To be or not to be Magic – Formal, functional and contextual changes within the application of magic signs in Coptic sources and the cultural background for these changes (4th-10th. cent.) (Oslo, 2013)

International Conference: Between Image and Text: The Early Medieval ‘Iconology’ of Graphic Representational Signs

26.09.-27.09.2013, University of Oslo, Blindern

Short note about Magical Signs
The term “magical signs” comprises a large group of formally diverse signs that were used in ancient ritual practice. Their application is attested all over the Roman Empire, the earliest known sources date to the late 1st/early 2nd cent. CE. Here the signs were incised on a Greek curse tablet form the Athenian Agora, on two lamellae from Segontium and Bill-ingford in Great Britain and on another lamella from Augustoritum La Vedrenne in France. Shortly afterwards magicsigns can be found on papyri and on gems as well. Tey were applied on approximately 20% of the published magicalgems, papyri, lamellae and curse tablets.In Greek, Demotic and Latin sources these signs usually didn´t compose legible words, but in Coptic sources it can beobserved that they were increasingly used to write the names of angles, other higher beings or the abbreviation of Jesus Christ. Even when they do not illustrate a word in Coptic sources the amount of signs representing letters is unproportionally higher than in Greek, Demotic and Latin sources. An ongoing cataloging and analysing project of these signs – which in antiquity were called „charakteres“ – resulted so far in the documentation of over 1000 different types which can be classified into nine main groups based on formal criteria.


In my paper I will pursue three aims:
  • to provide an overview of the formal categorization of magic signs, their contexts and their functions,
  • to outline the differences between the application of magic signs in Greek and Demotic ritual practice on onehand and in Coptic practice on the other hand,
  • to suggest an interpretation for these changes Accordingly the talk will be divided into three parts.
Part one focuses on a general introduction to the origin, occur-rence and application of magic signs in the Greek and Demotic sources. In part two these results will be compared tothe ocurrence and application of the signs in Coptic sources. Especially the contextualization of magic signs with textand image will be discussed in more detail. In part three the results of the preceding parts will serve as a fundament foran interpretation. The following ideas concerning the application of magic signs in Coptic texts will be introduced and discussed:
  • The application of magic signs demonstrates a specific way to address higher beings and to communicate with them by means of a “sacred” scripture.
  • Magic signs served as an instrument in the process of establishing identity. Tis becomes even more important after the Arab conquest.
  • The specific application of the signs in Coptic texts developed from a Greek tradition but was altered and supplemented. This finally resulted in a new understanding and a new concept of magic signs.

To be or not to be magic?
The résumé is focused on this question. Magical signs are by some scholars of Coptic ritual practice used as essential criteria to classify a text as magic. But does this criteria still apply in monotheistic, christian contexts? Did late Coptic practitioners (and their clients) regard the signs indeed as a magical device, or rather as legit means to pay their god and the involved higher beings the necessary respect? How can the research on magical signs support the reconstruction of ancient networks of religious knowledge and their diversification?

Since the work with magic signs is an ongoing project, the arguments should be regarded as preliminary ideas and are open for discussion.


Link to the Conference Webpage
See also the related project: Graphicacy and Authority in Early Europe: Graphic Signs of Power and Faith in the Early Middle Ages (c. 300–1000)

Juni 7, 2013 @ 2:56