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Journal of the History of Sexuality 10.3&4 (2001) 480-500

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The Perils of Love:
Magic and Countermagic in Coptic Egypt

David Frankfurter
University of New Hampshire


THE STORY IS told of the great thaumaturge Macarius of Egypt that a young woman was brought to him in the shape of a horse, the victim of a suitor's magical spell. 1 Macarius took the girl in, sequestered her while he prayed and doused her with holy liquids, and succeeded in breaking the spell. But what kind of spell was he up against, and how typical was his service as spell undoer? This essay will discuss the spell's affiliation with late antique erotic ritual and its various uses of metaphor, as well as monks' roles in removing and setting such spells. [End Page 480]

The story of the horse girl appears in intriguingly different versions in both the Historia Monachorum (21.17) and Palladius's Historia Lausiaca (17.6-9), so that we may assume it was a constituent part of Macarius's corpus legendum by the early fifth century. 2 Both versions present the young woman as fundamentally unavailable to the suitor: in one, she is married (Palladius), and in the other, she has "consecrated her virginity" (Historia Monachorum). Out of frustration, presumably, the suitor--an "Egyptian," according to Palladius--launches a magic spell, either of his own device (Historia Monachorum) or commissioned from a "sorcerer [goês]" (Palladius). The result is the girl's transformation into a mare, a horror described with full pathos: "The husband came in and was astonished to see a mare lying on the bed. He cried and wept. He talked to the beast. No sort of reply was forthcoming. He called on the priests of the village. He brought them in and showed them. No solution was found. For three days she neither ate fodder as a mare nor ate bread as a human but was deprived of both types of food" (Palladius Historia Lausiaca 17.6-7). 3 Finally, the parents in one version (Historia Monachorum) or the husband in the other (Palladius) desperately appeal to Apa Macarius to return her to the girl she was. Macarius in the Historia Monachorum then locks her in a cell for seven days while he prays; at the end, after he rubs her with sacred oil, she is restored to her parents a human girl. Palladius's version is more moralistic: Macarius informs the husband that she is a horse in appearance only and was thus transformed because she had neglected the "mysteries" of the Eucharist for five weeks. 4 Thus, after Macarius pours sacred water over her, she once more appears to her husband as a woman. 5 The whole magical transformation was, therefore, a delusion of the sinful.

In neither version is the sorcerer or "evildoer" addressed after the spell is cast--that is, Macarius never challenges him directly. Instead, Macarius appears as the undoer of spells, the resolver of the kinds of terrible dilemmas that might afflict sexually restricted girls and their families. I will return to Macarius's role as undoer of spells, but now it is worth considering the horse spell as a kind of social dilemma in late antique Egypt. [End Page 481]

The World of Erotic Spells

The horse spell in this story clearly falls under the category of binding spell, a broad rubric for gestures, chants, inscribed tablets, and other activities that sought to constrain the activity of an erotic interest or a rival in a range of competitive situations, not just love, both heterosexual and homosexual, but also sports, lawsuits, politics, and business. Scholars have begun to propose subclassifications of binding spells according to their formulations and goals, but for the purposes of this essay, I will understand a certain fluidity across spells that have the overt function of constraining and inciting others' activities. For our purposes it is therefore unimportant how such spells were presumed to work. Since they were used at all levels of society throughout Greco...


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