Monday, December 21, 2009

Thirteen Years of Tapestry Weaving

You could say it's 14 years, but I did have a year off for maternity leave. Well, tomorrow is the last day that I work at the Victorian Tapestry Workshop. After starting off there in 1996 fresh from a Bachelor of Arts at Monash University, I am about to finish in order to start something else, a full-time PhD in Aegean Archaeology at Melbourne University. I'm excited, but a teeny bit apprehensive. It's comfortable to stay the same, but it's time for a change. Plus, although like Archane I'm as good at weaving as Athena, I don't want to become a spider.

Saturday, December 12, 2009

It was the snake that led me astray and I ate...

And the serpent said unto the woman, Ye shall not surely die: for God doth know that in the day ye eat thereof, then your eyes shall be opened, and ye shall be as gods, knowing good and evil. (Genesis 3:4-5).

Then the female principle came in the snake, the instructor; and it taught them, saying "What did he say to you? Was it 'From every tree in the garden you shall eat yet from the tree of recognising evil and good do not eat'?" The carnal woman said, "Not only did he say 'Do not eat,' but even 'Do not touch it; for the day you eat from it, with death you are going to die.'" And the snake, the instructor said, 'With death you shall not die; for it was out of jealousy that he said this to you. Rather your eyes shall be open and you shall come to be like gods, recognising evil and good." And the female instructing principle was taken away from the snake and she left it a thing of the earth." (The Hypostasis of the Archons 89-90).

A sadder but wiser pair were they. (The Devil's Mischief 47).

Friday, November 27, 2009

My PhD Begins Today!

Today is the first day of my PhD in Aegean Archaeology. While I have been virtuously focussing on my actual topic for the last three months or so, I - perversely(?) - spent today writing an article on an entirely different matter for an academic journal. Hence I am now almost blind and the article is not finished at all. I want to get it out of the way however, in order to finish - at least temporarily - with that particular subject and get back to my PhD topic. Perhaps I will find that I can end up doing both: researching my PhD and ocassionally foraying into academic article-land with non-PhD-related articles. Of course I will have to write journal articles on my PhD subject as well. It looks like I will have the time to do so. The last six years of exertion toward my university work means that I received an Australian Postgraduate Award scholarship and can therefore do my PhD full time. Studying for a living, can you think of anything better than that?

Thursday, November 5, 2009

Ten Years After Triumph of the Moon

I am thrilled to be one of the contributors to the anthology, 'Ten Years After Triumph of the Moon' edited by Dave Evans and Dave Green (Hidden Publishing 2009) - inspired by Professor Ronald Hutton's original historical investigation into contemporary Witchcraft, 'Triumph of the Moon: A History of Modern Pagan Witchcraft' (Oxford University Press 1999). Hutton's book was - and is - of immense importance and interest to everyone who has a spiritual, emotional, aesthetic or historical interest in modern Witchcraft. I, for one, pre-ordered it at Borders as soon as I heard of its imminent publication. When I received it I read it avidly each morning, as I breastfed my newborn son, in the early months of 2000. It was Hutton's book - and the Pagan Studies mailing list run by Chas Clifton - that eventually led me to academia on my own quest to discern the characteristics of ancient Pagan religons in order to judge whether they were in any way similar to modern Pagan religions, as claimed by many pracititoners. Hutton blazed the trail for what is now academic Pagan Studies - as, if not its absolutely first academic researcher, then at least its most famous - and both researchers and practitioners have benefitted from his erudition. Not only in regards to his work on modern Witchcraft, but also his books on ancient British Pagan religions, seasonal festivals and most recently, Druidry, have been of enormous importance in providing fascinating information as well as spurring further research by others. In addition, they have helped 'alternative' spiritual paths such as Witchcraft present a less frightening face to the interested public. Let's hope that the Pagan Studies field gets stronger and even more interesting.

Thursday, August 13, 2009

Pompeiian Votive Offerings

Fascinating terracotta votive offerings of phalli, breasts and uteri from the Naples Museum, and the marble ones from Athens.

