Saturday, March 21, 2009

Lucan's Marseilles grove

A grove there was, never profaned since time remote,
enclosing with its intertwining branches the dingy air
and chilly shadows, banishing sunlight far above.
In this grove there are no rustic Pans or Silvani,
masters of the forests, or Nymphs, but ceremonies of the gods
barbarous in ritual, altars furnished with hideous offerings,
and every tree is sanctified with human blood.
If antiquity at all deserves credence for its awe of the gods,
the birds fear to sit upon those branches,
the beasts fear to lie in those thickets; on those woods
no wind has borne down or thunderbolts shot from black
clouds; though the trees present their leaves to no breeze,
they have a trembling of their own. Water pours
from black springs and the grim and artless
images of gods stand as shapeless fallen tree-trunks.
The decay itself and pallor of the timber now rotting
is astonishing; not so do people fear deities worshipped
in ordinary forms: so much does ignorance of the gods
they dread increase their terror. Now it was rumoured that often the hollow caves below rumbled with earth-quakes,
that yew-trees fell and rose again,
that flames shone from trees which were not on fire,
that snakes embraced and flowed around the trunks.
That place the people do not visit with worship near at hand
but leave it to the gods: when Phoebus is in mid-sky
or black night commands the heavens, even the priest dreads
to approach and fears to surprise the master of the grove.

- Lucan. Pharsalia. 399-428.

Thursday, March 19, 2009

Drawing Down the Moon

Three nights were lacking before the moon's horns met, to make their complete orb. When she was shining at her fullest, and gazed on the earth, with perfect form, Medea left the palace, dressed in unclasped robes. Her feet were bare, her unbound hair streamed down, over her shoulders, and she wandered, companionless, through midnight's still silence. Men, beasts, and birds were freed in deep sleep. There were no murmurs in the hedgerows: the still leaves were silent, in silent, dew-filled, air. Only the flickering stars moved. Stretching her arms to them she three times turned herself about, three times sprinkled her head, with water from the running stream, three times let out a wailing cry, then knelt on the hard earth, and prayed.

~Ovid. Metamorphoses. Book 7.

In modern Wiccan and subsequently, non-Wiccan Witchcraft practice the ritual of Drawing Down the Moon is one of the most important parts of a coven’s Esbat ritual.

Whenever ye have need of anything,Once in the month, and when the moon is full,Ye shall assemble in some desert place,Or in a forest all together joinTo adore the potent spirit of your queen, My mother, great Diana.

~G.G. Leland. Aradia, Gospel of the Witches.

The “moon” or Lunar Goddess is invoked into the High Priestess by the High Priest and in effect comes to possess her in what can often appear as an almost Voodoo-esque manner. Known in the Reclaiming Tradition of Witchcraft as “Aspecting”: a magical practice in which a priestess or priest channels the presence of a deity or quality, Drawing Down the Moon is intended to bring the real, actual presence of the Goddess into the Circle. From the time She overshadows the High Priestess’s consciousness, the Lunar Goddess considered to be physically present amongst the coveners.

A generic Wiccan-style Drawing Down the Moon ritual might look something like the following:

The High Priestess stands in front of the altar, assumes the Osiris position (arms crossed), holding the wand in her right hand and the scourge in her left.

The High Priest kneels in front of her, says “I Invoke and beseech Thee, O mighty Mother of all life and fertility. By seed and root, by stem and bud, by leaf and flower and fruit, by Life and Love, do I invoke Thee to descend into the body of thy servant and High Priestess [name].”

The Moon having been now drawn down, the High Priest give the high Priestess the Fivefold Kiss, saying (kissing feet) “Blessed be thy feet, that have brought thee in these ways; (kissing knees) Blessed be thy knees, that shall kneel at the sacred altar (kissing womb); Blessed be thy womb, without which we would not be; (kissing breasts) Blessed be thy breasts, formed in beauty and in strength; (kissing lips) Blessed be thy lips, that shall utter the sacred names.”

Different types of Witches will construct this ritual according to their tastes. The main thing is that the Moon Goddess descends and blesses the coveners. In a coven situation Drawing Down the Moon tends to take on the aspects of a religious ritual because Wicca is a religion. However, drawing down of the Moon Goddess can also be done alone by experienced Witches or Magicians as part of a magical ritual, just as one would invoke any deity for such purposes. [I recall invoking Hekate in her Crone form alone when I was a novice Witch. I must say that I was rather unnerved when she descended - my voice changed and I noticed that my shadow on the wall was that of an old woman! Still, I had no choice but to continue on with the ritual. I was just surprised at the level of manifestation and wished someone else could have been there to witness the rite].

Many people point backwards to ancient Greece for the origins of the idea that Witches “draw down” the Moon. Evidence is thought to lie in texts by Classical authors such as Euripides, Horace, Ovid, Seneca and Apuleius, as well as a particular image of two female Witches seemingly drawing down the moon (see above). This image derives from an ancient Greek vase, the whereabouts of which are currently unknown. What we see is a later line drawing of the vase from Roscher 1884-1937.

