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Penn Museum in Philadelphia explores magic in the ancient world in new exhibition
Wedjat Eye Amulet. Faience, 1539–656 BCE. Egypt. Photo: Penn Museum for photography.


PHILADELPHIA, PA.- Protective amulets, incantation bowls, curse tablets, powerful rings, magical stones, and anatomical votives—these objects and more, once used by ancient peoples seeking to fulfill desires through supernatural means, are featured in Magic in the Ancient World. The new exhibition opened Saturday, April 16 at the Penn Museum in Philadelphia, and runs through April 2017.

Deeply entwined with science and religion, magic was a real and everyday part of life for many ancient peoples around the world. Ancient magic addressed many of the dreams, hopes, and passions humans grapple with today: desire for health and wellbeing, protection from evil—even revenge. Magic in the Ancient World takes a survey approach, featuring 81 artifacts from the Penn Museum’s collections. The exhibition explores some of the magical objects, words, and rituals used in ancient Egypt, Mesopotamia, Greece, and Rome.

Are people who used magic in the ancient world so different from people today? The exhibition invites guests to reflect at two interactive stations: one that provides ancient magical solutions (via objects found in the gallery) to modern problems, and a second that asks guests to consider their own magical thinking via a survey, “do you believe in magic?”

Magic for Many Purposes
After a brief introduction into the unique perspectives on magic held by ancient Egyptians, Mesopotamians, Greeks, and Romans, the exhibition considers diverse uses of magic: for protection; for health and healing; for curses and countercurses; for wielding secret power; and for special help in the afterlife.

A Near Eastern frog amulet (circa 1400 to 1000 BCE) could encourage good luck; the frightful Macedonian Gorgon face on a silver coin (circa 411 to 350 BCE) could keep enemies at bay; the popular wedjat eye amulet from Egypt (circa 1539-636 BCE) symbolized health and protection; Mesopotamian incantation bowls (circa 300 to 700 CE), decorated with Aramaic spells and bound demons, offered protection.

While some magic was intended for protection, other magic was less benign: magical curses could harm, impair, or disable one’s enemies. Roman lead curse tablets from Beth Shean (circa 100 BCE to 400 CE), and Babylonian anti-witchcraft clay tablets (circa 750-300 BCE), offer insight into ways that people have attempted to lay curses upon others—or combat perceived bewitching.

In ancient Egypt, magic was used extensively to help the dead achieve a happy afterlife. There were magical spells from the Book of the Dead (a sample on papyrus dates to circa 1279-1213 BCE), and elegantly carved canopic jars (circa 1539-1292 BCE) bearing likenesses of gods, designed to protect the deceased’s internal organs. Inside the tomb, enchanted shabti figurines (circa 1075-945 BCE) were ready to come to life and do the work that the deceased would be otherwise obligated to perform in the underworld.

There was secret magic, too. Through mystical arts, practitioners sought to transform metals into gold, read minds, see the future, control the gods—even become immortal. Throughout the Mediterranean, magical rings and gems, created as objects to grant their bearer godlike magical powers, were made. A selection of magical rings, gems, and pendants, from 200 - 500 CE, bear testament to the beauty—and diverse uses—of these small treasures.

Frequently invoked to heal the sick and protect women in childbirth, magic was often used in addition to, or in lieu of, medical treatments of the day. An ivory wand from Egypt (ca. 1938-1739 BCE) was used to draw a protective circle around a woman giving birth or nursing. Anatomical offerings, like a terracotta foot votive (circa 300-100 BCE) from Etruscan Italy, were dedicated to a god for healing the body part represented.

Erotic plaques, examples of which come from Babylon (circa 2000-1800 BCE) and ancient Egypt (circa 1539-1075 BCE) may have been in use in magic rituals to ensure potency. Sexual acts could also be interpreted as portents of the future.






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