Wednesday, August 5, 2009

Slightly Random Holiday Pics

Some holiday pics: Isis from Hadrian's Villa now in the Vatican Museum; Paestum; Amalfi; Live at Pompeii; a very gorgeous cult object from the favissa of a Yavneh temple on display at the Eretz Israel Museum; a visit with members of the Gath excavation team to Tel Zeit in Israel; Mount Vesuvius looming over Naples.

Monday, August 3, 2009

My Frenetic Trip

OK, as promised below, here's a proper report about my overseas trip (from which I've only been back less than a week). It went like this: Melbourne to Rome, to Naples, to Herculaneum, then the Amalfi Coast - Sorrento, Amalfi and Positano - with side trips to Pompeii and Paestum. Then back to Rome to visit musuems, walk around the city, and try and understand the geographical relationship between the Capitoline Hill and the Temple of Isis in the Campus Martius (which doesn't actually exist any more although we know where it was). I also attended the SAMR Conference (mentioned in a post below) which was fantastic because I met Carin Green, author of Roman Religion and the Cult of Diana at Aricia - a book anyone interested in contemporary Wicca, Stregheria and the portrayal of the Rex Nemorensis by J. G. Frazer in The Golden Bough should read - and also had lunch with her during which I pestered her non-stop about Diana's sanctuary. I also met Lauren Petersen, author of The Freedmen in Roman Art and Art History, which is important to me because of its chapter on the Popidius Family and their relationship to the cult of Isis in Pompeii. Lauren did a fantastic presentation on the sacred places of Isis in Rome.
Then I went to Israel, met up with Jason and Dean and went screaming down south on a bus to Eilat in order to cross the border into Jordan and visit Petra. This we did, and that's when I began to realise that I was much less fit that I had thought. I could only do one (extremely demanding) day at Petra whereas Jason and Dean did two. Then it was back to Jerusalem and on to the dig at Tell es-Safi Gath. I stayed on the dig for two weeks. It was very educational regarding field archaeology and pottery sherd processing and there were lectures at night and field trips to other sites some afternoons. I also met interesting people. It was very physically demanding however, and because I'd been debilitated by Petra (yes, in one day!) I began the dig very stiff and weak. The constant manual labour soon toughened me up however and by the end I was able to ascend the near-vertical hill up to the dig site with only a couple of rest stops (as opposed to about four) and also carrying heavy containers of water (as opposed to being unable to carry anything because it just made the ascent even harder). One of the highlights was the visit to Gath of (celebrity) archaeologist, Israel Finkelstein - yeah, I'm impressed by such things. Before I knew it I'd let out a solicitous wolf whistle - hey, he's sexy, it was a normal reaction - but luckily I don't think anyone really heard me because no doubt it would have been considered un-PC. I received a grant from the magazine, Biblical Archaeology Review, to attend the dig at Gath so in return will write up a report and supply photos to them, within the next month.
After the dig I went to Jerusalem and stayed in the Old City in the Muslim Quarter for five days. My hotel, the Hashimi Hotel, does have the best view of the Dome of the Rock - just as Lonely Planet said - and I spent a lot of time on their rooftop veging out, staring at the view and reading. I went to museums, sites, ate food and relaxed. Next I had to go to Tel Aviv, because I was flying out of there, and so went to the excellent Eretz Israel Museum which consists of several separate pavillions clustered around the excavation site of Tell Qasile. Fascinating. I particularly loved the ceramics and metal pavillions, the former contaning wonderful cult objects and the latter all the objects from the copper mine and Temple to Hathor at Timna in southern Israel. I'm very taken with Timna.
Then it was off to lovely Athens to visit three museums. All up I went to twelve museums on my trip and yes, I am now going to list them: In Italy I went to the Vatican, Palatine, Naples, Paestum, two separate collections of the National Museum of Rome (the collections of which are housed in several different buildings around the city) and the bookshop of the Capitoline Museum (I couldn't be bothered going into the actual museum that day and I have been there before). In Israel I went to the Rockefeller, Bible Lands and Eretz Israel Museums, and in Greece the Museum of Cycladic Art, the Athens Archaeological (simply enormous) which also, fortuitously, was showing the Worshipping Women: Ritual and Reality in Classical Athens exhibition, and lastly the New Acropolis Museum. It was all highly satisfying and I took lots of photos (where permitted) and bought catalogues and other fabulous books (consequently my suitcase was extremely heavy).
Images: Three Sirens and a (rather decayed but I think it looks very evocative) Sphinx from the Athens Archaeological Museum.

