By Theodore de Bruyn
Much religious activity is customary. People do what they do because others have done it before them. But at the same time people adapt customary activities so that they continue to be meaningful. Indeed, it is the combination of the customary and the personal in religious activity that makes it powerful and relevant to people. What happens, then, to customary religious practices when there is a major social and cultural shift in religious regimes? This question underlies a new book, Making Amulets Christian: Artefacts, Scribes, and Contexts. The book examines how textual amulets—incantations written on papyrus, parchment, metal, or other materials—changed as the Christian church became the dominant religious institution in the later Roman Empire.
In the Greco-Roman world, as in other cultures, people sought protection from adversity, healing from illness, a competitive advantage in love affairs or athletic contests, and revenge on an adversary through incantations. These incantations often followed set patterns. They would call upon a powerful figure—a deity, for example, or a lesser power, or the spirit of a dead person—and command that figure, in fairly standard phrases, to do what was desired. The incantations could be written on some material which was then worn by or deposited near the person to be affected. Many such incantations from the time of the Roman empire have survived in Egypt, along with manuals giving instructions on how to prepare and activate them. By the time Christian groups began to emerge in Egypt, the formulation of incantations was thoroughly syncretistic, drawing on Egyptian, Hellenistic, and Jewish traditions.
Church authorities discouraged Christians from using incantations and amulets. According to the authorities, the purveyors of such remedies were at best frauds or, even worse, agents of the Devil. Erotic or aggressive incantations were, of course, condemned outright, but protective and healing incantations were also suspect. When Christians feared illness or became sick, they were urged to make the sign of the cross or obtain oil or water blessed by a holy man or woman rather than resort to the amulets their non-Christian neighbours used. Yet we know from both the exhortations of church authorities and from amulets that have survived that Christians in fact produced and used amulets, including amulets written with an incantation.
There are different ways in which amulets began to incorporate Christian elements at this time. Sometimes a short commonplace incantation, like those designed to protect against scorpions and snakes, is simply ‘framed’ with Christian markers, such as the sign of the cross. In one remarkable example of this type, the incantation ends with an elaborate Christian doxology or liturgical formula.
In other amulets, text phrased in Christian terms is paired with text phrased in customary terms. For instance, one amulet begins with a trinitarian invocation and a powerful name (the common palindrome Ablanathanalba), and then calls upon ‘holy signs’ (often used in incantations) to heal Tiron from fever.
Similarly, another amulet against fever appeals to both Jesus Christ and the white wolf (the sun god Horos-Apollo) for healing.
In yet other amulets, the phrasing of the commands may be customary, but the substance of the incantation is entirely Christian. The request is addressed to Christian figures, the stories told are from the gospels, and the closing words echo liturgical prayers. This last type of amulet tends not to use ‘secret’ words and signs, devices commonly used in non-Christian incantations to achieve the desired effect.
Interestingly, the ways in which writers of individual amulets compose or copy all these elements tell us something about their familiarity with Christian rituals or their proximity to Christian institutions. An amulet with a fully developed doxology addressed to Christ or a description of Christ’s career derived from a Christian creed was probably written by someone closer to the institutional church than, for example, an amulet with a somewhat jumbled excerpt from the Lord’s Prayer or the eucharistic liturgy. Often, though not always, writers who are more familiar with ‘standard’ Christian material are also more consistent in their use of Christian scribal techniques, such as abbreviations for ‘God’, ‘Lord’, ‘Jesus’, ‘Christ’, and certain other names (termed nomina sacra) that were commonly used by Christians when copying, for instance, books of the Bible.
What also emerges in this period are amulets—or objects that may have been amulets—written with only or mostly a portion of the Christian scriptures. Some passages, such as the Lord’s Prayer or Psalm 90 (cited in the Greek version of the Septuagint), were especially popular. But other texts were also used, accompanied by a short petition or command: the opening words or a verse from a gospel, or a portion of the legendary correspondence between Jesus and Abgar, king of Edessa.
In a sense, it is a misnomer to refer to these materials as ‘scriptural’, since the way the texts are selected, phrased, and written reveal that they issue from the devotional habits of the writers and their communities. For example, the wording of the Lord’s Prayer in amulets corresponds to the form recited by the priest in the liturgy of the church. Psalms regularly recited in daily prayer services also appear with some frequency in what may have been amulets.
The devotional nature of these materials, particularly the Lord’s Prayer and verses from the Psalms, is also reflected in their mode of transmission: they are written down from memory, and the memory is more oral than visual, as the frequent phonetic spellings show. Moreover, because the Lord’s Prayer and the Psalms were widely known, the range of writers who would have been able to write them down is relatively broad. This is reflected in the range of hands and the relative ‘accuracy’ of the text in amulets comprising the Lord’s Prayer and/or Psalm 90.
When amulets incorporate chants or other portions of the liturgy of the Egyptian church that were regularly recited by the people or the clergy (such as the Sanctus or the Lord’s Prayer), they demonstrate the importance and efficacy of those rituals in generating resources for writers of amulets. As the same time, variations in how those elements are incorporated into amulets reveal that, consciously or not, writers drew on these resources with some freedom. Moreover, the traditions on which writers drew were more diverse than those preserved in the authorized liturgies of the church, as is evident from incantations that incorporate Valentinian or Sethian elements, that is, reflecting early Gnosticism.
In short, as Making Amulets Christian concludes, the writers of incantations were both receivers and creators of tradition. In perpetuating a customary practice, they also reshaped it, leaving us tell-tale traces of their individuality.
Theodore de Bruyn is Associate Professor and Chair of the Department of Classics and Religion at the University of Ottawa.
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