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Wednesday, April 13, 2016

04/12/16, Curses, Countercurses, Incantations, and MorePenn Museum’s New Exhibition: Exploring Magic in Ancient World Opening Saturday, April 16 - Almanac, Vol. 62, No. 30

Curses, Countercurses, Incantations, and More Penn Museum's New Exhibition: Exploring Magic in Ancient World Opening Saturday, April 16

April 12, 2016, Volume 62, No. 30


Tutu Stela (above), limestone, ca. 30 BCE-624 CE, Egyptian. Known as "the one who keeps enemies at a distance," Tutu was a sphinx-like protective god with a human head, lion body and a snake for a tail. Scorpions, knives and a lion's head spring forth from his body as evidence of his power. This plaque was likely dedicated as a protective votive. This object is one of 81 magical objects featured in the Penn Museum's exhibit, Magic in the Ancient World.

Photograph by Penn Museum.


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, 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 to 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 1400-1000 BCE) could encourage good luck; the frightful Macedonian Gorgon face on a silver coin (circa 411-350 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 300-700 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-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, bears 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 (circa 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.

Erotic plaques, examples of which come from Babylon (circa 2000-1800 BCE) and ancient Egypt (circa 1539-1075 BCE), may have been used in magic rituals to ensure potency. Sexual acts could also be interpreted as portents of the future.

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 Museum and associate professor, Penn's Near Eastern languages and civilizations (NELC). 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, W'69, and the Manning Family; the Susan Drossman Sokoloff and Adam D. Sokoloff Exhibitions Fund and the Smart Family Foundation.

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