In the Roman imperial period people wore amulets that consist almost entirely of Greek letters: comprehensible prayers, acclamations and incantations, as well as cryptic magical names and strings of vowels and symbols. In the dry climate of Egypt numerous papyrus examples have been unearthed and elsewhere in the Mediterranean basin nearly one hundred have survived on thin sheets of gold, silver, tin and copper and even more gemstones. Because most of these texts date to the Roman imperial period, scholars have sometimes argued and often assumed that they reflect an increase in magical ritual or superstitious belief in the period. There is, of course, one obvious problem with equating the advent of written texts with the arrival of new ritual practices or beliefs: nearly all of the traditional texts found on the inscribed amulets of the Roman period – prayers, blessings, liturgies, incantatory songs – can be documented earlier, in some cases much earlier, as oral speech-acts in our literary sources.
During my stay at the IEA I hope to finish a manuscript of a book on this topic, which will, in fact, be a book length history of sorts of the Greek amulet, that will document the long pre-Roman history of such amulets and show how they change after the addition of writing. There are three major divisions to the volume: (i) “Media”, in which I discuss the importance of certain materials, e.g. coral, amber, bronze, hematite, from the classical period onwards; (ii) “Images”, in which I examine the role of images from even earlier times, e.g. the phallus, the head of Medusa, Heracles fighting wild beasts; and (iii) “Texts” which are the last to be added and in most cases seem to be the transcription of a charm or prayer that was previously read aloud. Aside from the historical argument, I will also discuss other features of ancient Greek amulets and their reception: the relationship between house and body amulets (i.e. how the house was conceived as a body), the miniaturization of monumental cult statues (what gets lost; what gets emphasized?) and, perhaps most importantly, how historians have ignored the subject in an effort to maintain the idea that Greeks in the classical period, especially the Athenians, were an exception to the rule that all ancient peoples wore and valued amulets in their day-to-day lives.