The professional practice of Goetia primarily arises out of the late archaic age of Greece, gaining momentum around 500 – 400 BCE. The word means “lamenting,” or “wailing,” and describes the actions of the professional (known as the Goes, which is commonly glossed as “sorcerer”) who was employed to deal with restless ghosts. Morton Smith writes of it:
“The common Greek word for ‘magician’ in Jesus’ time was goes (plural goetes). […] Here goetia (what goetes do) is one special technique like others named, a recognized and legitimate function. It seems to have been a sort of Greek shamanism, a form of mourning for the dead in which the goetes became ecstatic and were thought to accompany the dead on their journey to the underworld.”i
The word Goes – from which we get Goetia – has two primary etymological roots:
Goös: “a highly emotional funeral lament” performed by Greek women in antiquity. The opposite of the Threnos, an emotionally controlled form of lamentation.
In her excellent Restless Dead, Sarah Iles Johnston writes:
“Goös, in contrast, was spontaneous and emotionally powerful — sometimes excessively so. It is connected primarily with women, especially women who were related to the deceased. The songs these women sang emphasized their pain as survivors, and sometimes reproached the deceased for having left his family unprotected. In the Iliad, for example, Andromache describes to the dead Hector how Astyanax will have to beg for food at the tables of other men. Somewhat later, gooi began to carry the additional purpose of rousing the listeners to revenge; the singers did this by focusing not only on their own pain but also on the injustice of the death suffered by the deceased. Thus, the Chorus of lamenting women in the Choephoroi urges the listening Orestes to avenge his father’s death. Goös, in other words, became a means of eliciting help from the living, as well as a medium for complaining to the dead.
Rousing the living to action by complaining to the dead is but a step away from asking the dead themselves to bring help as well. Once the idea that the dead could be made to return had been introduced to Greek culture, it would have been natural to include such a request as part of a goös.”ii
Goao: “to lament, sing wildly, cast a spell.”
“The second phenomenon with which goetes regularly were connected was singing and more broadly music of all kinds. The Suda and Cosmas defined goeteia as an act of “calling upon” (epiklesis) the dead; earlier sources repeatedly connected goeteia with the epoide, or chanted song. The Dactyls were credited both with the invention of various forms of music and with the composition of epoidai. Their student Orpheus, of course, was the most famous singer of all – by classical times we find him using his lyre and his voice to persuade the gods of the dead to release the soul of his wife, and by Varro’s day he was known as the author of a book called the Lyre, which taught others how to invoke souls through music as well. The crediting of such a book to Orpheus verifies that in ancient eyes what Orpheus did with his music was not really different from the way a goes used epoidai or the incantations written on curse tablets to call up a soul, even if Orpheus and the goes desired the souls they invoked for very different reasons. Broadly, all of these connections between invocation of souls and song are part of a belief in the ability of all kinds of sound to enchant the individual soul.
But we need not go so far afield in proving the importance of this association between goeteia and song, for it is attested by the very term itself. As already noted, goes and its cognates are built from the same root as the older words goös and goao. This makes sense: the goes, like the lamenter, wishes to communicate with the realm of the dead…”iii
At the same time that the Greek city states were rising, and belief in the power of the dead was strengthened – possibly by contact with the Middle East and relevant beliefs in the dead in Mesopotamia and Egypt – local laws were enacted in a variety of regions which limited the performance of Goös and Threnos lamentations for the dead. While one could still travel to one of the major necromantic oracles (Acheron in Thesprotia, Avernus in Campania, Heracleia Pontica on the Black Sea, and Tainaron at the Mani peninsula),iv this capability was not possessed by all members of the city states, and this situation helped pave the way for a type of itinerant magical tradesman – the Goes – to travel the ancient world, offering both ecstatic rites to deal with potential problems resulting from the wrathful dead (bringing them into the Underworld, where they could find rest), and even to offer a variety of other magical services, such as cursing enemies, that often involved the very same spirits and the spirits and deities that ruled them.
