Review: Betz, H.D., The Greek Magical Papyri in Translation (Chicago, 1986)

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Betz, H.D., The Greek Magical Papyri in Translation(Chicago, 1986)

Betz (1986) is surprisingly one of the more recent studies of the magical papyri. . Betz, at the time was considered “a fresh and precise English translation of texts already known to scholars.”[1] 

And I believe this statement to be true. Betz’s collection is unique still with a huge amount of work having gone into it by numerous contributors, most of which are not even cited in the book itself. Betz’s study begins with a discussion on methodology and the difficulties that arose.[2]  This is particularly useful to one starting on their own study of the Greek Magical Papyri (PGM), as it outlines problems and reasoning faced by other scholars and the decisions they made to best combat them.

Betz adds a note on the editions before setting out a useful introduction to the Greek Magical Papyri.  He discusses the history of discovery and suppression due to modern negative connotations of magic and describes the Greek Magical Papyri as the original primary sources which were discovered by sheer luck.[3]  Betz pays particular attention to the Demotic papyri and how their inclusion changed the picture presented by the Greek Magical Papyri.

This provides, even for the modern reader, a positive appreciation of the corpus. Despite debate concerning Betz’ linkage of religion and magic, Betz allows us to see the individual spells in their context as part of the Greek Magical Papyri.  [4] The main character and discussion in Betz’s work remain relevant to the introduction of the magical papyri, though apparently revealing an underlying ambivalence. He provides suitable parallels to be drawn between papyri because his work is substantial, concise and of high quality, referring to both parallels in ancient literature and contemporary scholarship.[5]

The fact that this work has remained at the forefront of sources for its topic speaks for itself. Having spoken to one of the contributors I am even more impressed by the time and the content of this work. Granted there are downsides; the lack of Greek text alongside the translations does not allow one to judge the translations for themselves. Though this would not be a problem for the general public, the academic reader who is far more likely to pick up this work for research purposes would have benefited significantly from this addition. But we can’t have everything.
Certainly worth a read for anyone interested in magic, papyri, Greek and Demotic and historiography.

[1] Stroumsa, G.G., Review: The Greek Magical Papyri in Translation, Including the Demotic Spells by Hans Dieter Betz, in History of Religions, Vol.28, No.2 (Nov., 1988), p.182

[2] Betz, H.D., (1986), op.cit., p.xli

[3] Ibid., p.xli

[4] Gager, J.G., Review: A New Translation of Ancient Greek and Demotic Papyri, Sometimes Called Magical – The Greek Magical Papyri in Translation, Including the Demotic Spells, Vol.1, Texts by H.D.Betz, in The Journal of Religion, Vol.67, No.1 (Jan., 1987), p.81

[5] Stroumsa, G.G., (1988), op.cit., p.182


2 thoughts on “Review: Betz, H.D., The Greek Magical Papyri in Translation (Chicago, 1986)

    Samdarshi Rana said:
    September 14, 2012 at 7:17 am

    WOW!!! I found this site on Yahoo poking around
    for something else entirely- now I’m going to need to read through the old posts 🙂 So much for my free time this morning, but this was a really great find!

    GraecoMuse Turns One « GraecoMuse said:
    October 13, 2012 at 12:50 am

    […] Review: Betz, H.D., The Greek Magical Papyri in Translation (Chicago, 1986) – 26/10/11 […]

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