Ancient Greek Love Magic

by Christopher A. Faraone

Question: What surprised you most in your research on Greek love spells and incantations?

Christopher Faraone: I set out to write a book about love magic, and by the time I was done I wasn’t sure that love magic as an all-embracing category was really helpful for understanding the Greeks. What I realized toward the end of the project was that the modern category “love magic” embraced two rather different types of spells, one set designed to produce erôs (“erotic seizure”) in the victim, and the other used to create philia (“affection” or “friendship”). It took me a couple of years to figure this out and as a result I wrote a book that was very different from the one that I had planned.

Question: So calling all of these spells “love magic” wouldn’t have made sense to the Greeks?

Faraone: Precisely. What I discovered was that most of the technologies that are used in spells for throwing erotic passion into someone are borrowed from the realm of cursing. If you actually track it down, melting wax, sticking pins into an image, and a lot of the language in the surviving erotic charms are all used in cursing rituals. Thus half of the repertoire of love magic is curses, whereas the philia-producing spells uses amulets, knotted cords, and potions, which aren’t technologies you find in curses–you find them in healing magic. Part of the argument of my book is that this healing magic, which seems to have been the purview of women, evolved in the hands of women into forms of philia magic focused on healing or preserving a broken relationship. Erotic magic, on the other hand, is based on cursing techniques and often seems to be used by one family to attack another. Most often it seems to be used by a man who’s on the outside of a family trying to get a woman out of her father’s house or her husband’s house by breaking up a relationship.

If I could take a time machine and go back to ancient Greece and ask people how these two things fit together, they would probably say they don’t. They seem to have evolved in different places. The Greeks would probably say that erotic magic is part of what men do, and it’s part of the realm of curses, and philia-magic is what women do, and it’s more in the realm of healing.

Question: Is there something more to erotic magic than just love? Perhaps the pursuit of marriage and property?

Faraone: You’re actually kind of pointing up a problem with the evidence. One of the things that I think is interesting about the erotic spells is that I was arguing against a very powerful and influential thesis put forth by my thesis advisor from graduate school, Jack Winkler. He had taken a psychological approach to erotic spells and had argued that they were primarily used by people who were helplessly in love. He said they were used self-therapeutically–that somehow by projecting their pain and suffering on the victim, who they perceived as the cause of their pain, that this would take away their own suffering.

The problem with this is that you have to assume that everyone who used this kind of love magic was lovesick, and that they were so desperately in love that they would do anything–even use magic. But underlying this approach is the false assumption that magic is looked down upon and that these people were pushed by their passion into doing something illegal–similar to using curse tablets. Winkler’s psychological approach also doesn’t explain why something like 96 percent of all the erotic spells we have are used by men to get women. Do only men fall in love? Do only men get lovesick? It seems to me much more likely that men used these curse-like spells for sexual conquests and domination–indeed, in one of the surviving texts, a man casts erotic spells on several different women! Was he desperately in love with all of them? Probably not.

The other thing that struck me about these spells is that they are used by men to inflict great pain and suffering on women, but the men want the pain and suffering to stop when the women arrive at their door. Thus a common formula reads something like this: “Burn, whip, torture the heart, the liver, the body of Ms. X, until she leaps from her home and comes to me, Mr. Y.” The assumption of the users of these spells is that these women are not going to make love to them or even look their way unless some supernatural torture is applied to them to force them to come. One of the ideas that I explore in my book is that you have the same kind of assumption and the same application of force in a certain type of marriage in the Greek world called bridal theft, or abduction marriage, a form of kidnap or elopement that was still practiced in Greece and the Balkans even in the 1950s. In more traditional places where a man was interested in a woman and there’s no way for them to get together–maybe she’s from a higher socioeconomic bracket–he might get a bunch of his buddies together and kidnap her. In some cases, however, he might do this with the tacit agreement of her parents, who might be glad to forgo the expense of a wedding or a dowry. There is not enough evidence for me to actually prove this, but I suspect that erotic spells were a kind of supernatural form of abduction marriage. That’s the sociological frame, but when you’re working in the ancient world there are no certainties because we don’t have a lot of good evidence even for this kind of marriage.

Question: Were erotic spells ever performed by women?

Faraone: Yes, we do have a handful of examples of actual spells, and quite a few literary descriptions, such as Theocritus’ second Idyll, a poem imitated most famously by Vergil in his seventh Eclogue. But in my book, I show that the women who perform erotic magic all seem to be courtesans and prostitutes, and almost never wives and daughters of citizen men. The question then arises: why do only this select women perform erotic magic or are accused of doing so?