One crucial element that Sarah Iles Johnston, in agreement with more recent scholarship on the matter (as opposed to Smith’s older work), is that Goetia and Mystery Initiation seem to overlap. The mystical companion – which is not to say that both roles could not be shared by some individuals – of the Goes was the Orpheo-telestai. Like the Goes, the Orpheo-telestai traveled the ancient world offering rites of purification that could be extended to both the ancestral, inherited guilt of family lines, and toward restless souls. Plato refers alludes to such mystical cultists in the Republic as follows:
“Begging priests and prophets frequent the doors of the rich and persuade them that they possess a god-given power founded on sacrifices and incantations. If the rich person or any of his ancestors has committed an injustice, they can fix it with pleasant things and feasts. Moreover, if he wishes to injure some enemy, then, at little expense, he’ll be able to harm just and unjust alike, for by means of spells and enchantments they can persuade the gods to serve them. And they present a hubbub of books by Musaeus and Orpheus, offspring as they say of Selene and the Muses, according to which they arrange their rites, convincing not only individuals but also cities that liberation and purification from injustice is possible, both during life and after death, by means of sacrifices and enjoyable games to the deceased which free us from the evils of the beyond, whereas something horrible awaits those who have not celebrated sacrifices.”v
Additionally one group of Daimons commonly associated with Goetia – amongst many other things already mentioned by Johnston – and initiations is the Dactyls. Writing on the Dactyls, the Logographer Pherecydes of Leros, places them into two groups. Those of the Left Hand, who are Goetes (Binders); and those of the Right Hand, who are Analuontes (Releasers from Binding). The Dactyls were credited with teaching Orpheus the epoide, or chanted songs. These Daimons tend to be conflated with the Corybantes and Kouretes, and it is unclear where the distinctions between them begin and end. Regardless, even E.J. Harrison makes note of the hefty associations with rituals involving binding and the Dactyls:
“As daimons whether wholly or half divine the Kouretes have all manner of magical capacities. These capacities are by Strabo rather implied than expressly stated and are especially noticeable in their Phrygian equivalents, Korybantes. The Korybantes bind and release men from spells, they induce madness and heal it. The chorus asks the love-sick Phaedra:
“Is this some Spirit, O child of man?
Doth Hecat hold thee perchance, or Pan?
Doth She of the Mountains work her ban,
Or the dread Corybantes bind thee?” [….]”vi
This is not to suggest all of the Goes were Orphic mystery initiators, or that all Orphic purification specialists were Goes. Rather, in some cases, it seems increasingly clear that their spheres of action both interacted, and some were both. An excellent example of this is the sketch of Pharnabazos in Pharnabazos, the Diviner of Hermes: Two ostraka with curse letters from Olbia by Andrei Lebedev:
“I propose the following explanation of the interrelation between the two graffiti. Pharnabazos and Aristoteles were two wandering priests, diviners and magicians working at the agora region of Olbia. They practiced divination, black magic and, presumably, purifications and initiations into mysteries for a fee […]”
Earlier, Lebedev even suggested:
“Pharnabazos, then, seems to have been not only a diviner, but also a Bacchic priest, conceivably, an Orpheotelestes.”
Another such figure was Empedocles of Acagras (c. 492 – 432 BCE), who was widely credited as being a Goes (due to tales of his having raised the dead), his feats of wind-stopping and weather magic, and his indications that his capacities for such actions rested on his talent with poetry.
Rites of Goetia.
