How Magical Statues protected the Byzantine Empire

If the Byzantine Empire was under threat from a foreign invader, the people of Constantinople could turn to one of the many statues within the city. It was believed they could use its magical powers to defeat their enemies, but only if they destroyed the statue.

Ancient statue now kept in Turkey's Antalya Archaeology Museum - photo by Alex Berger / Flickr

This is the conclusion of a fascinating article by Liliana Simeonova, in which she explores how certain ‘black magic’ practices were taking place in the capital city of Byzantium. While Christianity and other medieval religions took a negative attitude towards the use of magic, there was also a strong belief among all classes of society that it could be useful at times. Simeonova notes that one of the most popular forms of magic was the creation of effigies and talismans that could be used to ward off evil.

Walking through the medieval city of Constantinople, one would encounter many statues that had been collected since Roman times. What they actually depicted had long since passed from memory, and a folklore had emerged to explain what their purposes were. Although they often were thought to be possessed by evil spirits, these statues still could be used in many ways. For example, Simeonova writes “they were believed to be able to detect unchaste wives and unfaithful husbands, or to pass sentences upon criminals; or they ‘acted’ as pest-repellents; or, at night, they ‘swept’ the streets and ‘ate’ refuse, in an attempt to clean the city.”

The Serpent Column : left, drawing of 1574 showing the column with the three serpent heads; right, its present state - Wikimedia Commons

Some statues had multiple purposes, including protection from distant enemies. The Serpent Column, which partly survives to this day, was viewed as being able to keep snakes and other reptiles away from Constantinople. It was also said to have protected the city from Muslim invasion.

The article notes several episodes where statues were regarded as “magical doubles of prominent individuals, as well as of entire nations” and Byzantine authorities would damage or destroy them as part of their war effort. For example:

In the year 927, as Simeon of Bulgaria (893-927) was preparing to launch his third attack on Constantinople, Emperor Romanos I Lekapenos (920-944) decided to take the advice of a certain astrologer and to have a statue standing on the Xerolophos, smashed. One night, the statue that was believed to be the effigy of Simeon, was beheaded. In this moment, the Bulgarian ruler, who was hundreds of miles away, was suddenly possessed by insanity and died of a heart attack. Constantinople was saved.

Simeonova finds that this practice continued for centuries, and could still be seen in the early 13th century:

The Crusaders of the Fourth Crusade were not immune to the Greek beliefs in the magical powers of the city talismans. After capturing Constantinople, they took care to destroy the palladia of the city, and especially those, which they learned had been set up by the Greeks against their race. Among the statues, which they smashed and melted, there was a brazen equestrian statue. In the rider some Greeks identified Bellerophontes, others Joshua, the son of Nun. But everyone believed that, under the horse’s left hood, there was buried a figurine. According to some, it was the image of a certain Venetian while others claimed that it was of a member of some other Western nation, or a Bulgarian. When the Latins removed the sole of the horse’s hoof with hammers, they found lying underneath the image of a man dressed in the kind of cloak that is woven from sheep’s wool. The figurine was pierced through with a nail and wholly covered by lead. On seeing this, the majority conjectured that the image was of a Bulgarian. Most likely, it had been buried there in a rite of black magic, which aimed to cause harm to a powerful Bulgarian ruler, who posed a threat to the Empire.

It is important to note that these ideas about magical statues were not limited to the common people, but was held also by the elite of Byzantine society. While some of the clergy objected to these practices, others condoned its use, especially when Constantinople was under threat. As Simeonova concludes, “in as much as the danger of an enemy attack on the Empire could be averted through the destruction or mutilation of a statue, they did not hesitate to put the prescribed magical rites into practice.”

Liliana Simeonova’s article “Magic and the Warding-off of Barbarians in Constantinople, 9th - 12th centuries,” can be found in Material Culture and Well-Being in Byzantium (400-1453), edited by Michael Grunbart et al., which was published in 1997 by Österreichische Akademie der Wissenschaften.

You can also follow Liliana Simeonova on her Academia.edu page.

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