Greek Magic & Historiolas

When Daenerys of the Game of Thrones series looks for help to heal her beloved Khal Drogo she accepts the healing arts of Mirri Maz Duur, who knows “how to make the sacred smokes and ointments from leaf and root and berry.” It sounds much more compelling than current practices today of antibiotics and painkillers. Something about the supernatural is enticing, and its place does not lie solely in the imaginations of authors.


In this line of thought, the ancient Greeks created historiolas (little stories) as explanations for ailments and disease. In fact, the earliest evidence of ancient Greek medicine reveals the belief that the causes of disease, and the operation of the remedies applied to the sick, were linked with beliefs in magic and the supernatural. Even headaches and migraines could be chalked up to supernatural causes. One specific lamellae discovered (of four), presents the most distinctive use of a historiola in ancient magical documents. In it, Antaura, the Greek demon of migraine headaches, rises up from the sea, moves like the wind, shouts like a deer and cries like an ox. She enters into people’s heads to cause intense pain. This lamella, dating from the 3rd Century CE was placed in a stone coffin, with an inscription, “Antaura, where are you taking yourself?” “Into the half-of-the-head.” “You certainly will not go into the…”  This term, “Half-of-the-head” is Greek for migraine, hemikranton. 

Of course, in this historiola, Antaura is no match for Artemis, who had dismissed her as she made her way into the victim’s head, and accompanied by fellow migraine demons, they prevent Artemis from attempting to enter. Thus, Artemis diverts Antaura into the head of a bull in the mountains. This particular amulet was likely passed down within a family of sufferers, as it is much older than the coffin in which it is found.

*The image above is a Greek magical gemstone from the Black Sea. It dates from the Roman imperial period and thought to be found among the ruins of ancient Gorgippia. Even though it is not the specific lamella discussed above, it’s a good example.

Much of the information is from Daniel Ogden’s sourcebook, Magic, Witchcraft, and Ghosts in the Greek and Roman Worlds. New York, NY: Oxford University Press, p. 266.

The Development of Writing: A Not-so-Linear Path



Image: 2″ x 3″ tablet discovered during the 2011 excavation season in Iklaina, Greece (Messenia region), led by Dr. Michael Cosmopolous of the University of Missouri-St. Louis. (Photo:, taken by Christian Mundigler.)

From the Paleolithic cave paintings in France (Pech-Merle; Lascaux), the famous hieroglyphs of Egypt, up until modern-day languages and writing systems, the profundity of  the development and evolution of the written language (and the fact of writing itself) is often overlooked. Until, that is, something amazing is found, such as this Mycenaean clay tablet, perhaps 3,500 years old. The significance of this discovery cannot be over-stated: it is the oldest inscription to ever have been found (thus far) in European and Greek soil. It is a clay plate written in a script known as Linear B.

According to To Vima (TO BHMA), a Greek daily newspaper, it has the potential to change much of the data and knowledge regarding the use of Linear B and the spread of writing. It is a syllabic script that was used for Mycenaean Greek (16th to 12th centuries BCE). It is generally thought that the application of this script was for administrative purposes and there are more than five thousand documents (mostly clay tablets) that contain this script (1).

According to the 2011 report, the focus was on the Cyclopean Terrace and Building X. South of the Terrace painted sherds were uncovered, along with animal bones (mostly of pigs and sheep/goats). To the north of the Terrace were two deposits, the upper one containing pottery. I don’t know where exactly the tablet was found (alas), which I speculate would shed light on what the tablet was recording, but my guess is that it could have accounted for the livestock, being that the finds appear to have consisted mostly of various types of pottery in addition to the remains of animal bones.

When we look at ancient scripts such as Linear B, we are looking at the early foundations of writing. What is interesting (to me), is that if this script was indeed only used in administrative contexts, not reflecting the spoken language, it shows that at this time (correct me if wrong!) there were two parallel languages: the written language and the spoken language. Fascinatingly, the two gradually merged and perhaps that is why scripts such as Linear B fell out of use.

(1) Anne-Marie Christin (ed.), A History of Writing (Paris: Flammarion, 2002), 200.
For a summary of information on Mycenaeans, click here

The Ancient Gnomon

In the Odyssey, Homer wrote (Od.1.25-28):

Poseidon had gone to visit the Ethiopians worlds away,
Ethiopians off at the farthest limits of mankind,
A people split in two, one part where the Sungod sets
And part where the Sungod rises.

This passage describes the general progress of the Sun’s advancement throughout the day. This passage is significant because it shows us that even long before myths were being written down (c. eighth or seventh centuries BCE for Homer), geographical routes and astronomical information were being transmitted via oral tradition. It seems as though the ancient Greeks “named the directions of summer and winter Sunrise or Sunset, as distinct from the east and west directions in the spring and autumn seasons of equal days and nights” (1). Using the sun was key to determining geographical and chronological information in the Ancients’ daily lives and in travel.

ancient sundial

Above is an ancient Egyptian sundial (c. 13th century BCE). The fact that this 19th Dynasty sundial pre-dates Homer demonstrates the advancement of technologies in determining time. Dating to the 19th dynasty, this particular sundial was found on the floor of a workman’s hut, in the Valley of the Kings, where the pharaohs and nobles were buried during Egypt’s New Kingdom period (around 1550 B.C. to 1070 B.C.).

