Magical history tour is waiting at Penn museum

“Magic is all pervasive,” said Robert Ousterhout, a professor of art history at the University of Pennsylvania. “It’s something we still believe in today, even if we don’t think we do.”

Ousterhout has co-curated “Magic in the Ancient World” at the university’s Museum of Archaeology and Anthropology. The exhibit of 81 objects from the museum archives includes carved Gorgon’s heads to ward of evil spirits, a carved hippopotamus horn to help with childbirth, and details from a reading of sheep entrails carved into clay.

Magic objects are not just ancient. Have you ever knocked on wood or worn a lucky shirt on game day? In the ancient world, magical systems were more complex than Harry Potter and more integrated into everyday life.

“Religion is what you do in the daytime, magic is what you do at night,” said Ousterhout.

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While religious practices tend to be social, magical rituals tend to be very personal, involving trinkets worn directly on the body or used secretly at home. The exhibition features a collection of ceramic incantation bowls from 700 B.C. Mesopotamia, each with a crudely drawn demon on the bottom, with text of a spell spiraling around the sides.

“Look carefully. The demons have their legs bound. They are contained,” said Ousterhout. “Something evil can be used as protection. By binding the demon, it becomes your protector.”

The bowls were found, face-down, at the edges of properties near the ancient Mesopotamian city of Nippur, in what is now southern Iraq. The bowls were placed face down, it’s believed, in order to keep  trapped demons in place.

“In any religious system, you are putting yourself subservient to the gods you are worshipping,” said Ousterhout. “Magic reverses that — you become the powerful part of the equation, and you are commanding supernatural forces.”

Ousterhout pointed to a carved Babylonian stone from 1000 B.C. that was officially used as a property marker, but is carved with curses.

“‘May Gula, the Great Lady, place continual sickness in the body, and as a result may he bathe in blood and pus as if in water,'” said Ousterhout, reading a translation of the cuneiform writing. “The curses are this sort of very nasty and personal for those who transgress.”

The exhibition brings magic forward, with digital interactive screens that will suggest which object will help you with a variety of personal problems.

Has love scorned you? Try a lamella curse tablet.

Going out drinking? Wear an amethyst amulet to ward off a hangover.

Magical thinking while drinking has not changed much over the last 3000 years.

The exhibit continues through the end of next April.

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