A man in 4th Century BCE Macedon wants to separate a woman he desires from a rival. In 2nd Century CE Egypt, a woman wants the woman she desires to return her feelings. The Pompeian man seeks the help of Cupid, and the Egyptian woman is seeking help from a ghost. More than 500 years and 1,000 miles separated them, but the solution to their dilemma was the same. They each went to a magical practitioner to place a curse on the target of their unrequited feelings.
In the modern era, magic is generally viewed with skepticism, but this was not the case in antiquity. It was common for people living in Greece or the Roman Empire to seek out magical practitioners who could entice the gods to help them. In the polytheistic religious environment of the ancient world, people tended to view their relationship with the gods as transactional. They might offer a prayer or sacrifice in exchange for help solving a problem, like unrequited love. The Greek goddess Hecate was particularly associated with magic and witchcraft, but other deities were often invoked.
All throughout the Mediterranean and Roman Empire, archaeologists have uncovered ancient lead tablets bearing magical inscriptions. Lead may have been chosen because it was cheap and cold to the touch, while its dull pallor reminded ancient people of a corpse’s color. These tablets were often dedicated to Chthonic deities, gods and goddesses associated with the underworld. Gods like Hermes and Persephone went between the worlds of the living and the dead to carry out these spells. Curse tablets were buried in cemeteries, dropped down wells, or placed in other areas associated with the liminal space on the borders of the underworld. Buried in those dark places, the tablets could work their magic on the living. As part of these curse rituals, the practitioner would usually offer some type of blood or animal sacrifice.
The inscriptions on surviving curse tablets reveal the issues troubling the people who commissioned them. Romantic and sexual relationships were especially common sources of anxiety. People who feared infidelity might use a restraining spell to prevent their partner from taking an interest in someone else. Magic was also used to attract an uninterested lover, usually by tormenting them until they could no longer resist the person casting the spell. These spells of attraction are called “leading spells” by modern historians and were very common. A lead tablet from 4th Century BCE Akanthos, Macedon was dedicated by a man named Pausanias who wanted Aphrodite to compel a woman named Sime to embrace him and do what he wanted, presumably to have sex with him. Professor of Classics Matthew W. Dickie described this as the oldest known lead tablet intended to attract a woman to a man.
Metal tablets survived the passage of time exceptionally well, but lead tablets were not the only type of magic known to ancient Greeks and Romans. Some superstitions, like the “evil eye,” required no more than an envious glance. Rituals involving votive objects like clay or wax dolls were used to bewitch an individual, such as by symbolically melting them or piercing them with needles. Some rituals were meant to increase one’s own appearance or sexual prowess or to sabotage a romantic rival. In drier, warmer climates, more perishable materials like wax and papyrus tablets had a better chance of surviving.
Egypt, which came under Greek rule in the late 4th Century BCE and then entered the Roman Empire, had its own long history with magic. Magical papyri written in Demotic Egyptian and Greek reveal the centrality of sex and love in Greco-Roman Egypt. According to Egyptologist Dominic Montserrat, roughly ⅓ of magical papyri asking for assistance from the gods concern sexual matters. Greco-Roman leading spells from Egypt invoked the assistance of deities like Isis and Anubis, or of “corpse-daimons”, a type of restless ghost. For example, one 2nd Century CE love spell from Hawara, Egypt states:
“I adjure you, Euangelus [good angel/messenger], by Anubis and Hermes and all the rest of the powers down below: attract and bind Sarapias daughter of Helen, to this woman here, Heraïs daughter of Thermoutharin, now, now, quickly, quickly!” (PGM XXXII, trans. Montserrat)
Love magic from the Greco-Roman Mediterranean typically reflects the dark side of desire. Those who sought out magic as a solution were already consumed by jealousy or desperation, which leaves a disproportionately negative view of interpersonal relationships. A typical Greco-Roman leading spell uses violent language to describe the bewitchment of their target. The god invoked might also be asked to whip or burn their target with torches. Votive dolls allowed the practitioner to act out this violence on a physical manifestation of their target.
Leading spells typically pray that a god will inflict lovesickness upon their desired target, affecting their body and mind with the symptoms of uncontrollable passion. The symptoms of love might include sleeplessness, obsessive thoughts, and fever. That last symptom might in modern terms be thought of as getting hot under the collar, or literally burning with desire. Leading spells asked the gods to symbolically bind the brain, genitals, or liver of the target, inflaming their organs with desire. These body parts were associated with the physical manifestation of lovesickness in Greco-Roman medical thought.
The language of binding reflects a society in which relationships were viewed as hierarchical. In Greco-Roman thought, sex was something done by a dominant party to a passive one, rather than a mutual interaction. Those casting leading spells wanted power over their intended lover, to dominate them physically, emotionally, or spiritually. Lead was frequently used as a fastener in ancient construction, and this might have been another symbolic purpose for choosing that material. Magical papyri using this formula might specify that the target be so overcome by maddening desire that they forget their families and spouses, and think only of the person casting the spell.
Archaeological evidence indicates that men may have been somewhat more likely to use erotic curse tablets, but people of every gender and orientation resorted to magic. The fear of women using magic or curses to harm men recurs in Roman literature, despite the male-dominated nature of surviving evidence. In Rome, women were viewed with suspicion as potential practitioners of witchcraft. Love potions, sedatives, and poisons were considered to be on the same spectrum of pharmaco-magic, all negatively associated with women. Erectile dysfunction and loss of virility could also be blamed on malicious magic. A person afraid that they were being targeted by malicious witchcraft often fought magic with magic. Hecate was thought to be particularly effective at shielding a person from magical attacks, making her a common patron of the cursed.
The surviving evidence shows that love was a battlefield in antiquity, one that sometimes resulted in a magical arms race. Modern scholars have identified several social and psychological motives that might have driven people to resort to magic. These spells may have had a placebo effect, calming the nerves of anxious suitors. They may also have been a way to symbolically inflict punishment or project negative feelings on someone who rejected them. While curses are (hopefully) not real, the emotions and interpersonal dynamics they reflect can be found across cultures.
Arienne King is a history writer specializing in the ancient Mediterranean, specifically Ptolemaic and Roman Egypt. She has written for publications such as World History Encyclopedia and Ancient History Magazine, and is a panelist on AskHistorians.
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Hekate. Maximilian Pirner, 1901.
Graeco-Egyptian Magical Papyrus II, 30-395 AD. The Louvre. Photo by Aktiophis. Creative Commons Attribution-Share Alike 4.0 International.
The Hecate Chiaramonti, a Roman sculpture of the triple-bodied Hecate, after a Hellenistic original. Museo Chiaramonti, Vatican Museums.
Curse tablet from Roman Bath. Photo by Mike Peel. Creative Commons Attribution-Share Alike 4.0.
Mercure (Mercury) ou le Commerce. Augustin Pajou, 1780. Photograph by Urban, Creative Commons Attribution-ShareAlike 3.0 Unported.