7. Magical Materials


The use of certain therapeutic materials by Jesus in the Gospels is often defended against an allegation of magic on the basis that similar medicinal remedies were effectively employed by Jesus’ contemporaries without attracting the stigma of magic. Anointing the sick with oil, for example, was a common practice in the ancient world and hence the early reader would naturally infer a medical rather than magical reading when Jesus sends out the twelve to anoint with oil (Mk. 6:13; Lk. 10:34). The application of saliva, however, is considerably more difficult to distance from magical practice. Although the medicinal value of spittle is extensively recorded throughout antiquity, its close association with magical healing cannot be ignored.


The authors of Mark and John report that Jesus applied spittle to the eyes of the blind and the dumb (Mk. 7:33, 8:23 and Jn. 9:6). Saliva was widely reported to have medicinal properties in the ancient world. For example, Celsus and Galen mention its healing properties and Pliny collected together many instances of its use in the treatment of boils, pains, sores, snake bites, epilepsy and eye diseases.[1] Even modern medical studies have investigated the usefulness of saliva as an antiseptic healing agent.

The merits of saliva for treating eye-diseases in particular are noted in a variety of Jewish, Greek, Roman and early Christian sources.[2] Egyptian myth tells us that Thoth healed Horus’s blind eye by spitting on it and perhaps the most documented account of a saliva healing is that of the Roman emperor Vespasian (A.D. 69) who was approached by a blind man, a follower of the Egyptian god Serapis, who asked him to ‘moisten his cheeks and his eyes with saliva.’[3] When Vespasian did so, the blind man’s eyesight was restored. R. Selare demonstrates that cures for sore eyes which require a combination of spittle and clay, perhaps directly influenced by John’s Gospel, have survived right up to the modern day.[4] However, most ancient cures involving spittle do not incorporate medical language into their instructions, but instead involve ritualistic elements which suggest that the efficacy of the result produced owes its success not to the physical properties of saliva itself, but to a symbolic usage that is based on inherent superstitions surrounding the magical employment of saliva. For example, Pliny’s writings on the ‘medicinal’ properties of spittle often take on a supernatural quality which betrays an underlying conviction in its magical potency:

‘The best of all safeguards against serpents is the saliva of a fasting human
being. But our daily experience may teach us yet other values of its use.
We spit on epileptics (comitiales morbos) in a fit, that is, we throw back
the infection. In a similar way we ward off witchcraft (fascinationes) and
the bad luck that follows meeting a person lame in the right leg.' [5] 

A widespread confidence in the inherent magical powers of spittle and the act of spitting is demonstrated throughout history by the numerous ancient customs and rituals which use spitting as a basis for a covenant [8], as a means to increase luck [9] or to curse enemies and the efficacy of charms, cures and exorcisms was believed to be increased by spitting during, or after, their application. Under further investigation, most spittle cures rarely have solid grounding in medical observations, but instead rely on a charm-like quality founded upon a superstitious belief from which they take their effectiveness.

Pliny’s observation regarding the prevention of epilepsy relates directly to the magical use of spittle in the aversion of evil contagion. Both ancient and modern studies into folk-magic attribute to spittle the power to avert evil and spitting when performing spells and healings was thought to keep away any malign influences that might jeopardise the effectiveness of the spell.[6] Epilepsy was greatly feared in antiquity since it was regarded as a disease that resulted from demonic possession. Consequently, many ancient writers relate the custom of spitting three times onto your chest at the sight of an epileptic in order to keep the possessing demon from leaving the epileptic and entering one’s own body. That the executor is required to perform the spell on himself rather than on the epileptic exemplifies the symbolic nature of this act.[7]

The magical, rather than medicinal, attributes of these cures ensured that these methods were commonly employed by magicians. In classical literature in particular, it is often the case that the cure cannot be achieved by the application of any spittle, as would be the case with a medicinal cure, but the healing spittle must come from a magician or an individual with divine standing. Upon re-examining the account of Vespasian’s healing of the blind man, it is apparent that the man who approached Vespasian did not require simply anyone’s spittle but specifically Vespasian’s spittle, thereby suggesting that spittle in itself has no medicinal value and its healing capability is directly linked to the power or importance of its bearer. In a similar fashion, it is a sorceress in Petronius’ Satyricon who treats Encolpius’ impotence by taking some dirt and mixing it with her spittle. [10]

The status of the carrier of the saliva becomes particularly important when considering the healing process according to the principle of the extended personality. The rationale of this theory dictates that contact with a person, or something belonging to a person, allows the power of that person to transmit or influence the other. Spittle, hair, and nails were typically considered by the ancients to be extensions of a man’s body or spirit and from this theory emerged the universal system of sympathetic magic; the belief that a man can be injured or bewitched through the magical use of his hair/nail cuttings and his saliva. Since saliva was thought to be bound intrinsically with the life, or soul, of its bearer, it was therefore considered to be able to transfer life and this notion is still popular in many modern-day cultures. Consequently, anthropological studies often report that a healer will spit in order to augment the health of the victim.

