BMCR 2000.02.19

Ancient Greek Love Magic

, Ancient Greek Love Magic. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 1999. 223. $35.00.

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Magic seems to be a hot topic of late. The November 1, 1999 issue of The New Yorker, in a review of several books on magic, mentions binding spells in the ancient world and quotes Plato on the efficacy of magic! Not so many years ago, magic was relegated to a very remote region of ancient religious studies. The beginning of a renewed interest was first signaled by the appearance of Faraone and Obbink, Magika Hiera, in 1991. Of course much important work was done before this date, particularly Preisendanz and Henrichs, Papyri Graecae Magicae, from 1973-74, and this early research laid the necessary groundwork that more recent scholars have been building on. But it was Magika Hiera and Fritz Graf’s Magic in the Ancient World (1997) that forced ancient Greek magic upon our attention.

Books and articles about magic are now appearing frequently. Among the most interesting of the recent titles is this book by Christopher Faraone. If its title seems rather limiting, the book itself opens a surprisingly large and interesting new window on Greek society.

Faraone begins with a quick overview of the various types of spells used in the ancient world. His study is, of necessity, a synchronic one, ranging from early Assyria to late Egypt; there is simply not enough evidence from any one time or place to do otherwise. There is enough evidence, however, to show that the Greeks borrowed much of their practice from the Near East and, in turn, passed it on to Hellenistic and Roman Egypt. A synchronic examination of the evidence seems, therefore, to be acceptable under the circumstances. Faraone’s first important insight is to divide love magic into two broad groups: that which seeks to induce uncontrollable passion ( eros) in its victim, and that which tries to induce affection ( philia). He then proceeds to examine more closely the evidence for each type of magic.

Faraone reminds us that the ancient Greeks looked upon erotic love as a form of disease or an attack by a god, often Aphrodite, Eros, or Pan. It is, therefore, only reasonable that those love charms that aim to create lust in their victims should be so strikingly similar to curses that bring disease upon their chosen victims. Like disease-inducing curses, these love spells are often frighteningly vivid in their descriptions, as, for example, this one to be recited over some burning myrrh: “Do not enter through her eyes or through her side or through her nails or even through her navel or her frame, but rather through her psuche. And remain in her heart and burn her guts, her breast, her liver, her breath, her bones, her marrow, until she comes to me, Mr. So-and-so …” (PGM IV.1525-31, quoted by Faraone on p. 50). This same notion of eros as violence can be seen on gemstones used in magic, where one character is shown mastering another, for example, Ares dominating a bound Aphrodite, or vice versa, or perhaps Eros torturing Psyche, or vice versa. These erotic spells were used almost solely by men trying to force women to their will. Faraone discusses some exceptions to this exclusively male use of eros-inducing charms later in the book, in one of its more interesting sections.

The examination of eros-spells continues with a consideration of them as agoge -, or leading-, charms. These are charms that burn or torture the victim until they lead or drive her from her home and family into the arms of the hopeful lover. In a wide-ranging and interesting discussion, Faraone compares these charms to Greek wedding processions, examines Pindar’s use of a similar spell in Pythian 4, and finishes with a macabre examination of the different animals that were tortured in various suggestive ways as part of these particular magic rituals.

The use of fruit, such as apples and quince, in erotic magic yields another interesting section. Among other things, it explains a strange comment made by Plutarch in his discussion of Solon’s law that a widowed heiress must wed a kinsman of her deceased husband. Plutarch says that the bride should eat a quince before being closed into the bridal chamber with the new groom. Faraone shows that quince, and other similar types of fruit, were often used to magically arouse sexual interest. Presumably the forced bride might have needed some help to learn the proper love for her new husband.

He ends this first part of his book with a truly fascinating examination of the two types of wedding common in ancient Greece, betrothal marriage and abduction marriage and the way they parallel apple- and agoge -magic. Winding his way through a discussion of adolescent hysteria, the psychological state of the curser, transference, and any relief that the cursing might bring to the curser, Faraone convincingly argues that the vivid preliminary violence of agoge -spells mirrors the frequent violent abduction of brides in myth and reality.

The second main section of the book concentrates on philia -magic, that type of spell, usually practiced by women, used to regain or strengthen the affection of a less-than-faithful mate. Starting from Homer’s description of the magical strap given to Hera by Aphrodite, Faraone places this practice in the larger context of Greek, Egyptian, and Assyrian spells whose aim is to win personal charm and to gain the approval of people in positions of power, such as kings, judges, and husbands.

This section concludes with an examination of women’s use of poisons in small doses to bring about the return of affection. At times, unfortunately, the doses were not small enough. Faraone discusses various examples of men poisoned by wives or lovers trying to hold onto their errant lovers, examples found in the writings of Sophocles, Antiphon, Plutarch, and others. He ends this section with an examination of Greek men’s understandable fear of such magic and its subversion of their own prerogatives, their often violent and angry virility.

In the third main division of his book, Faraone takes the information he has gathered in the previous pages and marshals it for an examination of some broader questions. First, he attempts a diachronic study of the development of agoge -spells. The results are necessarily provisional because of the paucity of evidence, but many interesting points are made nevertheless. This type of magic seems to have been a local, amateur affair until the first century BCE. After that time, it tended to become standardized, based on handbooks used by professionals. There was also a change over time in the deities invoked. Aphrodite appeared in the earliest spells, but yielded to Selene and Helios in later charms. They, in turn, disappeared when various chthonic powers became the common mediators. It seems odd that Aphrodite should disappear from eros-magic, but retain her place in philia -spells; this does not fit with the picture we have created of her as the patron of erotic love, who was little concerned with long-term affection.

There follows a clever examination of variants to the standard division of users of eros- and philia -magic by sex. The trendy-sounding formulation that men are defined by their power over women seems to be confirmed by the Faraone’s evidence. For example, although philia -magic was most commonly used by women, homosexuals and politically powerless men also used it at times to attain their ends. Likewise, prostitutes, widows, and other females in positions of power sometimes used eros-magic to win their goals. This does suggest that power or its lack was an essential part of the definition of the sexes.

Finally, Faraone uses a description of tortoises made by Aelian to better understand the “natural” roles of males and females. According to Aelian, male tortoises are naturally lustful, while female tortoises are moderate by nature. Faraone interestingly joins this description of tortoises with his own findings relating to the sex of love magic users to reverse a common modern understanding of the Greek world-view. Many people seem to think that Greek men viewed their women as naturally lustful and, thus, in need of seclusion and male control. The conclusions Faraone reaches in this book point to a different view, since almost all women using love magic are seeking affection, while it is the men who are driven to use magic to further sexual desires.

This is a wonderful book, with more of interest packed into its few pages than is found in many a larger work. Faraone’s discussions are wide-ranging, but always focused. His flirtations with contemporary notions of the supremacy of theory always yield in the end to a sensible examination of the facts. His writing is clear and pleasant, with only a bit of the jargon in vogue at this time. If one improvement could be suggested, it would be the inclusion of an appendix containing translations of all the pertinent texts. This should be possible, since Faraone says there are only eighty-one eros-spells, and most of the texts would probably be short. Such an appendix would allow a reader to check Faraone’s conclusions more easily. But this is a small complaint, especially since most of the book’s readers will have access to the necessary reference books. Faraone’s book should be read not only by its obvious audience of historians of Greek religion, but by the much wider audience of people interested in better understanding the minds of the ancients.