The Love Spell Traditions
Potions were beverages intended to transform individuals, primarily by making them fall in love with the persons who gave it to them. This is why the Greek word pharmakeia, poisoning (from which the word pharmacy is derived) was the equivalent of the English witchcraft. The witches of Thessaly, the first to enjoy a dreadful reputation, were called pharmakides. They used plants from the nightshade family with hallucinatory effects, which they harvested during a religious ceremony in which they left their hair unbound (which attracted elementary spirits). Medea, the most famous magician, stripped naked to cull verbena, a plant sacred to Aphrodite. Belladonna was called “witches herb” because of its frequent use for potions. Its roots and leaves caused dizzy spells or frenetic dancing. Henbane caused temporary madness, and jimson weed caused a stupor that lasted twenty-four hours, accompanied by disturbing visions. The berries of meadow saffron triggered a sense of unreasoning terror, and mandrake root, added as a powder to drinks, caused total imbecility. The victims of these potions suffered attacks of mental confusion that left them defenseless against any amorous undertakings.
As magic is based on the law of sympathies and correspondences between beings and things, ingredients that induced lust through analogy were also placed in these brews. Cornelius Agrippa, who in 1533 collected a number of love potions for his De occulta philosophia, said they were made from the heart and genitals of animals possessing great amorous ardor, such as doves, swallows, and similar small birds, and the rabbit and the wolf. Often used was the flesh of a lizard from the iguana family: the stellion. Sometimes a vial containing the potion would be placed beneath the straw mattress of a brothel for several days so its potency would be increased by the fornications performed above it. Agrippa notes:
Those who wish to make love spells ordinarily hide or lock away the instruments of their art, their rings, their images, and their mirrors in some evil place, which gives them their virtue by a venerian faculty.
Jerome Cardan, speaking in 1550 of the love potions of that era made from cats’ brain, menstrual blood, and hippomane, a genital secretion from a rutting mare, noted, “These things disturb the mind more than compel the love of the person to whom they are given.” In fact, these potions were often responsible for fatal frenzies, and their makers were punished as criminals. The epicurean poet Lucretius, author of De natura rerum [The Nature of Things], after drinking a love potion given him by his mistress Lucilia, committed suicide after the intense attack of madness it induced. Charles VI died from the love potion given him by his wife the Duchess of Cleves. These beverages were thus replaced by powders to cast on the person who was the target of the seduction, which was much less harmful; these powders contained the same ingredients dried and pulverized.
Pierre Le Loyer mentions an affair, when he was a young lawyer in 1580, that was judged by the Parliamentary Court of Paris against a young man who, it was claimed, used powders placed in a scroll of virgin parchment to attract the love of a young girl so he could take his pleasure of her. He had caught sight of her in the street and when she passed by him, he had slipped this scroll inside her low-cut dress, between her breasts, so forcefully, that she fell ill from the irritation. The lawyer for the accused said this was excusable, as he had not made the victim take anything in her mouth that would poison her. The young woman’s lawyer protested:
Poison or venom is not only a poisonous potion or herb or drug that is naturally fatal, and when taken by the mouth kills the person. Poison is also a love potion, an herb, a parchment, a letter, or a magic enchantment that works something against nature.
In his manual, the inquisitor Martin Delrio revealed:
Witches slay with certain fine powders that they mix into meat or drink, by rubbing over the naked body, or by spreading them on clothes. Of these powders, those that are meant to kill are black, the others, which are only for causing illness, are ash-colored or red. Those, which to the contrary, are for healing are most often white.
Powders were also made to compel a young girl to dance stark naked. The Petit Albert prescribed harvesting marjoram, thyme, myrtle leaves, walnut leaves, and fennel root on Saint John’s Eve in June, then drying and powdering the plants before straining them through a sieve.
You must blow this powder into the air of the place where the girl is, or have her take some as tobacco, and the effect will soon follow.
Potions in powdered form were commonly used everywhere. In The Magic Island (in which voodoo worship is described), William Seabrook recounts how Maman Célie came to the aid of her grandson who had been rejected by the girl he loved. With a dried, powdered hummingbird, a few drops of the young man’s blood, flower pollen, and other substances, she made a mixture she put inside a pouch made from the skin of goat testicles. This became a powder that the young man cast in the face of his recalcitrant girlfriend during a dance. She immediately fell in love with him. There is nothing surprising about this: a superstitious individual who finds herself the target of a magic spell believes that all resistance is futile; and her seducer, emboldened by this fact, lost all shyness and won her heart.