Magic in Ancient Greece
Magic in all of its aspects was native to the imagination and
genius of the Greeks, as was the case with most ancient peoples.
Evidence abounds in their theogony, mythology (essentially
magical in conception and meaning), literature, sculpture, and
history. The nature that surrounded them gave rise to their
imaginations. The mountains and valleys, mysterious caves and
fissures, vapors and springs of volcanic origin, and sacred
groves were all, according to their character, dedicated to the
gods. Parnassus was the abode of the sun-god Apollo; the lovely
vale of Aphaca that of Adonis; the oak-groves of Dodona favored
of Zeus; and the gloomy caves with their roar of subterranean
waters the Oracle of Trophonius.
Innumerable instances of magical wonder-working are
found in the stories of Greek deities and heroes. The power of
transformation is shown in a multitude of cases, among them
that of Bacchus who, by waving a spear, could change the oars
of a ship into serpents and the masts into heavy-clustered vines.
He could also cause tigers, lynxes, and panthers to appear
amidst the waves and the terrified sailors leaping overboard to
take the shape of dolphins. In the story of Circe, the enchantress
took her magic wand and with her enchanted philter
turned her lovers into swine.
The serpent-staff of Hermes gave, by its touch, life or death,
sleep or waking; Medusa’s head turned its beholders into
stone; Hermes gave Perseus wings that he might fly and Pluto
a helmet which conferred invisibility. Prometheus molded a
man of clay and to give it life stole celestial fire from heaven;
Odysseus, to peer into the future, descended to Hades in
search of Tiresias the Soothsayer; Archilles was made invulnerable
by the waters of the Styx.
Dedicated by immemorial belief, there were places where
the visible spirits of the dead might be evoked and where men
in curiosity, longing, or remorse strove to call back those who
had passed beyond mortal ken. In March, when the spring
blossoms appeared and covered the trees, the Festival of the
Flowers was held at Athens. The Commemoration of the Dead
also occurred in the spring. It was thought that the spirits of the
deceased rose from their graves and wandered about the familiar
streets, striving to enter the dwellings of men and the temples
of the gods but were shut out by the magic of branches of
whitethorn, or by knotted ropes and pitch.
Of great antiquity and eminently of Greek character and
meaning were the Oracles. For centuries they ministered to
that longing ingrained in human nature to know the future and
to invoke divine foresight and aid in the direction of human affairs,
from those of a private citizen to the multitudinous needs
of the state. Divination and prophecy became the great features
of the oracles. They were inspired by various means, including
intoxicating fumes, natural or artificial mind-altering
drugs, the drinking of mineral springs, signs and tokens, and
The most famous Oracles were those at Delphi, Dodona,
Epidaurus, and that of Trophonius, but others of renown were
scattered over the country. Perhaps one of the earliest was that
of Aesculapius, son of Apollo and called the Healer, the Dreamsender,
because his healing was given through the medium of
dreams that came upon the applicant while sleeping in the
temple-courts, the famous temple-sleep. This temple, situated
at Epidaurus, was surrounded by sacred groves and whole companies
of sick persons lingered there in search of lost health
and enlightenment through divine dreams.
Famous above all was that of Apollo, the Delphian oracle, on
the Southern Slopes of Parnassus, where kings, princes, heroes,
and slaves of all countries journeyed to ask the questions as to
the future and what it might hold for them. The temple was
built above a volcanic chasm, amid a wildness of nature that
suggested the presence of the unseen powers. Here the priestess,
the Pythia, so named after the serpent Pytho whom Apollo
slew, was seated on a tripod placed above the gaseous vapors
rising from the chasm. Intoxicated to a state of frenzy, her
mouth foaming, wild torrents of words fell from her lips. These
words were shaped into coherence and meaning by the attendant
priests and given to the waiting questioner crowned with
laurel, the symbol of sleep and dreams, who stood before the
Priests and priestesses were also crowned with these leaves,
which were sacred to Apollo and burned as incense. Before the
Pythias chamber hung a falling screen of laurel branches, while
at the festival of the Septerion every ninth year a bower of laurel
was erected in the forecourt of the temple. One writer has
left strange details, such as the rule that the sacred fire within
the temple must only be fed with firwood, and although a
woman was chosen as the medium of the prophetic utterance,
no woman might question the oracle.