Sunday, August 2, 2009

Been on 'oliday.

Yeah, that's right, a holiday. Well... it started off as a holiday, a research trip/holiday. Top picture is me relaxing at a hill-top hotel (which used to be a monastery) in Naples - sorry you can't actually see Naples in this pic (yes, I could be in Melbourne for all you know). Next pic is me in the Villa of the Mysteries in Pompeii - and yes, the red colour in the frescoes really is that bright! But no, I have not become a cow-girl, its just that it was so hot I simply had to wear a hat. Then I went to an archaeological dig in Israel which involved a lot of early rising and physical exertion. It was mentally stimulating and educational for sure, but these pics show me boiling hot and sweaty - at least there was shade cloth. A more sensible and informative post to follow - as soon as I have time.

Friday, June 5, 2009

Spiritual Egyptomania

After around twenty years participation in contemporary Witchcraft, Neo-Paganism and Ceremonial Magick I went back to university as a mature age student in 2004 in order to assess, from an academic standpoint, the claims to historicity of the Neo-Pagan founders I had encountered both through literature and in person. I wanted to find out what academic professionals who specialised in the ancient societies whose religions Pagans purported to be representing and practising had to say about the character of ancient pagan religions. Did they look in any way like modern ones? This was definitely motivated in part by Ronald Hutton's investigations into Modern Pagan Witchcraft in his book 'Triumph of the Moon'. I think Hutton inspired a healthy phase of self-reflexivity within the more honest quarters of modern Paganism and I for one believe we should not be afraid to look critically at both those who were integral to the formation of contemporary Paganism, as well as its current practitioners. Critical investigation is not going to kill Paganism. I was also inspired, on the other hand, by Pagan Reconstructionism, a historical approach to the practice of ancient pagan religions rather than the 'ceremonial magic format' approach of the 'magic circle and four elements' which derived from Wicca and is generally believed to be representative of 'pagan religion' by those who can't be bothered doing much research.

I have just submitted my last essay for my Postgraduate Diploma in Arts (Classics and Archaeology) which was on whether classical accounts of human sacrifice performed within Celtic groves had any basis in reality or were simply part of an imperialist smear-campaign designed to make the 'barbarians' look bad (there is evidence of human sacrifice). I have also just handed in my thesis, which was stimulating to research and exhausting to write, entitled 'Spiritual Egyptomania: The Hermetic Order of the Golden Dawn'. This thesis shines a harsh spotlight - like Sauron's eye - on the activities and claims to authority of four famous British magicians and investigates their not-inconsiderable legacy today, particularly in Britain. Here's the abstract: This thesis investigates the reception and appropriation of aspects of ancient Egyptian religion by the Hermetic Order of the Golden Dawn, an exclusive late-nineteenth century British alternative spirituality movement. Initially contextualising the Golden Dawn as standing outside the development of scholarly Egyptology, its direct relationship with the modern Pagan movement is subsequently explained and the implications thereof for contemporary archaeology are outlined. Specific case studies of four Golden Dawn members highlight the order’s imaginative method of obtaining knowledge about ancient Egypt and the erroneous conclusions arrived at thereby. The historically inaccurate, self-serving and misleading picture of ancient Egyptian religion promoted by the Golden Dawn, as well as its unscientific method of obtaining information about the past through revelation rather than reason, is shown to have been adopted by contemporary Pagans who subsequently attempt to impose their erroneous interpretations of the past on to archaeologists, museum curators and heritage workers, to the detriment of archaeology.

I am now excited to be moving on to my higher degree research topic: a comparative study of the symbolic and ritual meanings of trees and pillars in Prehistoric Greece, Egypt and Israel. Trees and pillars are important from the perspective of both landscape and gender. Both trees and pillars occur in images and texts in religious contexts, often in conjunction with women. Represented symbolically when brought into the human sphere, they signify domesticated versions of aspects of wild nature such as groves and mountains. The study of trees and pillars provides us with information about how features of the natural world were perceived as sacred, as well as how women acted as mediators in the relationship between nature and culture. Hooray, I'm looking at three of my favourite topics: ritual, gender and landscape.

