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