The Oracle of the Pelasgic Zeus at Dodona was the oldest of
all. It answered by signs rather than inspired speech, by means
of lots and the falling of water, or by the wind-moved clanging
of brazen-bowls, two hollow columns standing side by side.
The three priestesses or Peliades (meaning doves) were
given titles signifying the Diviner of the Future; the friend of
man, Virtue; and the virgin-ruler of man, Chastity. For 2,000
years this oracle existed. It was consulted by those heroes of the
ancient myths struggling in the toils of Fate—Hercules, Achilles,
Ulysses and Aeneas—down to the later vestiges of Greek
The Oracle of Trophonius was also of great renown. Here
there were numerous caverns filled with misty vapors and troubled
by the noise of hidden waters far beneath. In this mysterious
gloom the supplicants slept sometimes for nights and days,
coming forth in a somnambulic state from which they were
aroused and questioned by the attendant priests. Frightful visions
were generally recounted, accompanied by a terrible melancholy,
so that it passed into a proverb regarding a sorrowful
man, ‘‘He has been in the cave of Trophonius.’’
Magic, in the sense of secret revelations, miraculous cures,
prophetic gifts, and unusual powers, had always existed for the
Greeks. The oracles were a human way of communicating with
their gods on earth.
Encyclopedia of Occultism & Parapsychology • 5th Ed. GREECE
Magic in the sense of sorcery was introduced into Greece
from Asia and Egypt. It had to fit into a conception of Fate as
inexorable and inescapable for gods, rulers, and slaves alike, a
belief which warred a form of magic that had for its primary
aim a certain command of the destinies of man.
Good and evil and the perpetual strife between these two
principles and the belief in demonology gradually evolved
within Greek thought. It was said that the first mention of good
and evil demons could be traced to the Pythagorean school.
Not until after the Persian War was there a word in the Greek
language for ‘‘magic.’’ As these beliefs emerged, they were ascribed
to the native deities, gradually becoming incorporated
with the ancient histories and rites.
Sorcery and Enchantment
After the invasion by the Persians, Thessaly, where their stay
was of lengthy duration, became famous for its sorceresses and
their practices, engaging in miracles and magic enough to call
down the moon or to brew magical herbs for love or death.
Thus Apuleius in his romance The Golden Ass stated that when
in Thessaly he was in the place,
‘‘. . .where, by common report of the world, sorcery and enchantments
were most frequent. I viewed the situation of the
place in which I was, nor was there anything I saw that I believed
to be the same thing which it appeared to be. Insomuch
that the very stones in the street I thought were men bewitched
and turned into that figure, and the birds I heard chirping, the
trees without the walls, and the running waters, were changed
from human creatures into the appearances they were. I persuaded
myself that the statues and buildings could move; that
the oxen and other brute beasts could speak and tell strange
tidings; that I should hear and see oracles from heaven conveyed
in the beams of the Sun.’’
Homer told the tale of Circe the enchantress, with her magic
philters and magic songs, but made no mention of Medea, the
arch-sorceress of later times. Around her name the later beliefs
clustered. All the evil arts were attributed to her. She became
the witch par excellence, her infamy increasing from age to
The same was true of Hecate, the moon-goddess, at first
sharer with Zeus of the heavenly powers, but later an ominous
shape of gloom, ruler and lover of the night and darkness, of
the world of phantoms and ghouls. Like the Furies she wielded
the whip and cord; she was followed by hell hounds, by writhing
serpents, lamiae, strygae and empusae, and figures of terror
and loathing. She presided over the dark mysteries of birth and
death; she was worshipped at night in the flare of torches. She
was the three-headed Hecate of the crossroads where little
round cakes or a lizard mask set about with candles were offered
to her in propitiation, that none of the phantom mob
might cross the threshold of man.
