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Love magic

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Painting from the lower Rhine, 1470–1480, showing love magic, collection of Museum der bildenden Künste

Love magic is a type of magic that has existed or currently exists in many cultures around the world as a part of folk beliefs, both by clergy and laity of nearly every religion. Historically, it is attested on cuneiform tablets from Mesopotamia, in ancient Egyptian texts and later Coptic texts, in the Greco-Roman world, in Syriac texts, in the European Middle Ages and early modern period, and among all Jewish groups who co-existed with these groups.

The exact definition of what constitutes "love magic" can be difficult to establish and will vary from scholar to scholar, but a common theme shared by many is the use of magic to start, preserve, or break up a relationship of some type whether for purely sexual or romantic purposes or both. The tools and methods used in its practice do not significantly differ from the way other forms of magic are practiced and include spoken and written spells and incantations, dolls, talismans, amulets, potions, and rituals.

As most surviving sources concern love between men and women, there is a strong heterosexual bias when discussing these sources, though there are a few examples known to concern love between both two men and two women, such as Greek curse tablets. Love magic motifs appear in literature and art and in the mythologies of many cultures. It is less likely to occur in modern fiction, except in fantasy fiction (like Harry Potter), though even then it is not common and may be portrayed as negative.

Ancient love magic in cuneiform[edit]

Early examples of love magic can be found in the ancient Near East, dating to ca. 2200 BCE. Cuneiform tablets preserving rituals of erotic magic have been uncovered at Tell Inghara and Isin (present-day Iraq).[1] Similar rituals are attested in Ancient Egypt, for instance, on an ostracon dated to the twentieth dynasty (twelfth-eleventh centuries BCE).[2] Love spells and rituals have been found among the Sumerians, Akkadians, and Babylonians, and formulae used in them can be found in later time periods in the Near East among other peoples.

Hellenistic love magic[edit]

Spells of erotic attraction and compulsion are found within the syncretic magic tradition of Hellenistic Greece, which incorporated Egyptian and Hebraic elements as documented in texts such as the Greek Magical Papyri and archaeologically on amulets and other artifacts dating from the 2nd century BC (and sometimes earlier) to the late 3rd century A.D. These magical practices continued to influence private rituals in Gaul among Celtic peoples, in Roman Britain, and among Germanic peoples.[3]

Christopher A. Faraone, a University of Chicago Classics professor specializing in texts and practices pertaining to magic, distinguishes between the magic of eros, as practiced by men, and the magic of philia, practiced by women.[4] These two types of spells can be connected directly to the gender roles of men and women in Ancient Greece. Women used philia spells because they were more dependent on their husbands. In marriage, women were powerless as men were legally permitted to divorce. As a result, many used any means necessary to maintain their marriages which meant more interest in affection producing spells. Philia magic was used by women to keep their male companion at bay and faithful.[3] Eros spells were mainly practiced by men and a small selection of women, like prostitutes, and were used to imbue lust into the victim. However, Faraone himself also states that eros magic can be thought of as aggressive magic and philia as non-aggressive.

While some scholars use Faraone's model, like Catherine Rider though she modifies it slightly, it has been questioned by other scholars, such as Irene Salvo, who points out the exceptions to his classification and finds them to be more elucidating of how love magic in Hellenistic Greece actually worked. She points out there were men who used philia spells and women who used eros spells who were not prostitutes or who generally appear to have lived like men.

Love magic in the Renaissance[edit]

Magic was expensive and was believed to cause severe damage to the caster; therefore, it was not taken lightly.[5] Thus, spells were not just cast upon just anyone in the Renaissance, but on those unions that held special importance. Men and women of status and favor were more often the targets of love magic. Economic or social class restrictions would often inhibit a marriage and love magic was seen as a way to break those barriers, leading to social advancement.[6]

While the spells were supposed to be kept secret, very rarely were they successful in this. However, if the victim realized that a spell was being cast upon them, believing in magic themselves, they would often submit to the believed enchantment, adding effectiveness to love magic.[5]

With the dominance of Christianity and Catholicism in Europe during the Renaissance, elements of Christianity seeped its way into the magic rituals themselves. Often, clay dolls or written spell scrolls would be hidden in the altar at churches, or holy candles would be lit in the rituals. The Host from a Catholic Mass would sometimes be taken and used in rituals to gain the desired result. Thus, love magic within the Renaissance period was both Christian and pagan.[7]

Women in love magic[edit]

In historian Guido Ruggiero's opinion, love magic is seen as drawing "…heavily upon what was perceived as quintessentially feminine: fertility, birth, menstruation (seen as closely related to both fertility and birth), and a woman’s ‘nature’ or ‘shameful parts,’ that is, genitals".[8] This feminine attribute is reflected within the literature such as the Malleus Maleficarum and in the trials of the Holy Office in which most of the cases brought before the council were women accused of bewitching men. This illustrates the common stereotype that men did not perform magic.[9] According to historians Guido Ruggiero and Christopher A. Faraone, love magic was often associated with prostitutes and courtesans, but this has been questioned by other scholars such as Catherine Rider who, in a study of late medieval Western European pastoral manuals and exempla, especially English, argues this was a development that happened around the time of the early modern witch trials and may have been influenced by the fact that the women who were most often tried for love magic were women of ill-repute, in illicit relationships, or both. In the early Middle Ages, it was married women who were solely portrayed as practicing love magic on their husbands.

In the Early Middle Ages, there is some evidence that women were considered more likely to be practitioners of love magic. For instance, in the works of Regino of Prüm, Burchard of Worms, and Hincmar the practitioners of love magic are usually gendered as female.[10] However, in pastoral manuals and exempla from this same time period, the practitioners are often not gendered at all or men are primarily singled out.