“… prayers and sacrifices appease the souls, and the enchanting song of the magician is able to remove the daimones when they impede. Impeding daimones are revenging souls. This is why the magicians perform the sacrifice as if they were paying a penalty. On the offerings they pour water and milk, from which they make the libations, too. They sacrifice innumerable and many-knobbed cakes, because the souls, too, are innumerable.”vii
Acts of ritual appeasement for the dead were by no means limited to being practiced by sorcerers. In fact, there are a number of ritual actions made to appease the dead that fall outside the strict sphere of Goetia, but which are corollaries to it. One of these is the Deipna Hecatates, or Hekate’s Supper:
“… [T]he offerings laid at the crossroads every month for Hekate. Their purpose was to placate not only this dread goddess of the underworld, but also we learn from Plutarch (Moralia, 709 A), the Atropopaioi, i.e. the ghosts of those who for some reason cannot rest easy in their graves, and come back to earth in search of vengeance. An army of these invisible and maleficent beings follows in the wake of its leader as she roams at large through the midnight world.”viii
Likewise, common offerings discovered at graves such as toys, ritual gifts of certain types of flowers, and offerings of libations may be considered to have been done both out of goodwill, and to appease and placate the dead so as to keep them from becoming restless and hostile. An interesting collary to appeasement in Goetic rites would be acts of persuasion. In the Greek Magical Papyri (hereafter PGM), the spirits of the dead are often treated – rightly or wrongly – as secondary to the Daimons and Deities that rule them. Thus one finds phrases of flattery as a common component in many rites. For example, PGM IV. 2967 – 3006 is a spell for picking a plant. In it, the plant itself is praised as a series of Daimons and Gods:
“You were sown by Kronos, you were conceived by Hera, / you were maintained by Ammon, you were given birth by Isis, you were nourished by Zeus the god of rain, you were given growth by Helios and dew. You [are] the dew of all the gods, you [are] the heart of Hermes, you are the seed of the primordial gods, you are the eye / of Helios, You are the light of Selene, you are the zeal of Osiris, you are the beauty and the glory of Ouranos, you are the soul of Osiris’ daimon which revels in every place, you are the spirit of Ammon. As you have exalted Osiris, so / exalt yourself and rise just as Helios rises each day. Your size is equal to the zenith of Helios, your roots come from the depths, but your powers are in the heart of Hermes, your fibers are the bones of Mnevis, and your / flowers are the eye of Horus, your seed is Pan’s seed. I am washing you in resin as I also wash the gods even [as I do this] for my own health. You also be cleaned by prayer and give us power as Ares and Athena do. I am Hermes. I am acquiring you with Good / Fortune and Good Daimon both at a propitious hour and on a propitious day that is effective for all things.”ix
This aspect of flattering the spirits is by no means limited to plants; in other rites lesser Daimones are praised as deities, and so forth. Goetes were often criticized for their powers of persuasion; to the point that by late antiquity, the word Goes was applied to those accused of Sophistry. Plato also refers to this use of flattery, when he complains in Laws of those who “are so bestial as to … say that they can lead about the souls of the dead and… persuade the gods, pretending they can charm them by sacrifices and prayers and spells.”
Exorcism and apotropaic charms and formulas to be used against hostile spirits go hand in hand, and the PGM is rife with them. Perhaps the best known ritual is PGM V. 96 – 172, better known as the Stele of Jeu the Hieroglyphist, or the “Headless God” ritual. That it functions as an exorcism is beyond question, with lines such as these:
“I call upon you, awesome and invisible god with an empty spirit, AROGOGOROBRAŌ SOCHOU MODORIŌ PHALARCHAŌ OOO. Holy Headless One, deliver him, NN, from the daimon that restrains him, ROUBRIAŌ MARI ŌDAM BAABNABAŌTH ASS ADŌNAI APHNIAŌ ITHŌLETH ABRASAX AĒŌŌY; mighty Headless One, deliver him, NN, from the daimon which restrains him. MABARRAIŌ IOĒL KOTHA ATHORĒBALŌ ABRAŌTH, deliver him, NN, AŌTH ABRAŌTH BASYM ISAK SABAŌTH IAŌ.”x
Whether or not the function of exorcism is its primary, or only, function is a matter that will probably be debated from now until the end of time. A similar ritual, to be used if approached by a hostile ghost, is PGM LXX. 4 – 25:
Charm of Hekate Ereschigal against fear of punishment.
/ If he [the ghost] comes forth, say to him: “I am Ereschigal, the one holding her thumbs, and not even one evil can befall her.”
If however, he comes close to you, take hold of your right heel and recite the following: “Ereshigal, virgin, bitch, serpent, wreath, key, herald’s wand, golden sandal of the Lady of Tartaros.” You will avert him.
“ASKEI KATASKEI ERŌN OREŌN IŌR MEGA SAMNYĒR BAUI (3 times) PHOBANTIA SEMNĒ, I have been initiated, I went down into the underground chamber of the Dactyls, and I saw the other things down below, virgin, bitch, and all the rest.” Say it at a crossroad, turn around and flee, because it is at those places that she appears. Saying it late at night about what you wish, it will reveal it in your sleep; and if you are led away to death, say it while scattering the seeds of sesame, and it will save you.”xi
Writing on this particular ritual Jake Stratton-Kent notes:
“The ASKEI KATASKEI formula is, as we would expect, attributed to the Dactyls; unusually the author refers to it as an Orphic formula. This, in my opinion, does not and cannot imply that this is an invocation of Orpheus; an interpretation made by Georg Luck in Arcana Mundi. Rather it simply conforms to the ancient idea that the rites of the Dactyls came under the tutelage of Orpheus, or as we might say, the Orphic movement.
