GRC30290 Magic in the Ancient World

Academic Year 2023/2024

Magic had a central place, alongside religion, in everyday ancient Greek and Roman lives. What beliefs did people in Antiquity have about magic and about how it worked? To answer these questions we will explore the descriptions of ancient witches, sorcerers, shamans, necromancers, oracles, ghosts, spells, and love potions, and the evidence of curses, voodoo dolls, and amulets from the ancient world, based on literary and historical sources. We will examine material from Classical Greece through to Late Antiquity, and the reception of ancient magic in more modern times (e.g. witch hunts, Harry Potter). The relationships between magic and ancient religion, Christianity, medicine, the law, philosophers, and the everyday lives of people from all levels of ancient society are key to our inquiry. We will use the sources to consider what the Greeks and Romans thought magic was, how they thought it worked, and why they used it.

This module is open to elective and international students. No prior learning is necessary, but some prior knowledge of the ancient world will be a help.

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Curricular information is subject to change

Learning Outcomes:

On completion of this module students should be able to:
* synthesise information about ancient magical practices based on the literary and historical sources;
* demonstrate critical understanding of the evidence within its literary, social and cultural contexts;
* evaluate different interpretations of the sources for ancient magic;
* recognise specific aspects of the sources for ancient magic;
* explain ideas clearly in writing.

These learning outcomes will be tested in the mid-term commentary assignment; in the in-class test; and in the end-of-semester Final Essay.

Indicative Module Content:

Topics include:

1. Magic and ancient religion: was there a difference between magic and religion in the ancient world?
2. Sorcerers, shamans, and mages (Greek and from the East)
3. Necromancy and ghosts
4. Witches and witchcraft in Greek literature
5. Erotic magic: witches in Latin literature, love potions
6. Curses, voodoo dolls and amulets
7. Magic and medicine: doctors, temple priests, and magical healing
8. Magic and rhetoric: magical speech and the powers of speech
9. Magic and Christianity: sorcerers during the time of Jesus
10. Magic and ancient legislation against it.

This list is indicative and subject to change.

Student Effort Hours: 
Student Effort Type Hours




Specified Learning Activities


Autonomous Student Learning




Approaches to Teaching and Learning:
This module is delivered through a combination of lectures and tutorials. The lectures will introduce you to ancient sources on the different topics and relevant methodology. In tutorials you will discuss ancient source material, historical context and methodological approaches in more depth. In order to understand the module content more fully you will need to keep up-to-date with the weekly reading lists of selected sources and modern scholarship.
Requirements, Exclusions and Recommendations
Learning Recommendations:

There is no required prior learning, but students will need some prior knowledge of Greek and Roman history and culture. If you are in doubt please email

Module Requisites and Incompatibles
Not applicable to this module.
Assessment Strategy  
Description Timing Open Book Exam Component Scale Must Pass Component % of Final Grade
Examination: – Up to 20 short questions (MCQ, true/false, multi-select, short answers in your own words) on a range of material and topics covered over the course of the module.
– One essay (choice of 5).
2 hour End of Trimester Exam No Graded No


Assignment: A commentary (up to 2000 words) on sources relating to magic in the ancient world, e.g. witches, werewolves, ghosts. Week 8 n/a Graded No


Carry forward of passed components
Resit In Terminal Exam
Spring No
Please see Student Jargon Buster for more information about remediation types and timing. 
Feedback Strategy/Strategies

• Feedback individually to students, post-assessment
• Group/class feedback, post-assessment

How will my Feedback be Delivered?

Students will receive individual written feedback on their commentary within 20 working days of submission. Students are welcome to arrange a meeting with the module coordinator to discuss their grade and feedback.

Sourcebook for this module:
D. Ogden, Magic Witchcraft, and Ghosts in the Greek and Roman Worlds, 2nd edition, Oxford University Press 2002, 2nd edition (available in full e-copy via the UCD James Joyce Library)

Selected modern scholarship:
D. Collins, Magic in the Ancient Greek World, Blackwell Publishing, 2008 (available via ebook in James Joyce Library)
M.W. Dickie, "Who practised love-magic in Classical Antiquity and in the Late Roman World?", Classical Quarterly, 50:1, 2007, pp. 563-583
M.W. Dickie, "Magic in Classical and Hellenistic Greece" in: D. Ogden, A Companion to Ancient Greek Religion, Oxford University Press, 1997
M.W. Dickie, Magic and magicians in the Greco-Roman World, Routledge, 2001 (available via ebook in James Joyce Library)
E. Eidinow, Oracles, curses and risk among the Ancient Greeks, Oxford University Press, 2007
C.A. Faraone, Ancient Greek Love Magic, Cambridge University Press, 1999
C.A. Faraone and D. Obbink, Magika Heira: Ancient Greek Magic and Religion, Oxford, 1991
D. Felton, Haunted Greece and Rome. Ghost Stories from Classical Antiquity, University of Austin Press, 1999
R. Fowler, "Greek Magic, Greek Religion", Illinois Classical Studies 20, 1995, pp. 1-22
J.G. Gager, Curse tablets and Binding Spells from the Ancient World, Oxford University Press, 1992
F. Graf, Magic in the Ancient World, Harvard University Press, 1997
S. Iles Johnston, Ancient Greek Divination, Wiley Blackwell Publishing, 2008
V. Nutton, Ancient Medicine, 2nd edition, Routledge, 2013
D. Ogden, Greek and Roman Necromancy, Princeton University Press, 2001 (available via ebook in James Joyce Library)
D. Ogden, The Werewolf in the Ancient World, Oxford University press, 2021 (ebook ordered for James Joyce Library)
J.B. Rives, “Magic in the XII Tables revisited”, Classical Quarterly 52:1 (2002), pp. 270-290
J.B. Rives, “Magic in Roman Law: The Reconstruction of a Crime”, Classical Antiquity 22, 2003, pp. 313-39
H.S. Versnel, “Some reflections on the relationship "Magic-Religion”, Numen 38:2, 1991, pp. 177-197
Timetabling information is displayed only for guidance purposes, relates to the current Academic Year only and is subject to change.
Lecture Offering 1 Week(s) - 1, 2, 3, 4, 5, 6, 7, 9, 10, 11, 12 Wed 13:00 - 13:50
Seminar Offering 1 Week(s) - 2, 4, 6, 10, 12 Wed 12:00 - 12:50
Seminar Offering 2 Week(s) - 2, 4, 6, 10, 12 Tues 12:00 - 12:50
Seminar Offering 3 Week(s) - 2, 4, 6, 10, 12 Fri 12:00 - 12:50