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Spells, charms, erotic dolls: love magic in the ancient Mediterranean



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Statue of Eros of the type of Centocelle. Roman artwork of the 2nd century AD, probably a copy after a Greek original.
Wikimedia Commons

Marguerite Johnson, University of Newcastle

In our sexual histories series, authors explore changing sexual mores from antiquity to today.


It was a well-kept secret among historians during the late 19th and early 20th centuries that the practice of magic was widespread in the ancient Mediterranean. Historians wanted to keep the activity low-key because it did not support their idealised view of the Greeks and Romans. Today, however, magic is a legitimate area of scholarly enquiry, providing insights into ancient belief systems as well as cultural and social practices.

While magic was discouraged and sometimes even punished in antiquity, it thrived all the same. Authorities publicly condemned it, but tended to ignore its powerful hold.

Erotic spells were a popular form of magic. Professional magic practitioners charged fees for writing erotic charms, making enchanted dolls (sometimes called poppets), and even directing curses against rivals in love.

Magic is widely attested in archaeological evidence, spell books and literature from both Greece and Rome, as well as Egypt and the Middle East. The Greek Magical Papyri, for example, from Graeco-Roman Egypt, is a large collection of papyri listing spells for many purposes. The collection was compiled from sources dating from the second century BC to the fifth century AD, and includes numerous spells of attraction.




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Some spells involve making dolls, which were intended to represent the object of desire (usually a woman who was either unaware or resistant to a would-be admirer). Instructions specified how an erotic doll should be made, what words should be said over it, and where it should be deposited.

The Louvre Doll.
Wikimedia Commons

Such an object is a form of sympathetic magic; a type of enchantment that operates along the principle of “like affects like”. When enacting sympathetic magic with a doll, the spell-caster believes that whatever action is performed on it – be it physical or psychic – will be transferred to the human it represents.

The best preserved and most notorious magical doll from antiquity, the so-called “Louvre Doll” (4th century AD), depicts a naked female in kneeling position, bound, and pierced with 13 needles. Fashioned from unbaked clay, the doll was found in a terracotta vase in Egypt. The accompanying spell, inscribed on a lead tablet, records the woman’s name as Ptolemais and the man who made the spell, or commissioned a magician to do so, as Sarapammon.

Violent, brutal language

The spells that accompanied such dolls and, indeed, the spells from antiquity on all manner of topics, were not mild in the language and imagery employed. Ancient spells were often violent, brutal and without any sense of caution or remorse. In the spell that comes with the Louvre Doll, the language is both frightening and repellent in a modern context. For example, one part of the spell directed at Ptolemais reads:

Do not allow her to eat, drink, hold out, venture out, or find sleep …

Another part reads:

Drag her by the hair, by the guts, until she no longer scorns me …

A Coptic codex with magic spells, 5-6th century AD from the Museo Archeologico, Milan.
Wikimedia Commons

Such language is hardly indicative of any emotion pertaining to love, or even attraction. Especially when combined with the doll, the spell may strike a modern reader as obsessive (perhaps reminiscent of a stalker or online troll) and even misogynistic. Indeed, rather than seeking love, the intention behind the spell suggests seeking control and domination. Such were the gender and sexual dynamics of antiquity.

But in a masculine world, in which competition in all aspects of life was intense, and the goal of victory was paramount, violent language was typical in spells pertaining to anything from success in a court case to the rigging of a chariot race. Indeed, one theory suggests that the more ferocious the words, the more powerful and effective the spell.

Love potions

Most ancient evidence attests to men as both professional magical practitioners and their clients. There was a need to be literate to perform most magic (most women were not educated) and to be accessible to clients (most women were not free to receive visitors or have a business). However, some women also engaged in erotic magic (although the sources on this are relatively scarce).

In ancient Athens, for example, a woman was taken to court on the charge of attempting to poison her husband. The trial was recorded in a speech delivered on behalf of the prosecution (dated around 419 BC). It includes the woman’s defence, which stated that she did not intend to poison her husband but to administer a love philtre to reinvigorate the marriage.




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The speech, entitled Against the Stepmother for Poisoning by Antiphon, clearly reveals that the Athenians practised and believed in love potions and may suggest that this more subtle form of erotic magic (compared to the casting of spells and the making of enchanted dolls) was the preserve of women.

Desire between women

Within the multiplicity of spells found in the Greek Magical Papyri, two deal specifically with female same sex desire. In one of these, a woman by the name of Herais attempts to magically entreat a woman by the name of Serapis. In this spell, dated to the second century AD, the gods Anubis and Hermes are called upon to bring Serapis to Herais and to bind Serapis to her.

