Greco-Roman Drawing Down the Moon

Were there rites in ancient Greece or Rome for invoking the Moon Goddess to come down from the sky? There are only two ancient references to this practice that I know of.

The ancient Roman writer, Horace, made a reference to a witch drawing the moon down out of the sky.

Horace (Epode 17)---says the Witch Canidia "... must I, who can move waxen images and draw down the moon from the sky by my spells, who can raise the vaporous dead, and mix a draught of love lament the effect of my art, availing nothing upon you?" [italics mine, to emphasize]

Epode 17, lines 74-80:
an quae movere cereas imagines,
ut ipse nosti curiosus, et polo
deripere lunam vocibus possim meis,
possim crematos excitare mortuos
desiderique temperare pocula,
plorem artis in te nil agentis exitus?'
Horace, The Complete Odes and Epodes, A New Translation by Daniel West 1997 (p 22), has an alternate translation:
Or do you think that I, who can cause waxen images
to move, as you have found by prying, and pluck
the moon from the heaven by my spells,
who can arouse cremated corpses,
and blend the elixers of lust--do you believe that I
shall weep because my arts are powerless against you?"

According to Amra the Lion, a practitioner of Roman-Italian Paganism, "To my knowledge, this [passage from Horace (Epode 17)] is the single [literary] reference in antiquity to 'drawing down the moon.'" (Private correspondence to Myth Woodling, 11/28/05)

The passage did sound like Canidia was claiming she could conjure or pull the actual lunar rock or orb out of the sky, along with other amazing things like necromancy. It was unclear whether she was exagerating her abilities while speaking to her wayward lover. Horace was not a modern journalist, who stood there, carefully recording actual quotes from interviews. Perhaps Horace was simply peppering his Epode with a bunch of occult references.

The character, Canidia, appeared in some of Horace's other Epodes. Canidia, referred to in the first translation as, "Witch Canidia," was never referred to as "Witch" in any of Horace's other Epodes, nor was Canidia referred to by any Latin word that could be translated as sorceress, magic user, wise woman, necromancer, etc. Horace simply described her as doing evil magic. For example, at one point she and her female cohorts grabbed a youth, tied him up, and buried him up to his neck in dirt--so that he could starve to death while looking at a plate of food. Canidia, as an aging Roman matron, was having trouble holding the attentions of her lover. Canidia performed this nefarious deed in order to later cut out the boy's liver and grind it up to put in her lover's food. In ancient Roman lore, the liver was the seat of desires. Hence, if the boy was starved to death, while looking at food, it would make the liver more potent.

Horace apparently was writing political satire. Canidia was an exagerated example of just how decadent the city of Rome had become.

One of the early pages in Margot Adler's fabulous book, Drawing Down the Moon, has a picture from a Greek vase, supposedly from the second century bce. The picture showed two nude female figures, one with a long wand or stick, and the other with a sword. The figure with the sword on the left has one arm raised, apparently saluting a disk. The one with the wand or stick, on the right, also has a hand raised. The face in the disk is looking directly at the figure on the right. There is something that looks like a rope around the disk.

Many Wiccans and Neo-Pagans interpret the image to be a symbolic representation of two "witches" drawing down the moon in an ancient rite.

This depiction has some Greek lettering near both of the figures. As I do not read ancient Greek, I sought the help of someone who could. (See below in Myth's Notes) The word on the left translated as, "beautiful." The words on the right were more difficult to translate. Not all of the handwritten letters were very clear, but apparently translated as, "who [are] of the moon mistress."

Armed with this probable translation, I will speculate about the two figures.

The woman on the left seems to have raised her left palm in salutation to the moon disk. Did she speak the word, "beautiful," to the moon disk or to her partner on the right?

The feminine face in the moon disk gazed directly at the face of the woman on the right. In turn, the woman on the right extended her right hand almost as though trying to touch the moon disk. Did she speak the words, "who [are] of the moon mistress"? Or did the spirit of the moon disk speak through her?

The presence of a rope around the disk is very interesting. It may represent pulling the spirit inhabiting the moon down out of the sky.

What about the sword and the wand? Both ritual tools were used in magic practiced in the Mediteranean for invoking or evoking spirits, yet neither sword nor wand were being held up.

It is possible this drawing depicts two figures who were performing a rite to draw down the moon spirit from the sky.

It is also possible that the two women were simply giving adoration to the moon. Perhaps the Greek inscription referred to the two women.

There is no way to be certain.

