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Suspending Disbelief: Magnetic Levitation in Antiquity and the Middle Ages

Lowe, Dunstan (2016) Suspending Disbelief: Magnetic Levitation in Antiquity and the Middle Ages. Classical Antiquity, 35 (2). pp. 247-278. ISSN 0278-6656. E-ISSN 1067-8344. (doi:10.1525/ca.2016.35.2.247) (KAR id:57768)


Static levitation is a form of marvel with metaphysical implications whose long history has not previously been charted. First, Pliny the Elder reports an architect’s plan to suspend an iron statue using magnetism, and the later compiler Ampelius mentions a similar-sounding wonder in Syria. When the Serapeum at Alexandria was destroyed, and for many centuries afterwards, chroniclers wrote that an iron Helios had hung magnetically inside. In the Middle Ages, reports of such false miracles multiplied, appearing in Muslim accounts of Christian and Hindu idolatry, as well as Christian descriptions of the tomb of Muhammad. A Christian levitation miracle involving saints’ relics also emerged. Yet magnetic suspension could be represented as miraculous in itself, representing lost higher knowledge, as in the latest and easternmost tradition concerning Konark’s

ruined temple.

The levitating monument, first found in classical antiquity, has undergone many cultural and epistemological changes in its long and varied history.

Item Type: Article
DOI/Identification number: 10.1525/ca.2016.35.2.247
Additional information: The uploaded document is the author agreed version of the article. Its content is essentially the same as that of the final publication, but it is unpaginated and contains a few minor errors.
Uncontrolled keywords: Alexandria, Ampelius, Arsinoe, Embrico, Graindor, Konark, levitation, magnetism, miracles, Paulinus, Pliny, relics, Rufinus, Serapeum, Trier, Classical and Archaeological Studies
Subjects: C Auxiliary Sciences of History > CB History of civilization
G Geography. Anthropology. Recreation > GR Folklore
P Language and Literature > PA Classical philology
Divisions: Divisions > Division of Arts and Humanities > Department of Classical and Archaeological Studies
Depositing User: Dunstan Lowe
Date Deposited: 06 Oct 2016 15:13 UTC
Last Modified: 19 Apr 2022 13:32 UTC
Resource URI: (The current URI for this page, for reference purposes)

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