incantations: Medieval and Classical Perspectives on Jewish and Near-Eastern Magic

By Erickson Bridges


During the medieval period, Jews often occupied the role of “the Other” in Christian Europe. As non-Christians living within a Christian society, Jews by their very nature were easily distinguished from their neighbors by their religious rites and their social roles. But amongst the many stereotypes that medieval Christians crafted for their Jewish neighbors, from their alleged hatred for Christians to strange misconceptions of Jewish biology, one stereotype in particular raises some interest: that of the Jewish magician. Prevalent in medieval Europe is the idea that Jews had access to magical abilities, capable of creating protective trinkets or telling fortunes.

Naturally, this medieval association of Jews with magic invites the question: to what degree did the perception of Jews as “the Other” influence this association with the occult? In this case, perhaps comparison to another society’s perceptions of foreign magic can shed some light on this subject. In particular, the societies of Classical Greece had a similar stereotype about sorcerers and magicians from Persia, or magoi, from which the English word “magic” derives. What similarities are there between Christian perceptions of Jewish magic and Greek perceptions of Persian magic?

Barbarian Culture in Greek Magic

Firstly, let us properly define the practice of magic within the classical Greek world. In short, magic was a method outside of traditional appeals to the gods through which one could achieve their goals. While many Greeks dealt with their mundane issues by leaving votive offerings or seeking out the advice of divine oracles, others would turn to the advice of sorcerers and magicians who offered arcane solutions to their problems. The Greeks had many names for these mages — magoi (magicians), agurtai (beggar-priests), kathartai (purifiers), or even alazones (“quack”) — but the first two of these terms are the most important for our analysis (Collins 42).

By all accounts, the word magos has a clear origin in the East. Despite a derogatory description of magoi by Heraclitus of Ephesus which appears devoid of any explicit connection of the word with the East (Heraclitus, fr. 22 B 14 D-K), the earliest substantial mention of the word we have comes from Herodotus’ Histories, in which he describes the royal Magi of the Persian court. However, these priests act far more as actual priests than as stereotypical sorcerers; though their divine invocations and sacrifices might be culturally distinct from Greek rites, Herodotus depicts their sacrifices to the winds and live burials as aspects of proper Persian religion, rather than as arcane quackery (Herodotus 7.113, 7.114, 7.191).

Indeed, it seems that, while the word magos might have its origins in the East, by the last decades of the 5th century BCE the word had lost much of its association with actual Persian priests and had become more of a catch-all for any kind of magic, most often associated with agurtes and goes. When Oedipus rejects Tiresias’ advice in Oedipus Tyrannos, he accuses him of being a magos and agurtes; when a figure as distinctly Greek as the blind seer Tiresias can be called magos, how much of a connotation with the East can the word retain (Collins 55-56; Oedipus Tyrannus 387-389)?

But how did the title magos itself come to be transformed from a specific priesthood to general term for sorcerer? One answer could lie in the immediately foreign aspects of Persian worship. Firstly, the very language of the Persian priests, Avestan, would have seemed unfamiliar and incomprehensible to any Greek onlookers and consequently would have been associated with the magicae voces so often present in traditional Greek magic. Instead of chanting out their holy rites, the magoi would whisper them, further distinguishing them from Hellenic religious practices (Bremmer 8). Thus, it should come as no surprise that the Greeks took these Persian rites to be magical: the use of nonsense words in magic rites (much like the modern “hocus pocus” or “abracadabra”) was quite common in Greek spells and curse tablets, as shown in an archetypal binding spell from the 3rd or 4th century that invokes such barbaric names of deities like “Moulokh” and “Iabezebuth” (Collins 77). While to Herodotus the magoi were legitimate foreign priests, to the layman their strange actions would likely have been indistinguishable from the common soothsayers and beggar-priests found throughout the Grecian world.

So, we can see that the term magos came to have two meanings, one for the actual priests of Persia and another for the common charlatans throughout Greece. As Jan Bremmer puts it, “in tragedy, rhetorics and earlier philosophy, magos is a term of abuse, whereas historians and Aristotelian philosophers tend to take the Magi seriously” (Bremmer 6).

In sum, while there remained in classical Greek society connections of the East with magic, it was by no means mandatory that a Persian man would be assumed to know magic, nor were all magicians assumed to have learned their techniques from the East. Instead, magicians would likely adopt the personas and motifs that best served their own purposes, and if a poor beggar-priest gained more success from selling himself as a mage who knew Persian magics, who would stop him? There was no institutional association of Persian culture with magic and the occult: it was merely another element of Grecian magic.

Secondary Texts on Greek Perceptions of Persian Magic

Collins, DerekMagic in the Ancient Greek World. Malden, MA: Blackwell Pub., 2008.

