“Ephemerality is an often overlooked feature of Roman ritual practice. Particularly in ‘magical’ ritual practice, there are clear indications that efficacy can be influenced by intangible concepts. Thus, performing the right ritual, at the right time, in the right place, with the right materials was essential for the magic, in an efficacious sense, to work.”
So went the introduction to my presentation at TRAC 2019 titled ‘Flower Power: Plants, materiality and ritual efficacy in Roman magical practice’. The talk/paper/fevered ramblings intended to highlight the important of plants and their planty agency in magical ritual practice.
Publicly playing with peonies at TRAC.
There are numerous examples of plants as materia magica and/or materia medica (let’s not get bogged down in the semantics here) from the Roman world and wonderful instructions on how to use them. Thus we get Dioscorides suggesting that:
“Some people use the roots [of Monk’s Rhubarb] as an amulet against Scrofulous swellings of the glands, by tying them onto the neck”
And Marcus of Bordeaux to suggest a cure bleeding:
“|For bleeding] the root of a hemp plant tied to the right arm or suspended from the neck bound up with a cord”
Other ancient authors are, of course, available at all good digital libraries. In the presentation I dwelt briefly on one particular spell/instruction from the Greek Magical Papyri:
“Wrap three peonies around your left arm and wear them” (PGM LXII 23-24).
The reason why is missing, but the instructions are there. During the talk I spun off into a quick phenomenological investigation on the variations of this particular spell; something I’d like to expand on here.
Peonies are plants. In modern biological terms there are about 33 species within the family Paeoniaceae, all located in the single genus Paeonia. Most are herbaceous perennial plants with compound, deeply lobed leaves and large, often fragrant flowers.
What I wanted to explore during the talk was that the instruction in the PGM leaves a lot of room for individual creativity in the ritual process and that there are numerous different results of these instructions. I argue that the exact position, composition, nature, colour, and the act of binding them were all individually meaningful and could have drawn on a wider body of magical or medicinal knowledge to enhance or instil this meaning.
The first point to introduce is the instruction to place the flowers on the left arm. In the Latin speaking world there was meaning to the word left: sinister as both ‘left’ and ‘unlucky’ or, perhaps more accurately, ‘inauspicious’ due its association with the auspicia (Nec coelum servare licet: tonat augure surdo, et laetae iurantur aves, bubone sinistro (Lucan. Pharsalia V, 395)). The left side was deliberately chosen, perhaps because it was the unlucky side, the side more open to supernatural danger. Pure speculation, but rather than this being a negative thing, perhaps the left side was deemed closest to the supernatural world because of this cultural relationship and thus it made sense to use that knowledge to harness part of it.
Tying to the arm also comes with a choice of where on the arm. During my initial stages of fumbling about I had constantly chosen the forearm, but when I asked my partner to have a go (having not seen the earlier attempts) she immediately tied them to the upper arm. Whether the flesh was exposed or covered by clothing could also have had implications for the ability to tie the flowers on: the sensory experience of having plants touching skin as well as mundane issues such as marking or staining cloth.
I have made an assumption that when the PGM listed ‘Peonies’ it meant ‘the flowers of the Peony plant’. Certainly we may question this interpretation as this comes down to contemporary knowledge – would a 3rd Century inhabitant of the Roman Empire know what a peony plant was if they had read (or been told) this instruction? I have absolutely no idea, how could I? – the fact that it existed in the PGM and had been translated suggests that the noun had meaning for someone and it would be incredibly dangerous to assume any level of ignorance within the ancient world based on my 21st century understandings of botany.
Leaves, roots, or woody plant stems may have featured but in my assumptions here we are talking about flowers. Immediately questions arise: The whole flower head? Individual petals? Flower head and stem? How much stem? All were potential points of creativity. Was the flower cut whilst in bloom, or immediately before or after? Were there specific tools to use to cut the plant? Did it have to be done in certain weather, or on certain days? At the very least, the biological clock of the plant will render a specific temporal window open to the user to find and use the plant.
Was the plant in a ‘living’ state or is it dried? A dried plant could be attached as a whole, or suspended within another container (textile bag for example) – certainly important for the sensory experience if not the ritual efficacy.
The third integral component is something to attach the plant to the arm with. Naturally the issues mentioned immediately above come into effect here. The first point to mention is that a separate binding was not necessary if the flower stem was long enough to wrap itself integrally around.
However, using a simple textile string or rope, flowers could be attached to an arm with relative ease, but therein lays another assumption. Could metal binding be used? Or other organics, like plant vines or roots? A sticky substance like honey or wax? Is there any need for a binding at all if clothing was being worn and it could be tucked or held beneath? All valid questions to my mind.
Returning to the assumed textile rope, there are opportunities here to build on other fragments of magical knowledge. Perhaps a ‘black of Isis’ (a piece of textile taken from a statue of Isis used in many other spells in the PGM) or the eponymous red wool could be used? The position of the binding may be relevant – the number of binds around the arm, their position, and indeed nature. A Hercules knot, for example, may be used to add an additional layer of magical knowledge to this already frothy ritual soup.
How long for? In what situations was this appropriate or not appropriate? Was this a visual cue to others, who shared the same ritual knowledge, that the user was unwell or trying to supernaturally protect their personal interests? Whether it was public or clandestine seems to be an important element in this, but again the space for ritual creativity allows for both.
Like at the conference, I’ve once again tied flowers to my arm to investigate some of these issues. I used five plastic peonies (as an analogue for real ones whilst travelling to Kent) and white shoelaces – hardly ancient materia magica in either case, but they served a purpose. Some thoughts on wrapping peonies around the left arm and wearing them:
- Tying a binding to your own arm is not straightforward. It causes the hands and arms to comport themselves in an usual way. My fingers on the left hand were helpful only for holding a working end of the rope whilst the right hand did all the fine manipulation. Because of this, the upper arm was more difficult to bind to because of the loss of the left hand as an anchor point.
- Having someone else do this to you makes it a lot easier!
- Having failed several times to place the flowers first and then bind them, I opted for inverting this scenario and binding first and inserting flowers at positions of my choosing.
- I used six wraps, crossing over each, and a Hercules knot. Using these materials, loops closer together were stronger and did not slip.
- Tying it too tight, obviously created a tourniquet effect and was seriously uncomfortable.
- Flower head towards hand or away from it?
- Real flowers rather than plastic flowers would be easily damaged by this ritual action – petals could fall off; the stem could be bruised or cut by the binding. A recently cut and exposed stem would seep against the skin/clothing.
- The proximity of real flowers heads to the body must have had a scent.
- The left arm is subsequently limited in its effectiveness for, well, just about anything afterwards to prevent the delicate flowers being abraded or damaged by obstacles. Was there thus a minimum or maximum time to have worn the Peonies?
Clockwise from top left: One Peony slotted into pre-bound rope; Three arranged together at the wrist, though inversions were simple to do; Individual creativity – I used five.
Whilst there are no conclusions to be drawn from this rather daft experiment, it serves to highlight that even the most seemingly straightforward of Roman magical rituals could have been weighted by individual knowledge by practitioners and subsequently adapted or changed through the capacity for creativity. Plants may have afforded a strong sensory experience in a way that inorganic materials did not. We should reflect on both of these points.