Statue of a young seated Hermes (the Greek messenger god) at rest.
Wikimedia Commons

In the second spell, dated to the third or fourth century AD, a woman called Sophia seeks out a woman by the name of Gorgonia. This spell, written on a lead tablet, is aggressive in tone; for example:

Burn, set on fire, inflame her soul, heart, liver, spirit, with love for Sophia …

Gods and goddesses were regularly summoned in magic. In the spell to attract Serapis, for example, Anubis is included based on his role as the god of the secrets of Egyptian magic. Hermes, a Greek god, was often included because as a messenger god, he was a useful choice in spells that sought contact with someone.

Anubis depicted as a jackal in the tomb of Tutankhamen.
Wikimedia Commons

The tendency to combine gods from several cultures was not uncommon in ancient magic, indicative of its eclectic nature and perhaps a form of hedging one’s bets (if one religion’s god won’t listen, one from another belief system may).

Deities with erotic connections were also inscribed on gems to induce attraction. The Greek god of eroticism, Eros was a popular figure to depict on a gemstone, which could then be fashioned into a piece of jewellery.

The numerous erotic spells in antiquity – from potions to dolls to enchanted gems and rituals – not only provide information about magic in the ancient Mediterranean world, but the intricacies and cultural conventions around sexuality and gender.

The rigid system of clearly demarcated gender roles of active (male) and passive (female) partners, based on a patriarchy that championed dominance and success at all costs, underpinned the same societies’ magical practices. Yet it is important to note that even in magic featuring people of the same sex, aggressive language is employed because of the conventions that underlined ancient spells.

The ConversationStill magic remains, in part, a mystery when it comes to erotic practice and conventions. The two same-sex spells from the Greek Magical Papyri, for example, attest to the reality of erotic desire among ancient women, but do not shed light on whether this type of sexuality was condoned in Roman Egypt. Perhaps such desires were not socially approved; hence the recourse to magic. Perhaps the desires of Sarapammon for Ptolemais were also outside the bounds of acceptability, which led him to the surreptitious and desperate world of magic.

Marguerite Johnson, Professor of Classics, University of Newcastle

This article was originally published on The Conversation. Read the original article.


The race to save up to 50 shipwrecks from looters in Southeast Asia


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The stern of HMAS Sydney.
Courtesy of Curtin University and WA Museum. © WA Museum

Natali Pearson, University of Sydney

Recent research presented at a maritime archaeology conference has revealed at least 48 shipwrecks – including WWII ships and some post-war vessels – have been illicitly salvaged in Southeast Asia. This figure is an astonishing escalation from the handful of wrecks already known to have been damaged or destroyed.

Japan has lost the most wrecks. Other nations affected include Australia, America, the Netherlands, Britain, Germany and Sweden.

However, sources close to the issue suggest that the figure may be much higher still, with one Chinese company claiming to have salvaged over 1,000 wrecks in the South China Sea.

It is now a race against time to protect these wrecks and preserve the histories they embody. Museums can play a key role. For instance, exhibitions such as the Australian National Maritime Museum’s current Guardians of Sunda Strait testify to the continuing resonance of these ships’ stories even as the sites themselves are destroyed.

This exhibition, which looks at the WWII loss of HMAS Perth and USS Houston, is made more poignant by the fact that HMAS Perth, in particular, has been heavily salvaged in recent years.


Further reading Ghost ships: why are World War II naval wrecks vanishing in Indonesia?


The emotional echo of the stories of courage and sacrifice told here – such as that of HMAS Perth veteran Arthur Bancroft, who was shipwrecked not once but twice, and USS Houston’s Chaplain Rentz, who insisted a young signalman take his lifejacket after the ship sank – is amplified, not diminished, by the accompanying contemporary tragedy.

Touchstone objects

Some countries, such as the US, have enacted legislation to protect their sunken military craft, regardless of where they rest.

At an international level, the 1982 UN Law of the Sea states that, unless explicitly abandoned, a flag state (the country where the vessel is registered) is entitled to exclusive jurisdiction over shipwrecks. This is also irrespective of whether the vessel sank in foreign waters or not.

Submerged for three decades, these ceramic plates from HMAS Perth were salvaged in the 1970s and eventually returned to the Royal Australian Navy.
Natali Pearson

For ships that have not been completely destroyed, there is a strong case to be made for the recovery of “touchstone objects” such as the ship’s bell on naval vessels – an item with which every officer and sailor, irrespective of rank, would be familiar.

In 2002, in response to concerns about the illicit salvaging of British wrecks in Malaysian waters, a team of Royal Navy divers oversaw the recovery of the bell from HMS Prince of Wales. This vessel was part of British naval squadron Force Z, established to protect Britain’s colonial interests in Southeast Asia. The force was destroyed in 1941 by Japanese aircraft. Reports indicate that the illicit salvage of HMS Prince of Wales, as well as nearby HMS Repulse, is ongoing.

