I write quite a bit about the PGM, clearly it is very important element of my magical and spiritual practice. Yet despite working very closely with some Graeco-Egyptian deities, I do not strongly identify with either Greek or Egyptian “religion.” So why do I place such high value on the PGM? This is a question that I have recently begun to dig into and attempt to understand for myself. But before delving into that, lets start with the basics. PGM is the Latin acronym for the Greek Magical Papyri (Papyri Graecae Magicae). We know that these texts are very old, contain information about ‘pagan’ as well as Abrahamic magical practices, and that they are the textual predecessors to the Solomonic and Cyprianic grimoire tradition. Thanks to the pioneering works of Stephen Skinner and Jake Stratton-Kent and several other magician scholars there is a growing appreciation for the PGM amongst today’s magical practitioners.
But, what exactly is the PGM? I’ve seen this question more than a few times and it is generally followed by an Amazon link to the English Betz edition. This is in fact correct as that book is a translation of the PGM, and the best available in English.
But the PGM is not a book in the usual definition of the word. It is more accurately described as a collection of spells and rituals. These were written and carefully curated by the magicians, sorcerers and healers who lived in hellenized Egypt between the second century BCE and fifth century AD. Many of these individual ‘spell books’ are themselves compilations of prior compilations, and often claim extreme antiquity from oral transmission and/or mythic origins. We should take a moment to put this in perspective; the historical value alone is incredible.
The PGM as we know it today was first published in Greek and German by Preisendanz in 1928. The Betz edition is the English translation with a few additions including the Demotic and Coptic spells omitted by Preisendanz. The majority of the collection is believed to come from a private library or perhaps the tomb of a magician in Thebes. Naturally, while the history is quite interesting, it is the content of the papyri that is the real treasure. Over seven-hundred years of written practices and rituals document a magical tradition that have persisted and thrived alongside Greek, Egyptian, Roman, and Semitic cultures.
While many spells of the PGM draw on the names of familiar gods and goddess, there is nonetheless something very alien and unfamiliar about how these otherwise familiar deities are portrayed. In Betz’ own words:
In this older material, the Greek gods are alive and well. But Zeus, Hermes, Apollo, Artemis, Aphrodite, and others are portrayed not Hellenic and aristocratic, as in literature, but as capricious, demonic, and even dangerous as in Greek folklore.
(Betz., pp xlv.)
Indeed, as Betz continues to explain, the PGM preserves the common folk traditions of the ancient Mediterranean and is a far more accurate representation of the local and household beliefs, practices and cults of the people than any of the state mythologies. While the major state gods are acknowledged as part of the vast spiritual landscape, they are generally not the deities to whom spells and petitions are directed. The most called upon – and perhaps even patron gods – of the PGM have relatively minor and even adversarial roles in the state religions of late antiquity. One such example is Typhon who emerges from the PGM as a primordial deity of raw magical force and shares epithets of authority with Apollo. He and Set and the conflated Typhon-Set are far more significant and venerated in the papyri than in Olympic and Osirian myth where they are portrayed as demonized rebels. Fittingly, the traditional goddess of witchcraft, Hekate, reigns as the supreme female divinity of the papyri – chthonic, celestial and terrestrial, she leads the spirits of the restless dead and is the ancestral mother of all.
There is no ordered pantheon of white-clad aristocratic gods reflecting a stratified society; no, the spiritual landscape of the PGM is one of animated forces, volatile and visceral spirits. It is a landscape of magic and witchcraft, in which the flow of power and information is multi-branched and multi-directional. Spirits called angelos carry messages and omens from the gods to mankind, while operating spirits, daemons, work on behalf of the magicians and carry messages in the opposite direction – from mankind to the gods and the dead. Needless to say, these terms did not carry with them any sense of morality, a daemon or an angelos is neither good nor evil, as they are rather ambivalent and indifferent to our moral codes.
