Sunday, September 08, 2013

Erotic spells, potions, curses, and mojo

As the Nurse and Phaedra continue to talk about how to resolve Phaedra's plight -- her passion for Hippolytus -- in a way that does not involve her death, the Nurse alludes to the potency of verbal spells:
There are incantations, and words that charm: something will turn up to cure this love. [480]
εἰσὶν δ᾽ ἐπῳδαὶ καὶ λόγοι θελκτήριοι:
φανήσεταί τι τῆσδε φάρμακον νόσου. 480

A little while later, she says she suddenly remembers she has a drug in the house. She has already described Phaedra's condition as νόσος - which can mean literal sickness, as well as a bane, or madness, so thinking of a medicine is perfectly understandable. But it does shift the kind of magic from words to things:
I have love-medicine (θελκτήρια ἔρωτος) [510] within the house—I just thought of it this very moment—that will free you from this malady without disgrace to you or harm to your mind, if only you do not flinch. 
***We must get some token from the man you love, a lock of hair, a piece of clothing, [515] then compound from the twain a single blessing.*** 
This drug (φάρμακον), is it an ointment or a potion? 
I know not: strive for benefit, not lore.
Note the lines above in italics are omitted in Grene's edition, but are found in Kovacs on Perseus. To complicate matters, Richard Hamilton's Bryn Mawr edition has "word" (logos) instead of "lock of hair" (πλόκον). He assumes it would be a magic word identifying Hippolytus.

Phaedra asks about the medicine. But for the Nurse, once it's a question of a potion, ointment, or compound, bothering to understand what it is becomes pointless. All that matters is what it does.

There seems a certain incoherence here. The Nurse's words lead us to think she intends some magic drug or object. Yet in the next scene, the first thing we learn when, mediated by Phaedra, we overhear the Nurse talking to Hippolytus is that she has revealed to him Phaedra's passion for him. We never hear the Nurse's exact words, or learn why she tells him, and we also do not hear her extracting his oath of silence. We the audience have auditory gaps in our understanding. This will probably merit some attention further on. The seeming inconsistency might explain why Grene omits the lines that introduce thingly magic entirely. 

For now I just want to point to some of the thinking about ancient love spells, charms, and the like, since these modes of trying to cause someone to fall in love, or to fall out of love with someone else (separation spells), seem to go back as far as language and inscriptions can take us. 

Christopher Faraone associates much erotic incantation with the form of the curse. "What I discovered was that most of the technologies that are used in spells for throwing erotic passion into someone are borrowed from the realm of cursing," he says in an interview.

Eleni Pachoumi surveys several kinds of spells in this article. Some are supposed to lead the loved one to the lover; others unbind them from those they currently love. She also speaks of defixiones -- curse tablets in which a god or gods are asked to do harm to someone.

[Update: Here's a note on two medieval love charms.]

Incidentally, it is gratifying to see articles like Pachoumi's published in an open access format, rather than behind the accursed paywalls of JSTOR, Project MUSE, or others.

Here's an ancient curse - the words and translation are here:

Horace's very funny satire I.8, has Priapus as a half-carved block of wood recounting how he was forced to confront two witches invading Maecenas's garden.

While Horace was having his laugh, credence in the power of lotions, powders and potions that attract, separate, or destroy is alive and well in the world of love, magic and commerce:

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