The Shadow as a Magical Assistant

An Essay By Robert Conner Author of “Jesus the Sorcerer” & “Magic in the New Testament”

"Saint John and Saint Peter at the Gate Called Beautiful." Gustave Dore free, unencumbered devotional imagery used to undermine belief.

The Shadow as a Magical Assistant in Acts 5:12-16.
Robert Conner It is well known that magicians of antiquity sought to acquire spirit helpers. These magical assistants are given various names in ancient spellbooks, including “god,” “angel,” and “daemon,” but the most common name for the assistant is paredros (παρεδρος), a word which moved unchanged from Greek into Latin as a technical term.1 The Greek magical papyri include this spell for acquiring a paredros called “the shadow.” Offering: wheat meal and ripe mulberries and [unsoftened]2 sesame and uncooked thrion3, toss into that a beet. You will create your own shadow so that it will be your servant. Go at the sixth hour of the day4, face east in a solitary place, girt with a new palm fiber basket, around your head a loop of scarlet cord, a falcon feather behind your right ear and behind the left that of an ibis. Standing in the place, kneel while raising your hands and say this spell: “Make my shadow serve me now because I know your holy names and the signs and the symbols and who you are each hour and what your name is.” Having said these things, once more say the previous spell5 and in case [he does not listen say], “I have uncovered your holy names and signs and symbols. Therefore, Lord, make my shadow serve me.” At the seventh hour

See particularly Leda Jean Ciraolo’s “Supernatural Assistants in the Greek Magical Papyri” in Ancient Magic and Ritual Power, Brill Academic Publishers and Anna Scibilia, “Supernatural Assistance in the Greek Magical Papyri,” in The Metamorphosis of Magic from Late Antiquity to the Early Modern Period. The role of familiar and tutelary spirits in shamanism is described by Mircea Eliade, Shamanism: Archaic Techniques of Ecstasy, 88-99. 2 Brackets indicate points at which the reading of the text is conjectural; the papyrus is defective in a number of places. All the translations from Greek are my own and will be found to differ at points from the translation offered in Betz’ standard work, The Greek Magical Papyri in Translation. 3 The word is a hapax legomenon, a word of single occurrence in surviving Greek texts; its meaning is unknown. 4 Or sext, one of the minor canonical hours, which corresponds to noon. The magician performs the ritual when the sun is highest. Not coincidentally, the hours of the magical texts tend to correspond with the hours of business and liturgy, prime (6 AM), terce (9 AM), sext (noon), and none (3 PM), bracketed by the major hours, matins (originally midnight) and vespers (sunset). 5 The spell given previously in lines 494-536.

it will come to you, face to face, and you say, “Follow me everywhere.” But [see to it] that it does not abandon you.6 How is “the shadow” (skia, σκια) to be understood? It is likely that the segment reproduced above is part of a longer ritual to establish a magical association (sustasis, συστασις)7 with Helios.8 It is not impossible that the shadow in question is therefore the literal shadow, but other possibilities emerge in the context of Greco-Egyptian magical theory. The “Kashadow” was considered a real entity, an integral part of the person, “the vital power by which one lived during life and after death,” and as such required “houses, shelter, and human contact.”9 The Egyptian magical spells of the Leyden Papyrus contained references to the “lucky shadow,” and a spell using a boy and a lamp to summon a god concludes: When you have finished you make him [the boy] open his eyes towards the lamp; then he sees the shadow of the god about the lamp.10 Although marred by racial assumptions widely current in 1921, Edward Clodd was able to accumulate an impressive list of beliefs among various cultures regarding the shadow, widely regarded as a person’s living double. “The Choctaws believed that each man has an outside shadow, shilombish, and an inside shadow, shilup, both of which survive him” and malicious magic could be achieved by making a poppet of an intended victim, or by obtaining some part of his clothing, hair, or nail clippings and putting the cursed object “in some place where his shadow will fall upon it as he passes.” Stabbing or stepping on a person’s shadow or having it cast over food could induce illness and seeing one’s own shadow might even result in death.11


Papyri Graecae Magicae III, 612-632. The Roman numeral refers to the spell, the Arabic numerals to lines of text. 7 For various meanings of sustasis see the comments in Hans Dieter Betz’ Greek Magical Papyri in Translation, 2nd edition, 339. 8 Papyri Graecae Magicae III, 494. 9 Bojana Mojsov, Osiris: Death and Afterlife of a God, 16. 10 The Leyden Papyrus: An Egyptian Magical Book, IV, 23; VI, 6. 11 Edward Clodd, Magic in Names and in Other Things, 28-29.


