Valentine’s Days is not all love hearts and roses for everyone. For the hapless in love, the day can be a yearly reminder of failed romances, unrequited love and the seemingly unending search for the illusive “one”.
Such problems of the heart span cultures and history. The inhabitants of the Graeco-Roman world suffered the same heartaches and the same emotional highs and lows as we do today. While we are left with apps to swipe on, a greater belief in magic in this period provided interesting opportunities to find love.
Hope was placed on spells, mysterious words and magical objects to grant the gift of love on their users or to take it away from rivals.
Ticks and fish blood
The Greek Magical Papyri are a series of ancient spell books from Egypt from between the 2nd century BC and the 5th century AD. They are a sort of do-it-yourself guide to magical rituals that offers solutions to problems like finding a thief, keeping calm, curing fevers and demonic possession. Unsurprisingly, love charms feature prominently.
Depending on the lengths a hopeful lover was willing to go (and their level of lust/obsession/desperation) there was something for all levels of effort. Some spells are “simple”: “To get a certain [her] at the baths: rub a tick from a dead dog on the loins.”
Others require a bit more preparatory work. One advertised as the “irresistible love spell of attraction” asks the unlucky lover to use fish blood to write a spell invoking demons on the skin of an ass. They must then wrap it in vetch (a plant with pink flowers) and hide it in the mouth of a recently deceased dog.
Most spells required a special ingredient to be used in a specific way in combination with arcane words. These spells don’t leave archaeological traces for us to find. One love spell asked the user to have an iron ring inscribed with Harpocrates (the Hellenistic god of silence) seated on a lotus in their hands while they shouted magical words at the moon from a rooftop. Several such gemstones matching this description have been found.
Love potions themselves have a long history and are discussed in several ancient texts. A Demotic (written in ancient Egyptian) spell proposed the following method:
Take the fragment of the tip of your fingernail and apple seed together with blood from your finger… Pound the apple, add blood to it and put it in the cup of wine. Recite [the given spell] seven times over it and you should make the woman drink it at a special time.
This visceral recipe is a variant of a spell that also added semen, and the hair of a dead man to the mixture.
Rings, curses and more blood
A gold ring found in Corbridge, Northumberland, in 1935 is inscribed in Greek with ΠOΛEMIOYΦIΛTPON, “The love charm of Polemius”. Polemius was a man who either wore this ring to enhance his allure and sexual qualities or gave it to the object of his affections. If it was the latter, it may have been given conspicuously as a gift or hidden on or around them as a clandestine token. It is a uniquely personal object from the edge of the Roman Empire that speaks of the unfulfilled desires of a Greek-speaking man over 1,700 years ago.
Curses were used in the ancient world to condemn thieves, protect businesses, ruin rival chariot teams and to create better opportunities for lovers. Sometimes a desired partner was already in a relationship, and cursing their partner (to discredit, harm or kill them) offered a chance to change this. A lead curse tablet from Boetia, Greece, was written by someone jealously in love with a man called Kabeira and tries to damn his wife Zois:
I assign Zois the Eretrian, wife of Kabeira, to Earth and to Hermes — her food, her drink, her sleep, her laughter, her intercourse, her playing of the kithara, and her entrance, her pleasure, her little buttocks, her thinking, her eyes…
Curses were personal, private contracts between a person and a deity. The leaden tablets were often folded over and sometimes pierced with a nail, which often went through the written name of the curse’s target. They were thrown into rivers, sacred springs, hidden in secret places and even dug into the graves of the recently dead.
Magical and medicinal means were also suggested for resolving relatable problems in ancient relationships. Aelius Promotus, an Alexandrian physician, recommended that barley soaked in menstrual blood and wrapped in mule skin could be tied onto a woman as a contraceptive.
Opposingly, Marcellus of Bordeaux (4th-5th century AD) suggested that a waning sex drive could be cured by finding the right aphrodisiac. He suggested wearing the right testicle of a rooster in a pouch around the neck.
Roman magic may have been a cathartic experience for the heartbroken or an exhilarating one for the lovestruck. The idea that people will do whatever is within their power to find love belongs to a long and ever-evolving tradition. These spells, rituals, tokens and curses highlight the essential nature of love and heartbreak in the ancient world and implicitly connects our cultures across time.
Adam Parker does not work for, consult, own shares in or receive funding from any company or organisation that would benefit from this article, and has disclosed no relevant affiliations beyond their academic appointment.