In a graduate seminar on Greek religion this fall we discussed Christopher F(araone)’s Ancient Greek Love Magic at some length and while we, like Edward Kadletz, found the material exciting and the presentation informative we also had a number of questions about F.’s underlying typology of love magic.
F. divides love magic into two categories which he claims are distinctive, philia charms and erotic charms (p. 28). The former include “incantations over amulets, knotted cords, rings, love potions or ointments” used, usually by women, to “bind, enervate or mollify” the victim and thereby restore “love or affection” in an existing relationship while the latter encompass “incantations over bound images, tortured animals, burning materials or apples” used, usually by men, to “burn, torture or madden” the victim and thereby create “uncontrollable lust” in an outsider.
First we noted that this is a very limited study: love magic but not negative love magic (no antaphrodisiac katadesmoi binding spells used to inhibit a sexual rival) and only of interpersonal love magic (no individual or third-party spells), thus comprising only about a fifth of the total according to John Gager’s numbers (Curse Tablets p.78: one-quarter of the 1500 spells are erotic). (As if this limitation were not problematic enough, F. disarmingly suggests “love magic” per se may not have existed: eros magic may be a subcategory of cursing rituals and philia spells of healing and protective rites p.30.) Interpersonal spells are divided in F.’s new typology into “those rituals used generally by men to instill erotic passion in women and those used generally by women to maintain or increase affection in men” (27). F. used to think the basic division was erotic/non-erotic but now thinks the latter can involve sexual desire (as is true of both mythic exampla in the taxonomy chart on p.28). Thus the typology is effectively reduced to women using magic to maintain a relationship versus men using it to create one, a familiar and comfortable but not very revealing opposition, and even this needs qualification given the “startling flexibility in the victim’s constructed gender” and so ends up being little more than active versus passive. But F. seems to want to claim much more in his taxonomy chart.
The chart describes supposedly distinctive desired actions for each category: binding and enervating philia magic vs burning, torturing, maddening eros magic. (Apples seem oddly placed among the latter, and surely there are erotic potions and ointments.) F.’s examples of the former are Hera’s seduction of Zeus in Iliad 14 and Deianeira’s use of Nessos’ potion in Trachiniai. F. tries to argue that the kestos himas given to Hera by Aphrodite is inhibitory since Hera’s pretext was that she wanted to use it to “heal a marital rift by stopping quarrels and anger” and that its actual application immobilizes Zeus in sleep. But the means with both couples is sex, and clearly the kestos himas causes sexual arousal. (F. acknowledges but dismisses the possibility that Zeus’s sleep is not part of the spell.) F. compares the kestos himas to Pandora’s crown and the prostitute’s inscribed girdle of flowers (!) described in an epigram of Asclepiades, though neither has any hint of magical power. Much closer typologically is the Assyrian cord over which an incantation has been sung, to be worn by the wife with an angry husband “and she will be loved”. But Zeus is not (at this moment) angry with Hera, so the analogy does not hold. Even less appropriate are the Neo-Assyrian cord charms for subjects appearing before their prince, which lead to discussion of Greek magic rings, none of which is erotic, so we are left not with examples of binding and enervating magic but with magic “people might use in hopes of increasing their own personal charm and beauty in the eyes of a husband or male superior” (110), much of which is not erotic at all. When F. turns to Deianeira he argues that she was not trying to attract Heracles sexually but simply emotionally (hence the use of στέργειν rather than ἐρᾶν, though Sophocles appears not touse ἐρᾶν of sexual attraction in the extant plays) and that the resulting burning, torturing and maddening of Heracles was simply the result of drug overdose and therefore does not upset the taxonomy. This is quite ingenious and even if one does not like the overdose idea (for which there is no hint in the text) one could accept that Deianeira simply chose the wrong drug if only one could believe that the issue was not sex. But the messenger’s revelation that “Eros alone of the gods bewitched Heracles” v. 354 seems to rule that out, and Nessos’ potion is much better interpreted as a textbook example of “the overlap between curses and erotic spells” (51) discussed in the chapter on erotic charms, which raises the question how much interpretative power the basic dichotomy ultimately has. It also raises the possibility that the material evidence as a whole might not map well onto the literary evidence.
We had better luck with erotic charms. F.’s explication of the charm used by Pindar’s Jason is direct and quite convincing and incidentally seemed to us a strong argument for F.’s synchronic approach, as he was able to find multiple parallels for each element in magical papyri and lead curse tablets (though the example that opens the chapter describes symptoms not of love itself but of the torture that will lead the victim to love, and this confusion runs through the chapter). Less convincing was the discussion of Atalanta’s apples (and Persephone’s pomegranate) as magic spells. The only parallels were a few non-Greek “apple spells” all of which involved incantations or magical inscriptions as well, no evidence for which can be found with either Atalanta or Persephone, and these need to be set against the dozens of examples of apples given (or thrown) as a sign of affection (see e.g. Littlewood HSCP 1967). F. goes a step further and argues that “apple spells and agoge spells correspond somewhat generally to the two types of Greek marriage”, betrothal marriage and “bridal theft”. But bridal theft seems much more a literary trope than an historical institution and so once again there is the question to what degree literary and material evidence overlap.
In the end we remained unconvinced by the taxonomy, but that simply means that the value of F.’s approach is in the details, in the parallels he can bring to texts like Pindar’s ode that offer a broader and deeper understanding of their meaning.