About our writer
Sarah is currently studying for an MPhil in Classics at Newnham College, Cambridge after graduating with a BA in Classics from Homerton College, Cambridge.
Love magic is as old as humankind; but using a centuries-old collection of papyri spells poses a significant challenge to the historian trying to understand who used love magic and how these spells worked.
Depending on your success – or lack thereof – in the romantic world, you may or may not have ever wondered if there was a sure-fire way to win someone’s heart. It’s doubtful, however, that you’ve ever considered trying a magic to seduce a potential beloved. Yet magic and love are linked inextricably in our cultural consciousness – consider love songs with titles like ‘Bewitched’, or ‘I Put a Spell On You’. The link between magic and love predates us by centuries and can be traced back to a corpus of magical spells from the 2nd century BC.
Known as the Papyri Graecae Magicae (PGM) these papyri record spells, chants and magic used in Greco-Roman Egypt up until the 5th century CE. Primary among the subject matter of these spells? Love, which comprises 15% of the published spells – even today, love is the most common topic, along with finances, in modern horoscopes and astrology columns.
The characteristic feature of these spells is the desire to predict and control the behaviour of another person. Sometimes this becomes so aggressive that it is uncomfortable to modern ears – a love spell of attraction targeting a woman asks that love seize her ‘guts, her liver, her spirit, her bones’. A repeated formula in the spells promises to ‘bind’ a lover, with one even asking for a demon-helper to find and ‘bind down’ the lady in question and another advocating the creation of voodoo dolls from wax or clay: ‘make the male [figure] holding a sword in his left hand and threatening to plunge it into the right side of her neck … and make [the female figure] with her arms behind her’.
The formulaic nature of the spells gives us some insight into how these spells might have operated. Many of the spells are filled with ‘nonsense words’, the ancient equivalent of ‘abracadabra’, whilst the model spells in the PGM often leave the name of the beloved blank; ‘I adjure you … that she [name] lose the fire in her eye or even lie awake with nothing on her mind except me, [name], alone’. Some take this specification to an absurd extreme – one spell requires the practitioner to write on the ground ‘bring [name], the daughter of [name], to the house to the sleep place in which is [name], the son of [name]!’. The excessive specification of both parties – magic-user and beloved, rather than just the latter– seems to suggest that it covers all bases and is somehow more reliable than the standard spell formula. These variants can help us understand the way in which these spells were distributed and used; the more personalised variants were perhaps more expensive, catered to buyers who were keen to have the magic tailored to their exact situation.
In any case, these spells provided the chance to control the behaviour and emotions of another human being. When contextualised against the other kinds of spells featured in the PGM – with other popular spells promising punishment for those who have wronged you and magical cures – it is clear that these spells lent some sense of agency to people who were subject to the whims of fate in almost every other aspect of their lives.
Using magical spells as historical documents, however, is not necessarily so straightforward. It’s unclear if they were accessible to a range of people; did you pay a scribe to write the spell for you, with your personal additions, or could you just buy a generic spell? How expensive was this service? These questions are key to understanding who used magic as well as why they were used. Similarly, magic was repeatedly criminalised in the Roman world; it’s unclear if the people using love magic were engaging in a seriously illegal practice or whether it occupied a grey moral area for them. The fact that magic was illegal also may have led to the development of magical practices that do not leave any trace in the archaeological record, such as incantations or rituals.
This last point has been used to explain a curious paradox in the study of magic in the Greco-Roman world; although magic was exclusively linked with female witches in ancient (and modern) literature, the love spells are predominantly written for men to use. Some scholars have tried to argue that evidence of female magic has simply not survived – the PGM themselves are an exceptional find. But the PGM can also be read as important historical evidence for some good old fashioned sexism, tied into the legality of magic as a practice. For ancient male authors to depict magic as an exclusively female practice functioned as a discouragement to real-life men from partaking in it, for fear of the associations of womanish weakness.
This doesn’t correlate with the extant evidence, which generally offers men the chance to secure the romantic attention of individual women who are currently engaged elsewhere: ‘let her desire me alone, let her love me alone’, reads one spell. Yet it illustrates how – cautiously approached – the PGM are a valuable document for understanding social attitudes to magic, which may give us some sense what kind of spells were available, who used them, and what they hoped to achieve.