If there is one take-away from the PGM, it is that spirits are everywhere; they howl and hiss wildly in the wind, they meet us in our dreams, they fuel our passions, protect our homes and inhabit the liminal wilds. Even the spirits of plants must be approached appropriately on the correct day, under the correct moon phase and with the appropriate ritual decorum in order to ensure the magical potency of an herb. The PGM preserves a tradition in which these spirits and gods are invoked, venerated, conjured, petitioned, compelled, bribed and brought into pacts via offerings and potent incantations. Some even require blood sacrifices and mysterious rites performed at riverbanks, crossroads, graveyards and other liminal places under the darkness of night.
Early scholars wrote off these unfamiliar aspects of PGM spirituality as a syncretism of the religions of late antiquity with non-Greek and non-Roman magical and folk elements (in other words, non-western ;)). For years this was the safe academic approach of interpreting the papyri. To do so in any other way would irreparably shatter the glass tower of a romanticized classical antiquity and the ‘civilized’ origins of western culture. Needless to say, this perspective is not only historically inaccurate, but it reeks with the fear of a society still repressed by the moral dogmas of the Christian church. As A. A. Barb, quoted in Betz’ introduction, writes:
Much that we are accustomed to see classified as late ‘syncretism’ is rather the ancient and original, deep-seated popular religion, coming to the surface when the whitewash of ‘classical’ writers and artists began to peal off…
(Betz, pp. lii. note 46)
Indeed, when we peal aways this facade of idealized ‘classicism’ and dig into the PGM, we unearth the folk origins of the magical traditions…not those of the state religions celebrating social order and stratification through their “whitewashed” pantheons, but the ancestral traditions of the common people. These magical practices are deeply rooted in goetia, in chthonic and liminal gods, in necromancy, and in real down and dirty spirit work!
The papyri do not present a unified religion or belief system, they instead compose one of the most comprehensive written records of magical practices that transcend any concept of country, religion, race or language. Practices such as blindfolded initiations, spoken words of power, honoring the directions, magical symbols and spirit signatures, scrying, spirit journeys, dream incubation, fetish-making, offerings to spirits and a plethora of others techniques have direct counterparts in nearly every extant magical tradition on earth. These techniques and practices are truly universal and are so deeply engrained in the spiritual matrix of so many cultures, that we must assume that they originate from a common ancestral origin in our remote prehistoric past. In other words, what is shared by the PGM, traditional witchcraft, indigenous shamanism and the living spiritual traditions around the world is the magical tradition itself!
Here magic is inseparable from the spirit-world. Success depends on the ability of a practitioner to be able to communicate and form alliances and pacts with specific daemons, gods, and other spiritual beings. Spirits are what fuel and empower the magic; period. This is the common thread that weaves the spells of the PGM into a cohesive and practical magical system; and what links today’s living traditions with their ancestral past. This is the legacy of the PGM.
The importance of spirit work and personal spirit relationships has been gaining a lot of traction in modern western ceremonial and “High Magick” groups. Last December, Aaron Leitch wrote a incredibly poignant and informative piece on the this very topic entitled The Lost Secrets of Western Magick Revealed. If you haven’t read it, do so, as it brilliantly highlights the differences between modern western occultism and traditional magical practices. In an attempt to reclaim these “lost secrets” occultists and modern western magicians are incorporating various aspects of traditional spirit work into their practice, in particular turning towards the New World traditions born out of the African diaspora.
However, an authentic ‘western’ spirit-based practice has always existed and is preserved for us in the Greek Magical Papyri. The PGM is not just another collection of spells and rituals or another “magical paradigm,” it is our link to the living magical tradition itself through familiar cultural symbols. By practicing the magic of the papyri we effectively tap back into that primordial tradition of magic and interaction with the spirit-world that has been part of our human story since time immemorial.
One last thought. We are so incredibly privileged to have access to the PGM. It is a luxury that not a single one of the founders of modern western occultism had (i.e. A.A., Golden Dawn, Thelema, Theosophy, Wicca, etc.). Perhaps this is something we should always keep in mind as we continue to push forward, refine and reclaim our magical tradition.