Love-magic and death-magic, the usual forms of sorcery, became
common in Greece as elsewhere. Love philters and
charms were eagerly sought, the most innocent being bitten apples
and enchanted garlands. Means of protection against the
evil eye became a necessity, tales of bewitchment were spread
abroad, and misfortune and death were being brought upon
the innocent and unwary by means of a waxen figure molded
in their image and tortured by the sorceress.
In tombs and secret places, leaden tablets were buried with
inscriptions of the names of foes and victims and pierced
through with a nail in order to bring disaster and death upon
them. At this time it became law that no one who practiced sorcery
might participate in the Eleusinian Mysteries, and at Athens
a Samian Sorceress, Theoris, was cast to the flames.
Orphic Magic
The introduction of Egyptian influences were due generally
to the agency of Orpheus and Pythagoras, who, while in Egypt,
had been initiated into the mysteries. The story of Orpheus
shows him as preeminently the wonder-worker, but one of beneficence
and beauty. To men of his time, everything was enchantment
and prodigy. By the irresistible power of his music
he constrained the rocks, trees, and animals to follow him; at
his behest storms arose or abated. He was the necromancer,
who by his golden music overcame the powers of darkness, and,
descending to the world of shades, found his beloved Eurydice.
They gained the upper air that brought her back to the living
Jealous women tore him limb from limb, and his head floated
down the waters of the Hebrus and was cast on the rocky
shores of Lesbos where, still retaining the power of speech, it
uttered oracles that gave guidance to people. Orpheus was believed
to have instructed the Greeks in medicine and magic,
and for long afterward remedies, magical formulas, incantations,
and charms were engraved upon Orphean tablets and
the power of healing was ascribed to the Orphean hymns.
Pythagoras, a philosopher, geometrician, and magician who
was tireless in the pursuit of knowledge, had an immense influence
on the thought of his time. After his return from Egypt he
founded a school where to those who had previously undergone
severe and drastic discipline he communicated his wide
and varied knowledge. He was also credited with miraculous
powers such as being visible at the same hour in places as far
apart as Italy and Sicily, taming a bear by whispering in its ear,
and calling an eagle from its flight to alight on his wrist.
Among the greatest features of religious life were the mysteries
held at periodic intervals in connection with the different
deities, such as the Samothracian, the Bacchic, and, most famous
of all, the Eleusinian. Their origin is to be traced mostly
to a prehistoric nature-worship and vegetation-magic.
All these mysteries had three trials or baptisms by water,
fire, and air, and three specially sacred emblems, the phallus,
egg, and serpent, generative emblems sacred in many secret
The Samothracian centered around four mysterious deities
Axieros, the mother; her children Axiocersos, male; Axiocersa,
female; and Casindos the originator of the universe. The festival
probably symbolized the creation of the world and also the
harvest and its growth. Connected with this mystery was the
worship of Cybele, goddess of the earth, cities, and fields. Her
priests, the Corybantes, dwelt in a cave where they held their
ceremonies, including a wild and orgiastic weapon-dance, accompanied
by the incessant shaking of heads and clanging of
swords on shields.
The cult of Bacchus, it was thought, had been carried into
Greece from Egypt by Melampus. He was the god of the vine
and vegetation, and his mysteries typified the growth of the
vine and the vintage—the winter sleep of all plant life and its
renewal in spring. Women were his chief attendants—the Bacchantes,
who, clashing cymbals and uttering wild cries in invocation
of their god, became possessed by ungovernable fury
and homicidal mania.
Greatest of all in their relation to Hellenic life were the Eleusinian
Mysteries. These were the paramount interest and function
of the state religion exerting the widest, strongest influence
on people of all classes. The rites were secret and their
details are practically unknown, but they undoubtedly symbolized
the myth of Demeter, corn-goddess, and were held in
spring and September.