That the shadow is an extension of the person is a widely shared notion. Describing the deference shown Hawaiian chiefs, Brenda Ralph Lewis observes “that if a commoner’s shadow fell on one of them, a king or chief was polluted by it and the culprit had to die.”12 Given this briefly sketched background, what are we to make of this description of events from early Christianity? Many signs and wonders occurred among the people at the hands of the apostles and they all gathered at Solomon’s Portico. None of the others dared associate with them, but the people esteemed them. A multitude of men and women began joining those who believed in the Lord with the result that the sick were carried into the streets on litters and cots so that as Peter passed by at least his shadow might overshadow some of them.13 Crowds from the towns around Jerusalem congregated, bringing the sick and those afflicted with unclean spirits and all were healed.14 Rick Strelen points out that the shadow was not indifferently regarded as an unremarkable effect of light encountering a solid object. Peter’s shadow had the same healing power as his hand or voice.15 A living extension of his person, Peter’s shadow is Peter’s double. The amazing account at Acts 5:12-16 has necessitated the expenditure of strenuous effort on the part of Christian commentators to allay suspicions that anything overtly magical is being reported. Particularly strenuous in that these writers, who are professional students of religion, know that casting a shadow had clear magical implications in antiquity even if the majority of their readers are unaware of the fact. Remarking on the story of Peter’s shadow, one such writer admits that the account sounds “a lot like magic.”16

12 13

Ritual Sacrifice: Blood and Redemption, 147. Although clumsy, this is a literal translation of the Greek text: η σκια επισκιαση τινι αυτων. 14 Acts 5:12-16. 15 Strange Acts: studies in the cultural world of the Acts of the Apostles, 194. 16 The Collegeville Bible Commentary, 1045.


In addition to shadow, the word skia also means shade, or ghost. Certain classes of ghosts were widely considered to be sources of powerful magic in the Mediterranean world of Jesus’ day and it has been suggested that Jesus himself raised the ghost of John the Baptist for magical purposes.17 Although it is true that no exact equivalent of shaman existed in the Middle East in Jesus’ era, prophets and other religious figures exhibited certain traits typically associated with shamanism.18 As established by Eliade, a central feature of shamanism in most cultures is the incarnation of the ancestral spirits of previous shamans as a means of incorporating their powers: This is as much as to say that the animal spirits play the same role as the ancestral spirits…But it is clear that it is the shaman himself who becomes the dead man…we know that “power” is often revealed by the souls of ancestral shamans…the hereditary transmission of shamanic powers, where the decision lies, in the last analysis, with the spirits and the ancestral souls…Doubtless the wu was not exactly the same as a shaman; but he incarnated the spirits, and, in doing so, served as intermediary between man and the divinity; in addition, he was a healer, again with the help of spirits.19 Against this we may place the prediction that John the Baptist would “go before [Jesus] in the spirit and power of Elijah”20 and the frequent claims that John the Baptist and Jesus are Elijah or one of the previous prophets of Israel.21 The passing of the mantle of prophet and miracle worker, like that of the shaman in other cultures, is ancestral in the sense that the current prophet incarnates those who have gone before: the prophet is a figure returned

Carl Kraeling, “Was Jesus Accused of Necromancy?” Journal of Biblical Literature 59: 147-157. See also Robert Conner, Magic in the New Testament: A Survey and Appraisal of the Evidence, 206-212. 18 Ann Jeffers, “Diviners, Magicians and Oracular Practitioners,” in Magic and Divination in Ancient Palestine and Syria. 19 Mircea Eliade, Shamanism: Archaic Techniques of Ecstasy, 95, 107, 109, 454. For exorcism as healing, see Magic in the New Testament: A Survey and Appraisal of the Evidence, 164, 179-182. 20 Luke 1:17. και αυτος προελευσεται ενωπιον αυτον εν πνευµατι και δυναµει Ηλιου: “and he will go before him in the spirit and power of Elijah.” 21 As at Matthew 11:13-15; 17:10-13; 16:13-16; Luke 4:24-30, for example.


from the realm of the legendary dead to the land of the living. Because he embodies the spirit and power of his predecessors, his name22, word, touch, clothing,23 and shadow transmit magical power and after his death places and objects associated with him may retain his magic.24 Given that the gospels of the New Testament are pseudepigraphic confabulations written over a generation after the fact by men who were not eyewitnesses, it is not possible to know with certainty of what the Jesus cult consisted in illio tempore. The best evidence is that the most primitive Christianity was an intensely apocalyptic splinter sect of Palestinian Judaism25 that exhibited multiple characteristics of magical praxis such as exorcism, healing, cursing, ecstatic possession and manipulation of spirits. As reworked by Paul and his school, Christianity became an ecstatic salvation cult with features of the mystery religions, and in the 2nd century fell rather easily into the preexisting matrix of a salvation religion with features enumerated by the late Arthur Evans: “the suffering of the Son of God who was born from the union of a mortal woman and the Father God,” the purification of the soul, “the priority of written scripture as the defining trait of religion,” increasing tendencies toward asceticism and masculine privilege.26

22 23

Mark 9:38-39. Jesus’s robe (Mark 5:25-34), Paul’s personal articles (Acts 19:11-12), for example. 24 Elisha’s bones raise a dead man that touches them (2 Kings 13:21). 25 Bart Ehrman’s Jesus: Apocalyptic Prophet of the New Millennium presents a comprehensive argument for this interpretation of the evidence. 26 Arthur Evans, The God of Ecstasy: Sex Roles and the Madness of Dionysos, 159-160.


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