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1001 deeds, sayings, curiosities and anecdotes of the ancient world

Love potions and love filters

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Against all prediction has appeared recently (late May 2013) in Spanish media a story with three old flavor words that seem move us to another world: witch, spell, potion.

Certainly mediums, spells, love potions do not seem issues of our time but of the past. Yet important  newspapers headlined:

"The big goal of the baker witch. The psychic claimed 165,000 euros to ex president of  Castellón F.C. by a spell of love " or  "Laparra arrested for robbing the house of a psychic who sold a fake love potion".

In short, the news was referring to the fact that a certain Laparra, chairman of a football club, had hired the services of a fortune teller (in other times would say "witch"), which prepared a potion for obtain the  love of Sandra, with whom he was madly in love. But the potion was ineffective and the lover claimed the astronomical amount paid 165,000 euros.

The formula for the potion or "elixir" (a term also used bay newspapers) consisted of washing with water which had previously been submerged some flowers during  40 days, then the lover must collect land from  a cemetery and rub his body .

The potions, elixirs or love filters  exist from the remotest Antiquity. In Greek and Roman culture are ubiquitous in the mythological stories and daily life of people. Remember the "witch" Medea who attracts Jason  or the sorceress Circe who  turns men into pigs with his wand and retains Ulysses (Odysseus) in his palace, by referring to the Greeks.

Among Latins are frequent references in the poets like Horace, Ovid, Catullus, Propertius, and in romans of Petronius and Apuleius to love filters to obtain  the girls love. For example, we can remember  Cintia’s  complaints, because she  has suffered infidelity from her beloved Propertius, in Elegies, III,6,25-30:

She won not by her morals, but by magic herbs, the bitch: he’s led by the bullroarer whirling on its string. He’s drawn to her by omens, of swollen frogs and toads, and the bones of dried snakes she’s fished out, and the feathers of screech owls found by fallen tombs, and a woollen fillet bound to a murdered man. (Translated by A. S. Kline)

Non me moribus illa, sed herbis improba vicit:
staminea rhombi ducitur ille rota.
Illum turgentis ranae portentae rubetae
et tecta exsectis anguibus ossa trahunt,
et strigis inventae per busta iacentia plumae,
cinctaque funesto lanea vitta rogo.

Of course this formula is more complicated than this one of the modern "witch". As is  it that  Pliny gives us in his Natural History XXX, 49, 141 (Book dedicated to medicinal use of animal products):

A lizard drowned in a man's urine has the effect of an antaphrodisiac upon the person whose urine it is; for this animal is to be reckoned among the philtres, the magicians say. The same property is attributed to the excrements of snails, and to pigeons' dung, taken with oil and wine. The right lobe of a vulture's lungs, attached to the body in the skin of a crane, acts powerfully as a stimulant upon males: an effect equally produced by taking the yolks of five pigeons' eggs, in honey, mixed with one denarius of hog's lard; sparrows, or eggs of sparrows, with the food; or by wearing the right testicle of a cock, attached to the body in a ram's skin.     ( Pliny the Elder, The Natural History John Bostock, M.D., F.R.S., H.T. Riley, Esq., B.A., Ed.)

In urina virili enecata lacerta venerem eius, qui fecerit, inhibet; nam inter amatoria esse Magi dicunt. inhibent et cocleae, fimum columbinum cum oleo et vino potum. pulmonis vulturini dextrae partes venerem concitant viris adalligatae gruis pelle, item si lutea ex ovis quinis columbarum admixta adipis suilli denarii pondere ex melle sorbeantur, passeres in cibo vel ova eorum, gallinacei dexter testis arietina pelle adalligatus.

Anyway, if anyone is curious to know more of these magical rituals can read the Epode V of Horace in which he describes a real black magic scene in which a child is killed slowly to make with his viscera a powerful love potion.

In any case is not without interest to note the persistence of these magical practices that are lost in the mists of time for millennia.

As is also of great interest to note that today as thousands of years ago are just women who are the possessors of these magical arts. They are the ones who know the herbs and their effects and prepare medicines for diseases and filters. Interestingly venenum (herbs filter good or bad) and Venus (love, lovemaking, love object) have the same common root. In Latin they are called "sagae" witches. About that Pliny  said  in Naturalis Historia XXV, 5, 10:

and yet the greater part of the lower classes still remain firmly persuaded that these phenomena are brought about by compulsion, through the agency of herbs and enchantments, and that the knowledge of this art is confined almost exclusively to females. ( Pliny the Elder, The Natural History John Bostock, M.D., F.R.S., H.T. Riley, Esq., B.A., Ed.)

durat tamen tradita persuasio in magna parte vulgi, veneficiis et herbis id cogi eamque unam feminarum scientiam praevalere.