Prior to initiation, a long period of purification and preparation
was enforced. During this time the higher meaning of
the myth was ingrained. The original meaning became exalted
by the genius of the Greeks into an intimate allegory of the soul
of man, its birth, life, death, descent into Hades, and subsequent
release therefrom. After this came the central point of
the mysteries, the viewing of certain holy and secret symbols;
next, a crowning of garlands, signifying the happiness that
arises from friendship with the divine. The festival also embodied
a scenic representation of the story of Demeter, the
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rape of Persephone, the sorrow of the mother, her complaints
before Zeus, and the final reconciliation.
Women played a great part in this, the reason being that as
they themselves ‘‘produce,’’ so by sympathetic magic their influence
was conveyed to the corn, as when crying aloud for rain
they looked upward to the skies, then down to the earth with
cries of ‘‘Conceive!’’ These priestesses were crowned with poppies
and corn, symbolical attributes of the deity they implored.
Besides the priests and priestesses attached to the different
temples, there was an order of men called ‘‘interpreters,’’
whose business was divining the future by various means such
as the flight of birds and entrails of victims. These men often
accompanied the armies in order to predict the success or failure
of operations during warfare and thus avert the possibility
of mistakes in the campaign. They fomented or repressed revolutions
in state and government by their predictions.
The most celebrated interpreters were those of Elis, where
in two or three families, notably the Iamidae and the Clytidae,
this peculiar gift or knowledge was handed down from father
to son for generations. There were also others who were authorized
by the state, both men and women, who professed to read
the future in natural and unnatural phenomena, eclipses, thunder,
dreams, unexpected sight of certain animals, convulsive
movement of eyelids, tingling of the ears, sneezing, and a few
words casually dropped by a passerby.
In the literature and philosophies of Greece, magic in all its
forms is found as a theme for imagination, discussion, and belief.
In the hands of the tragic poets, sorceresses such as Circe
and Medea became figures of terror and death, embodiments
of evil.
Pythagoras left no writings but on his theories were founded
those of Empedocles and Plato. In the verses of Empedocles he
teaches the theory of reincarnation, he himself remembering
previous existences wherein he was a boy, a girl, a plant, a fish
and a bird. He also claimed to teach the secrets of miraculous
medicine, of the reanimation of old age, of bringing rain,
storm, or sunshine, and of recalling the dead.
Aristides, the Greek orator, gave exhaustive accounts of the
many dreams he experienced during sleep in the temples and
the cures prescribed therein. Socrates told of his attendant spirit
or genius who warned him, and others through his agency,
of impending danger, also foretelling futurity. Xenophon,
treating of divination by dreams, maintained that in sleep the
human soul reveals her divine nature, and, being freed from
trammels of the body, gazes into futurity.
Plato, while inveighing against sorcery, took the popular superstitions
relating to magic, demons, and spirits and used
them as a basis for a spiritual and magical theory of things. On
his teaching would be founded the Neo-Platonists school,
which was among the most fervid defender of magic.
Aristotle stated that prediction is a purely natural quality of
the imagination. Both precognition and telepathy were crucial
in his reasoning. His philosophy allowed for the possibility of
parapsychological phenomena even if it could not be scientifically
proven. Another important figure and commentator from
Ancient Greece, Plutarch gave an exhaustive account on the
somnambulic states of the oracular priestess, Pythia, attributing
them to possession by the divinity.
Some of the later superstitions of the Hellenic archipelago
partake more of the nature of Slavonic tradition than that of
the ancient inhabitants of Greece. One of the most notable circumstances
in later Greek superstition relates to vampirism.