This ambitious work aims to unify various aspects of the study of ancient Greek magic, breaking down the history of critical analysis of Greek magic, the framework which magic occupied in Classical Greece, the specifics of various spells and curse formulae, and the relationship between magic and the law. An essential read for introductions into the study of ancient Greek magic.

Dickie, Matthew. Magic and Magicians in the Greco-Roman World. London: Routledge, 2003.

Another essential work on magic in the classical world, here Matthew Dickie summarizes the history of magic and magicians from the beginning of Archaic Greece through the Christian years of the late Roman Empire.

Bremmer, Jan N. “The Birth of the Term ‘Magic’.” Zeitschrift für Papyrologie und Epigraphik, Bd. 126 (1999), pp. 1-12

This useful article succinctly sums up the various mentions of the word magos in ancient Greek texts and the connotations the term accumulates throughout the classical period.

Ancient Primary Texts concerning Eastern Magic

Aeschines. Speeches. Translated by Charles Darwin Adams. Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 1919.

In Aeschines’ speech “Against Ctesiphon”, the Athenian orator lambasts the famed politician Demosthenes, calling him a magos and goes at 3.137. Since this speech dates to 330 BCE, by this point magos had lost much of its Eastern associations and instead implied that Demosthenes was some sort of charlatan. Adams even ignores magos‘ magical and Persian connotations, preferring instead to translate it as “juggler”.

Aeschylus. Agamemnon. Translated by Herbert Weir Smith. Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 1926.

In the Agamemnon, the character of Cassandra, a Trojan princess doomed by the gift of prophecy, ponders whether she is a proper seer or nothing more than a beggar-priest. In line 1195 she asks whether she is a pseudomantis (false seer), and in line 1273 she states that she is called an agurtia (female beggar-priest). Since Cassandra is a Trojan and thus from Anatolia and the East, there may be some cultural association between the term agurtia and Eastern magic.

Augustine. The City of God. Translated by Marcus Dods. Glasgow: 1871.

One of the seminal works of early Christian thought, St. Augustine of Hippo here makes an important distinction in 22.10 between the proper miracles of God and the miracles that other men obtain through contact with demons. This distinction would later be used to explain Jewish magic during the medieval period.

Euripides. The Bacchae. Edited by Gilbert Murray. Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1913.

In The Bacchae, Euripides depicts the arrival of the cult of Bacchus to the Greek city of Thebes. The figure of Bacchus is undoubtedly an Eastern figure, and Pentheus maligns him as a goes from Lydia” in line 234; however, Bacchus’ role in the play is the creation of a mystery cult, a decisively Greek invention. Perhaps the god’s presence here is an indication not so much of the influence of Asian magic, but rather how Greek culture would distinguish elements of its society using foreign motifs.

Euripides. Iphigenia in Tauris. Edited by Gilbert Murray. Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1913.

Yet another play of Euripides, here the priestess daughter of Agamemnon, Iphigenia, is said to perform a magic ritual by “crying out barbarian things and working magics (mageousa)” in lines 1337-8. This off-hand description is doubly useful to our understanding of how the ancient Greeks viewed magic: firstly, it shows the common association of foreign, incomprehensible words (voces magicae) with magic ritual; and secondly it gives an example from the late 5th century of the verb mageuo, a derivation from magos which by this point referred to general magic.

Gorgias. Encomium of Helen. Translated by Brian Donovan. (Text at

This work of oratory by the late 5th century BCE rhetorician Gorgias, which offers various reasons for Helen’s willingness to leave Sparta for Troy with Paris, describing how the mind can be manipulated through techniques of magic, which Gorgias calls both goeteia and mageia (Encomium 10). Interestingly, Gorgias appears to not make an obvious distinction between the two technai, lending yet more credence to the idea that, by the late 5th Century BCE, the term mageia had become just another term for “magic”.

Heraclitus. Fragment in Protrepticus by Clement of Alexandria. Translation by G.W. Butterworth. London: William Heinemann Ltd., 1919.

The early Christian theologian Clement of Alexandria preserves in Protrepticus 2.22.2-3 a fragment of Heraclitus, in which the philosopher condemns a wide number of social groups, including magoi, for inducting men into unholy mystery cults. This fragment from the late 6th century is our first instance of the word magos in Greek texts and is interestingly devoid of any direct connection to Persia, although it must be stated that, as an inhabitant of the Ionian city of Ephesus, Heraclitus undoubtedly had had some interaction with Persians, and perhaps with actual high magoi.

Herodotus. Histories. Translated by A.D. Godley. Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 1920.