How modern scholars interpret how medieval and early modern Europeans viewed women, witches, and magic has traditionally been heavily influenced by the 1487 misogynistic anti-witchcraft treatise Malleus Maleficarum written by Heinrich Kramer. In the opening section of this text, it discusses the sexuality of women in relation to the devil. Heinrich Kramer wrote within his book that, "All witchcraft comes from carnal lust, which in women is insatiable."[11] But as Rider and others have noted, this may reflect the opinions of one man in one region and was not widespread in Europe as a whole.

Matthew W. Dickie, a prominent magic scholar, argues that men were the main casters of love magic.[12] Demographically, they suggest that the largest age group that practiced love magic were younger men targeting young, unobtainable women. There are a variety of explanations for why the literary world contrasted reality in this area, but a common interpretation is that men were trying to subtract themselves from association.[13]

In literature and art[edit]

Roman love spell, by Johann Erdmann Hummel, 1848

In literature and art, the motif of a genuine love spell used to create or break up a relationship, typically for the benefit of one of the protagonists, is somewhat common, particularly in older literature and art, and sometimes causes tragic setbacks and complications for said protagonists. One of the earliest manifestations of the theme in the Western world is the myth of the hero Heracles' death by his last wife Deianeira, who was tricked by a centaur into killing him with a poisoned shirt he said would reignite his love for her again should she feel his love ever fade. A famous treatment of the subject is in Richard Wagner's 1865 opera Tristan and Isolde, which in turn goes back to the same epic by Gottfried von Strassburg. Other examples of the use of love magic motif are Donizetti's 1832 opera The Elixir of Love (L'Elisir d'amore) and Manuel de Falla's 1915 ballet El amor brujo (The Magic of Love).[citation needed] Its use can also be found in modern fantasy fiction like the Harry Potter series, though since the most prominent use of it is to force a man to love a woman he does not which births the main villain of the series because he cannot understand the concept of love due to his loveless conception, it is not a positive use and love potions have a reputation in the fandom as being the magical equivalent of date rape drugs ("roofies").

See also[edit]


  1. ^ R. Pientka, ‘Aphrodisiaka und Liebeszauber im Alten Orient’, in S. Parpola and R.M. Whiting (eds.), Sex and Gender in the Ancient Near East (2 vols; Helsinki, 2002), vol. II, pp. 507-522.
  2. ^ J.F. Borghouts, Ancient Egyptian Magical Texts (Leiden, 1978), p. 1.
  3. ^ a b For example, J.H.G. Grattan and Charles Singer, Anglo-Saxon Magic and Medicine. Illustrated Specially from the Semi-Pagan Text Lacnunga (Oxford University Press, 1952); Felix Grendon, Anglo-Saxon Charms (Folcroft Library, 1974), passim (mostly on Christian elements and traditional magic); Anne van Arsdall, Medieval Herbal Remedies: The Old English Herbarium and Anglo-Saxon Medicine (Routledge, 2002), p. 52ff., with cautions about disentangling various strands of the magical tradition; Karen Louise Jolly, "Locating the Charms: Medicine, Liturgy, and Folklore," in Popular Religion in Late Saxon England (University of North Carolina Press, 1996), p. 96ff.
  4. ^ Paul C. Rosenblatt, pg. 482.
  5. ^ a b Rosenblatt, Paul C. p. 482-7
  6. ^ Matthew W. Dickie, pg. 564
  7. ^ Guido Ruggiero pg.225
  8. ^ Guido Ruggiero pg.114
  9. ^ Matthew W. Dickie pg.564
  10. ^ Stone, Rachel; West, Charles (2016). The Divorce of King Lothar and Queen Theutberga. Manchester University Press.
  11. ^ Barbara Holdrige, Malleus Maleficarum
  12. ^ Matthew W. Dickie, pg.563
  13. ^ Matthew W. Dickie, pg.564


  • Matthew W. Dickie. "Who Practiced Love-Magic in Classical Antiquity and in the Late Roman World?" The Classical Quarterly, New Series, Vol. 50, No. 2 (2000), pp. 563–583. Published by: Cambridge University Press
  • Olga Lucia Valbuena. "Sorceresses, Love Magic, and the Inquisition of Linguistic Sorcery in Celestina." PMLA, Vol. 109, No. 2 (Mar., 1994), pp. 207–224. Published by: Modern Language Association
  • Paul C. Rosenblatt. "Communication in the Practice of Love Magic." Social Forces, Vol. 49, No. 3 (Mar., 1971), pp. 482–487 Published by: University of North Carolina Press
  • Robert W. Shirley and A. Kimball Romney. "Love Magic and Socialization Anxiety: A Cross-Cultural Study." American Anthropologist, New Series, Vol. 64, No. 5, Part 1 (Oct., 1962), pp. 1028–1031. Blackwell Publishing
  • Saar, Ortal-Paz. "Some Observations on Jewish Love Magic: The Importance of Cultural Specificity", Societas Magica 24 (2010), pp. 1–4.
  • Saar, Ortal-Paz. Jewish Love Magic: From Late Antiquity to the Middle Ages. Leiden and Boston: Brill, 2017.
  • Ruggiero, Guido. Binding Passions. Oxford Oxfordshire: Oxford University Press, 1993
  • Sack, Robert David. "Magic and Space" Annals of the Association of American Geographers, Vol. 66, No. 2 (Jun., 1976), pp. 309–322 Published by: Taylor & Francis, Ltd. on behalf of the Association of American Geographers
  • Barbara Holdrige, 1430-1505 Malleus Maleficarum [sound recording] / by Heinrich Kramer and James Sprenger ; translated by Montague Summers. Abridged by Barbara Holdridge Publisher Caedmon, 1974