In the last chapter of my book I argue that courtesans and prostitutes were, in fact, perceived as masculine–aggressively masculine–or that they represented themselves as being aggressively masculine in the Greek world. Why would this be? It’s clear to many historians that gender is socially constructed. There are a few basic physical differences between males and females, but every culture adds a great deal of extra baggage on top of that, by saying that this is “normally feminine” and this is “normally masculine”–like the traditional idea pink is a color that girl babies should wear and blue is what male babies should wear. Or the idea that women should stay home and raise children and men should go to work.

It seems cross-culturally true that where courtesans and geishas operated–in Renaissance Italy and in the Far East and other places–that they nearly always had a special status. In Greece they seemed to have had their own houses where there were no men around. They adopted women as their daughters and trained them–in this way they socially reproduced themselves. And they educated their adopted daughters in a way that the daughters of citizens were never educated: the girls learned to read and write, compose poetry, and they were given a fairly wise education, so they could talk intelligently with men. Pericles’ second wife Aspasia, for example, is said to have been a courtesan noted for both her great beauty and her wit and intelligence. Thus courtesans appear, in the Greek world at least, to be autonomous, free-thinking women in a culture that didn’t have that category of women. In my book I suggest that as a result it was easier for men to categorize or construct them as male, or for the courtesans themselves to take on that role.

The difference is a tricky problem that I am working on right now: if literary texts (written by men) portray courtesans acting in traditionally masculine ways (for example, casting erotic spells against their lovers) is this merely a male fantasy? Or do these texts record the real actions of courtesans who were, in fact, co-opting male behavior as a way of illustrating or asserting their independence. One thinks of women in the modern suffrage movements wearing trousers or taking up smoking to make a similar point, and in my book and in my subsequent work I have argued that what we see in these accounts is the agency of real Greek courtesans, not the fantasies of male writers.

In fact, the question of dress does come up in the ancient world as well. We have, for example, a couple of classical vase-paintings from Athens that show courtesans dressed as men, playing male games at the symposium, and we are fairly certain that in Rome, courtesans and prostitutes could wear the toga, which is usually a uniform restricted to citizen males.

Question: Sources for courtesans would be more difficult to track down, wouldn’t they?

Faraone: For the Greek world, absolutely. That’s why one of the things that I did as background for the book on love magic, and that I continue to do in this ongoing project on courtesans, is to spend a lot of time reading books and articles about what’s going on in the Renaissance. This is primarily because the Inquisition, that horrible institution that destroyed so many lives and reputations, also kept incredibly good records. (They were very similar to the Nazis in this.) For example, they prosecuted scores of women in Florence and Venice on charges of witchcraft and many of them–if the charge was love magic–turned out to be courtesans or prostitutes. The court records preserve speeches for the prosecution and the defense, and all of the evidence is entered in. They even quote confiscated spells verbatim. For example you might find something like this in the transcript: “This is what we found tucked under the threshold of mister so-and-so, and it was written in the handwriting of this lady,” and then they quote the charm itself.

In short, the Inquisitors preserve the kind of wonderful evidence that we very rarely get in the ancient world, which is the actual text of a magical spell set into a very specific and detailed social and legal context. You also get different people’s perceptions, because the Inquisitors would go and interview scores of witnesses: the neighbors, the families, the business partners, the friends. It’s pretty helpful.

Question: So you’re continuing your research in this area?

Faraone: I am always working on a half dozen other things, but courtesans are on my mind right now, especially since I will be participating in two conferences on the subject this coming academic year: a symposium on prostitution in the ancient world up at the University of Wisconsin in Madison (it is co-organized by myself and Laura McClure, a classics professor in Madison) and another in the first week of April organized by a friend of mine in the music department named Martha Feldman, who is working on courtesans in Renaissance Italy.

ABOUT THE AUTHOR | Christopher A. Faraone

Christopher FaraoneChristopher A. Faraone is professor of classical languages and literature at the University of Chicago. He received his Ph.D. from Stanford University in 1988. A member of the faculty at the University of Chicago since 1991, his teaching focuses on archaic and Hellenistic Greek poetry, magic and religion, and Near Eastern influences on early Greek culture. He is the author of Ancient Greek Love Magic (Harvard University Press, 1999) and Talismans and Trojan Horses: Guardian Statues in Ancient Greek Myth and Ritual (Oxford University Press, 1992) and co-editor of Masks of Dionysus (Cornell University Press, 1993) and Magika Hiera: Ancient Greek Magic and Religion (Oxford University Press, 1991).

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