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Portentous fantasies : Pliny's representation of the Magi in the Historia Naturalis Dykstra, Sarah Sophia

Abstract

This study examines Pliny the Elder's representation of the Magi in the Historia Naturalis. It seeks to determine not only who the Magi were in Pliny's estimation but also how they were construed in the Roman popular imagination. The pronounced antagonism that Pliny demonstrates toward these occult practitioners is rooted in the fact that the whole notion of magic, as it was understood in the ancient world, was embedded in a negative labelling-system, and that the identity of the magician existed primarily in the imagination of those who were doing the labelling (i.e., branding others as "magicians"). In the HN, Pliny's Magi are therefore represented as the proverbial "other" - outsiders who are perceived as engaging in foreign (and thus loathsome and abhorrent) practices. Pliny's representation of and attitude toward the Magi therefore exemplify how magic-workers have commonly been regarded as individuals who engage in ritual or religious activity that is not endorsed by the dominant social institutions of the cultures in which they operate.

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