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                            Maidens, matrons, and magicians : women and personal ritual power in late antique Egypt.
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University of Louisville University of Louisville

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Electronic Theses and Dissertations

5-2012

Maidens, matrons, and magicians : women and personal ritual Maidens, matrons, and magicians : women and personal ritual

power in late antique Egypt. power in late antique Egypt.

Meghan Paalz McGinnis

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McGinnis, Meghan Paalz, "Maidens, matrons, and magicians : women and personal ritual power in late
antique Egypt." (2012). Electronic Theses and Dissertations. Paper 2265.
https://doi.org/10.18297/etd/2265

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Page 2

MAIDENS, MATRONS, AND MAGICIANS:
WOMEN AND PERSONAL RITUAL POWER IN LATE ANTIQUE EGYPT







By


Meghan Paalz McGinnis
B.A., Art History and Studio Art, 2009









A Thesis
Submitted to the Faculty of the

College of Arts and Sciences of the University of Louisville
in Partial Fulfillment of the Requirements

For the Degree of




Master of Arts




Hite Art Institute
Department of Art History

University of Louisville
Louisville, Kentucky




May, 2012

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to perform a variety of actions on behalf of the ritualist.274 Egypt developed a reputation

as a land of magicians especially proficient in necromantic arts. In the Greco-Roman

literary tradition Egyptian necromancers were even credited with the ability to resurrect

the dead.275

In late antique Egypt, oracles were one of the most popular uses for necromantic

rituals of power, as exemplified by the controversial activity at sites of relic veneration.

Shades of the deceased were considered to be a source of unquestionable wisdom in

many Mediterranean traditions. They were believed to be compelled always to tell the

truth when called upon,276 whether speaking directly through dream visions, through the

channeling of a medium, or by influencing the outcome of a number of more indirect

divinatory methods.277

PGM IV, “the Great Magical Papyrus of Paris,” includes a set of necromantic

spells attributed to a magician named Pitys. The spells give instructions for deriving

prophecies through rituals performed on entire corpses and/or skulls.278 The use of an

actual dead body itself, or at least part of a skeleton like a skull (fig. 47) or rib,279 was

naturally an important feature in many (but not all) rituals for drawing on the powers of

the dead. This is often the case in necromantic curses.280 For example, in Munich Coptic

Papyrus 5, the widow formulating her curse against a man named Shenoute places the

magical papyrus on an embalmed body in its grave and demands that, “The mummy on


274Ritner, The Mechanics of Ancient Egyptian Magical Practice, pg. 181.
275 Indeed, much Greco-Roman literature portrays Egyptian necromancers as even able to resurrect the
dead.
276Ogden, Greek and Roman Necromancy, pg. 242.
277 One could, for example, perform necromantic lecanomancy and necromantic divination through lots at
the sites of oracles of the dead.
278 PGM IV.1928-2125. These are followed by an interesting spell (PGM IV.2125-39) for restraining skulls
that are not suitable for use in divinatory necromancy (Betz, The Greek Magical Papyri, pg. 72-75).
279As mentioned early in this paper, curses were sometimes actually written directly on human bones.
280As discussed in the preceding section.

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which this papyrus for vengeance is placed must appeal night and day to the lord, from its

bed to the ground in which it is buried with all the other mummies lying around this

grave, all of them calling out, together, what is in this papyrus…”281

Tablets with magic spells could be addressed to the dead by placing them directly

in the place of entombment or by drawing on the chthonic powers of the underworld by

being cast into a pit or well; both practices were popular all over the late antique world

(fig. 48).282 Most frequently, these tablets were execrative in intent, but a goodly number

were intended to enforce the erotic torments of love magic. Necromanticly powerful

ingredients, such as graveyard dirt or bones, also played a part in many late antique

Egyptian magical formularies.

The performance of necromancy in the late ancient world generally incorporated

other ritual elements (mostly handed down from earlier periods) in association with

proximity to the material remains--whether present during the ceremony as buried,

disinterred, or only in piecemeal fashion- of human or animal283 remains. Necromantic

rituals were almost without exception intended to be performed at night. Typically,

practitioners would purify themselves before attempting to approach the other realm.284

Supernatural powers like deities, demons, or angels connected with the underworld

and/or the judgment of souls were customarily invoked to compel the dead to hearken to

the call of the ritualist. Then offerings to the dead intended for veneration and to help

restore their faculties285 would be burned on a fire or poured into a pit.286 Of the latter


281Munich Coptic Papyrus 5 (Meyer and Smith, Ancient Christian Magic, pg. 190).
282 Necromantic tablets have been found in graves and wells as far afield as settlements in Roman Britain.
283 Such as asses’ skulls.
284 This was an important point of protocol in many other types of rituals of power as well.
285Ogden, Greek and Roman Necromancy, pg.169-171 .
286 Ogden, Greek and Roman Necromancy, pg. 168-174.

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Vikan, Gary. “Early Christian and Byzantine Rings in the Zucker Family Collection.”

The Journal of the Walters Art Gallery,Vol. 45 (1987): 32-43.

Vikan, Gary. “Art and Marriage in Early Byzantium.” Dumbarton Oaks Papers, 44

(1990): 145-163.

Vikan, Gary. Sacred images and sacred power in Byzantium. Aldershot,

Hampshire, Great Britain: Ashgate, 2003.

Vikan, Gary. Early Byzantine Pilgrimage Art (Revised Edition). Washington D.C.:

Dumbarton Oaks, 2010.

Weitzmann, Kurt ed. Age of spirituality : late antique and early Christian art, third to

seventh century : catalogue of the exhibition at the Metropolitan Museum of Art,

November 19, 1977, through February 12, 1978. New York: The Museum, 1979.

Wilfong, T.G. Women of Jeme: Lives in a Coptic Town in Late Antique Egypt. Ann

Arbor: The University of Michigan Press, 2002.

Winkler, John J. The constraints of desire: the anthropology of sex and gender in

ancient Greece. New York: Routledge, 1990.

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CURRICULUM VITAE

Name: Meghan Paalz McGinnis

Address: Department of Art History
136 Lutz Hall, Belknap Campus
University of Louisville

Louisville, KY 40292

DOB: Louisville, KY- January, 28, 1987

Education: B.A. Art History, B.A. Studio Art
University of Louisville
2005-2009

Awards: Hallmark Award (Fall 2005- Fall 2009), Graduated Cum Laude,

Cressman Scholarship (Fall 2010-Spring 2011), GTA-ship (Fall 2011)

Professional Societies: Archaeological Institute of America, Byzantine Studies
Association of North America, College Art Association,
International Center of Medieval Art

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