BMCR 2020.06.12

Drawing down the moon: magic in the ancient Greco-Roman world

, Drawing down the moon: magic in the ancient Greco-Roman world. Princeton: Princeton University Press, 2019. xiii, 474 p. ISBN 9780691156934. $45.00.

[The Table of contents is listed below.]
[Editor’s note: BMCR has decided to commission two reviews, in the hope that providing contrasting perspectives would enable richer conversation in the field at large. The other review is written by Jack Lennon, BMCR 2020.06.13.]

Carmina vel caelo possunt deducere Lunam: “incantations have the power to draw the moon down from the sky” says Vergil (Ecl. 8.69). In Greek and Latin literary representations of magical arts, the ability to spellbind the moon is a paramount demonstration of the power of enchantresses. The title chosen by Radcliffe G. Edmonds III draws us directly to an abnormality: the paradoxical power of mortals who vie with the immortal. This paradox contributes to the invention of a specific concept—magic—in order to stem, even cast out, “non-normative ritualized activity” (p. 5). This focus on non-normativity is a key to understand the emic, that is the Greco-Roman, way of framing the notion of “magic”. In his earlier work, Redefining Ancient Orphism: A Study in Greek Religion (Cambridge, 2013) (BMCR 2014.07.13) Edmonds looked for what counted among the ancients as “valid cues” for labelling “orphism” as a category of ideas considered distant from mainstream Greek religion. The same methodology is applied here to what is, or was, called “magic,” and Edmonds’ question is not “What was ‘magical’ in Graeco-Roman Antiquity?” but rather “What were the valid cues for labelling ‘magic’?”

As the topos of drawing down of the moon reminds us, “magic” is a literary theme made of wonders, pointing to the marvellous as one cue by which recognize “magic”. But Edmonds rightly focuses his analysis on the ritual practices, or more generally the activities, labelled as “magic”. The valid cues emerge from the questions asked of these activities (p. 16: what, who, where, when, why, how): what is done appears as “ritual performance with high coefficients of weirdness,” the agents, places and times consistently reveal “alien social location,” and the purposes of these practices point to “non-normative efficacy”. For example: the addition of foreign words gives a high coefficient of weirdness to a prayer (pp. 175-80); the accusations of charlatanry or, on the contrary, of too much efficacy in dealing with political spheres locate some astrologers within “magical” social otherness (p. 262-4); and curses are “magical” not (only) because of their intention to harm, but because their supposed efficacy cheats, by bypassing the regular course of social competition (p. 69).

The same questions are put in the course of the book to several separate fields of ritual action labelled “magical”. The first chapter opens with the definition of “magic” as a label for “non-normative ritualized activity,” and with extensive discussion of the theme of “drawing down the moon”. Chapter 2 sets out the methodological framework of the book. The reader is introduced to the dark side of magic with “malefic and binding magic,” whose modes of action (along with some interpretative tools) are remobilized in the following chapter on “love charms and erotic curses”. If ritual modes of operation cannot justify an opposition between “magic” and “religion,” the context of the performance can: magical curses are private and secret, while legitimate curses are public; erotic magic does not follow the norms of ordinary love or seduction.

The fifth chapter on “healing and protective magic” covers a different class of activity. The subtitle, “Defense Against the Dark Arts,” suggestive of Hogwarts, unfortunately projects a modern division between malevolent and beneficent witchcraft, while the main topic of the chapter, ancient healing and protective amulets and incantations, has less to do with the curses discussed earlier than with the combining of religious and medical knowledge. More happily, Edmonds connects the label of “magic” not to the means by which the cures were attempted, but to the fact that they were independent from the temples of the gods (pp. 145-7). Mostly related to the use of therapeutic and protective amulets, the concept of a religion of “anywhere” offered by J. Z. Smith is usefully applied to understand the categorization.[1]

The same concept applies to prayer and sacrifice in the sixth chapter, with a little less about “magic” than about prayer and sacrifice in general in ancient Greek and Roman religions. The opposition between a (Greek) norm of prayer and sacrifice and “magical” weirdness hinges mostly around multicultural innovations in ritual. A stress on the multicultural would also have come in handy for understanding the new rhetoric of prayer and of making offerings we find in the documentation.[2]

The seventh chapter is “divination and magic” and works in a similar way. It is in fact a broad exposé of the divinatory practices in Greek and Roman religions, as the basis for an argument that “magical divination” emerges only when the performance is marginal or deemed strange – unless it is necromancy, which is “always beyond the bounds of normal practice” (p. 222).

It is only logical that we pass from divination to astrology (Chapter 8). The “mysteries of the heavenly spheres” are unveiled to explain how this systematized science worked. Astrology needs its place here because Pliny the Elder seemed to identify it as a discipline of the “magical art”.

Alchemy (Chapter 9) comes among the review of systematizing sciences that could belong to “magic” because alchemical papyri are found in the same sources as some of the “Greek magical papyri” (PGM), and because, once again, some authors (above all Pliny the Elder) attributed a “magical,” that is “Oriental,” origin to this field of knowledge. It is unfortunate that the question of cultural transfer is not interrogated more closely, since the mixing of astrology and metal-working with religious rituals could be a consequence of multicultural innovations, and we may ask whether applying the label of “magic” was a form of resistance against these innovations.

