Magic was accepted without exception by all strata of society, but its practice required considerable specialist magical knowledge; amateur dabbling with such powers was generally disastrous. In the official rhetoric of these times magic is a powerful but ambiguous quality, sometimes practised by specialists or charismatic individuals, and also by priests and rabbis drawing on religious lore. Magic is intimately bound up with religion for the Greeks and Romans, somewhat more removed for Jews. It is by turns valued, contested, debated and deemed dangerous; it is a variable quality but still central to social and cultural forces, as well as being a good diagnostic of them. Magic is as important for the historian in the present as it was for contemporary people millennia ago, and in order to understand it we must briefly sketch out broader cultural traditions and histories, many of which also provide the foundations of the world in which we live today.
The Greeks…are on man’s side, both in sympathy and in loyalty; the Hebrews, on the contrary, on God’s. Never would we have heard from a Greek such words as those of the sorely beaten “blameless and upright” Job, addressed to the god who had “destroyed him without cause” and who then came at him in the whirlwind, boasting of his power.
“Behold,” pleaded Job, “I am of small account…I know that thou canst do all things…. I despise myself and repent in dust and ashes.”
Repent! Repent for what?
In contrast, the great contemporary Greek playwright Aeschylus, of about the same fifth-century [B.C.E.] date as the anonymous author of the Book of Job, puts into the mouth of his Prometheus—who was also being tormented by a god that could “draw Leviathan out with a fishhook, play with him as with a bird, and fill his skin with harpoons”—the following stunning words: “He is a monster…. I care less than nothing for Zeus. Let him do as he likes.”