The vampire was called vroucolaca or broucolack by the
Greeks, and appears to have come into Greek thought from the
Slavic world in early medieval times. French researcher Augustine
Calmet, author of Dissertations Upon the Apparitions of Angels,
Daemons and Ghosts, and concerning . . . Vampires (1759) stated,
‘‘It is asserted by the modern Greeks, in defence of their
schism, and as a proof that the gift of miracles, and the episcopal
power of the keys, subsists in their church more visibly and
evidently than in the church of Rome, that, with them, the bodies
of excommunicated persons never rot, but swell up to an
uncommon size, and are stretched like drums, nor ever corrupt
or fall to dust, till they have received absolution from some
bishop or priest. And they produce many instances of carcasses
which have been in their graves uncorrupted, and which have
afterwards putrefied as soon as the excommunication was taken
‘‘They do not, however, deny that a body’s not corrupting
is sometimes a proof of sanctity, but in this case they expect it
to send forth an agreeable smell, to be white or ruddy, and not
black, stinking, and swelled like a drum, as the bodies of excommunicated
persons generally are. We are told, that in the
time of Manuel, or Maximus, patriarch of Constantinople, the
Turkish emperor having the mind to know the truth of the
Greek notion concerning the incorruption of excommunicated
bodies, the patriarch ordered the grave of a woman, who had
lived in a criminal commerce with an archbishop of Constantinople,
to be opened. Her body being found entire, black and
much swelled, the Turks put it into a chest, under the emperor’s
seal, and the patriarch having repeated a prayer, and given
absolution to the deceased, the chest was opened three days
after and the body was found reduced to ashes. It is also a notion
which prevails among the Greeks, that the bodies of these
excommunicated persons frequently appear to the living, both
day and night, and speak to them, call upon them, and disturb
them several other ways.
‘‘Leo Allatius is very particular upon this head, and says, that
in the isle of Chio, the inhabitants never answer the first time
they are called, for fear of its being a spectre; but if they are
called twice, they are sure it is not a Broucolack (this is the
name they give these spirits). If any one appears at the first call,
the spectre disappears, but the person certainly dies.
‘‘They have no way to get rid of these evil genii, but to dig
up the body of the person that has appeared, and burn it after
having repeated over it certain prayers. By this means the body
being reduced to ashes, appears no more. And they look upon
it as a clear case, that either these mischievous and spiteful carcasses
come out of their graves of their own accord, and occasion
the death of the persons that see or speak to them; or that
the devil himself makes use of these bodies to frighten and destroy
mankind. They have hitherto discovered no remedy
which more infallibly rids them of these plagues, than to burn
or mangle the bodies which were made use of for these cursed
purposes. Sometimes the end is answered by tearing out the
heart and letting the bodies rot above ground before they burn
them again, or by cutting off the head, or driving a large nail
through the temples.’’
Sir Paul Rycaut in his The Present State of the Greek & Armenian
Churches (1679) observed that the opinion that excommunicated
bodies are preserved from putrefaction prevails not
only among the Greeks, but also among the Turks, and he gives
us a fact that he had from a caloyer (monk) of Candia, who confirmed
it to him upon oath. The caloyer’s name was Sophronius,
a man well known and respected in Smyrna.
A man, who was excommunicated for a fault that he had
committed in the Morea, died on the island of Milo and was
buried in a private place, without any ceremonies, and in unconsecrated
ground. His relatives and friends expressed great
dissatisfaction that he was treated in this manner; soon after
that the inhabitants of the island were tormented every night
by frightful apparitions, which they attributed to this unhappy
man. Upon opening the grave his body was found entire; his
veins swelled with blood and a consultation was held upon the
subject with the caloyers dismembering his body, cutting it in
pieces, and boiling it in wine, which, it seems, is the usual manner
of proceeding there in those cases.
Encyclopedia of Occultism & Parapsychology • 5th Ed. GREECE
The friends of the deceased prevailed upon them, by dint
of entreaty, to delay the execution, and in the meantime sent
to Constantinople to get absolution for him from the patriarch.
Until the messenger could return, the body was laid in the
church, and prayers and masses were said daily for the repose
of his soul. One day while Sophronius, the caloyer above mentioned,
was performing the service, there was suddenly heard
a great noise in the coffin and upon examination the body was
found reduced to ashes, as if it had been dead seven years. Particular
notice was taken of the time when the noise was heard,
and it was found to be the very morning when the absolution
was signed by the patriarch. Sir Paul Rycaut, who has recorded
this event, was neither a Greek nor Roman Catholic, but a
staunch Protestant of the Church of England.