With these common superstitions in mind, are we to understand that the Gospel writers intended Jesus’ application of spittle to be a demonstration of his adoption of first-century medical techniques or simply his familiarity with magical superstitions circulating amongst the people? There is no evidence from ancient sources to suggest that saliva was a cure for deafness and therefore the author of Mark cannot be appealing to popular medicine in Mk. 7:33.[11] On the contrary, given the superstitions regarding spittle that often underlies these types of cures and their close association with magic, I would suggest that Jn. 9:1-15 provides an insight into the historical Jesus buying into popular magical uses of spittle to avert evil and the demonic cause of the disease. The widespread use of spittle as a defence against the evil eye would greatly support this theory, especially since it appears that spitting was often employed in exorcisms or as a small sacrifice of oneself to appease the demon causing the disease. By performing healings using spittle within an environment that is receptive to its magical virtues, a healer is clearly exploiting his patient’s superstitious inclinations and thereby greatly increasing the patient’s expectation of a cure, particularly if the healer is of a high-esteemed, or preferably divine, status. The symbolical usage of spittle, combined with the patient’s faith in the divine standing of the healer, would have been a very powerful remedy in the mind of a patient suffering from a psychosomatic illness.

Since mention of saliva or spitting is restricted to Mk. 7:33, 8:23 and Jn. 9:6 and does not occur elsewhere within the New Testament in a healing context, this suggests that if the historical Jesus employed spittle as a healing agent then he very rarely used this particular method. [12] However, as the authors of Matthew and Luke are highly sensitive to magical techniques, as previously indicated when considering the censorship of foreign words of power, they may have chosen to omit any mention of spittle due its association with magic and this may explain the noticeable absence of spittle in the Matthean account of the healing of the blind and dumb (Mt. 15:29-31) and the elimination of the entire story in the Gospel of Luke. We must also bear in mind that the healing of the blind man at Bethsaida (Mk. 8:22-26) contains a technique that has been previously identified as a hallmark of magical practice; namely the reapplication of techniques that are not effective on their initial application. The preservation of spittle cures in the Gospel of Mark suggests that the evangelist considered these cures to be an unavoidable inclusion. Again, perhaps Jesus’ use of spittle cures was common knowledge amongst the populace when the author of Mark came to construct his Gospel. If so, then perhaps these passages record bone-fide instances of the historical Jesus using magical materials and exploiting magical superstitions when engaging in his healing activities.

Extract from Helen Ingram (2007) Dragging Down Heaven: Jesus as Magician and Manipulator of Spirits in the Gospels, PhD, The University of Birmingham, UK.


[1] Celsus, De Medicina V, 28, 18B; Galen, On the Natural Faculties, III, VII, 163; Pliny, Nat. Hist. 28. 7. See also 28. 4, 22.
[2] The use of spittle for healing purposes is also attested in rabbinical sources (BB 126b; Shab. 14.14d; 18; Sotah. 16d,37).
[3] Tacitus, Historia 4. 8; Suetonius, Vespasian, 7.
[4] ‘Among the Irish peasants fasting spittle is considered of great efficacy for sore eyes, especially if used mixed with clay taken from a holy well. This is made into a paste and applied to the eyes, and it is said that “nothing beats the fasting spittle for blindness”. Saliva mixed with sand and then applied to the eyes, nostrils or forehead of the patient is used in Khordofan, or the operator may spit on the patient three times after reciting a spell or passage from the Kuran’ (R. Selare, ‘A Collection of Saliva Superstitions’ Folklore 50. 4 (1939) p. 350). The value of mud alone for treating eye troubles is recorded by the Roman physician Serenus Sammonicus in his De medicina praecepta: ‘Si tumor insolitus typho se tollat inani, Turgentes oculos uili circumline caeno’ (Serenus Sammonicus, De Med. Praec. 225, 226).
[5] Pliny, Nat. Hist. 28.7.35. Pliny also comments: ‘it is the practice in all cases where medicine is employed, to spit three times on the ground, and to conjure the malady as often; the object being to aid the operation of the remedy employed. It is usual, too, to mark a boil, when it first makes its appearance, three times with fasting spittle’ (Pliny, Nat. Hist. 28. 7.).
[6] For example, Pliny recommends the use of spitting to avert witchcraft (see quotation on pg. 120 above) and a substantial number of spitting charms are used to ward off the evil eye.
[7] A similar use of spittle is recounted by Theocritus: ‘Thrice on my breast I spit to guard me safe, From fascinating charms’ (Theocritus, Idyll, VI, 39).
[8] As a basis for a covenant, see J. G. Frazer, The Golden Bough: A Study in Magic and Religion, 21:9.
[9] Spitting in order to increase luck is mentioned by Pliny who observes that boxers spit on their fists for luck before a fight (Pliny, Nat. Hist. 28.7) and R. Selare notes that ‘it is the common practice of hucksters, pedlars, fisherwomen and applewomen to spit on the first money they receive for luck’ (R. Selare, ‘A Collection of Saliva Superstitions’, p. 363). For other magical uses of spittle within a modern-day context, see Fanny D. Bergen, ‘Some Saliva Charms’, JAF 3. 8 (1890) pp. 51-59.
[10] Petronius, The Satyricon, 131.
[11] Although Pliny does refer to its effectiveness when removing foreign objects from the ear (Nat. Hist., 28. 7).
[12] Other instances of spitting take the form of ἐμπτύω. This suggests spitting with contempt and is clearly not medicinal (see Mk. 14:65; 15:19; Lk. 18:32, and in the Old Testament: Num. 12:14; Deut. 25:9; Job 17:6).

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