Thursday, May 28, 2009


What's religious about ancient Mediterranean religions? This is the theme of the Inaugural Meeting of the Society for Ancient Mediterranean Religion, held on June 28 2009, at the Pontifical Biblical Institute, Rome, Italy. And I'll be there! Wah-hoo!
At the inaugural meeting of the Society for Ancient Mediterranean Religions, we plan to begin our discussions by considering the ways in which the conceptual category 'religion' is applicable to the study of ancient cultures. Sacrifice, prayer, pilgrimage, private and public devotion, beliefs about gods and goddesses - all of these practices and ideas seem to fall safely enough within the category of 'religion'. A question worth thinking about, however, is whether the boundaries of this modern category - and indeed the category itself - match up with any patterns of practice or belief held by the people we hope to understand. In other words, what did it mean to be 'religious' in the ancient world? Perhaps behaviors that we might now call 'religious' are better understood as falling within the realm of political acts, or as practices that delineate certain tribal or familial identities. Matching up ancient and modern ideas about this cluster of ideas and practices promises to reveal significant mismatches in our conceptual lexica where religion ancient and modern is concerned. We hope that it will also give rise to useful reflections about this inter-disciplinary project that we have initiated: what different methodological presuppositions do students of ancient Mediterranean cultures bring to the study of religious phenomena and what do we stand to learn from each other?

Saturday, May 16, 2009

Spirit Cheesecloth

It turns out that Marina Warner did write that book on ectoplasm after all - in 2006. I just hadn't heard about it, which is the way of things, I mean I didn't realise there was a fourth book in J.M Auel's 'Clan of the Cave Bear' series until it had already been out for ages (and yes I have read it, and the fifth one too - but hey, is she ever going to write any more? I'm waiting!). Actually, Warner's book, which is called Phantasmagoria, is not just on ectoplasm, but explores angels, ghosts, fairies, revenants, and zombies as well. Not that I have actually read it, I have not - as yet - seeing as I only discovered its existence half an hour ago. Here, by the way, is a fascinating little essay by Warner in Cabinet Magazine about looking at Helen Duncan's (see picture above) ectoplasm, although now I'm confused because at the bottom it says "Marina Warner's most recent book is Signs & Wonders: Essays on Literature and Culture (2003). She is currently finishing a study of spirit images, Figuring the Soul about waxworks, fata morgana, and ectoplasm." - maybe that's an entirely different book from the Phantasmagoria one. Whatever. I can't keep up and [come closer, while I whisper] frankly, while I do own about four or so Marina Warner books, and have all good intentions of reading them, last time I tried I found her too difficult to actually read. However, I haven't tried them for several years, I may find that I can read them now. Anyway, I like the types of topics she covers, and I admire her obvious braininess. But regarding Spiritualism, perhaps it is easier to actually read Alex Owen's 'The Darkened Room: Women, Power and Spiritualism in Late Victorian England'. Janet Oppenheim's 'The Otherworld: Spiritualism and Psychical Research in England, 1850-1914.' is the most famous book on Spiritualism, possibly being eclipsed now by more recent publications. (A quick Google search turns up that Oppenheim died in 1994! I see... another thing I didn't know - can't know everything, I suppose). Other interesting books on the topic of Spiritualism and the history of Psychical Research are Deborah Blum's 'Ghost Hunters', Mary Roach's 'Spook' - which is quite humorous - and for a specifically Melbourne flavour: Alfred Gabay's 'Messages from Beyond: Spiritualism and Spiritualists in Melbourne's Golden Age.'

Wednesday, April 22, 2009

The Importance of Words and Writing in Ancient Magic

By Caroline Tully.

