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Early Greek incantations from Selinous

The so-called “Getty Hexameters” represent an unusual set of early Greek ‘magical’ incantations (epoidai) found engraved on a small, fragmentary tablet of folded lead. Discovered from clandestine operations at ancient Selinous, Sicily, around 1981, and acquired at that time by the J. Paul Getty Museum (Malibu, CA), the hexametric verses have only recently been published in preliminary form in 2011, followed by a scholarly collection of conference papers published by Oxford University Press, in 2013. The new Oxford Classical Dictionary online will soon offer a summary of the text, a review of the present state of research, and a new translation and analysis based on forthcoming work of the author.

The rare verses provide an exciting new window into the early practice and use of written magic and incantatory spells in the Greek polis of the 5th century BCE. Ancient Selinous (modern Selinunte), a colony of Megara Hyblaia, was known for its remarkable temples and almost Sybarite wealth and luxury (see Franco de Angelis, Megara Hyblaia and Selinous: The Development of Two Greek City-States in Archaic Greece, Oxford, 2003); it all came to a tragic and unexpected end when the city-state was stormed in 409 BCE by the devastating forces of Hannibal (the grandson of Hamilcar, and not the more famous Hannibal, whose floruit came some 200 years later). The Getty text must date from some time shortly before this horrific attack, for thereafter the remnants of the inhabitants, of which some 16,000 were slain, were all taken captive. Although the prisoners were eventually allowed to return to till the land, the Greek polis as such ceased to exist: coinage ended, epigraphy ceased, Hellenic culture all but desisted.

Although modest portions of the text of the Getty Hexameters have been found on other tablets roughly contemporary with it, and even on some later magical spells on papyrus, lead, and silver (the latter, partially in Latin) dating some 800 years later, the Getty text is the fullest and best exemplar found to date. It also includes much new, unique material not known from elsewhere. One such portion of the text (col. ii) has a unique set of instructions, also in hexameters, that even seem to presage the aforementioned Carthaginians’ imminent threat against the city:

“Hear carefully the utterance [of this word]! Intone [this] sweet [song] / [over all] the people, in time of need, whenever [doom] / might [come] near [among the people] good at war and the ships, / bringing death [to mortal] men!”

Did the Selinuntines suspect, get wind of, or know of the Carthaginian attack? The specific mention of a threat to the Selinuntine army and navy seems to point to a military attack, to be sure. Or, was some other kind of “doom” in mind, attested elsewhere in the cultural record of the city?

Selinous was known for its periodic plagues, caused by the stagnant waters of its nearby rivers. As Diogenes Laertius (8.70), on the authority of the shadowy figure of a certain Diodorus of Ephesus, tells us, the sage and wonder-worker Empedocles cured the city of the plague by diverting the flow of the neighboring rivers, at his own expense, to produce a less putrefying admixture. The plague, it seems, had been the cause of civilian deaths and dystocia in the womenfolk. Although this reference has in mind a period some 50 years earlier than the writing of the Hexameters themselves (whose style is not decidedly Empedoclean, by the way), the very next verses of the inscription could have in mind repeat episodes of just such a noisome plague when it enjoins the reader to:

“intone [the words] over the cattle and the handiworks of mortals, / by the goodly time of night and by [day], / having [your heart] pure, [and] pure, too, the [little] door of [your] mouth!”

Although cattle can surely be subject to a malignant plague (called Rinderpest, a measles-like or canine-like distemper, transmitted by contaminated water), the mention of protection for the “handiworks (technai) of mortals” seems to point rather to specific commercial benefits that the intoned verses aim to proffer: namely, productivity in the cattle—including breeding, provision of basic alimentary needs, clothing, etc.—as well as success in the business enterprises of the Selinuntines.

These “positive effects” of the verses seem more in keeping with the meaning of the text, rather than, say, protection from cattle-plague or imminent rusting and breakage of human handicrafts. Indeed, the very concluding verses of this second column even state that the ‘magic’ words of the Hexameters are “[beneficial] for the Polis, for they are best (or, ‘most useful’) for governing.”

But what exactly are the word and song that the Getty Hexameters promise for such protection from doom and, conversely, for the accruing of seemingly societal, commercial, and political benefits? In part, they are a set of ancient ‘magic’ syllables known as the Ephesia Grammata. Believed to have been once engraved on the statue of Artemis of Ephesus, these formerly meaningless syllables now begin to take on linguistic shape in the context of the Getty verses. Whereas some of them still seem to be only quasi-meaningful—those quoted in the second half of the Hexameters—the syllables of the first half actually form part of an (almost) perfectly meaningful  verse: “[Having come] down the shady mountains (in a darkly-glittering land …)”, and so on.

The now clear hexameter actually inaugurates the opening of a remarkable mythological narrative, a narrative whose introduction to the reader as an “immortal” and “sacred” incantation to be written—not merely spoken—intends to bring immediate deliverance from harm, so long as the inscribed verses are enclosed in one’s house. The narrative thus forms a kind of hoary, older set of verses that constitute the very heart of the Getty Hexameters. It tells of a mysterious goat of Demeter’s that is being led from Persephone’s garden for a momentous milking. The goddess Hecate, and perhaps Helios as well, seems to be in attendance, and there are blazing torches, a nighttime setting, a ceaseless flow of milk, as well as foreign shouts carried out along a carriage way. What the mystic narrative intends to convey may be lost forever in the lacunose remains of the Getty’s fragmentary text, but its secrets, if preserving some hieros logos of once unspoken legomena of the ancient Mysteries, may offer intriguing insights into the appropriation of early Greek hexameters as epaiodai for the protection and safety of both individual and polis, whether that individual sought deliverance from harm in the mundane world or salvation in the super-mundane afterlife.

Featured image credit: Garden of the Getty Villa in Malibu, by malosoca. CC0 public domain via Pixabay.

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