In the famed “first work of history”, Herodotus lays out detailed accounts of the original magoi, the high priests of the Persian royal court. Herodotus describes these priests in their traditional royal, as Persian priests, in sections  7.113, 7.114, and 7.191; while attention is paid to the oddities of their religious practices (e.g. pouring libations of milk and burial sacrifices), the implication of Herodotus’ accounts is far more that the Persians have different religious customs than that the magoi were nothing by charlatans and tricksters.

Hippocrates. On the Sacred Disease. Translated by Charles Darwin Adams. New York: Dover, 1868.

In this work allegedly written by the famed Hippocrates, the author discusses the “sacred disease” of epilepsy, so called because the author claims that the healers of old had no better explanation for it. In a brief section (1.10-12) the author compares these healers to the magoi and agurtai of his own day, offering a startling direct negative perspective on the practice of magic.

Sophocles. Oedipus Tyrannos. Translated by F. Storr. London: William Heinemann Ltd., 1912.

This seminal work of Greek tragedy also contains an interesting use of the word magos: in line 387-389 Oedipus becomes enraged at Tiresias’ prophecies, he calls the blind seer a magos and agurtes who desires nothing more than profit. Here again we see the word magos used without an explicit connection to the magic of the East.

The Jewish Magician and the Magos

In contrast to the Grecian perspective on the magoi, medieval Christianity made an easy connection between Judaism and sorcery. After all, did not the Saint Augustine say that true miracles were the work of God, and any miracles that did not occur through the will of God were the work of demons (City of God 22.10)? Under this logic, since the Jews did not worship the Christian God, any miracles that arose from their actions had to be due to the influence of demons.

It was this fact — the un-Christianness of the Jewry — that spawned much of these ideas of Jewish sorcery. Since the Jew’s normal religious actions seemed foreign and un-Christian, “every innocent Jewish act which by its strangeness laid itself open to suspicion was considered a diabolical device working magic Christians” (Trachtenberg 3). Everything a Jew did, from the preparation of matzah to the mere flipping of a bed, could be constrained as an act of arcane aggression.

So, much like the magoi, the cultural differences of the Jews came to be viewed as their own sort of magic; but unlike the magoi, this view became institutionalized through the influence of the Church. The Jews were not just a cultural Other: they were a defined, institutional Other, a social group the majority defined itself in opposition to. The magos may have been distinct from the Greek sorcerers in culture, but the two were still sorcerers. There was no expectation of sorcery from a man merely because of his Persian, Semitic, or Egyptian ethnicity.

Thus, while the magoi and the Jewish sorcerer have a similar origin in the interaction between two cultures and the reinterpretation of foreign customs, the two ultimately differ due to the environments in which these interactions occurred. The word magos became synonymous with sorcerer while the Persian identity remained largely separate; and the whole of the Jewish identity became entangled in accusations of demonic witchcraft and skullduggery.

Sources for Medieval Jewish Magic

Unfortunately, as scholar Gideon Bohak puts it, there has been an “almost total neglect of Jewish magic in previous scholarship” (Bohak 9), and a great deal of works, such as Ludwig Blau’s Das altjüdische Zauberwesen, remain untranslated from the original German. That said, there are a few works in English that serve as excellent starting points for any exploration of the perceptions of Jewish magic in the classical and medieval periods.

Bohak, Gideon. Ancient Jewish Magic. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2008.

Using both ancient archeological and textual evidence, Bohak reconstructs the ancient traditions of Jewish mysticism from the Second Temple period until well after late antiquity.

Caster, M. The Sword of Moses.

Available in a multitude of publications, Caster’s late 19th-century edition of a probably 13th- or 14th-century manuscript details several formulas for Hebrew spells.

Gager, John. The Origins of Anti-Semitism. New York: Oxford University Press, 1985.

Gager attempts to chart the evolution of anti-Semitism from its origins in Roman-era Alexandria until well into late antiquity through the use of both Hebrew and Gentile sources.

Schrire, T. Hebrew Magic Amulets: Their Decipherment and Interpretation. London: Behrman House, 1982.

An immense catalogue of ancient and medieval amulets, Schrire’s text serves as a valuable resource for any exploration of Jewish magic.

Trachtenberg, Joshua. The Devil and the Jews. Philadelphia: The Jewish Publication Society, 2002.

Primarily through the analysis of Gentile texts from the medieval period, Trachtenberg argues that, as a consequence of the Christian worldview, Jews, as non-Christians in a non-Christian society, inevitably became associated with the archetypal sorcerer who plots the downfall of Christians and consorts with demons.

Trachtenberg, Joshua. Jewish Magic and Superstition: A Study in Folk Religion. Philadelphia: University of Pennsylvania Press, 2004.

A companion piece to Trachtenberg’s other work, here Trachtenberg reconstructs the actual practices of medieval Jewish magic through close study of medieval Jewish texts detailing the practices of medieval mysticism.