Review of Ancient Greek Love Magic

Ancient Greek Love Magic was written by Christopher Faraone

Faraone's Love Magic
Faraone's Love Magic.

Ancient Athens was so brilliant that their art work, political theory, and philosophy still set our standards of excellence. But along with Greek glory went mistreatment of large groups of people, relegated not just to second class, but to no citizen class at all. The largest of these groups was women, whom, we are taught, the men in power feared, if not despised. Our impression of Athenian misogyny is based on literature and mythology, from Hesiod to Aristotle.

But what about the women? Did they reciprocate by being misandrists? Do we know? In Ancient Greek Love Magic, Christopher A. Faraone looks at evidence from erotic charms, spells and potions to form a mixed picture of what relations between the sexes were really like.

How Lustful Were Ancient Greek Women?

In Ancient Greece, some men seem to have despised/feared their women because of the their supposedly unquenchable lust. Semonides captures this in his caricatures of women as descendants of such animals as dogs, donkeys, pigs, and weasels. However, if women were truly so rapacious or men so disinterested, what would Lysistrata's sex strike have accomplished? And how could Faraone compile more than 70 spells by men to make women lustful?

Faraone says the ancient Greek world had misogynists and misandrists side-by-side. In the misandrist model, it's the men who are out of control, violent, and cruel, while the women, contrary to Semonides et al., are controlled, sedate, and reluctant to have intercourse.

Most of the spells Faraone examines relate more to the misandrist than the misogynist outlook.

Types of Spells: Agoge and Philia

There are two basis categories of spells, agoge and philia. Agoge spells are used by those in socially superior positions who wish to attract their inferiors and lead them away from their families.

The type of love involved is eros, rather than agape or philia (love for friends and family). Eros is described as "ballistic," in a literal and figurative sense: literally, the god Eros shoots lust-arrows or men throw charmed love apples at their victims; figuratively, in that women are supposed to be driven mad with lust. Philia spells, usually used by social inferiors, are intended to keep mates interested, to rekindle affection, and to make the socially superior more loving, as when Deianeira fatally tried to rekindle Herakles' passion by giving him a tunic dipped in a supposed love potion. Generally, the spells fall along gender lines, with most of the philia spells performed by women on men. Of 80 surviving agoge spells, only 7 were used by women to attract men.

Were Women Locked in the Women's Quarters?

The traditional misogynist model is based on women being locked inside the women's quarter, yet the spells aimed at getting women out of the house and into the bed of the would-be lover, have no effect on the women's guardians. If sufficiently motivated, the lusted-after woman would simply walk out on her own. Faraone suggests women were not locked in, but had free egress from their homes.

That they stayed with their parents means they wished to. The agoge spells were designed to break down this filial attachment.

Charms Used in Spells

Agoge spells sometimes used effigies of the victim. The man would burn these pin-studded dolls while he asked the appropriate deity (mostly, Pan, Eros, Hekate, and Aphrodite [see Love Gods and Goddesses]) to make the victim burn with enough passion to reject her parents and join him. Sometimes a determined would-be lover procured a iunx bird. This small, supposedly sexually rapacious bird would be affixed to an instrument of torture (a wheel) where, with the right incantations, it would transfer it's sexuality to the human victim. One instance of a iunx spell comes from Theocritus Idyll II where it's a woman who calls on the iunx to bring her man to her home.

Philia spells, whose goal wasn't to wrench someone away from home and loved ones, but to temper or restore kindly feelings, tended to be more benign, using potions and ointments rather than effigies. Still, a potion made too strong would have more deleterious effects than a vicarious burning spell. Perhaps the most well known philia spell to backfire was the ointment Deianeira spread on Heracles' garment when she was trying to win back the affection she saw drifting away from her and to a new woman (Iole).

It's Not a Book of Effective Spells

You will be disappointed in Ancient Greek Love Magic if you're expecting a few tried and true love spells with which to entice an unsuspecting victim. It is not a manual of amatory devices. Instead, it is a clear analysis of the literary uses of charms, spells, and drugs associated with enticing and keeping a mate, as well as a re-examination of ancient attitudes towards women.

The intended audience for this 223-page volume is the educated layperson without knowledge of Greek. For this reason, Faraone includes a glossary of Greek terms at the end of the book, where you'll also find a hefty bibliography and list of abbreviations. Footnotes, on page bottoms, sometimes distractingly continue on the following page. Minor shortcomings in Ancient Greek Love Magic are the shortage of quickly understood tabular, visual aids (because those few included seem so helpful), and the shortage of actual spells. A final shortcoming, in an otherwise eye-opening book, is a bewildering symbolic comparison, near the end, between stages in a woman's life and the misogynist and misandrist models.
This feature is copyright © 2001-2009 N.S. Gill.

Ancient Greek Love Magic
Christopher A. Faraone
Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 1999.
ISBN 0674033205
223 pages.