Relations between philosophy and magic (Chapter 10) lead to an examination of theurgy as a philosophical “non-normative ritualized activity,” and a discussion of rituals in the PGM as part of late Greek theurgy. The labelling of theurgical practices as “magic” relies on tensions between tradition and innovation, sharpened by questions of power and authority.

It is only in the concluding chapter that legal accusations of “magic” are approached, where the negative notion is contrasted with the (positive) self-styling of practitioners as “magicians”. For the most part, in this book, Edmonds deals with reasons for marking a ritual practice as “magical” within the polemical perspective of evidence which frames a normative point of view, and with the way practitioners themselves embraced what P. Bourdieu termed a “profanation objective” (rather than “intentional” profanation, p. 19).[3]

The wide scope of the book has the risk of drowning the reader in a sea of details, but the author exhibits good pedagogical sense. For example, the chapters on astrology and alchemy come with practical introductions to both of these complicated systems of knowledge. We can thank the author for 21 figures and 8 coloured plates which evince his concern for the material aspect of ritual practice. The table of contents may be confusing, in that it lines up an inventory of “magical” categories of (more or less ritual) activities, without making clear how emic these categories can be. Here, the author chose a phenomenological framework that risks obscuring the actual fluidity that there was between a wide range of activities in the ancient world.

The timeframe is long: it reaches from one fifth century to the other – to be precise, between Greek practices of the fifth to the third centuries BCE on the one hand, and Graeco-Egyptian rituals of the third to fourth centuries CE on the other. In following this curriculum, the reader can lose his or her sense of time and space, which means losing an understanding of the historical dynamics involved in a thousand years of changing practices, innovative and cross-cultural fields of knowledge, and different socio-political backgrounds relevant to the application of the label “magic”. Edmonds announces at the beginning that he will not take cultural transfer into consideration (pp. 35-7). This is very understandable when the point is to evaluate the construction of a Graeco-Roman notion of “magic”—even if, in Rome, the label “magic” is a cultural transfer. However, when it comes to the explanation of so many transferred or multicultural practices, the anthropological analysis of the rituals and the history of “magical” knowledge, we need at least to question the entanglement between different cultural interlocutors in the interconnected Mediterranean.

Drawing Down the Moon can be recommended as an updated gateway into ancient “magic” for English-speaking academic and public readers. Edmonds offers a rich overview of the present state of knowledge in the field announced by the subtitle: Magic in the Ancient Greco-Roman World. The reader might remember a similar survey by F. Graf, Magic in the Ancient World (Cambridge 1997) (first published as La magie dans l’Antiquité grecque et romaine, Paris 1994). The 1990s were the time for asking the question: What is “magic” in Antiquity?, a matter that was taken up and worked on as a subcategory of religion in Magika Hiera: Ancient Greek Magic and Religion edited by C. A. Faraone and D. Obbink (Oxford 1991). Thirty years later, it seems that 2019 is the time to publish conclusions of a generation of studies in ancient magic, be it in the “Greco-Roman” or the “Ancient World”. Last year, David Frankfurter issued a collective Guide to the Study of Ancient Magic (Leiden / Boston) (BMCR 2020.03.37) that serves the same purpose with a transcultural perspective.[4] Here is not the place to compare the Guide and Drawing Down the Moon: it is only striking that the starting-point for both publications is the same conceptual question: What is “magic”? Drawing Down the Moon answers that “magic” is one Graeco-Roman strategy to mark some non-normative ritual behaviours. This convincing conclusion of thirty years of research, if not the only one possible, at least raises new questions. For example, we might ask what a norm is? (In fact, the whole point is that it is a process like labelling “magic” that builds a norm in ancient ritualism: “the study of ancient magic therefore provides a crucial perspective on normative practices of religion,” p. 2.) Or: who makes the norm in Antiquity? How many norms are there? When modern scholars classify “magic in Antiquity” or “magic in the Graeco-Roman World,” which norm are they referring to?

Table of contents

1.Defining Magic in the Ancient Greco-Roman World (1-34).
2. The World of Ancient Greco-Roman Magic (35-52).
3. Curses for all Occasions: Malefic and Binding Magic (53-90).
4. Bewitched, Bothered, Bewildered: Love Charms and Erotic Curses (91-115).
5. Healing and Protective Magic: Defense against the Dark Arts (116-48).
6. Relationships with the Divine: Prayer and Magic (149-87).
7. Through a Glass Darkly: Divination and Magic (188-235).
8. Mysteries of the Heavenly Spheres: Astrology and Magic (236-68).
9. Transmutations of Quality: Alchemy and Magic (269-313).
10. The Illuminations of Theurgy: Philosophy and Magic (314-77).
11. The Label of “Magic” in the Ancient Greco-Roman World (378-418).


[1] J. Z. Smith, “Here, There, and Anywhere”, in S. Noegel, J. Walker, B. Wheeler (eds.), Prayer, Magic, and the Stars in the Ancient and Late Antique World (University Park, 2003), 21-36 (reprinted in J. Z. Smith, Relating Religion: Essays in the Study of Religion, Chicago, 2004, 323-39).

[2] L. M. Bortolani, Magical Hymns from Roman Egypt: A Study of Greek and Egyptian Traditions of Divinity, Cambridge, 2016 (BMCR 2017.05.30).

[3] P. Bourdieu, “Genèse et structure du champ religieux”, Revue française de sociologie, 12 (1972), 295-334.

[4] See also L. Watson, Magic in ancient Greece and Rome (London / New York, 2019) (BMCR 2020.03.28).