About Ancient Magical Signs

Magical signs constitute a diverse and so far not interpreted group of ancient signs classified as illegible or cryptic occurring in contexts of interaction with higher powers.

The earliest evidence of magical signs is dated to the 1st century A.D. and occurred on artefacts from Greece, Britain, and France inscribed in Greek, Hebrew, and Latin as well as in a Greek ritual instruction from Egypt in which the ancient technical term Charaktêres is attested for the first time.

By the 2nd century the use of the signs is attested over the entire Roman Empire and in conjunction with Greek, Egyptian, Roman, and Jewish religious elements. Since the 3rd century they appear in Demotic and Coptic texts and since the 4th century also in Aramaic ones.

The aim of the project is to fill the academic voids defined for over 100 years by compiling an inventory of magic signs and answering the primary questions. The basis for this is the first-time compilation, organisation, and interpretation of the sources for the use of ancient magic signs, which include inscribed artifacts, ritual instructions and literary texts. Based on this data five studies with different methodological focuses will be conducted to answer the questions.

The first three studies include multivariate statistical analysis of selected characteristics of artifacts, the creation and interpretation of parameter variable distribution maps of the artifacts as well as the repeatedly occurring characters, followed by the compilation of ancient technical terms for the signs in literary texts and the evaluation of the information associated with these terms.

The fourth study focuses on the ritual instructions which provide a detailed insight into the manufacturing and manipulation of magical signs. They are also the only source handing down verbal contexts concerning ritual practice. The aim is to reconstruct the „life cycle“ of magic signs: from their production via their ritual embedding to a post-ritual use. The last study is dedicated to the question of a potential legibility and decryption of the characters. Step one includes the compilation and analysis of legible signs. Step two focuses on a computer-assisted search of repeatedly occurring sign-sequences on artifacts taking into account their contextualised content to reconstruct individual meanings of the signs or of sequences. The five studies were designed with the aim to allow a differentiated answering of the questions to provide a substantial basis for future investigations on which can be built up across disciplines.