The enchantress Circe, who could turn men into beasts with a wave of her wand—her rhabdos—wouldn’t be puzzled by the magical paraphernalia on sale today in Oxford, where pilgrims to the film locations of Harry Potter can choose from any number of wands or take home a stuffed messenger owl that might have flown from the pages of Apuleius. Magical thinking has bathed, it seems, in the Fontaine de Jouvence; it is flourishing well beyond the entertainment industry and children’s literature.
Radcliffe G. Edmonds III, in his ambitious and enthusiastic study of magic in classical antiquity, Drawing Down the Moon, brings a sensibility tuned to the revival of traditional superstitions and folk rituals. Many customs and beliefs, rooted in ancient practices of affecting reality and averting danger by acts of propitiation and protection, are being reinvented—including wayside shrines on the sites of fatal accidents. The Greeks would have recognized them: the place where a death has occurred needs to be purified, and the forces that caused it must be placated. In 1997, a shrine to Princess Diana sprang up spontaneously across from the Pont de l’Alma in Paris, above the tunnel where she died, and visitors continue to leave her ex-voto messages of hope and thanks on the ground, beside the full-size replica of the Statue of Liberty’s torch that has become identified with her.
In Drawing Down the Moon, Edmonds, who teaches classics at Bryn Mawr, roams through nearly a millennium’s worth of material, from Hesiod and Homer all the way to late antiquity and the reign of Julian, the last pagan emperor; he sweeps west to Wales and east to the Black Sea and Georgia—the full extent of the classical world. He sums up astrology and alchemy, divination and theurgy (good magic) with impressive deep reading and powers of synthesis. In a particularly lucid and authoritative chapter, he expounds the psychological meaning of the daimon, or indwelling spirit of Greek and Hellenistic thought, in contrast with the stigmatized Judeo-Christian demon or devil associated with evil. (Philip Pullman in the trilogy His Dark Materials, with his inspired invention of individual-accompanying “daemons,” has begun to restore the original sense of the word.) Nor does Edmonds overlook the many methods of scrying for signs and portents in the flight of birds, the entrails of sacrificed animals, sneezes, twitches, moles, and casting dice. It’s a work of great synoptic energy, but it is far more than a survey.
Edmonds firmly sets aside the traditional distinction between religion and magic, derived from the influential author of The Golden Bough, J.G. Frazer, who argued that religion exacts a submissive and humble approach to the godhead, imagines the end of time, and hopes for general good and personal salvation;…
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