Magic is a rather general term which, when referring to ancient Mediterranean practice, can have various meanings. It can cover activities ranging from the attempt to control supernatural forces and direct their power toward a specific end, to private rituals performed outside of an official cultic context. Magic can describe the activities of charismatic wonder-workers, the seeking of direct revelation concerning the nature of the divine, and also be used as an accusation designed to marginalise an alleged practitioner of illicit ritual. In this article “magic” is used to describe the content and performance of spells designed to achieve material results. Words and writing were used in this sort of practical magic as components in what could be considered a type of technology for achieving material success. In this context words and writing were important because they were used to communicate with, in order to compel, the forces such as spirits or deities thought to be capable of and responsible for making change in the world. As well as a means of communication with these beings, both spoken and written words were thought to be effective in themselves because of an innate power within their very nature. Spoken words in the form of incantation, real or pseudo-foreign languages, secret languages thought to be understood by supernatural beings, apparently meaningless vowel-based chants, and words believed to have the inherent power to manifest reality, were all major components of ancient magic. Writing in the form of Greek, Latin, hieroglyphic, Demotic and Coptic Egyptian, and indecipherable charakteres, were used in spells as transcribed directives communicated to the “engines” of reality, the supernatural beings. Writing was also used to direct, record or perpetually transmit the speech of the ritual, in a visual capacity incorporated into iconographic spells and amulets, and in the transmission of magical lore in handbooks.

In a time of widespread illiteracy it was in the interests of the literate scribe in classical and Hellenistic Greece, the temple attendant in first century Rome or professional ritual expert such as the lector-priest or “magician” in Roman Egypt to promote the idea that knowledge of words and writing were vital for the effective utilisation of the technology of success. The idea that magic worked through precise enunciation of special words and the mysteries of letter-meaning and construction left the illiterate consumer of magic dependent upon the knowledgeable specialist. Understanding the actual mechanics of how to write, possessing mastery over a secret language, having knowledge of the esoteric meanings and correct pronunciation of the alphabet, as well as access to written secret magical formularies, was vital for ensuring that professional magical practitioners maintained an aura of expertise, capability and proficiency. In order to explore the ways in which words and writing were used in ancient magic this paper will focus on oral, transcribed and pictorial examples of spells from literature, defixiones and the Greek magical papyri. Examination of the evidence will lead to the conclusion that words and writing defined the magician as a source of competency within a sea of humanity subject to the whims of fate.

Before the development of writing, magical acts would have been spoken, perhaps in a form similar to the sung curse in Aeschylus’ “Eumenides” (Lines 305-414):

Now by the altar
Over the Victim
Ripe for our ritual,
Sing this enchantment:
A song without music,
A sword in the senses,
A storm in the heart
And fire in the brain;
A clamour of Furies
To paralyse reason,
A tune full of terror,
A drought in the soul!

and the healing charm in Homer’s “Odyssey” (19. 457-59).:

The dear sons of Autolykos were busy to tend him,
and understandingly they bound up the wound of stately
godlike Odysseus and singing incantations over it
stayed the black blood, and soon came back to the
house of their loving father.

Early inscribed lead curse tablets, defixiones, from the fifth - fourth centuries BCE often contained only the name of the intended target, the rest of the spell was presumably accomplished verbally. Examples from later centuries, such as those found in the Athenian Agora dating to the third century CE, tended to involve more writing indicating that inscription was now considered a more important aspect of magic. The evidence from a magical formulary such as “The Greek Magical Papyri” which contains material dating from between the second century BCE and the fifth century CE shows that verbal, scriptural and iconographic elements of language were often combined within the one ritual. The spoken words in the rituals take various forms. There are prayers in which one or several spirits or deities are asked to attend the ritual to lend their supernatural aid to power the spell. Words are used deceptively in diabolae, a technique designed to anger and motivate a deity by telling them that the target of a spell had insulted them. Historiolae, or the recitation within a ritual context, usually a healing spell, of a mythological precedent thought to be similar to and hence effect the present situation, are examples of the idea that the narration of sacred stories could affect material reality.