In any case, if this modern lover had read Ovid’s work would have avoided some problems. Just started his booklet "Remedia Amoris" (Remedies of Love), in verses 21-22, we suggest either:

Let him who’ll die of wretched passion unless he quits it,
quit it: and you’ll be the cause of no one’s funeral.

(Translated by A. S. Kline)

Qui, nisi desierit, misero periturus amore est,
desinat: et nulli funeris auctor eris.

And if he had known the famous Ovid’s Ars Amandi, would have read in Book II, verses 99-102, how disqualifies the value of potions and herbs to woo the woman he loved or desired:

Is wrong who uses arts of Haemonia
and gives what springs from the tender  front of a foal.
Medea's herbs will not make love survives,
  nor Marsi spells,  mixed with magical sounds.

Fallitur, Haemonias si quis decurrit ad artes
Datque, quod a teneri fronte revellit equi;
Non facient ut vivat amor Medeides herbae
Mixtaque cum magicis naenia Marsa sonis.

And if none of this will come good, could use another formula or spell, but this time to forget a elusive love , like does Scylla in Appendix Vergiliana, Ciris, 369-374:

But the nurse, mixing sulphur in a flat bowl,
kindles narcissus and cassia, savoury herbs;
and thrice tying nine threads, marked eith three different hues, she cries:
“Spit thrice into your bosom, as I do,  maiden;
spit thirce, maiden: heaven delights in an uneven number

(by H.R. Fairclough, rev. G.P. Goold; Loeb Classical Library;  Cambridge, MA 2001;  )

At nutrix patula componens sulpura testa
narcissum casiamque herbas incendit olentis
terque novena ligans triplici diversa colore
fila «ter in gremium mecum» inquit «despue, virgo,
despue ter, virgo: numero deus impare gaudet.

Either approach would have been preferable to suffer the fraud or scam of a crazy formula  for a crazy purpose for which they are paid 165,000 euros.

We could end these reflections with some consideration about the terminology used in newspaper. They speak of a modern "witch" without doubt on the meaning, which supports the Royal Spanish Academy, of charming, bewitching, and which is  derived from the function of ancient Pythia or priestess of the temple of Apollo at Delphi, where came faithful from anywhere of the Greek world to ask the god about their future or their designs and projects. Has little to do, then, the modern witch of newspapers with the  function of old Pythia as an intermediary between mortals and Apollo.

He is also called "seer", a word that clearly means "one who sees", even supernatural visions, and who "intends to foretell the future or clarifying what is hidden" (curiously, many times these seers of the future or of the supernatural are physically blind about the world in which they live; let us  remember the famous seer of the tragedy Oedipus named Tiresias, blind,). Shortly should see the modern witch, who guessed neither foresaw the backlash of gullible customer who swindled 165,000 euros. Therefore, the use of this word in this context is absolutely inadmissible.

Nor is it a "potion", because this word comes from the Greek “apó”, ἀπό gr. 'away from', 'from' and “zema”, ζέμα, 'cooking', 'decoction' of herbs and here only refers to "flowers submerged in water" .

It is not  more appropriate to use the term spell, because although we assume that beside the water bath of flowers and smeared with mud from the cemetery, there was some magic verbal formula, nothing is told about it.

Nor is the situation exactly fits the term "elixir", according to the Royal Academy a word from scientific  Latin “ elixir”, this from  classic Arabic “ al'iksīr” , and this from Greek. ξηρά, dry substances, because it is not a liqueur or medicinal liquid to drink. It could only be admitted as a generalization of its meaning.

Neither seems very appropriate to speak in the subentry of the headline  as "fake love potion," as if there were any "real" and effective  potion.

In short, if  these linguistic lacks of precision are curious , what  really is striking is that these magical practices come from the dawn of humanity and have gone through all historical periods, from Antiquity to the Middle Ages, Modern and Contemporary, and now  survive at present in various forms, (sometimes covered with cultural costumes as Donizetti famous opera "L'elisir d'amore"):  beliefs, ceremonies, horoscopes, necromancy, fortune-tellers, TV spots large audiences and, of course, thousands of web pages absolutely despicable.

  So weak, imperfect and irrational  is our human constitution?


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