It seems that what we would call “Drawing Down the Moon” in modern Wiccan practice is really quite a different thing to what the ancients actually meant by the practice. According to Daniel Ogden, the drawing-down of the moon was one of the most familiar commonplaces of literary magic in the Greco-Roman world, and it was associated above all with the performance of erotic magic by witches. The principle features of the act were as follows:

The drawing-down of the moon was the characteristic activity of Thessalian witches. [Thessaly is in northern Greece, below Macedonia, and in antiquity was considered the country of Witches]. The author Statius in the Thebaid 3.558-9 refers to Drawing Down the Moon as “the Thessalian crime“.

It is drawn down for the purpose of erotic attraction magic.

It is either made to turn pale, or blood red when subjected to drawing.

The drawing down can be counteracted by the clashing of bronze cymbals.

When brought down to the earth it deposits its foam on plants as “moon juice” (virus lunarae). This can then be collected and used in a love potion.

The control of the moon in this way is sometimes contextualised against the witches’ wider ability to control the sun and stars and consequently time itself.

The Thessalian women pay a terrible price for drawing down of the moon: they must lose either children or an eye.

The poetic image that the moon, like the sun, rides in a horse-drawn chariot, is frequent.

The origin of the notion that the moon could be drawn down remains obscure. Plutarch gives the hint that it was the way of thinking about lunar eclipses, and many follow him in this belief. The moon does indeed turn blood-red during a full lunar eclipse, as it reflects only the sunlight refracted red through the earth's atmosphere. If the above points are considered on their own terms, without seeing them as metaphors for what we might be doing today, it is evident that ideas about Witches have completely changed from antiquity to the present day. Drawing down the moon in antiquity was performed in order to obtain virus lunare for use in love potions, whereas today it is performed as a communion with the Moon herself, and in the case of the High Priestess, to actually become the Moon for the duration of a ritual.

Incantations draw down the horns of the bloody moon and call back the snowy horses of the departing sun. By an incantation snakes are burst and their jaws broken off, and waters turn around and flow back to their sources. Doors have yielded before incantations, and the bar, fixed into the post, has been overcome by an incantation, though made of oak.

~Ovid. Amores. 2.1.23-8.
Despite the difference between ancient and modern ideas regarding Drawing Down the Moon, I think we can learn a lot from our magical forebears such as the Witches of Thessaly. Meditating on the above points is one way to start. For those interested in following this subject up, I suggest the following books and websites.

Further Reading

Magic, Witchcraft and Ghosts in the Greek and Roman Worlds by Daniel Ogden, Oxford University Press 2002.

Ovid’s Metamorphoses


I've had the good fortune to be published in The Equinox: British Journal of Thelema which is produced by Hadean Press. My rather large article is on the origins - or one of the origins - of the figure of the harridan-witch. I hope readers will find my suggestions provocative and my conclusions controversial. And isn't this a beautiful cover!

Sunday, March 8, 2009


Ectoplasm collages interspersed by photographs of mediums exuding ectoplasm. Collages made by me during a Ruth Hadlow artists' book workshop. Inspired in the first place by Marina Warner announcing several years ago that she was going to write a book on ectoplasm, but I don't think she has done so yet.

Wednesday, March 4, 2009

Bird Man from Venus Bay

I was amazed when I first saw a photo of Kevin Mortensen's 1973 performance 'St Paul's Performance' (in Art and Australia Vol.33. No.3. 1996. Page 372) in which he (and sometimes others when he needed a rest) sat in the back pew of St Paul's Cathedral, Melbourne, Australia, wearing a goat-head mask - just like the one Witches wear. During the Cathedral's festival week he appeared every day for one hour during Evensong in this garb. It would simply never happen now, at least I don't think it would, as the Cathedral officials and visitors would be way too religiously scandalised. I'm pretty sure they would not find it humourous, or a type of comment, and would see it as frightening or insulting. But perhaps I'm projecting too much what 'they' would think? I also like this still from the video 'The Ibis and the Song' 1993. Apparently Mortensen became a Buddhist in Korea in 1983. The Art and Australia article quotes this philosophical explanation, but does not make it clear whether it comes from Mortensen or the Korean Buddhists. The article says 'From him they took this philosophy:'

In Christian, they believe that God makes everything. But Buddhist we believe that only mind made them all.

We are nature, too.

Science make our body easy and idle as well as our mind no good way.

We have to find our original face before we were born.

There's the moon in the sky. In the pond in the dead-fire mountain there's the moon too. But those who have dark dirty mind can't see the moon in the pond.

Body's power, energy is producting from his mind. By one's mind condition distance, weight, and time not important.

We have not watch for freedom, but we can read the time by the sun's position.

I have Buddha myself.