Greek Voodoo Dolls: the Kolossoi

We try to be creative, not book report-ish in our posts, but sometimes a book needs reporting. This is the case with Daniel Ogden’s Magic, Witchcraft and Ghosts in the Greek and Roman Worlds. For this post, I’ll be giving you highlights from chapter 12, Voodoo Dolls and Magical Items.

Now, let’s start with a disclaimer: Voodoo is a complex religious and magical system; it has many disparate forms, and therefore the term “Greek voodoo dolls” may strike some as uniformed at best, as offensive at worst. I am keeping with the author’s verbiage; “Voodoo doll” is a useful shorthand that conveys the intent of the subject matter – these are dolls, fetishes as they are academically called, that are used to ritually bind or transform individuals.

These dolls go back into antiquity; the first story in this case dates back between four to six hundred years before the birth of Christ.

This is an early example of what anthropologists call sympathetic magic, which is to say magic where an object, a fetish, is connected sympathetically, (sym=with, pathos=suffering (hence pathology, the study of disease)) to the person it has been affixed to, via magical rituals.

Short translation: what happens to the doll, cruel or kind, happens to the person.

The potential for healing? Yes.

Pain? Yes as well.

The potential for life? Yes.

Death?

Absolutely.

*

The island of Thera, now known as Santorini, has a violent geological history.

To steal from wiki: “The island is the site of one of the largest volcanic eruptions in recorded history: the Minoan eruption (sometimes called the Thera eruption), which occurred some 3,600 years ago at the height of the Minoan civilization.”

The tsunami that followed destroyed the Minoan civilization at Crete.

As of now, there are 16 designated “Decade Volcanoes”. Volcanoes that could easily wipe out surrounding populations.

Thera/Santorini is one of them. (Mt. Vesuvius of Pompeii infamy is another).

Some researchers postulate that the Minoan explosion might have given rise to the myths of Atlantis. Borrowing from wiki again,you can find more information via ” the History Channel programme Lost Worlds (episode “Atlantis”), the Discovery Channel’s Solving History with Olly Steeds, and the BBC’s Atlantis, The Evidence, which suggests that Thera is Plato’s Atlantis.”

Regardless of Platonic assertions of the island sinking, people still stuck around; Thera survived, though not quite intact.

Alas, there are worse things than sinking to the bottom of the sea.

Hunger.

And that was the next challenge that would face the citizens of Thera.

Not just, hunger, but famine.

And when the cannibals are coming, forks out…

Faith is all that remains.

*

“Oaths were sworn to this agreement both by those who remained in Thera and those who sailed to settle. And they called down curses on those who should forswear themselves and fail to abide by their oath, be they among those settling in Libya or those remaining behind in Thera” (Ogden 245)

In other words, the Theran’s sent out a colony ship, a notion that has become a common trope in modern science fiction. The land was dying, and it was time to head out, with Libya as the new homeland.

*

Why Libya? Why the city that would eventually be known as Cyrene?

Blame the Oracle:

According to Herodotus, seven years after the Oracle at Delphi demanded a city in Libya, “not a drop of rain fell in Thera.” Apparently, after seven years, the Therans got their act together and went back to the Oracle, who forcefully reiterated her point:

Make a colony city in Libya.

Build Cyrene.

*

And so, the colony ships were set to sail.

And the wax dolls were ready.

The Greek Voodoo Dolls; the Kolossoi.

To make a binding oath; a form of fierce bondage, a pledge of union across distant waters.

*

Cyrene would flourish. It would birth philosophers (see the Cyreanic school of philosophy, founded by Aristippus, who espoused a philosophy of happiness/pleasure), mathematicians and astronomers (see Eratosthenes).

The Oracle was onto something: Cyrene was magical.

It’s only fitting that it was forged in magic

*

They burned two wax effigies.

One for Thera, and one for the New City, Cyrene.

Man, Woman, Boy, Girl, and anyone in between came to partake of the Ritual.

The Burning.

As it proceeded, they prayed:

“that the one who did not abide by those oaths…should melt and dissolve just like the dolls, he himself, his descendants and his property, but those that did …[abide], whether among those sailing to Libya or those remaining behind in Thera, should have many good things, both they themselves and their descendants.” (ibid 245)

Now you might wonder about the power of sympathetic magic, more specifically Voodoo dolls. But consider this:

Cyrene prospered.

Not forever, because nothing prospers forever, but sometimes, a thing lasts just long enough. I have already mentioned Aristippus, but several other notable humans came from the Theran colony in Libya:

(again, borrowed from wikipedia):

  • Aristippus (c. 435 – c. 356 BCE), philosopher and founder of the Cyrenaic School.
  • Callimachus (310/305 – 240 BCE), poet, critic, and scholar at the Library of Alexandria
  • Eratosthenes (276 – 194 BCE), mathematician, geographer, astronomer; librarian at the Library of Alexandria. First to calculate the circumference of the Earth.
  • Eugammon (fl. 6th century BCE), epic poet
  • Lacydes (3rd century BC), philosopher
  • Theodorus (c. 5th century BC), mathematician

Sometimes, burning a Voodoo doll helps.

ram
The Mnesimachos Voddo Doll and its “coffin”, circa 400 B.C., from the Athenian Ceramicus cemetary

 

 

 

 

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