He observes upon this occasion that the notion among the
Greeks is that an evil spirit enters into the excommunicated
carcass and preserves it from corruption by performing the
usual functions of the human soul in a living body. They suppose
that these corpses eat by night and actually digest and are
nourished by their food; that several have been found of a
fresh, ruddy color, with their veins ready to burst with blood,
full forty days after their death; and that upon being opened
there is a large a quantity of warm, fresh blood as if it were coming
from a healthy young person. This opinion prevails so universally,
that everyone is furnished with a story to this purpose.
Father Theophilus Raynard, a Roman Catholic author of a
particular treatise upon this subject, asserted that this return of
the dead is an undoubted truth and is supported by unquestionable
facts. He also argued that to pretend that these spectres
are always excommunicated persons, and that the Church
of Greece has a privilege of preserving the bodies of those who
die in the church, is something that cannot be affirmed. It is
certain that excommunicated bodies rot as well as others, and
that several who have died in the communion of the church,
Greek as well as Roman, have continued uncorrupted. (In the
Western Roman tradition, to die and remain uncorrupted was
a sign of great sanctity.) There have even been instances of this
nature among the heathens, and frequently among other animals,
whose carcasses have been found unputrefied in the
ground, and among the ruins of old buildings.
In his book A Voyage Into the Levant (1741), J. Pittonde
Tournefort gave an account of the digging up of a believed
broucolack in the island of Mycone, where he was January 1,
Psychical Research & Spiritualism
Because of the religious control asserted by the Greek Orthodox
Church in the decades since modern Greece attained
independence from Turkey, Greece has been one of the most
hostile countries to the emergence of religious pluralism. Spiritualism,
Theosophy, and other new religious impulses, occult
and other aspects of the parapsychological movement have
found little open support among the people of the country. In
common with other European countries, Greek scientists did
take an active interest in psychical studies during the 1920s and
1930s. Prominent societies included the Hellenic Society of
Psychical Research and the Society for Psychical Research
and the Society for Psychic Studies. The most prominent researcher
was Angelos Tanagras, a high ranking naval officer
who edited the Revue Psychikae Creonae of Athens from 1925 onward.
He proposed a theory of precognition which involved the
psychokinetic action of the percipient, thus sidestepping the
issue of determinism.
At the present time, there are two active societies The Society
for the Scientific Study of Metaphysics, Rue Agathoupoleus
104, Athens; and the Psychic Society of Athens, 32 Tsiller-str.,
Athens 905. Both publish periodicals.
A society operating on the island of Cyprus not far from
Greece in the Mediterranean, a country that was often fought
over by both the Turks and the Greeks, is Psychognosis. Run
by Linda Leblanc and John Knowles, it is a center for the investigation
of psychic phenomena of all kinds. The society’s website
can be reached at
Abbott, G. F. Macedonian Folklore. Chicago Argonaut, Inc.,
Apuleius. The Golden Ass. Trans. Adlington. London William
Heineman, 1935.
Berger, Arthur S., and Joyce Berger. The Encyclopedia of
Parapsychology and Psychical Research. New York Paragon
House, 1991.
Fontenrose, Joseph. Python A Study of Delphic Myth and Its
Origins. Berkeley, Calif. University of California Press, 1959.
Lawson, John C. Modern Greek Folklore and Ancient Greek Religion.
1910. Reprint, New Hyde Park, N.Y. University Books,
Melton, J. Gordon. The Vampire Book An Encyclopedia of the
Undead. Detroit Gale Research, 1994.
Psychognosis Center, Island of Cyprus. http June 6, 2000.
Schwab, Gustav. Gods and Heroes Myths and Epics of Ancient
Greece. New York Pantheon Books, 1946.