Georg H.B. Luck, whose career teaching the classics at the Johns Hopkins University spanned two decades and included studying the role magic and witchcraft played in the theology and world of the ancient Greeks and Romans, died Sunday from complications of cancer at Gilchrist Hospice Care in Towson.
He was 87 and a longtime resident of the city’s Poplar Hill neighborhood.
“Georg was a modest man who had great gusto for the things that interested him,” said Richard A. Macksey, a noted Baltimore bibliophile and professor of humanities at Hopkins. “He was the kind of person who could interest the general public in what might appear to many to be very dry work. He saw the relationship between theology, witchcraft and magic.”
“He was a pioneer in the study of magic and witchcraft in the theology of the ancient Greeks and Romans,” said Matthew B. Roller, a professor and former chairman of the classics department at Hopkins. “It was the first serious study and he collected all of the material.”
The son of a government worker and a homemaker, Georg Hans Bhawani Luck — pronounced “Luke” — was born and raised in Bern, Switzerland, where he graduated in 1944 from the Kirchenfeld Gymnasium.
Dr. Luck served in the Swiss army, first as a volunteer during World War II and later in the regular armed forces, where he attained the rank of lieutenant in the infantry.
Dr. Luck graduated from the University of Bern and also studied at the Sorbonne in Paris. He earned a master’s degree in classics in 1951 from Harvard University, and his doctorate in classics in 1953 from the University of Bern.
He began his academic career in 1952 as a classics instructor at Yale University and joined the faculty of Brown University in 1953; he taught there for two years.
He taught at Harvard from 1955 to 1958, when he was awarded a Guggenheim Fellowship. He was a lecturer in Greek and Latin from 1958 to 1962 at the University of Mainz.
Dr. Luck taught at the University of Bonn, where he attained a full professorship, for eight years, until he came to Baltimore in 1970 and joined the Hopkins faculty.
In addition to his regular classwork, Dr. Luck taught various courses in the Johns Hopkins School for Continuing Education.
For 12 years, he served as editor-in-chief of the American Journal of Philology.
His book “Arcana Mundi: Magic and the Occult in the Greek and Roman Worlds” was published in 1986; he added a second volume in 2006.
“I think ‘Arcana’ is his most famous work,” said Dr. Roller. “He was in his 80s when he issued the second volume and it showed that he was still thinking about the subject.”
“No one currently at work in ancient magic or related fields can remotely compare with Luck for the breadth and profundity of his knowledge of the literary texts, for the humanity and sympathy of his exegeses of them, or for the humanity and lightness of touch with which he conveys his scholarship,” wrote Daniel Ogden in a 2007 review for the Literature Resource Center.
He had contributed a chapter to the “Athlone History of Witchcraft,” and a collection of his articles dealing with ancient morals, religion and magic — “Ancient Pathways, Hidden Pursuits” — was published by the University of Michigan.
“I am still interested in the history of magic and the occult sciences in Antiquity,” Dr. Luck wrote in an online Hopkins departmental profile.
Dr. Luck felt that certain plants, herbs and mushrooms played an important role in the practice of religion by the ancient Greeks.
“The analogies with the medieval witch-cults in Europe and with the practices of South American shamans are very instructive,” he wrote. “The Greek experience was, perhaps, on a higher level, but they worked within a very old, very ‘primitive’ tradition.”
A 1983 Baltimore Sun profile said that during the day Dr. Luck taught tenses and declensions to undergraduates studying Latin and Greek and “by night, however, the amiably rumpled, mild-mannered Johns Hopkins University professor turns his attention from Caesar and Cicero to witches and warlocks.”
The article also observed that through years of research and translation, Dr. Luck had “compiled a veritable cookbook of spells and incantations for almost every conceivable occasion.”
“His scholarship was theologically grounded,” said Dr. Macksey.
Dr. Luck also maintained a serious academic interest in Roman poetry and poets such as Ovid, Tibullus, Lucan and Propertius, who are considered love elegy poets.
Dr, Luck wrote widely in the field of classics in both English and German and was author of “The Latin Love Elegy,” published in London in 1959.
Even though Dr. Luck had retired, he maintained an office at Homewood.
“He was a genial presence and was always in good spirits. He also was willing to step in and teach a course if need be,” said Dr. Roller.
“Work and writing were his big interests along with playing classical guitar,” said his wife of 56 years, the former Harriet Richards Greenough.
A memorial service will be held at 11 a.m. Saturday at Emmanuel Episcopal Church, 811 Cathedral St.
In addition to his wife, Dr. Luck is survived by a son, Hans Andreas Luck of Bern; two daughters, Annina Luck Wildermuth of Huntington, N.Y., and Stephanie Luck Coic of Paris; and two grandchildren.