Curses, Countercurses, Incantations, and More
Penn Museum Explores Magic in the Ancient World
In New Exhibition Opening Saturday, April 16
PHILADELPHIA, PA Spring 2016—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 opens 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.
Upcoming Program: Divination
A conference on ancient divination, developed to tie-in with the exhibition, is scheduled for Friday and Saturday, November 11 and 12. Friday will feature a scholarly conference, and Saturday will feature talks about divination practices by Peter Struck (Ancient Greece and Rome), Ann Guinan (Mesopotamia), and Adam Smith (China). There will also be opportunities to meet fortunetellers, tarot card readers, and other diviners practicing today. Details will be announced in late summer 2016.
A Collaborative Effort
Magic in the Ancient World, a collaborative exhibition, is co-curated by Robert Ousterhout, Penn Professor, History of Art, and Grant Frame, Associate Curator of the Babylonian Section of the Penn Museum and Associate Professor, Penn’s Near Eastern Languages and Civilizations. Ten Penn undergraduate and graduate students, participants in the spring 2015 curatorial seminar “Magic in the Museum,” were involved in the early exhibition development of the exhibition, including object selection, content organization, and draft label copy: Ariana Bray, Andie Davidson, Edward Epstein, Michael Freeman, Ryan Hall, Kate Murphy, Peter Snell, Alex Stern, Cynthia Susalla and Katrina Tomas.
The Museum’s exhibition team, led by Kate Quinn, Director of Exhibitions and Public Programs, created the special exhibition, on view in the Merle-Smith Gallery West.Magic in the Ancient World is made possible with support from the Charles K Williams, II, Art and Archaeology Publication Fund in the History of Art Department, SAS; Sheryl and Chip Kaye; Frederick J. Manning, W69, and the Manning Family; the Susan Drossman Sokoloff and Adam D. Sokoloff Exhibitions Fund, and the Smart Family Foundation.
Double the Magic
Get double the magic with the Penn Museum/The Mütter Museum joint ticket. Check out their permanent exhibit Grimms’ Anatomy: Magic and Medicine, which explores real-world examples of fairy-tale medicines and magical transformations. Double tickets ($26 adults; $22 seniors; $16 students/children 6 – 17) are on sale on sale exclusively at the museums' admission desks.
The Penn Museum (the University of Pennsylvania Museum of Archaeology and Anthropology) is dedicated to the study and understanding of human history and diversity. Founded in 1887, the Museum has sent more than 300 archaeological and anthropological expeditions to all the inhabited continents of the world. With an active exhibition schedule and educational programming for children and adults, the Museum offers the public an opportunity to share in the ongoing discovery of humankind's collective heritage.
The Penn Museum is located at 3260 South Street, Philadelphia, PA 19104 (on Penn's campus, across from Franklin Field). Public transportation to the Museum is available via SEPTA's Regional Rail Line at University City Station; the Market-Frankford Subway Line at 34th Street Station; trolley routes 11, 13, 34, and 36; and bus routes 21, 30, 40, and 42. Museum hours are Tuesday through Sunday, 10:00 am to 5:00 pm, and first Wednesdays of each month until 8:00 pm, with P.M. @ PENN MUSEUM evening programs offered. Closed Mondays and holidays. General admission is $15 for adults; $13 for senior citizens (65 and above); free for U.S. Military; $10 for children and full-time students with ID; free to Members, PennCard holders, and children 5 and younger. Admission into the special exhibition The Golden Age of King Midas (through November 27, 2016) is an additional $5 per person.
Hot and cold meals and light refreshments are offered to visitors with or without Museum admission in The Pepper Mill Café; the Museum Shop offers a wide selection of gifts, books, games, clothing and jewelry. Penn Museum can be found on the web at www.penn.museum. For general information call 215.898.4000. For group tour information call 215.746.8183.
Photos, top from left to bottom: Mesopotamian ceramic incantation bowl (circa 300-700 CE); terracotta Rider with a Gorgon Shield from Cyprus, (350-300 BCE); faience Wedjat Eye amulet from Egypt (circa 1539-656 BCE). Photos: Penn Museum.