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

Digging Deep…

Verifying the Historicity of the Bible

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In recent years, some doubt has emerged as to whether or not the Temple of Solomon existed at all. After the destruction of the Temple the ancient Israelites were left with little else but a memory of the Temple. Today, we are left with the insurmountable task of attempting to discover it, but without wreaking havoc upon the Temple Mount. There are several ways of going about to argue for its existence: some methods include archaeological discoveries around the Temple Mount and the city of Jerusalem, as well as comparing biblical descriptions of the Temple to contemporary Iron Age temples that have been excavated. Even though archaeologists such as Eliat Mazar have claimed to have discovered a section of a city wall dating around the tenth century BCE in Jerusalem (February 2010), which could plausibly have been built by King Solomon. There is a strong case for this to be true (large stone masonry, as well as the pottery found at the site dating from around the tenth century BCE). However, in the fervour that followed, time was not taken to analyze the finds before going to press. These finds may or may not prove to be significant.

Fortunately, we are not bound to the confines of determining its existence based on the chance of discovering tenth century structures around the Ophel area (Jerusalem’s Old City). We can expand our searches beyond Jerusalem by comparing the biblical descriptions of the Temple with contemporary Iron Age temples at ‘Ain Dara’, Tell Ta’yinat and Arad. In sum, these Iron Age are Syro-Phoenician and the Phoenicians were the master masons during this time. All three structures are tripartite langraum (“long-room”) temples. According to 1 Kings: 6-7 and Ezekiel 40-42 the Temple was of a similar structure. Similar building materials were also used; the hekal (vestibule) was paneled with cedar wood and the floor of cypress (1 Kgs 6:15). In Biblical times, cedar trees from Lebanon were extremely valued and would have been imported to Jerusalem from Lebanon (1 Kgs 6). Interestingly, the May 21 online version of Biblical Archaeological Society notes that the wooden beams excavated from Herod’s Jerusalem Temple (c. 70 CE) could have been re-used (“secondary use” in archaeological terms) from the Temple of Solomon. Perhaps, then, this type of discovery can be used to validate not only Eliat Mazar’s claim to have uncovered some remnants of the Temple, but it also validates the argument to incorporate textual analysis of the Biblical texts with contemporary Syro-Phoenician temples.

Images: Temple Mount, ‘Ain Dara’.
For more information about Tell Ta’yinat, visit Tayinat Archaeological Project.

This post is based on research I conducted for my thesis, Writing and Remembering: Descriptions of the Temple of Solomon at the University of Toronto.