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Compiling Magic: the Scribe at Work

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December 13, 2022

Event Subtitle / Short Description

Speaker & Affiliation

Sofía Torallas Tovar, University of Chicago


4:30 pm - 6:00 pm
East Pyne 010 and via Zoom


For the past seven years I have been reediting, translating, and studying the magical handbooks from Roman Egypt preserved on papyrus. A magical formulary is a collection of instructions for the performance of different spells and rituals, generally designed for private use. These “recipe” books systematize traditions of knowledge developed to deal with a wide range of everyday human concerns. Such instructions for ritual procedures (praxeis) are not usually considered alongside other genres considered more “scientific,” such as medical, astronomical, and mathematical­ compilations.  In fact, “ambitious magical formularies” are similar to these genres in their effort to compile and organize technical knowledge and have the invaluable advantage of surviving in the form of a considerable corpus of papyri, allowing us to observe scribal practices of compilation and transmission. In this paper I will present a methodology to uncover and understand these ancient practices of compilation – storage, standardization, manipulation and presentation– derived from scribal observation in the magical formularies.