Ancient and modern

The ancient art of love spells

25 June 2022

9:00 AM

25 June 2022

9:00 AM

An Oxford don has raised the prospect of producing a cocktail of hormone pills that would help you to fall in love. What an appalling prospect! You might suddenly find yourself consumed with an irresistible desire for Ian Blackford. The ancients knew what was really required: a means of ensuring that the object of your passion fell in love with you.

The ancients regarded an attack of lust as the same sort of experience as falling ill or being afflicted by madness. So a man in love with a woman would write a love spell asking a god or some unpleasant earth spirit to, for example, ‘burn, torch, the soul of X, her female body, her limbs, lay her low with fever, until she leaves her husband’s home and comes to me, now, quickly’.

So common were such requests that a lead tablet survives with blank spaces to be filled in with the name of the woman in question: ‘lead _____ to me, burning on account of her love and desire for me, drive _____ from her parents, from her bedroom and force her to give me what I want.’


For women the emphasis was slightly different, usually more a matter of ensuring that her husband remained faithful and affectionate towards her. For this purpose she would write a spell or buy a special ring, amulet, ointment or knotted cord designed for the purpose.

We also hear of the courtesan Hermione, who wore a girdle of flowers with a spell inscribed in gold: ‘Keep loving me for ever and do not get angry if another man holds me.’ She needed to keep her customers.

But it could all go badly wrong. In myth, when Hercules brought a woman home, his wife smeared his robe with a substance which she believed would keep him faithful to her. But it killed him. Indeed, we hear of a remarkably similar court case in Athens in which a woman is accused of accidentally killing her lover with a secret potion.

Still, Oxford dons have made fortunes from vaccines. Why not from love pills? Better move quickly before Goopy Gwyneth cashes in on this hocus pocus.

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