Some of the remedies used by the ancients for a broken heart are still in use: alcoholic oblivion, I’ll-show-’em sexual flings, drugs, overwork, overeating, oversleeping, and that only reliable strategy, the passage of time.
But our predecessors in love, those long-ago men and women, also had other ways of dealing with heartbreak, many of them involving a ritual or sorcery of some sort. There were no shrinks or pills for the lovelorn then, but a rich network of superstitions, myths, and magical thinking permeated daily life. Tapping into that cathartic, sometimes dark world might bring a love object back into one’s life—or would make him or her sorry. If love had turned to hate, such a ritual could even harm or kill the once-adored individual.
For the most common malevolent ritual, the sorcery-seeker wrote his or her curse on a thin sheet of soft lead (or on bronze, for the spare-no-expense crowd). Called the defixio, the curse was folded or tightly rolled up, then hidden in tombs, or down wells, or affixed to trees. Another ritual required the participant to stick needles into wax or clay figures—a spell still seen today in voodoo circles.
There were also distinctions, not always clear to us today, between eros spells that induced passion and philia magic that induced affection. People also commissioned gemstones and rings with Aphrodite and Eros images; hidden on them were magic words and binding spells.
This excerpt comes from an elaborate erotic spell made by a woman named Sophia, who wanted to attract another woman named Gorgonia. Her oval tablet, written on both sides, contains sixty-six lines of text.
Fundament of the gloomy darkness, jagged-tooth dog, covered with coiling snakes, turning three heads, traveler in the recesses of the underworld, spirit-driver, with the Erinyes [the Furies] savage with their stinging whips, holy serpents, maenads, frightful maidens, come to my wroth incantations. Before I persuade by force this one and you, render him immediately a fire-breathing demon. Listen and do everything quickly, in no way opposing me in the performance of this action, for you are the governors of the earth. [Three lines of magical gibberish follow.] By means of the corpse-daemon inflame the heart, the liver, the spirit of Gorgonia, whom Nilogenia bore, with love and affection for Sophia, whom Isara bore. Constrain Gorgonia to cast herself into the bath-house for the sake of Sophia; and you, become a bath-room. Burn, set on fire, inflame her soul, heart, liver, spirit with love for Sophia.
Here is a Greek spell written on papyrus in late antiquity, in which a man named Apalo wished to attract a woman named Karosa for sex. The mention of love torture is typical.
Aye, lord demon, attract, inflame, destroy, burn, cause her to swoon from love as she is being burnt, inflamed. Goad the tortured soul, the heart of Karosa, whom Thelo bore, until she leaps forth and comes to Apalo, whom Theonilla bore, out of passion and love, in this very hour, quickly, quickly … do not allow Karosa, whom Thelo bore, to think of her [own] husband, her child, drink, food, but let her come melting for passion and love and intercourse, especially yearning for the intercourse of Apalo, whom Theonilla bore, in this very hour, quickly, quickly.
Another curse tablet found in the Etruscan territory of Italy offers a graphic example of love turned to hatred:
Spirits of the netherworld, I consecrate and hand over to you, if you have any power, Ticene of Carisius. Whatever she does, may it all turn out wrong. Spirits of the netherworld, I consecrate to you her limbs, her complexion, her figure, her head, her hair, her shadow, her brain, her forehead, her breath, her liver, her shoulders, her heart, her lungs, her intestines, her fingers, her hands, her navel, her thighs, her calves, her soles, her toes. Spirits of the netherworld, if I see her wasting away, I swear that I will be delighted to offer a sacrifice to you every year.
In both Mesopotamia and Greece, men and women cast binding spells using special rings, not so much for love affairs as to win admiration and affection from superiors, such as kings and masters. In addition, both the Assyrians and the Greeks favored special stones, precious and semi-precious, that promised a similar effect, replacing anger with friendship. An example of these binding spells: “Over a copper ring chant the spell three times. You place it on your finger, and when you enter the presence of the prince, he will welcome you.” “A little ring for success and charm and victory … when you have it with you, you will always get whatever you ask from anybody. Besides, it calms the angers of kings and masters. Wearing it, whatever you may say to anyone, you will be believed, and you will be pleasing to everybody.”