Cheese sandwich oracle

The case of Sophronius, bishop of Tella (fifth century), is truly amazing, even though, as a supporter of Nestorius, he may be classified as a heretic. The magical experiments of this dignitary of the Church were described by two presbyters and two deacons before the “Robber Synod” of Ephesus in 449 and denounced by the assembled clergy. Someone had stolen a sum of money from the bishop. He gathered the suspects and first made them swear on the Gospel that they were innocent. Then he forced them to undergo the “cheese-sandwich oracle” (tyromanteia). The sandwiches were offered, and the bishop attached a conjuration to a tripod. In principle, the thief would have been unable to eat, but apparently all the suspects ate with a good appetite. So the bishop insisted on another oracle, the phialomanteia: he consulted a spirit that was supposed to appear in a dish into which water and oil had been poured. This method finally revealed the thief.

This peculiar tale is found on page 460 of the new second edition of Arcana Mundi by Georg Luck (Johns Hopkins University Press, 2006). As I mentioned in an earlier post, I’ve been looking forward to its release. An extensive general introduction, epilogue (The Survival of Ancient Magic) and appendix (Psychoactive Substances in Religion and Magic) have been added, each section (Magic, Miracles, Daemonology, Divination, Astrology, Alchemy) has rewritten introductions, and the selection of texts is both slightly different and there are more of them (131 in the second edition as opposed to 122 in the first). Luck’s writing style is still crisp and clear, perfectly explanatory and even somewhat drily humorous at times. He’s obviously benefitted, as have we all, by the numerous publications of magical texts and studies on the subject published over the last twenty years. A very useful Vocabula Magica is included, giving short definitions for the various technical terms used throughout the texts and introductions. The detailed “Select Bibliography” is especially welcome. There is an Index of Ancient Sources, which is useful, and a General Index, which is unfortunately not very detailed.

Caveat emptor: the hardcover edition is without dustjacket, for whatever inexcusable reason. Being that it is a cream-colored cloth cover (the photo shown in my “Currently Reading” spot is apparently of the paperback edition’s cover), not a sensible “library cover” such as Eisenbrauns does so well, I had to return the first copy I received as it seemed to have substituted for a puck in a game of warehouse floor hockey.


  1. You’re welcome, James! Please do. Their covers are both practical and, for lack of a better term, stately. I like the way that the possible excesses of graphics are avoided for a more understated, consistent, and immediately recognizable style. Combined with the easily cleaned library binding, they really are superior.

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