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Traditions of Magic in Late Antiquity

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Subject: Traditions of Magic in Late Antiquity
   "Magic," as modern scholars have grudgingly learned to admit, is a
   very elusive category. No definition of "magic" has ever found
   universal acceptance, and countless attempts to separate it from
   "religion" on the one hand and "science" on the other have borne few,
   if any, fruits. The problem lies, to a large extent, in that what one
   society may label "magic," another would label "religion," and another
   "science," so that by choosing one label we are implicitly choosing
   sides whenever conflicting definitions of magic compete with each
   other, or run the risk of imposing our own categories upon societies
   in which these categories would have made no sense.
   Given these difficulties, the present exhibition will not attempt any
   definition of ancient magic. Its goal is much more modest -- merely to
   present some of the materials in the University of Michigan's
   collections which might prove useful in any discussion of magic and
   its practitioners in the Mediterranean basin and the Near East from
   the 1st to the 7th centuries A.D., a period which saw the magical
   traditions of several different cultures coalesce and merge into an
   unprecedented form of international, and even multicultural magical
   praxis, with its own rituals, symbols, and words of power. Presenting
   the available evidence, and pointing to some of the interrelations
   between different types of evidence and to the possible origins of
   some of the motifs and practices embedded in it, are only first steps
   on the road to understanding, but crucial steps nonetheless. Moreover,
   the fact that until quite recently this aspect of that civilization
   which we often call Greco-Roman has received far less attention than
   it deserves renders such an exhibition even more significant. Finally,
   the study of ancient magic can teach us much not only about ancient
   society, but about human nature and human social structures in
   general, especially as they relate to the generation, accumulation,
   and transmission of knowledge about the powers above and the powers
   below. Magic, after all, is just another manifestation of the innate
   human desire for control -- to control our natural environment, to
   control our social world, and eventually to control our own destiny.
   The techniques may have changed over the last fifteen centuries, but
   the goals remain the same.
   The current exhibition is divided into three sections: one deals with
   manuals of magical practices, another presents various protective
   devices, and the third presents some of the more aggressive uses of
   ancient magic. The wall cases display enlarged photographs of some of
   the items, allowing a closer examination of even the smallest details.
   The present catalogue contains translations of most items, accompanied
   by brief comments and notes. It must be stressed, however, that both
   translations and notes are tentative -- the texts and images often
   defy interpretation, and much remains unknown. If the present
   exhibition will contribute to a growing interest in, and a closer
   study of these intriguing sources, it will have achieved its goal.

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