Thursday, July 4, 2019

Radcliffe G. Edmonds III's "Drawing Down the Moon"

Radcliffe G. Edmonds III is the Paul Shorey Professor of Greek in the Department of Greek, Latin, and Classical Studies at Bryn Mawr College. His many books include Redefining Ancient Orphism and Myths of the Underworld Journey.

Edmonds applied the “Page 99 Test” to his new book, Drawing Down the Moon: Magic in the Ancient Greco-Roman World, and reported the following:
From page 99:
Faraone points out the interesting way in which such philtra were imagined to work, increasing the benevolence of the target toward the agent by relaxing him and taming his aggressive impulses. Like the effects of wine, which in moderate quantities seems to enhance erotic feelings but in larger quantities can bring about incapacitation, such philtra at first made the target relaxed and happy, but further application or overdose could bring about sedation of the target or even, in certain cases, death. A prostitute in Alciphron seeks a potion that will not only keep her client from straying, but also tame his drunken bad temper and make him a more docile lover. In a speech from fourth-century Athens, a concubine anxious about being dismissed puts pharmaka in the wine; but, instead of making the man more affectionate, the philtron killed him. Later references to cases in which a man was poisoned by an attempt to secure his affections with a love charm show that the woman could either have been acquitted on the grounds that she did not mean to kill him or condemned on the grounds that she did in fact cause his death. Plutarch warns the young bride not to meddle with such philtra, since she is likely to end up with a husband whose sedated virility would leave the relationship crippled.

Faraone compares the effects of these philtra with a type of spell known as the thumokatoxon, the spell for restraining anger, for binding down the thumos, the seat of strong emotion. He suggests that the thumos can be understood almost as machismo, the impulse toward displays of masculine forcefulness, whether sexual or not. Just as modern people might loosely refer to an excess of testosterone as the cause of either violently aggressive or oversexed masculine behavior, so the ancient Greeks might have been concerned about an excess of thumos and sought to restrain it, either to prevent violence or to halt indulgence in sexual activity.
The discussion of “love potions” or philtra that appears on page 99 is only somewhat representative of the book as a whole. Those paragraphs provide a distillation of previous scholars’ work on the subject (specifically here the work of Christopher Faraone), rather than my own further developments, so it is not really the best sample to show what I am doing in the book. On the other hand, one of the aims of the book is to draw together the latest currents of scholarship on ancient magic and present them in a comprehensible form.

The page does provide a good example of the kind of material that I explore in Drawing Down the Moon, the evidence for the practices labeled as magic in Classical antiquity. All these love potions from across the centuries and all over the ancient Greco-Roman world create an extra-ordinary effect, altering the emotions and mental states of the target in ways that a normal substance would not. The label of magic is always applied by someone in a particular situation, so it is crucial to examine the evidence within its social context. In this sample, all of the potions are being used by a woman to manipulate the affections of a man in her life. Such a gendered pattern also fits the literary tropes of erotic magic used by women against men, but it also provides a contrast with other kinds of erotic magic, which I discuss elsewhere in the chapter, where gender figures in quite different ways.

The study of ancient magic provides insights into such social dynamics as the interactions gender and erotic relationships that the more canonical literary and historical sources fail to offer.. The evidence for what is labeled as magic often gives voice to the marginalized others in ancient society, the ones who are not writing the histories but who nevertheless leave witness (in, for example, the lead curse tablets) of their hopes and fears, their passions and their hatreds. The evidence for erotic magic in particular provides often disturbing glimpses of the way the ancient Greeks and Romans dealt with gender, passion, and violence in their relationships. The other chapters of the book likewise provide insights into aspects of the ancient world that are unavailable from other kinds of sources.
Learn more about Drawing Down the Moon at the Princeton University Press website.

--Marshal Zeringue