Monday, February 29, 2016

Review of Faraone, Vanishing Acts on Ancient Greek Amulets

Christopher A. Faraone, Vanishing Acts on Ancient Greek Amulets: From Oral Performance to Visual Design. BICS supplement, 115. London: Institute of Classical Studies, School of Advanced Study, University of London, 2012. Pp. xii, 105. ISBN 9781905670406. £38.00 (pb).

Reviewed by Katherine McDonald, Gonville and Caius College, University of Cambridge (

[The Table of Contents is listed at the end of the review.]

The ‘vanishing acts’ of the title refer to the ‘vanishing’ names or words on ancient amulets: these names are written over and over on magical amulets, one letter shorter on each repetition, so that the word ‘disappears’ by the end of the text. These texts were referred to in ancient times as ‘wing-shaped’ (if they made a right-angled triangle) and ‘heart-shaped’ (if they made an isosceles triangle, usually by deleting letters from both the beginning and the end of each line). In the early twentieth century, these were viewed as curative amulets which cured illness by gradually ‘deleting’ a disease or the demon who caused it, a process dubbed deletio morbi. More recent scholarship had moved away from this view of wing- and heart-shaped texts, noting that these ‘vanishing’ texts could be used to summon as well as banish — for example, to call on a demon in a love spell, or to encourage menstrual bleeding to start. In this short monograph Faraone seeks to revive the idea of deletio morbi by showing that it constitutes the earliest stage of an evolving magical tradition, while acknowledging the large degree of variation which exists within this small corpus.


Regarding the language of the amulets, Faraone shows that words which appear at first sight to be nonsense (and may, in some cases, have seemed to be nonsense even to the original users of the spell) can in fact be shown to have origins in understandable Greek words or names, often with a plausible connection to the disease which the charm was supposed to cure. In the examples from Aramaic and Coptic, for example, Greek words and names have often been transliterated into other writing systems; the Latin word morbus ‘disease’ also appears backwards on a number of Greek amulets as ΣΟΥΒΡΟΜ (p18). These transliterations quickly seem to become ‘nonsense’ magical words to the users of the spells, showing the important role of language contact in the creation of magical traditions in the Mediterranean. The author’s focus on the interplay between orality and writing throughout the book is thoughtful, and is present in all of his close readings. But he could go even further, since literacy probably also had an effect on the first, oral stage of the five-stage development he lays out. The practice of reciting names which reduce by one letter-sound each time must itself be heavily influenced by alphabetic literacy, since non-literate individuals do not usually segment words into phonemes in this way (Morais et al 1979; Manfrellotti 2001). It seems therefore that even the earliest oral stage of vanishing names may have been dependent on written versions in handbooks, or at least heavily influenced by the alphabetic literacy that was present in Greek society of the first century AD.

The Aramaic texts are Jewish Babylonian incantation bowls.