In fact, I have been told this vase, its figures, and its inscriptions is most unusual for a second bce Greek vase. Most inscriptions on vases were frequently "from _______, to _______." It is possible the original vase was misdated. Or that the actual drawing is a clever forgery.

I plan to gather more information later.

What do these two enigmatic references, one Roman and one Greek, tell us about any ancient rite of drawing down or pulling down the spirit of the moon? Not a whole lot.

Horace may have been making an exagerated reference to a practice in popularly known magic lore.

I suspect that the popularly known magic lore might be the case, because of the line, "Who can move waxen images?" or "Who can cause waxen images to move?"

The use of wax images in Mediteranean magic is well knwon. "Waxen images" would have the same ring as a contemporary reference to "Voodoo dolls"1 in a 20th century Hollywood horror film. However, Horace added his own twist. He referred to Canidia making the images move around, like golems or puppets with invisible strings. Those that argue that "waxen images" were not made to move around are correct. It is my speculation that Horace, who was writing political satire, was purposely exagerating a reference to something in popular magic lore to make a point.

It is exactly the same sort of literary license used by John Donne in Go And Catch A Falling Star when he wrote: "Get with child a mandrake root."2

Mandrakes have long been used in fertility magic, because of their humanoid shape. In particular, they were used to get a barren woman pregnant. This popular magical lore is what John Donne was drawing on. He knew his readers would immediately understand his reference, but he changed it to make it even more fantastic. (There has never been any practice in which someone instead causes a mandrake root to become pregnant with a human child.)

Neither do we ever expect anyone to actually catch a falling star, make a waxen iamge or Voodoo doll move around, or pull the lunar rock or orb out of the sky.

However, magical practitioners have often caught the magic of a falling star by wishing on it and used images of wax or cloth to heal a curse. Thus they may have drawn down or pulled down the magic or spirit of the moon. The key word in that last sentence is "may."

What about the Greek vase? If authentic, it may depict two women drawing down or pulling down the spirit or magic of the moon, or it may depict two women adoring the moon. Once again the key word is "may."

There is a third type of drawing down the moon which I have only briefly heard of. This type, which is purportedly old, involves a silver bowl and two people.

A person catches the light of the moon in the bowl and reflects it onto the face of person B. In this way, the moon spirit is drawn down and projected onto the other person.

I need to learn more about this third practice, but I know of no ancient reference to it.

--Myth Woodling, 2006

1 The religion involving veneration of the Loa practiced in Haiti and Louisiana is more properly spelled Voudou or Voudoun. The term, when spelled Voodoo, is more associated with Hollywood B movies and lurid dime store novels.


Go And Catch A Falling Star

Go and catch a falling star,
Get with child a mandrake root,
Tell me where all past years are,
Or who cleft the devil's foot,
Teach me to hear mermaids singing,
Or to keep off envy's stinging,
And find
What wind
Serves to advance an honest mind.

If thou be'st born to strange sights,
Things invisible to see,
Ride ten thousand days and nights,
Till age snow white hairs on thee,
Thou, when thou return'st, wilt tell me,
All strange wonders that befell thee,
And swear,
No where
Lives a woman true, and fair.

If thou find'st one, let me know,
Such a pilgrimage were sweet;
Yet do not, I would not go,
Though at next door we might meet;
Though she were true, when you met her,
And last, till you write your letter,
Yet she
Will be
False, ere I come, to two, or three.

--John Donne

Myth's Notes

According to Delia, the word on the left, near the figure with the sword, looks like KALE (kah-lay). That would mean "beautiful," with a feminine gender ending.

Kerastes Polythymos agreed with Delia.

The string of letters on the right is difficult to translate, as the handwritten letters are not as clear as they could be. According to Kerastes, they are probably:

Kerastes commented, "potnias = mistress, revered; looks like genitive case, but I don't know why."

Delia added, "If it's going along with the hoi article, being used as a pronoun meaning "those," it could be, "those of the mistress." She suggested a full translation as: "Beautiful are those of the Moon Mistress."

It is also possible that "those" might be a reference to the moonbeams.

Kerastes wrote, "The last letter looks like a nu with a line over it, indicating missing letters. I suggest the obvious: Selenes (here the e's depict etas), making the right side read, who [are] of the Moon Mistress." It seems Selenes is abreviated by leaving out some of the vowels.

Another person said it might be translated as: "Hail, beautiful one," and "Hail to the Goddess Selene"--speculating that KALE might be evocative, as the word "Hail" does not actually appear.

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