On a practical level, it is plain that both this formula and the recital of the symbols of Hecate – from an authentic initiation ritual – are here magical devices for protection in a variety of underworld contexts. So too, the leaving of the site without looking back conforms to both the myth of Orpheus, and the magical preparations made by Jason for obtaining the Golden Fleece. Plainly, these are authentic and widely known gestures and practices, worthy of our attention in the modern context.”xii
One particular benefit from the use of ritual exorcism is that spirits harming others could be – instead of taken into the underworld – driven to the crossroads, at which point they would become confused and “stuck” by the mix of places. This meant that the crossroad thus used was a place where other items could be brought, and other rites and incantations could be performed, where the dead would be compelled to act upon the magician’s wishes.
Additionally several PGM rites make use of sculptures or icons that Daimons are bound to. These are probably alterations of Kolossoi, poppets that were used to deal with Hikesioi Apaktoi (hostile visitants). Kolossoi could be made to bind even deities (such as Ares) to locations for purposes of protection, or to bind hostile spirits that were visiting. Thus is is a very small step to end up at the ritual actions found in The Sword of Dardanos (PGM IV. 1716 – 1870), where it is used as part of a compulsive love spell:
“Take a magnetic stone which is breathing and engrave Aphrodite sitting astride Psyche I and with her left hand holding on her hair bound in curls. And above her head: “ACHMAGE KAKPEPSEI”; and below / Aphrodite and Psyche engrave Eros standing on the vault of heaven, holding a blazing torch and burning Psyche. And below Eros these I names: “ACHAPA ADŌNAIE BASMA CHARAKŌ IAKŌB IAŌ Ē PHARPHARĒI.” […]”xiii
The dead which remained outside the Underworld were subject to magical rites of compulsion; this is not to say that those within the Underworld could not be subjected to such procedures, but the fact that one did not need to evoke a given spirit out of the Underworld made certain types of rites more expedient. Compulsion came in multiple forms ranging from binding formulas as applied to the Kolossoi to the use of the compulsive formulas in lead Defixiones tablets for the purposes of curses.
A major subset of these rites are compulsive love spells; given that I don’t want to be seen as encouraging such actions, I’ll simply deal with this aspect in brief. Most compulsive love spells involving Goetia have two principle characteristics:
1. Petitioning the rulers of the dead (e.g. Hermes, Hecate, etc.) to compel one of the spirits to act on one’s behalf.
2. Binding of a mortal individual to the spirit thus compelled, and directions given to the spirit to ensure that the individual falls in love with oneself, or one’s client.
To be clear: these spells are a type of curse, and the actions that the spirit (most often a ghost) are directed to take fall in line with curses. For example PGM IV. 1390 – 1495, the “Love spell of attraction performed with the help of heroes, or gladiators, or those who have died a violent death,” has lines that read as follows:
“May bring success to him who is beset
With torments. You who’ve left the light, O you
Unfortunate ones, I bring success to him,
NN, who is distressed at heart because
Of her, NN, ungodly and unholy.
So bring her wracked with torment-and in haste.”xiv
To be clear – if you perform these rituals, you’re an asshole. At the same time, it would be inapt to gloss over them and pretend that they were not offered to clients in antiquity, or did not exist. A huge chunk of the PGM rites dealing with the dead involve compelling them to torment some poor woman or another until she falls in love with the client. As distasteful as this may be, it is a byproduct of the view that they would respond to such formulas.
Similarly, the dead could also be compelled to assault one’s enemies, tormenting them with madness, plaguing them with illness, and generally being a pain. Most of the Defixiones tablets deal with such elements.
