Drawing Down the Moon Today:
The Reception of an Ancient Magic Trick

Helen Kaufmann

University of Fribourg

Witches in Greek and more often Roman literature are regularly accused of drawing down the moon by a magic spell. The trick serves to demonstrate their powers (e.g. Virg. ecl. 8,69), to perform a love spell (e.g. Tib. 1,8,21) or to extract a magical juice from the moon (e.g. Apul. met. 1,3,1), but its meaning is far from clear because the sources do not discuss it (cf. D.E. Hill, RhM 116 [1973] 221-238). This paper will investigate the reception of the trick in the English speaking world of today and explore possible interpretations from this point of view. As a result the problems of the ancient sources will be identified and a new interpretation of the ancient ritual will be suggested.

A first example of today's use of the image is www.drawingdownthemoon.co.uk, the website of one of the most important introduction agencies in the UK. The section called 'The Legend' tells Cleomedus' story from Lucian's Philopseudeis 14 in an abbreviated version, from which all indications of its author and its cultural background except for the protagonists' names have been removed. This removal characterises the story as taking place in a timeless, fairy tale like world, which is surprisingly close to the contexts in which the trick appears in Greek and Roman literature: Even where it is not used as a purely literary topos, it is not referred to as an experience of a real person, but framed in folk tales or folk wisdom (e.g.Plat. Gorg. 513a).

The second group of attestations consists of artistic expressions of the phenomenon, for example Hilary Llewellyn-Williams' poem Drawing Down the Moon (1996) or Ben Stiver's science fiction novel by the same title (2001). The former is particularly interesting since it is poetry like most of the ancient sources. All the more striking are the differences between it and the ancient poetic texts: Whereas they describe witches in action, Llewellyn-Williams' poem expresses feelings of a deep connection between nature and human life. This contrast points to the fact that no ancient poetic attestation presents the ritual from an insider's perspective.

A third trace of the image can be found in the neo-pagan ritual 'drawing down the moon', which was first discussed under this name in Gerald Gardner's Witchcraft Today (1954) and aims at celebrating the union of the human and divine feminine by means of an invocation of the moon goddess into the high priestess. To judge from the modern ritual, its counterpart in antiquity – if it was in any ways similar – may also have expressed a peaceful union between the moon goddess and the witch. Consequently, the language of aggression in some ancient sources (e.g. Lucan. 6,499-506) may have nothing to do with the ritual itself, but be attributed to the rhetoric of the male narrators, who criticise it as an evil attack on nature.

Whereas the website of the British introduction agency helps to characterise the magic trick in the ancient literary sources as equally distanced from the real world, the poem by Llewellyn-Williams confirms this impression by pointing to the lack of an insider's point of view in the ancient poems. Finally, the modern neo-pagan ritual supplies one insider's perspective with potential parallels to the ancient trick. To conclude, the modern appearances of 'drawing down the moon' have, on the one hand, shown why an explanation of the ritual cannot be expected from the ancient sources, and have, on the other hand, – by drawing on modern parallels – suggested to interprete the ancient ritual as a sign of intimacy between the moon goddess and the witch.

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