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  • Drawing Down the Moon: Magic in the Ancient Greco-Roman World by Radcliffe G. Edmonds III
  • Lindsay Watson

alchemy, theurgy, Greek magic, Roman magic, Ancient Greece, Roman Empire, history of magic, Papyri Graecae Magicae, daimones, amatory magic

radcliffe g. edmonds iii. Drawing Down the Moon: Magic in the Ancient Greco-Roman World. Princeton: Princeton University Press, 2019. Pp. xv+474.

Drawing Down the Moon, which takes its title from one of the most spectacular feats ascribed to witches in classical antiquity, is something of a mega biblion. It comprises eleven chapters, all densely footnoted. Of these the central eight deal with the most important manifestations of magic in the time frame to which Edmonds addresses himself—approximately the fifth century BCE to the fourth century CE—viz. curses, amatory spells, healing and protective magic, prayer and magic, divination, astrology, alchemy, and theurgy. The overall approach is synchronic (37). The eight themed chapters are bookended by two introductory ones and a conclusion, which discuss in highly theoretical terms, as is the fashion nowadays, the issue of how to define and conceptualize magic. In Edmonds's view, "Magic is a discourse pertaining to non-normative ritualized activity, in which the deviation from the norm is most often marked in terms of the perceived efficacy of the act, the familiarity of the performance within the cultural tradition, the ends for which the act is performed or the social location of the performer" (5).

Edmonds unpacks in great detail the just-quoted definition, with a particular emphasis on two ideas: first, the concept of magic as a discourse, that is, a phenomenon which has no objective ontological existence, but is essentially relational, a label attached to a given set of practices by others, often with [End Page 303] polemical intent; second, the idea of magic as non-normative. In other words, magic follows many of the protocols and ritual praxes of normative religion, but in such a way as to deviate markedly from the trajectory of officially sanctioned modes of interaction with the gods. This is familiar territory, and to it Edmonds adds a number of theoretical constructs which have been equally well rehearsed in the scholarship. They include the contentious issue of whether an emic or an etic approach to the study of ancient magic is preferable, that is, whether it should be approached from the viewpoint of a cultural insider, or from an external scholarly perspective. While not addressing head-on the endlessly debated issue of whether magic and religion can legitimately be regarded as discrete phenomena, Edmonds demolishes the once influential but by no means extinct view that magic can be distinguished from normative religion on three grounds: first, that the former operates via impersonal action, whereas the worshipper in a conventional religious framework strives to build a personal relationship with the deity; second—a view particularly associated with Durkheim—that magic aims at concrete, frequently antisocial ends, whereas religion typically encompasses intangible aims such as salvation (but, as Edmonds notes, ancient prayers can be highly selfish in terms of content, and often frivolous or ridiculous)2; third, that magic adopts a manipulative or coercive attitude towards the gods, religion a submissive or supplicatory one (here it may be noted that there is nowadays a pronounced tendency, shared by Edmonds, to downplay the idea of coercion as a marker of magic, but a glance inter alia at the index to Papyri Graecae Magicae vol. 3 under anagkazein and its cognates should dispel any tendency to go too far in this direction). Other familiar concepts canvassed by Edmonds are Malinowski's famous "coefficient of weirdness" as a signifier of magic, Tambiah's analysis of ritualized action as embodying symbolic communication for the participants, and Frazer's famous laws of similarity (according to which one action such as melting a "voodoo doll" will produce a corresponding reaction in another entity) and contagion (the belief that an object which has once been in contact with a person will retain an intrinsic connection to him or her which is capable of being harnessed at magical need), both laws supposedly working in an ex opere operato mode, that is to say instrumentally.

Less familiar...


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pp. 303-308
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