Ogden writes of:
“The importance of tombs as sites for the exercise of control over ghosts is demonstrated by the many curse tablets (in Greek katadesmoi; in Latin defixiones) and voodoo dolls (in Greek kolossoi) deposited within them. The tablets were addressed to the ghosts within, who were required to achieve, by means direct or indirect, the curse described.”xv
Meanwhile, the investigation of ritual actions towards compelling the dead later come together when Ogden discusses the act of handing over a name to the dead, particularly when it came to the act of divining by the dead the death date of an Emperor in Rome:
“But it may have been feared that making such inquiries of ghosts could in itself, paradoxically, hasten the point of his eath. Such inquirites may have been tantamount to cursing their subject, given that in the simplest form of binding curse, one merely handed over the name of one’s chosen victims to a ghost.”xvi
This again corresponds to some of the simplest forms of binding curses for the purpose of love. In PGM XXXVI. 187 – 210 one is instructed to write on a piece of unbaked pottery incantations to Triple Formed Hekate (who is acting in this manner as “The Demon of Love-Madness,” a title she obtained in late antiquity and which fueled such actions in the Deity’s name), as well as the name of the individual to be bound to the ghosts… And as such be plagued until they fall in love. A number of pottery fragments, with names presumably given over to the dead, have been found at triplicate crossroads. Whether these belong to curse rituals, or malevolent love-curses, is something I am, however, uncertain of.
Katabasis rituals involved descents into the Underworld, to interact with the spirits that lived within that domain, as well as the the Deities of the Underworld. A visit to the Oracle of Trophonios, for example, involved a Katabasis format; individuals would have to be purified in diverse manners (ranging from animal sacrifice, to bathing without hot water), and then descended into a pit to deal with the Heroic Trophonios, and obtain necessary information. Like with so many other aspects of Goetia, it shares traits with views on Mystery Initiations. In Andromache Karanika’s “Ecstasis in Healing: Practices in Southern Italy and Greece from Antiquity to the Present,” the author notes:
“Plutarch (fr.178) describes an experience of the Underworld in terms of an initiation, for initiations were often staged as journeys to the world of the dead. In the 19th century, the first of the B-texts to come to the notice of scholars, i.e. ‘Petelia’, was associated with the oracle of Trophonios at Lebadeia in central Greece. According to Pausanias (ix.39), a man who wanted to consult this oracle had to descend into a chasm, having first taken a draught from the spring of Forgetfulness (Lethe) to obliterate his memory of the past and then another from the spring of Memory to remember what he would see in his descent. When he returned from the innermost cave that he had eventually been drawn into feet first, he was taken to the nearby throne of Memory where he was asked by priests what he had discovered about his future. Apart from the rather superficial point that at Lebadeia the oracle seeker had to drink water from both springs, there is an enormous difference between the two quests in the purpose of the descent and the function of the waters of Memory. At Lebadeia, a living man descends into an Underworld to witness and remember a revelation about the future; in the B-texts, the soul of an initiate descends into the Underworld to remember its past life (or lives). In ritual, and here we are again assuming that the Gold Leaves reflect the practices of initiation, the waters of Memory might ‘be used to symbolize the initiate’s training in memory or understanding of the cycle of reincarnations and the things she must do in this life to remedy or atone for past lives’ (Edmonds, pp.107-08).”
In the earlier referenced PGM LXX. 4 – 25, the magician states: “I have been initiated, I went down into the underground chamber of the Dactyls, and I saw the other things down below, virgin, bitch, and all the rest.” The “underground chamber of the Dactyls,” those same spirits credited with being both Goetes and Releasers from Binding, and the meeting of the Virgin, are most likely allusions to performing the ritual after performing a Katabasis ritual. Likewise, when we hear that Goetes became ecstatic and lead spirits of the dead into the Underworld, it is quite likely that they were performing Katabasis rites and using them to bring the spirits to where they needed to go.
Daimons and Familiar Spirits
The last area worth addressing for this (now ever increasing in length) blog entry prior to jumping ahead in time is the rituals which allowed a magician to acquire a spirit to serve him, or act as a tutelary guide. Of these sort there are a multitude; the first ritual found in the PGM (I. 1 – 42) is one to acquire a personal Daimon who acts as an advisor and instructor, and who after death “he will wrap [up] your body as befits a god, but he will take your spirit and carry it into the air with him.” It is worth noting that in this particular ritual, one will not go into the Underworld, but thereafter become an Aerial spirit like the Daimon attracted by the rite.
