Monday, November 7, 2011

Magical Mondays #7: Courtship's for losers, just use a spell: Ancient Greek Love Magic

Welcome to my seventh Magical Monday. In these segments, I'll be briefly discussing various magical traditions, creatures, and elements that people have been believed in (or continue to believed in) throughout history. Eventually, I may also move onto depictions that appear only in novels, but there's plenty of historical material to keep me busy for a while.


Magic, ultimately, is about control: control of the world, control of yourself, control of the spirits, maybe even control of the gods. Think about the last bit. A ritual offering is an attempt to placate--to control. There are many reasons to seek the control: power, protection, wealth, ambition--or love.

Love is a bit hard to pin down. It means many things and has meant many things to various cultures throughout history.

To the ancient Greeks, the concept of love could be broadly divided into four basic categories. To simplify things tremendously these are ag├ípe (deep self-sacrificing love, spiritual love), eros (more wild passion, longing, attraction), philia (the love of one's friends and also basic affection), and storge (familial love). There is a bit more nuance than that, but those are a good approximation.

So, if you're an ancient Greek wandering around and want to generate a love "spell", the first question to ask is what kind of love is it that you're attempting to invoke. The mechanism of invoking the magic are going to vary by the type, as are the gods you are going to attempt to request some aid from. The rich ancient pantheon included numerous gods, but an aspiring love mage wouldn't necessary just call out to one of the gods with a domain that involves love and/or relationships. It was often more about what the intent of the spell was: enhancement of emotion, manipulation of emotion, et cetera.

Evidence suggests the often, the type of magic that many male aspiring toward mystical love aid would invoke would be more eros-based, in other words, lust magic. This magic might be channeled through sympathetic techniques (i.e., the use of figures and effigies that represent the target). They could call upon the power of love deities  like Eros and Aphrodite or others less obvious, such as Pan (nature) and Hecate, who broadly (and simplistically) speaking is a goddess of magic. 

What's really curious is the techniques used (other than incantations, which are fairly standard) They might prick the effigy. Now, these days, this is the kind of thing we might associated with some sort of stereotypical voodoo doll (now that's a huge misnomer in a lot of ways, but we'll leave that discussion for another day). The point wasn't to harm the woman but instead create lust wounds, of a sort, to fill her with eros. 

The prospective lover might also attempt to channel the love god Eros more directly as well by creating a wax statue that would then embody the spirit of the god. Again, the idea in this scenario was to create an irresistible passion. Other techniques might include lead tablets that were inscribed with a sort of binding curse. Many of these eros-based spells were, in a sense, a type of curse.

Now, this is not to say that women would never use eros-based love "curses", but more often they were associated with philia-based magic that was designed to bring the man toward them to connect on a more basic affection level. They might also call on Aphrodite, but as opposed to the eros-based magic, they wouldn't call on someone like Hecate or Pan, but rather someone like the moon goddess, Selene.

The way the magic was focused in a different way. Though they might make use of incantations, usually they would create something that the man could be directly exposed to, such as something they could spread on his clothing or create an elixir he could consume either directly (your basic 'love' potion) in his food or drink.

For a particularly tragic take on this sort of agape/philia-based love magic, the legends concerning the death of Heracles/Hercules. He died when his wife, Deianiraconcerned about him straying, gave him a chiton (a kind of tunic). The clothing was stained with the blood of a centaur Heracles had killed years earlier using poisoned hydra blood-tipped arrows. As a result, the centaur blood itself was also poisoned. The centaur, prior to his death, had convinced that his poison-soaked clothing contained a magic that would help her rekindle his love. Years later when Deianira becomes concerned about Heracles wandering, so gives him the cloak. It starts burning away his skin and, to end his suffering, he ends up building his own funeral pyre, which a friend then lights.

Though that is a legendary story, it is reflective of the idea of giving a man something to bring him back, rather than to incite controllable passion in him. I also should note that though the Heracles story is legend, there are multiple references to these kinds of spells in different sources. While we can never be sure how many men or women actually attempted this type of magic, it is referenced enough that it seems fairly clearly the magic wasn't particularly fringe.

Normally, in all my historical or magical segments, I rely on a variety of sources online and offline, including my own personal knowledge (of course that also is, in turns gathered from a variety of online and offline sources). This article, however, was almost entirely sourced from one book, so I'm going to give a direct shout out to University of Chicago classics professor Christopher Farone. He's written a number of books on ancient Greek magical thought. In particular, the material in this article was gathered from his interesting (though somewhat uninspired in regards to title) book, Ancient Greek Love Magic. If you want to explore this magic in extreme detail, along with the sociological implications for gender relations in ancient Greece, check out the book. I will note his prose style is a bit turgid at times, but it's interesting nonetheless.


Pippa Jay said...

I think it says a lot about the way in which men and women view love, judging by their choice of spell.

J.A. Beard said...

Or, at the minimum, what the culture of the time felt how men and women should interface with love.

Though that style of 'affection magic' is somewhat cross-cultural and common throughout history.