BMCR 2020.06.13

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.

[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 Thomas Galoppin, BMCR 2020.06.12].

In recent years the study of ancient magic has continued to go from strength to strength with many fine works emerging and pushing the boundaries of the subject ever further. As a result, for some time now there has been a need for a book that offers a comprehensive and up-to-date introduction to the subject. In Drawing Down the Moon, Edmonds has produced an extensive, engaging and, crucially, accessible overview which is likely to establish itself quickly as essential reading for anyone seeking to learn more about the vast array of topics that fall under the sweeping category of magic. Over the course of eleven chapters the book covers an impressive range of topics and offers detailed discussions of many important case studies and primary sources. Edmonds not only offers stimulating analyses of the examples themselves, but also uses them to illustrate with painstaking care how various approaches to the primary sources have shaped the evolution of the subject in modern scholarship. Edmonds also takes care to explain how the most recent treatments of the subject differ from what has come before, and to demonstrate precisely why the older categories and classifications are no longer considered satisfactory. This is certainly one of the most important contributions that the book makes, considering the various theoretical advances that have emerged in the twenty-first century.

The opening section is dedicated to the problems surrounding definitions, both ancient and modern, of the various terms and concepts that are central to the subject. Chapters One and Two offer a lengthy discussion of previous approaches before going on to outline Edmonds’ own methodology. The many ancient references to the practice of drawing down the moon are used effectively to illustrate the core concepts and criteria that will guide the rest of the book. Central to Edmonds’ approach to the label of magic, whether it is applied to actions or individuals, is the concept of non-normativity, which is considered in tandem with Malinowski’s ‘coefficient of weirdness’ (p. 42). Individuals, actions, locations, words, dress, ingredients etc. may all contribute in varying degrees to a particular subject being viewed as non-normative, which raises the likelihood that the label of magic may be applied. Levels of efficacy are also a significant factor but this can work both ways, with the category of magic potentially encompassing actions or individuals that claim an extraordinary level of success, as well as those that are deemed patently false or absurd and which are the preserve of the very lowest fraudsters.

Chapter Three provides a lively discussion of curses and cursing, which begins by considering the processes (both ritual and practical) behind the creation of curse tablets themselves, along with an outline of when and where curse tablets were deposited. This latter section is extremely brief and would have benefitted from further discussion to illustrate the variety of locations where such curses are known to have been discovered. Following on from this, the chapter proceeds to the two main questions that occupy most of its attention: what reasons lay behind the creation of curses and how were they thought to have worked? Particular emphasis is placed on the nature and perception of competition in the ancient Mediterranean, along with the role of persuasive analogy in shaping the words and actions that occupy a prominent place in many of the curse recipes that Edmonds includes.

Chapter Four considers love charms and erotic curses and extends many of the themes that emerge in the previous chapter’s discussion of cursing, particularly the stress on various forms of social competition as driving factors. More attention is paid to some of the literary sources than in the previous chapter, which are combined with epigraphic evidence to reveal the full range of motivations that might lead citizens to engage in erotic magic. Spells and charms designed to restrain, retain and obtain are discussed, along with charms connected to fertility, contraception and abortifacients.

Chapter Five moves on to the potentially vast subject of healing and protective magic. The discussion of protective amulets and gems is extremely well-formulated and will provide an excellent introduction to the subject. Across the chapter, Edmonds includes numerous examples to illustrate the significant areas of overlap between ancient magic, religion and medicine and to explore the key criteria that may be used to consider actions or remedies that were more or less likely to qualify as magic.

Chapter Six, ‘Relationships with the Divine: Prayer and Magic’, offers a important introduction to the nature of prayer more generally in the ancient world and, in particular, considers what distinguishes those prayers and dedications that are typically associated with religion from those found in sources such as the Greek Magical Papyri. After summarising the flawed approaches previously adopted from Frazer onwards, Edmonds demonstrates the frequency with which magical prayers ‘focus on the immediately present moment of contact with the divinity’ (p. 152), as opposed to prayers which focus either on earlier offerings or exchanges, or promises of future offerings and enticements. Within this context the chapter also goes on to consider certain aspects of ancient sacrifice (although focusing almost entirely on Greek practices and traditions without considering Roman developments or divergences), again stressing the importance of non-normativity in any attempt at classification.