Vowels spoken in just the right way made magical ritual more precise. Seemingly unintelligible strings of vowel-chants were thought to be effective because of an innate power inherent within them which reflected elements of the cosmos or the gods themselves. Written vowels were even licked or eaten, such was their power. They were also combined with visual imagery by being arranged in patterns such as squares, triangles, wings or diamonds, recitation of which may have added iconographic power to their already potent nature. Words and writing were also components of voces magicae, generally untranslatable words that appear throughout the Greek magical papyri, on lead defixiones and in Roman medical speculation. Voces magicae may have been considered a divine language understood by supernatural beings. They were also thought to be secret names of the gods, knowledge of which compelled them, and they may even have contained actual foreign divine names. Foreign languages were thought to be more powerful than the magician’s own language. The use of Greek on defixiones, originally simply the language of the inscriber, over time came to be thought essential for their efficacy.

Writing was used in ancient magic for purposes such as the inscription of defixiones in which it was a way to achieve precision. Inscribing the maternal lineage of a victim identified them to the powers invoked and a written description of the desired effects perhaps seemed a more official directive than speaking the request in a one-off vocal spell. The contents of a spell could be written in various special ways. Names were scrambled, possibly working as a persuasive analogy which via the formula of similia similibus was probably intended to confound the target. Writing backwards, upside down, in palindromes, spirals or boustrophedon (the back-and-forth pattern made when plowing a field) used on defixiones may have been intended to make the target of the spell move correspondingly. Words such as the ephesia grammata, a group of six untranslatable words said to derive from an inscription on the cult statue of Artemis of Ephesus and which may have been forerunners of the voces magicae, were thought to have an innate power and were both spoken within spells, as well carried or worn on the body as physical talismans. Written voces magicae appeared throughout the magical papyri, on defixiones, apotropaic lamellae and inscribed gems. Charakteres, a type of “writing” that has no apparent source in any known alphabet but which may be associated with star patterns, also appear within the texts of magical formulae. While voces magicae may have been intended to represent a magical language, so charakteres might have been seen as a transcendent alphabet understood by supernatural powers. Charakteres verge on the iconographic and may have, like Egyptian hieroglyphs, been considered powerful within themselves. In their visual capacity charakteres even form part of explicit figurative drawings, as seen in the feet of the horse-headed figure in the “Seth” tablets. Writing was combined with images such as the ouroboros snake and was also used in conjunction with three-dimensional “voodoo” dolls such as the inscribed lead curse tablet accompanying the Louvre doll, and the “gingerbread man” defixio and Mnesimachos doll and coffin, both of which have identifying inscriptions.

Finally, as well as being a major part of the spoken content of spells, a real or imagined written language and a form of visual imagery, writing was also important for the recording and transmission of complicated magical lore, formulae and recipes as evident in a collection of grimoires like the Greek magical papyri. The Greek magical papyri may have come from an Egyptian temple library and been used by priests working as itinerant ritual specialists after Roman annexation of Egypt in 30 BCE and the subsequent crippling of the temples. According to literary sources a large number of magical texts existed in antiquity, however most were destroyed in purges conducted by the civil or religious authorities of the time such as Augustus, who in 13 BCE ordered the destruction of 2,000 magical scrolls, and the burning of books that took place in the early centuries of the Christian era. If other books of magic contained anything like the type or amount of material that the Greek magical papyri do then it is evident that complicated magical rituals requiring instructional scripts were being performed by literate magical practitioners. Such books of magic were important because a written version of a lengthy spell which incorporated directions for constructing wax figurines, pronouncing voces magicae, performing complex gestures, reciting magic words, and the physical inscription of specific charakteres or drawings, is a lot easier to enact correctly when the instructions are available to follow to the letter, rather than having to memorise the procedure from oral transmission.

In conclusion, it is evident from the examples of defixiones and the spells in the Greek magical papyri that words and writing were important in ancient magic in numerous ways. Words and writing were learned techniques, not available to just anyone. In order to utilise the power of letters and sounds for the purpose of specific spells the lay person was dependant on the literate ritual specialist who understood the written and spoken language of the gods. Through words and writing the magician maintained his status as an intermediary between his clients and the awesome powers of the cosmos. By shrouding the contents of magical recipe books in secrecy the magician ensured that an aura of exclusivity and an impression of inexplicable wisdom surrounded his profession. The ritual specialist, whether a descendant of a once influential priestly cast, a freelance charismatic thaumaturge or a lofty theurgist, through knowledge of the magic of words and writing carved an influential place for himself in ancient society.

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.