Such strategic recovery initiatives must be the prerogative of the flag state, and strict conditions would need to apply. In many countries, this would require legislative changes. In instances where sunken war vessels are known to be underwater graves, the recovery of objects would also need to be conducted in consultation with survivors and descendants.

Snapping the past

Although we now know that many wrecks have been damaged, there are still some that remain untouched and even unlocated. For instance, the whereabouts of Australia’s first submarine, AE1, remains a mystery.

Meanwhile, near Savo Island in the Solomon Islands, HMAS Canberra rests upright and intact at the bottom of “Ironbottom Sound”. Scuttled after a damaging encounter with the Japanese in August 1942, the wreck was located in 1992 by Robert Ballard (better known for his discovery of RMS Titanic).

There is also a mystery hanging over the ship: with some suggesting the possibility that it was the victim of friendly fire. It is not known whether HMAS Canberra is at risk from salvagers, but there is no question that the ship will eventually succumb to natural degradation.

Well-preserved wrecks such as HMAS Canberra are prime candidates for one of the most exciting developments in maritime archaeology: digital preservation through photogrammetry. This involves a diver or a remote-operated vehicle taking thousands of photographs of a wreck and its debris field. These images are then digitally “stitched together” to create 3D visualisations, reconstructions and even replicas.

There is significant potential for such technology in a museum environment, not least of all because it enables new audiences to virtually access wreck sites while eliminating the challenges of depth, currents and poor visibility. Photogrammetry also surmounts legal barriers to access.

Curtin University’s HIVE facility is using big data, sophisticated algorithms and the processing power of a supercomputer to digitally preserve the wrecks of HMAS Sydney, lost in 1941 with all on board, and the German ship that sank her, HSK Kormoran. These wrecks are protected sites under Australian legislation, and are not accessible by the general public.

Sydney-Kormoran Project team members view 3D reconstructed models of HMAS Sydney II at the Curtin University HIVE.
Sam Proctor

Nor is photogrammetry limited to those with access to a supercomputer. Maritime archaeologist Matt Carter is currently developing a 3D model of the Japanese mini-submarine M-24, located off Sydney’s Bungan Head, using little more than high-resolution cameras, off-the-shelf software, and a lot of patience.

Gone, but not forgotten

The responsibilities of museums become more acute the more that heritage is threatened – not just by thieves and pirates, but by climate change, rising sea temperatures, the impact of both coastal and deep-sea development, and natural degradation. And, as with many terrestrial sites, underwater heritage is now increasingly threatened by the effects of tourism.

Heritage objects and sites are not ends in themselves. The real value of these things and places is in how they can be used to make meaning, to reflect on the past, and to translate and interpret it anew for future generations.

For me, the destruction of these 48 ships does not preclude their stories from being told. Illicit salvaging of underwater heritage, particularly the unauthorised disturbance of human remains, warrants strong condemnation.

But our ability to derive meaning from these wrecks is not diminished by their absence. Some scholars even go so far as to propose that the destruction of heritage, as distressing as it is, provides an incentive for more active and conscious forms of remembrance.


The ConversationGuardians of Sunda Strait will be on at the Australian National Maritime Museum until November 19.

Natali Pearson, PhD Candidate, Museum and Heritage Studies, University of Sydney

This article was originally published on The Conversation. Read the original article.


Imperialism



Today in History – 30 April 1492


Christopher Columbus: Receives His Commission of Exploration from Castile (Spain)

Christopher Columbus was born between the 22nd August and the 31st October 1451, in Genoa (now in Italy). Contrary to common belief Columbus did not discover America, but he did greatly increase European awareness of the New World.

The maritime career of Christopher Columbus began when he was 10 years old. In the years that followed he undertook a number of journeys on the open sea in various roles on various ships. In 1485 he began looking for an opportunity to explore and discover a western route to Asia. He presented his ideas to the king of Portugal and was ultimately frustrated after several attempts. He also tried England, Genoa, Venice and then Spain (Castile) in 1486. He was frustrated in all these attempts (England eventually agreed, but by that time Columbus was already in league with Castile), but the king and queen of Castile (Ferdinand II and Isabella I) retained his services and after many attempts he finally gained the support of Ferdinand II and Isabella I on this day in 1492.

In all, Columbus would make four voyages between Castile and America. His life would end in great disappointment, having been jailed and having the terms of his contract with Castile overturned due to various claims and convictions of abuse of power and mismanagement of the domains over which he governed in the New World. Columbus died on the 20th May 1506 in Valladolid, Crown of Castile (now in Spain).

 


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