Against Evil – A comparative study of ancient Greek and contemporary Zulu protective magic

Table of Contents


Author: Cullen Guy Mansfield Mackenzie
Publication Date: 2009
Publication Place: University of KwaZulu-Natal, Pietermaritzburg

PhD Dissertation, 183 pages

Open Access



In the study of ‘magic’, whether in the Late Antique world of the Mediterranean or contemporary South Africa, there exists a lacuna in the understanding of conceptions of ‘evil’. This dissertation attempts to fill this lacuna through the use of comparison, comparing ancient Greek conceptions of evil as contained in a selection of six amulets from the third and fourth centuries of the Common Era, written in Greek, with conceptions obtained through interviews with contemporary isiZulu-speakers in KwaZulu-Natal.

It begins with the Greek material, teasing out the complex intersecting discourses used in a search for protection from evil through in-depth textual analysis, and then moves on to a similar analysis of the oral ‘texts’ of the Zulu respondents. The way in which these two sets of material interacts is reliant on the fact that the interrogation of attitudes and conceptions in the Zulu material enables a fuller elucidation of the ‘voiceless’ popular discourses underlying the Greek texts.

Moving on from analysis of each set of material in relative isolation, the dissertation embarks on a comparison of the various discourses, examining the varying thought-patterns which reflect a broader social context and which are in turn creative of that context. These ‘popular’ voices are then situated in the broader ‘grand narratives’ of their historical context, enabling a further elucidation of the way in which intellectual or codified discourses around the nature of evil intersect with the voices of individuals grappling with them.

In a reflection on the nature of the comparative endeavour, the utility of comparison is further highlighted as the means to achieve a greater understanding of both the distant past and the immediate present.