Chapter Seven turns to the relationship between magic and divination. After an overview of the reasons people turned to divination and some discussion of how these practices were thought to work, Edmonds goes on to outline a number of the most prominent forms of divination that were available in the ancient world and which were typically more closely associated with the sphere of religious activity than magic. Given the sheer range of divinatory practices and the general acceptance of the validity of the endeavour itself, the chapter argues that the accusation of magic is applied predominantly to certain types of diviner, based more on their social status and the nature of the claims that they make, than on the forms of divination in which they engaged. The extent of the expertise and specialist knowledge and the levels of efficacy claimed by the diviner (combined with their place within the social hierarchy) all played a role in deciding whether one was dealing with a learned practitioner or a charlatan magician. Once again, the level of complexity or ‘weirdness’ for particular divinatory rituals, including location, ingredients and preparations, also remained a prominent factor.

Chapter Eight focuses on astrology, demonstrating its place within the religious, magical and scientific frameworks in antiquity, while Chapter Nine moves into the world of alchemy. These two chapters are far more descriptive than other sections of the book, spending the majority of their time explaining the nuts and bolts of their respective disciplines. This is a prudent course of action in both instances given the nature of the textual evidence, and both are invaluable for the concise and methodical treatments that they offer. In the case of astrology, this involves an extended discussion of the underlying mechanics of the practice and the assumptions that were made about the nature, positions and influence of the planets. The potential complexity and scientific precision surrounding astrological practices could also serve as persuasive credentials for practitioners. As with other forms of divination, the social location of the practitioner was often pivotal in deciding where the line was drawn between the acceptable and unacceptable. The chapter on alchemy goes into an impressive level of detail not only on the philosophical foundations of the discipline, but also the types of apparatus that were employed and the underlying chemical processes which were of particular interest to ancient practitioners. Edmonds notes that alchemical treatises have at times been excluded from modern discussions of magic, due to the arbitrary separation of alchemical texts from magical codices by modern scholars. Looking beyond the notorious efforts to turn lead into gold, Edmonds emphasises the broader endeavour behind ancient alchemy of achieving mastery over nature through various processes. The chapter also devotes attention to the role of mystical alchemy, which turned the principles of practical alchemy towards the purification and ultimate perfection of the human soul. This sets the scene nicely for the next chapter.

Chapter Ten focuses on ‘Philosophy and magic’ and delves into the complex world of theurgy. The chapter is rather more unwieldy as it takes on the challenge of bringing together elements from the preceding chapters to explore the many strands of theurgical thinking. In addition to providing extensive introductions to these complicated subjects, Edmonds also extends the analysis of these case studies to provide an engaging discussion of the wider implications of their evidence, considering what they can tell us about Greek and Roman ideas about both the natural and the cosmic order, as well as the nature of the gods themselves.

The final chapter considers ‘The label of “magic” in the Greco-Roman world’, both in terms of accusations and as acts of self-labelling. Particular attention is given to the position of magic in Greek and Roman law and a number of well-known cases, such as Apuleius’ Apology, are used to illustrate the various social dynamics that accompanied hostile accusations. While the chapter understandably uses broad strokes to illustrate its wider points, at times it still feels as though some important examples are glossed over too hastily, if only because it would have been interesting to hear Edmonds’ thoughts on them.[1] Given the emphasis on accusations within legal contexts, however, the omission of evidence from Latin declamations relating to magic and poisoning (not only in this chapter but across the book more generally) is particularly unfortunate. The later section on self-proclaimed magicians, particularly within the Greek Magical Papyri, contains some fascinating examples, however, and further draws together the various threads that have run throughout previous chapters.

As Edmonds notes in his acknowledgements, this book has its origins in an undergraduate course taught over a number of years, but while it will undoubtedly provide an invaluable resource for students of all levels, scholars more familiar with the field will also glean much from its contents and will find it a stimulating read. Edmonds is careful to explain all core concepts and technical vocabulary, while copious primary sources are provided in both the original language and in translation. There are also numerous high-quality images included and, more importantly, examined in detail throughout. At times it feels as though more attention is paid to the Greek sources and there is less discussion of the nuances of Roman ritual practices and Latin language, but a key strength of Edmonds’ work is that it provides readers with all the necessary tools to apply its theories to other materials. Ultimately, this work should be considered a resounding success and Edmonds is to be congratulated for providing an extensive and accessible introduction to such a wide-ranging and complex subject.


[1] For example, Ammianus Marcellinus’ report of accusations of magic at Constantius’ court (16.8.2) receives only a passing mention, while the historian’s account of widespread accusations in the east under Valens (29.2.1-28) are left untouched.