Eratosthenes map 194bce

The world as known and documented by Erastothenes (276-195 BCE). Besides being most famously known as a Greek mathemetician, he was also a well-known historian, astronomer and geographer. He is considered to be the first person “to reduce the problem of terrestrial position-finding to a regular system,” which he based upon the gnomon (2).

Anaximander (610-546 BCE, a pre-Socratic Greek philosopher who lived in Miletus, a city of Ionia) is credited with introducing this Babylonian instrument to the Greeks. The gnomon (γνώμων, literally “one that knows or examines”) is the part of a sundial that casts the shadow and is used for a variety of purposes in mathematics and other fields. In the fourth century BCE, Pytheas of Massalia gave much attention to the measurement of latitude by way of the gnomon (3). The “bisection of the angle between two shadows of equal length was sufficient to establish a precise meridian line, and so to divide the compass or horizon circle” (4). With the use of the gnomon, and the knowledge that the shape of the earth is spherical and “that the Sun’s annual path across the concave” is at an inclination, the ancients could then compare latitudes of places by lengths of the midday shadows of the gnomon (5).

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Link to map of Erastothenes here
Link to image of gnomon here

1. E.G.R. Taylor, The Haven-Finding Art: A History of Navigation from Odysseus to Captain Cook (London: Hollis & Carter, 1956), 10.
2. Charles H. Cotter, A History of Nautical Astronomy (Toronto: Hollis & Carter, 1968), 12.
3. Ibid., 19.
4. Taylor, Haven-Finding, 44.
5. Cotter, History, 128.

Rites and Swallows


In honour of the arrival of summer, I’m dedicating this post to a little bird I now pass by whenever I walk through Nathan Philips Square in Toronto: the swallow. We know these birds for their cuteness and their uncanny ability to show up out of nowhere when eating something that could have crumbs. More relevantly (for this post), these birds did not go unnoticed by the ancient Minoans in Greece either.

Pictured above is the “Spring Fresco” in Room 2 (the “Room of the Lilies”) of Building Delta at Akrotiri, Thera (modern-day Santorini, Greece). Thera is one of the very few almost intact Aegean Bronze Age wall paintings found in situ (1). In her article, “A Flight of Swallows,” Karen Foster calls for a reinterpretation of the swallows painted on these walls, a reinterpretation that will shed new light on the room “as a cultic space in which iconography and architecture combined to create a dramatic setting for epiphanic ritual.”(2). She claims that instead of interpreting the image as peaceful and almost fun-loving, the imagery is almost bacchic, arguing the birds exhibit “classic signs of…high-intensity display, of which is possession of airborne feathers for use in nests”(3).

Foster’s is a poignant article because she demonstrates that we risk losing sight of the fact that these motifs might actually represent a very different element of Minoan religion that we do not comprehend. The swallow is an indigenous Theran motif from the Middle Cycladic period appears to have influenced the wall paintings of Late Cycladic I paintings, such as the “Spring Fresco” from Delta 2 (4).

The advent of modernity led to the creation of two fundamentally different ontological zones: that of human beings on the one hand and of non-humans on the other (1). Rapid, far-reaching innovations in technology have created a wide divide between living beings (humans, animals) and non-living beings (material objects). Consequently, we no longer see animism in a rock or in the personality of a teddy bear. Representations of swallows are prominent throughout Akrotiri in frescoes found in rooms Delta 2, Xeste 3:4, Beta 6, Arvaniti 1 and West House 5. Pottery with swallow representations are found at the West House, Xeste 3 upper story, Arvaniti 2, Delta 9:1, Arvaniti 1 or 3, Bronou 2 upper room, Arvaniti 2:2, House of Ladies 1, repository 3 and West House 6 (5). Is this because swallows were simply easy and/or beautiful to paint or do they represent or play a part in a ritual that is part of Minoan religion as a whole?

1. Mary B. Hollinshead, American Journal of Archaeology, vol. 93, no. 3 (Jul., 1989): 339. Online version is here. 2. Karen Polinger Foster, “A Flight of Swallows,” American Journal of Archaeology 99 (1995): 409. 3. Ibid. 4. Heather Mae Russell, “Sacred or Profane: Swallow-Painted Nippled Ewers from Akrotiri” in SOMA 2004: Symposium on the Mediterranean Archaeology: Proceedings of the Eighth Annual Meeting of Postgraduate Researchers, School of Classics, Trinity College Dublin. 20 – 22 February 2004, ed. Jo Day et al. (Oxford: Archaeopress, 2006), 149, quoting from M. Mathari. 5. Foster, “A Flight of Swallows,” 424-5.

Link to image here