Of similar note is PGM IV. 2006 – 2125, “Pitys spell of attraction.” Here the skull of an individual is used, along with incantations and a variety of magical materia, to introduce a ghost to the power of Helios. Thereafter, with the blessing of Helios, the ghost becomes a type of magical companion or familiar spirit to the Goes and allows him to accomplish magical arts without the typical accoutrements of the practice: “Most of the magicians, who carried their instruments with them, even put them aside and used him as an assistant. And they accomplished the preceding things with all dispatch.”xvii
Medieval and Early Modern Goetia.
While it would take far too long – and this discussion on Goetia is already long enough in my opinion – to discuss all of the ways in which Medieval and later Goetia ties in with its roots, the practice itself did not die out in antiquity. Rather it mutated, re-emerging with peculiar strength between the late Medieval and Early Modern Period.
As it did in its earlier iterations, the affiliation between the practitioner and spirits who are associated with ruling the dead remains particularly tight. One of the rituals in Reginald Scot’s The Discoverie of Witchcraft, entitled How to Raise Up the Ghost of One that hath Hanged Himself blatantly conjures the ghost “By the mysteries of the deep, by the flames of Banal, by the power of the East and the silence of the night, by the holy rites of Hecate […]”. The ritual is performed to both enhance the capacity of the sorcerer – as the ghost instructs him on the finer details on where to find spirits and how to communicate with them – as well as offering, just as the Goes had in antiquity, the capacity to release said ghost from its afflicted state:
“Which Conjuration being thrice repeated, while the fire is burning with Mastick and Gum Aromatick, the body will begin to rise, and at last will stand upright before the Exorcist, answering with a faint and hollow voice, the questions proposed unto it. Why it strangled it self; where its dwelling is; what its food and life is; how long it will be ere it enter into rest, and by what means the Magitian may assist it to come to rest: Also, of the treasures of this world, where they are hid.”
Similarly, a restless ghost is employed so that the magician may make a pact with the Fairy Sibylia, once again with the ghost being promised peace from its state upon the conclusion of the pact with the Fairy. In this case, Sibylia represents the tutelary Sibyls, of which one was believed to have taught Aeneas the art of necromancy. The ritual which follows the Sibylia conjuration again involves requesting that the spirit teach one where to find “treasure hidden in the earth,” an extremely common exploit of necromancy in the early modern period.
As an example, one spirit found in a few of the Grimoires and spirit catalogs of the eras, is Naberius (Naberus; note that the spirit’s name is subject to a variety different spellings). Weyer, in the Pseudomonarchia Daemonum, states that this spirit is Cerberus. In at least some versions of the Grimorium Verum (either Joseph H. Peterson’s translation, or Jake Stratton-Kent’s True Grimoire are worth picking up by those interested), the spirit is again associated with magical treasure hunting (see link for full transcription):
“A large black dog, with a splendid golden collar, will prevent you from entering and will gnash his teeth, sending sparks blazing like diamonds in sunlight. That one is a gnome, to which you must proceed to point the wand, repeating three times as follows:
CERBERUS, CERBERUS, CERBERUS! By this wand, show me the way to the treasure!
The dog will whine three times in reply, and will wrap its tail around your wand, to teach you where the treasures are.”xviii
Jack Faust is a polytheist magician, crazed stoner, and blogger at the Dionysian Atavism blog over at blogspot. When not digging through dusty and archaic texts, he spends time singing Orphic Hymns to cats, moths, and anything that is willing to put up with his bizarre antics.
i Morton Smith, Jesus the Magician. P. 70
ii Sarah Iles Johnston, Restless Dead: Encounters between the Living and the Dead. P. 101.
iii Ibid, P. 111 – 112
iv Daniel Ogden, Greek and Roman Necromancy. P. 18
v Plato, Republic 2.364a–365b.
vi E.J. Harrison, Themis. P. 26
vii Derveni Papyrus col. 6.1-11. Italix mine.
viii The Goddess Hekate, edited by Stephen Ronan. P. 57 – 61.
ix Hans Deiter Betz, The Greek Magical Papyri in Translation: Volume One. P. 95
x Ibid, P. 103.
xi Ibid, P. 297 – 298.
xii Jake Stratton Kent, Geosophia: Volume 2. P. 58
xiii Betz, P. 69.
xiv Ibid, P. 65.
xv Ogden, P. 3.
xvi Ibid, P. 156.
xvii Betz, P. 74.
xviii Joseph H. Peterson, Grimorium Verum. P. 67 – 69.