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.

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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.

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