Penn Student

Undergraduate Michael Freeman’s Penn education thus far has been nothing short of magical.

Now a junior majoring in Classical Studies, Michael came to Penn from the tiny town of Walton, New York. A self proclaimed member of the Harry Potter generation, he was long enchanted by magic—but it wasn’t until the end of his freshman year that a course on ancient magic, taught by Classics Professor Peter Struck, really drew him in.

“Everyone said this class, it will change the way you think about everything,” Michael remembered. Finding that intriguing, he signed up. He wasn’t disappointed. “In addition to being a great, thought provoking class it was probably as close as you could get to taking a course at Hogwarts School of Witchcraft and Wizardry.”

“I learned that for the ancients, magical thinking was just a completely different view of how the world worked. Objects, words, images, feelings, these could all have magical properties.”

As the class was drawing to an end, Michael asked his professor if there was any way he could continue studying magic; Dr. Struck said he’d check on something and get back to him.

He did. That next semester two professors—Dr. Robert Ousterhout, History of Art, and Dr. Grant Frame, Near Eastern Languages and Civilizations—were co-teaching a curatorial seminar, Magic in the Ancient World, to develop a new Penn Museum exhibition with a small group of upper level undergraduate and graduate students. Though he was just a sophomore, he petitioned to get in the small class, and he was accepted.

Exploring a Magical Collection at the Penn Museum

Invested in the class, his favorite of the semester, Michael remembers, “I really looked forward to coming to the Museum. It was incredible, they had objects laid out for us almost every single class. We would learn about a new culture, a new type of object. There were guest lectures from some really incredible professors to teach us more about magic in this culture, magic in that culture, and you really got the sense that it was something, at least in the ancient world, that pervaded the human experience, this belief and participation in magic.”

“We are lucky to have the Penn Museum,” he continued. “How many museums in the world are going to have a selection of magical artifacts actually this rich? Many museums probably don’t even have any curators that know which objects were considered magical. If you don’t know about this way of thinking then you don’t really know which objects are important and which are just a bowl or a pot or a pen. So we were able to work with all sorts of objects from all sorts of different cultures.”

A Focus on Magical Stones

Serpis Ring

Michael was ultimately assigned to work on a section about gnostic objects, magical stones, and gems. Around the first century CE sages reimagined ancient magic, mixing pagan philosophy with early Judeo-Christian wisdom into Gnosticism, or “secret knowledge” that could offer nothing less than transcendence.

The big question, though, was how to determine when a stone was just a stone—or when it served a magical purpose.

To help answer this question, Michael turned to Greek magical papyri he’d learned about in his first magic class. It is “pretty much a book of spells if you’re a Harry Potter fan.” The book offers spells for a variety of situations: success in a sporting competition, or love, or even spells to sabotage another.

“There aren’t many but there are about five or six or seven spells in this book that are actually recipes, instructions on how to make these kinds of (magic) gems. Based on a very small amount of text, I was able to figure out what a magical gem actually looks like, what a magical gem actually does, and based on that I was able to sort through the large amount of actual gems that we have in the Museum.”

It was a good start to finding and categorizing magic gems, but just a beginning: Michael plans to continue his research, identifying what magic gems are out in other collections around the world, and developing definitions and categories to fit these “secret” collections. He’s set on completing it in one year—for his senior thesis.

How were magical stones made? “Start with a piece of gem stone; you need to chip it down to the right size. Then there are different types of gem inscriptions, cameos, and intaglios. One you carve into the gem, the other you carve out of it.

“You need to have someone with artistic ability. One interesting thing will be to find out if there was a market of artisans who actually made these and whether or not they had to be sort of underground. This may or may not have been legal at that point in time because the Roman Empire had very strict laws about magic. Not all of this was necessarily supposed to be out in public.

“It’s interesting that this might be a type of jewelry that’s not supposed to be seen,” he reflected. “It’s sort of a cultural paradox.”

Joining the Exhibition Team

After the seminar ended, Michael turned in the information he’d researched, and took a fall semester in Greece. When he got back for the spring 2016 semester, though, he joined the Museum exhibition team that was now building the show.

“I worked fairly closely with Professor Ousterhout and Professor Frame. We had weekly meetings and it was really exciting, because as the semester got on, more and more people started coming to those meetings until we had the full team. We had graphic designers, we had case designers, we had visionaries of all sorts, really a team of artists and scholars and business people, I suppose, all assembled ready to make this happen.

“I was really happy to be a part of making it happen. In that final process, I was there as an assistant for the entire team, ready to help any member finalize their part of the project,” he recalled. “Of course since magical gems aren’t things that people study too often, if they had any questions about what to put in that part of the exhibition they would usually ask me, because it is not exactly common knowledge. It’s nice to have a specialty.”

Magic Then and Now

Magic Gallery

For Michael, the magical objects in the collection have a power to evoke a time long, long ago: “The thing that really gets me is the emotions that someone 2,000 years ago would have felt when they were receiving one of these (magic gems) for the first time, when they were tying one of these around their neck in the morning, when they were putting one of these on when they went out for the day. The kind of belief they had in these, the kind of success they hoped this would bring to them—it resonates with me.

“Today, we put just as much faith in the systems of thought that are regularly endorsed, the medical systems that we have, the philosophical systems that we have, the religious systems that we have. We put just as much faith in these as the ancient would have put in their medical systems, and their philosophical systems and their religious systems.

“We believe these things work, and we often believe that they work because we see results. We think that our systems are superior because we use empiricism, but ancient people—one of the things I’ve definitely learned here as a classics major—they were some of the best empiricists that ever lived, they observed everything, they looked very carefully. Even if magic doesn’t necessarily exist in the way that we think about it, magic worked enough for them that they were able to continue believing in it.

“I think that’s the real key here, how powerful faith is for humans.”


Magic in the Ancient World explores some of the magical objects, words, and rituals used in ancient Egypt, Mesopotamia, Greece, and Rome. The exhibition, which features 81 ancient magical objects from the Penn Museum collections, opened April 16, and runs through April 30, 2017.

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