Greek Eros and Philia Love Magic

Attic kylix depicting a lover and a beloved kissing (5th century BC)

Briseis Painter/Wikimedia Commons/Public Domain

Classical scholar Christopher Faraone writes about love among the ancient Greeks. He looks at evidence from erotic charms, spells. and potions to form a mixed picture of what relations between the sexes were really like. In this article, we use Farone's information to explain the common uses of love magic between ancient Greek men and women. But first, a small digression to introduce terms used for love:

Brotherly Love; God's Love; Romantic love; Parents' Love

The following online discussion argues that the reason English speakers are confused about love is that we don't have enough words for it.

Writer A:
I recently read: "Sanskrit has ninety-six words for love; ancient Persian has eighty; Greek three; and English only one."
The author thought it was symbolic of the devaluation of the feeling function in the West.
Writer B:
Interesting, but I think English speakers do know the 96 forms of love - they just jam it into one word! The Greek words were "eros", "agape", and "philia", right? See, we all use those definitions, but in the same word. "Eros" is a romantic, sexual hormone-raging love. "Agape" is a deep, connecting, brotherly love. "Philia" is a...hmm...I think necrophilia and pedophilia explain it.
That is why we are all confused over what "love" is, since we have dozens of definitions for it!

Agape and Philia vs. Eros

We native speakers of English distinguish between lust and love but tend to get confused when we look at the Greek distinction between:

  • eros and
  • agape or
  • philia

Affection as Love

While it is easy to understand agape as the love one feels towards friends, family, and animals, we think of the mutual affection we feel towards our mates as different.

Affection and Passion

The agape (or philia) of the Greeks included affection, and also the sexual passion felt towards our mates, according to the University of Chicago's Christopher A. Faraone. Eros, however, was new, disorienting passion, conceived of as an attack of unwelcome lust, aptly represented as inflicted by the arrow-wielding god of love.

Black and White Love Magic

When we talk about black magic, we mean spells or voodoo practices designed to hurt someone else; by white, we mean spells or charms whose aim is to heal or help, often connected with medicinal herbs and other "holistic" or non-traditional healing practices.

From our perspective, the ancient Greeks used black and white magic to arm themselves in the arena of love.

  • Black magic: There were magical effigies much like those used today by practitioners of voodoo. The practitioner of this aggressive magic would cast an incantation and poke or burn the effigy in an effort to affect the person represented. The intention was to make the woman represented suffer the pangs of lust to the point that she would leave her family. The practitioner might invoke Eros, Pan, Hekate, or Aphrodite.
  • White magic: Practitioners applied herbs to make an errant lover return or to restore harmony to a dysfunctional relationship. She might invoke Selene, Helios, or Aphrodite.

Both types of love magic usually involved spells or incantations, but the type we're referring to as "black" is more closely related to curse tablets than the other, more benign, love magic. The difference between these two types of magic is based on the difference between the two types of love, eros and philia.

Gender-Based Love Magics

Faraone distinguishes these two types of love, eros and philia, and their related magics as overwhelmingly gender-based. Men used the eros-based agoge spells [ago=lead] designed to lead women to them; women, the philia spells. Men used the spells to make women burn with passion. Women used the spells as aphrodisiacs. Men tied up their effigies and tortured them. They used incantations, tortured animals, burning, and apples. Women spread ointments on the clothing of their mates or sprinkled herbs in food. They also used incantations, knotted cords, and love potions.

Theocritus' Iunx

The gender division isn't absolute. The iunx is said to have been a small, sexually rapacious bird which Greek men would tie on a wheel and then torture, in the hopes of filling the objects of their lust with burning, irresistible passion. In Theocritus second Idyll, it's not a man, but a woman who uses an iunx as a magical object for an agoge spell. She repeatedly chants:

Iunx, bring my man home.

Mythology and Modern Love Magic in Pill Form

While the agoge spells, the ones men usually used on women, resemble voodoo and seem like what we call black magic, the philia spells could also be deadly. As is the nature of many herbs, you only need a little. When the mythological Deianeira used the centaur's ointment on Hercules' garment, it was as a philia spell, to keep Heracles from abandoning her for his new love, Iole (cf Women of Trachis). Although we do not know, perhaps a drop would not have killed him; however, the amount Deianeira used proved fatal.

The ancient Greeks did not distinguish magic from medicine, as we claim to do. The need for erotic (whether agoge or philia) magic has long extended into domestic life where the wife of an impotent man (or the man himself) might invoke a bit of philia magic. Viagra's popularity attests to the fact that we still practice magic "miracle" cures.


  • Faraone, Christopher A., Ancient Greek Love Magic. Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 1999.
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Your Citation
Gill, N.S. "Greek Eros and Philia Love Magic." ThoughtCo, Feb. 16, 2021, Gill, N.S. (2021, February 16). Greek Eros and Philia Love Magic. Retrieved from Gill, N.S. "Greek Eros and Philia Love Magic." ThoughtCo. (accessed May 29, 2023).