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Summoning The Dead: Ancient Magic By Philip Matyszak
Steve Whitaker, Literary Correspondent
Philip Matyszak
Philip Matyszak’s wise starting point in this jolly enquiry into the credulity of ancient classical cultures is to encourage the suspension of disbelief in readers. Practical responses to natural phenomena perceived as little less than magical by contemporary observers were entirely appropriate to the time and context of their apprehension. Such cultures, Matyszak reminds us, saw magic in everything: the growing of a tree from an acorn, the butterfly emergent from the chrysalis, looked miraculous to the pre-rational eye. The seeking of explanation, inspiration and guidance in quackery helped these societies to make sense of their surroundings, even where diagnosis and scientific actuality were wholly divergent.

Not least with the classical relationship with the idea of death. Necromantic fascination found persuasive gateways to the Underworld in what we would now call cave entrances. In places of mystery and apparently limitless depth, the early Greeks imagined realms of eternally somnolent, river-borne murk entirely befitting their conception of domiciliary landscapes for wandering souls. The mephitic gases emerging from some subterranean adits, which asphyxiated birds and in some instances people, were perceived as poisoned resonances from the Underworld. The goddess Mephitis, who was the propagator and nomenclature of such noxious gases, was a purveyor, in fact, of little more than naturally occurring carbon dioxide.

Matyszak wears his erudition lightly; the breadth of his research is insouciantly offset by an easy, genial manner which in no way undermines his clear commitment to his subject. And it is to his credit that he makes the necessary connection between the past and the present by identifying how the ancients somehow foreshadowed the scientific certainties of the distant future by speculation, and sometimes by complete accident. The practice of Magic, using wild herbal remedies and potions, sometimes yielded symptomatic relief in the way that the medicinal compounds of modern exponents do. However, disastrous failure was more common than success, and it is entirely characteristic of Matyszak’s lightness of touch that he finds gallows humour in experiments gone wrong. That Tullus Hostilius was killed by lightning when he failed to perform a ritual correctly is summed with epigrammatic tidiness in the historian’s concise biography: ‘third king of Rome, incinerated 642 BC’.

Matyszak’s style is easeful and explanatory; his mode of delivery, light. Which is not to demean his compendious knowledge of the, to the modern eye, arcane aspects of former civilisations. There are shreds of sense in these experiments in communing with the dead, on cures for ailments, or correctives to infidelity. But this writer’s métier is a form of translation: the habits of culturally complex and remote societies are painted by numbers for a modern audience, and in as genial a manner as possible, without compromising the extant bases on which our necessarily rickety view of the past is built. And if his best intention is to disseminate a greater understanding of the arcana of the distant past, then his means of delivery is oiled at all points by a natural wit.

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And the reader is not likely to forget the many moments of levity here: bringing to bear his thorough research in neatly compartmentalised chapters – Matyszak’s thesis is inclusive and broad-ranging – his observations are both funny and assured. Which seems to be this writer’s point: we recognise our own proclivities, and faults, in the febrile curiosities of the Ancients. His final chapter rounds on the seer and the prophet, and if the certainties of a Cassandra or a Delphic Oracle yielded intimations of the near future, they rendered a neat circularity of Tragic purpose in the fictive world which imitated its Greek reality. ‘Looking to the Future’, in quite another sense, is a figure for our credulity, for superstitions which continue to fill the interstices where reason should prevail.

But most we remember the humour. In this beautifully illustrated and engaging volume, Philip Matyszak’s conversational style speaks best in a demotic we all understand. On necromancy, or communing with the dead, the writer is clear as to the practice’s modern application:

‘It is strongly recommended that readers do not try such a ritual at home. At best, the experiment will fail, wasting both your time and several bucketloads of sheep’s blood. At worst – you might succeed.’



Ancient Magic – A Practitioner’s Guide to the Supernatural in Greece and Rome is published by Thames & Hudson
For more information: https://thamesandhudson.com/ancient-magic-9780500052075

Summoning The Dead: Ancient Magic By Philip Matyszak, 13th May 2019, 17:14 PM