Drawing Down the Moon:  Magic in the Ancient Greco-Roman World


            Magic – the word evokes the mysterious and the marvelous, the forbidden and the hidden, the ancient and the arcane.  But what did magic mean to the people who coined the term, the people of ancient Greece and Rome? Drawing on the expanding body of evidence for ancient magical practices, as well as recent theoretical approaches to the history of religions, I survey the varieties of phenomena labeled magic in the ancient Greco-Roman world in a book-length, systematic overview entitled Drawing Down the Moon after the most famous of the magical tricks known from the ancient world. In this study I discuss ancient tablets and spell books as well as literary descriptions of magic in the light of theories relating to the religious, political, and social contexts in which magic was used.  I also examine the magicians of the ancient world and the techniques and devices they used to serve their clientele.  Bindings and curses, love charms and healing potions, amulets and talismans - from the simple spells designed to meet the needs of the poor and desperate to the complex theurgies of the philosophers, the people of the Greco-Roman World did not only imagine what magic could do, they also made use of magic to try to influence the world around them. 

            The study of magic in the Greco-Roman world is not merely an exploration into the weird and wonderful, an antiquarian search for the colorful corners of the ancient world.  Understanding why certain practices, images, and ideas were labeled as 'magic' and set apart from the normal kinds of practices provides insight into the shifting ideas of normal religion in the Greco-Roman world.  In societies with no notion of orthodoxy and even limited modes of orthopraxy, normative religion could only be defined by this kind of practice of labeling, and 'magic' was one of the more important labels that was used, in different ways by different people at different times.  The study of ancient magic therefore provides a crucial perspective on normative practices of religion in the ancient Greco-Roman world – on ritual practices such as sacrifice, purification, and prayer, on theological elaborations of the hierarchies of divinities, and on the underlying cosmologies that structured human interactions with the divine.

            The evidence for magic comes not only from the familiar literary traditions of the classical world, the spectacular and memorable images of witches, ghosts, and demons and the fantastic powers of metamorphosis, erotic attraction, or reversals of nature such as the famous trick of drawing down the moon.  The archaeological record provides evidence that attests to the ideas of people in the ancient world who never had a chance to contribute to the literary tradition, the non-elites or marginal figures whose expressions were never preserved and recopied throughout the millennia of reception of classical materials.  In the curses scrawled on sheets of lead, seeking to restrain rivals in business, lawcourts, athletics or erotic affairs, we can see the hopes and fears of a group of people whose voices have been lost in the intervening centuries.  In the elaborate formulations of the spellbooks or alchemical recipes, we can see the complex workings of intellectuals who remained at the margins of society, engaging in complex speculations about the nature of the world and the gods.  In the jumbled lists of powers invoked, we can see the dynamics of cultural fusion that occurred in the rich multi-cultural environment of the ancient Mediterranean world, where an ancient Mesopotamian goddess Ereshkigal might be invoked alongside the Greek Persephone and the Egyptian Isis, right next to a prayer to the supreme deity Iao, the Greek rendering of the Hebrew Jehovah. 

            Understanding the category of magic in its ancient Greco-Roman context is important for understanding not only the ancient world, but also the ways in which the ideas and controversies have influenced later periods.  The moves by which things and ideas are labeled magic in the ancient world are replicated in religious controversies throughout the later western tradition.  Most famous of these is perhaps the critique of Catholic ritualism that plays a central role in the Protestant Reformation, but even in the witch-hunts that are used to reinforce (or invent) orthodoxy, we can see the reuse of ancient categories for normative and non-normative religion in the accusations of magic.  On the more positive side, the esoteric traditions of ancient wisdom that manifested in the astrological, pharmacological, and alchemical practices of ancient magic play an important part in the history of science from antiquity through the Enlightenment and beyond.  The Antikythera Device, for example, whose system of gears is more complex than anything found for centuries later, was devised to chart the courses of the stars and other significant astrological phenomena.  A deeper understanding of the category of magic in its ancient contexts provides a richer understanding of its reception.

The structure of the book is as follows:

1.      The World of Ancient Magic: Introductory Issues of Definition, Space, and Time

An introduction to the central questions of the study, examining the dichotomies of magic and religion, as well as magic and science.  The chapter involves a brief history of the study of magic, as well as a brief overview of the ancient Mediterranean world and the place of magic in the Greek and Roman traditions.  This chapter provides a chronological and cultural framework for the study, as well as an overview of the kinds of evidence available, focused through a study of the trick of drawing down the moon.

2.      Curses and Binding Spells for All Occasions

A study of the cursing tradition, examining the evidence of curse tablets and other forms of malevolent magic. The chapter also examines the competitive social contexts in which the curses are deployed.

3.      Love Charms and Erotic Curses: Bewitched, Bothered, Bewildered

A study of erotic magic in the tradition, exploring the different varieties of erotic magic in both the material record and literary depictions.  This chapter also looks at the ideas of gender and sexuality that form the background for these practices and imagination of erotic magic.

4.      Defense Against the Dark Arts: Healing and Protective Magic

An overview of the traditions of defensive magic, both preventative and curative.  The chapter examines the material and literary evidence for types of protective amulets, as well as exploring the intersections of the medical and magical healing traditions. 

5.      Relationships with the Divine: Prayer and Magic

An introduction to the modes of communication between mortals and divine powers in the Greco-Roman polytheistic tradition and the reciprocal relations of worship and favor.  With attention to the issue of the boundaries of magic and religion, this chapter explores the ways in which prayer appears in magical contexts, including the similarities and differences with prayer in other contexts.

6.      Through a Glass Darkly: Divination and Magic

A look into the various modes of divination by which mortals acquire knowledge of past, present, and future.  This chapter examines the types of specialists practicing divination and the contests for authority involved with divinatory activity.

7.      The Science of the Stars: Astrology and Magic

An examination of one of the most important modes of divination, astrology, with attention to the boundaries between science and magic.  This chapter provides a brief introduction to the mechanics of ancient astrology, as well as an examination of the social contexts of astrology.

8.      The Transformations of Matter: Alchemy and Magic

An introduction to the complex procedures and cosmological theories of ancient alchemy.  This chapter explores the relation of alchemy to the categories of magic, science, and religion, examining the ancient evidence for the correlations of physical procedures and spiritual purification.

9.      The Mysteries of Theurgy:  Philosophy and Magic

An overview of the theurgical tradition of late antiquity, with attention to the Neoplatonic cosmology in which it is grounded, as well as the ancient and modern debates over the boundaries between religion, philosophy, and magic.  Special attention is given to the rituals of ascent and the animation of statues with divine power.

10.   The Portrait of a Magician

A study of the magician as a religious specialist in Greco-Roman cultures, with special attention to Greco-Roman Egypt.  This chapter examines the tools of the magician's trade, especially the formularies or recipe books that make up the Greek Magical Papyri.  This chapter also includes a look at the depictions of magic and magicians within the literary traditions.  This chapter surveys the stereotypes of magicians, as well as the social contexts in which magicians are depicted.

11.   Conclusions - Definitions and Theory

An examination of the problems of defining magic, reviewing the specific topics covered in the course of the study.  This chapter looks at defining magic as a label for extra-ordinary religious activity, as well as the ramifications of such a definition for the understanding of normative religious (and scientific) phenomena in the ancient Greco-Roman World.