02 - Plato, Magoi, and Lived Religion in Fourth-Century Athens: A View from Attic Curse Tablets

Plato's dialogues have been mined many times over for the roles of theology and religion therein. A particular point of focus has been the language and imagery of the Eleusinian Mysteries, notably in the Symposium, and "Orphic" rites, especially in the Phaedo (recent scholarship includes Betegh 2022; Nightingale 2021; Edmonds 2017). For instance, Nightingale 2021 focuses on Plato's narration of the "story of the soul" and emphasizes his adaptations and modifications of Eleusinian stages of initiation and Orphic notions of purification. This paper engages in a complementary but novel enterprise: it reads Platonic dialogues in coordination with the chronologically and geographically proximate material remains of ritual practitioners, some of them recently uncovered, as a means of advancing research on Plato's relationship with itinerant ritual specialists such as magoi and goētes and demonstrating the porous boundaries of modern disciplinary divisions between "philosophy," "religion," and "magic."

Examining in tandem new documentary evidence for the craft of curse-creation in fourth-century Greece (Lamont 2021) and a cross-section of passages from the Euthyphro, Cratylus, and Phaedo, this paper argues that the performative enactment of poetic models, use of epic diction and meter, and appeal to divine paradeigmata in certain Attic curse tablets attests to a vibrant ritual world with which Plato was himself conversant and arguably also in active competition. In addition to the well-known antagonism Plato harbored towards certain ritual entrepreneurs (e.g., Leg. 908B - 909D; Parker 2011: 259), it is argued that Plato also exhibits an intellectually productive engagement with ritualists and the broader fourth-century Athenian society at large, in which bindings-down were familiar rites, valuable mechanisms for managing competition, vulnerability, and risk (Faraone 1991; Eidinow 2007; Lamont 2023). By appropriating the framework and language of bindings-down, Plato attempts to harness the power of the divine and carve out a space for his philosophical and psychagogic projects. In arguing thus, I also demonstrate that curse tablets themselves embedded broader theologies of ancestral wisdom, divine power, an ordered kosmos (and, by extension, local community), and justice. A coordinated analysis of these ritual expressions of piety and theologia with Plato's own testimonia about ritual freelancers (Graf 2019) sheds new light on the varieties of lived religion in fourth-century Athens.

Sensitive to the complicated task of interpreting Platonic dialogues with an eye to historical data, the paper develops a model of polemics generated from proximity as a contextual framework with competitive antagonism and appropriation as two modes for interpreting the role of ritual practitioners and their practices in Plato's dialogues. I approach competitive antagonism and appropriation along the axes of rhetoric, history, and theologia - i.e., a set of rhetorical strategies that reflect historical connectivity and competition in the realm of theologia. Long maligned as the "magic" of the masses, in this paper curse tablets emerge alongside philosophers as engaged participants in much larger debates about the kosmos, justice, and divinity, and as important evidence for the religious mentalities of individuals in fourth-century Athens.


Christopher Atkins, Yale University