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love potions : a brief history of use & misuse

"Though the charms of the Thessalian witches, a love not induced by the fates has entered into hardened hearts ..."


Within the broader category of love magic, there is no preparation more iconic or misunderstood than the love potion. Since the ancient world, philters, tonics, brews, and enchanted phials have made up a corpus of lore and legend detailing the effects of these magical cocktails, ranging from the amorous to the outright deadly. While love potions may live in contemporary consciousness as benign remedies for the romantic, their history is one of violence and predation, poisons and deceit, which follows an arc through the whole of history, gesturing toward a uniquely human tradition- the pining for unrequited love.

And while this history of love-legends feels romantic at first blush, the reality tends toward a deep darkness. Even within the ancient world, love potions were regarded as duplicitous and manipulative, existing in a moral gray area at best, and posing real threats of danger at worst. Charles Lindholm notes in Leatherworkers & Love Potions that "magic, the passionate desire to conquer ‘the domain of the unaccountable,’ is often called into play in an effort to control the force of sexuality…The target loses all sexual autonomy and the ambiguity of human love relationships is, in theory, negated.” Similarly, Plutarch, in Coniugalia Praecepta (1st C BCE) brings up similar concerns about love magic, remarking that "fishing with pharmaka (herbs, particularly poisons) is a quick and easy way to catch fish, but it renders them inedible and paltry. In the same way, women who use love potions (philtra) and sorcery (goateia) against their husbands, and who gain mastery over them through pleasure, end up living with stunned, senseless, crippled men.”

This concept of love magic as inherently operating without consent, with the sole objective being to assert control over the object of desire, puts love magic in a very problematic category within practical spellwork. This is even more true of potions in particular, where brews of drugs and sympathetic herbs are employed clandestinely. If we understand love magic as operating on the principle of creating an "altered state of desire" within the target, it's easy to see how this altered state could be manipulated, and to draw correlations between love potions and harmful drugs- both of which have been used to make a target more susceptible to romance. Even the language of many of these love charms, particularly the love curses from ancient Greece, features the same themes of domination and control. Consider this excerpt from the Duke University papyri 729 ("A Potion For Causing A Woman to Love You") :

A drink tested by many. Taking one (grape) vine leaf in the left hand with two fingers, place it in the right hand and write on the leaf with myrrh ink the names below—for indeed they are unutterable. The name is that of Aphrodite:
AZANDÔ IAZA AZARAOIABALÊ ARMARIDA PHNOUNI AI ZATHEÔOU ABRASAX EEE ÊÊ III OOOOO [YYYYYY] ÔÔÔÔÔÔÔ. Let NN love me, NN, with a divine and unutterable and inexhaustible love. Be subject to me, NN. At once (twice), quickly (twice).” Dissolve the leaf in unmixed wine and ... and give (it to her) to drink ... up to four times.

Historically, these brews have ranged in potency from sympathetic ingredients of love, designed to invoke romance by way of sorcery, to botanical aphrodisiacs, designed to induce a physical response of desire, to poisonous psychedelics, employed to confuse and disorient a victim so they can be manipulated. These final preparations tread a dangerous line between life and death, and psychedelic love potions have been responsible for numerous high-profile cases of love potion poisonings and induced madness throughout history. Consider this handy table below from Christopher Farone's Ancient Greek Love Magic (1999), which looks at dosage as it relates to famous love potions from history & legend. There have also been cases of kings and emperors killed or driven mad by love potions - namely the roman emperor Caligula, the philosopher Lucretius, Ferdinand II of Aragon, and Louis XIV (almost). In Europe, we find these malevolent potions primarily made of mandrake and oleander, while other parts of the world favor scopolamine-laden datura, intoxicating cannabis, and other poisonous and mind-altering herbs.

While some of these historical potions were certainly administered in bad faith, others were simply repulsive- calling upon the use of animal and human body parts, as well as flowers, crystals, and other materia magica to create a brew that draws its effects from it's magical correspondences, not necessarily it's physiological impact. In the Picatrix, we find various recipes for love potions given that call for gazelle brains, leopard blood, rabbit rennet, sweat, scrapings from the soles of the feet, and other grotesqueries. One charm in particular ("For Acquiring the Love of a Woman, Another Charm") features that same dominating language we saw in Greek love charms, conjuring the spirits of the preparation that they "move the spirit and will of this woman (N) by virtue of these spirits and this composition, and I move her spirit and will by a restless motion whether in waking or sleeping, in walking, standing, or sitting. Nor shall she have any rest until she obeys these spirits." From MS Sloane 1315 (10th-16th C), a charm for inducing the love of a woman reads "Take the harte of coluere (snake) and bren hit on a table to powder, and yeve here thereof in mete or dryncke; and sche schall love thee." Finally, in perhaps the most gruesome example, Pietro Bairo's Secreti Medecinali (1561) recommends the following preparation : "Take swallows born in August and put them in a big pan, alive, and bake them until they are shriveled, then make a powder out of it, and when you give this to those who kiss together, it will cause great delight."

This historical fixation on blood and body parts being integral to the crafting of love potions is something of note. This tradition carries us into the present, where the use of "personal concerns" from our target is still favored in the casting of love spells. A hair, a fingernail, a drop of blood- any direct aspect of the one we desire is called into the working to connect us with their body, and by extension, their spirit. The presence of these materia is often regarded as the engine of the works where they are employed- the central ingredient which directs the spell toward a given target. In a humorous example from early modern Scotland ("News From Scotland," 1591) which is perhaps more legend than fact, we see the consequences of improper administration of personal effects, regarding a lecherous schoolmaster who wished to acquire the affections of a young girl :

One day [he] asked a pupil to bring him some of the pubic hair of his older sister. On the following night the boy, clearly very stupid or very obedient, attempted to comply. He crept to the bed of the sleeping girl, pulled back the coverlet, and tried to carry out his task. The girl awoke and called her mother. The boy, cross-questioned, explained his conduct and was given some hair to take to the schoolmaster, but these were taken from the udder of one of the family's cows, not from the girl. The mother, it is apparent, suspected Fian of planning to work love magic and a day or two later her beliefs were justified. For the unlucky schoolmaster was pursued throughout the village by the now lust-maddened cow which came 'leaping and dancing upon him…”

While the history of employing love potions is certainly riddled with cautionary tales like this one, as modern practitioners, we inherit this long tradition of love magic with the right and responsibility to update the work for a contemporary practice. It is our obligation to critically examine these historical preparations, and not just to reject what is predatory and malevolent about that history, but to consider- what makes a love potion work? What use do we have for preparations like this today? I have offered my own example for consideration, made of a simple infusion of herbs and materia into a reduction of fruit juices, made to be diluted with champagne or spirits and crafted into cocktails of love. This offers a more benign alternative to traditional love potions, and discards the emphasis on predatory intentions and gruesome ingredients in favor of those which are a joy to consume, and which could be administered consensually. Whether through infusions, decoction, tinctures, or other methods, modern witches can effectively utilize their knowledge of correspondence, energetic sympathy, and botanical effects to update the tradition of love potions, crafting brews which are no less potent and life-altering than the potions of history.

As a reference, consider this slide from my lecture "Love Potions 101," which offers a list of love herbs delineated between three general aims - erotic love, romantic love, and marital love. This list contains plants that are associated with these through their use in legend, their botanical effects as aphrodisiacs, or their traditional correspondences. Please use care and caution when ingesting these (or any) unfamiliar plants, and do your research about plant toxicity and drug interactions before imbibing.

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