Journal of the History of Sexuality 10.3&4 (2001) 542-545
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Ancient Greek Love Magic
Ancient Greek Love Magic. By Christopher A. Faraone. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 1999. Pp. xii + 223. $35.00 (cloth).
Christopher Faraone has produced a useful and highly readable account of "erotic magic" that should be of interest not only to cultural historians of antiquity but also to students of Greek literature and all historians of sexuality. He argues against the common assumption that magical practices were perceived by the Greeks as marginal superstitions characteristic of only the naive and credulous; he finds evidence of them in major literary texts, traditional myths, and common rituals. This imbrication of magic in the cultural fabric of ancient Greece is especially manifest in the use of love spells, potions, and amulets: these instruments of seduction reflect ancient gender categories and perceptions of eros and thus constitute an important new category of evidence for reconstructing Greek sexual attitudes.
Faraone centers his investigation upon ancient Greece from the archaic through the Hellenistic periods (the eighth to first centuries b.c.e.) but selectively draws upon earlier Near Eastern evidence or later papyrological material from Greco-Roman Egypt when it provides significant parallels. He is aware of the methodological problems with such an aggressively synchronic approach and justifies it based on the paucity of evidence from any one period. But the evidence from the Roman period actually is sufficiently abundant to merit more systematic treatment than it receives in this volume. Faraone wishes to focus only on native Greek traditions as reflected in the later handbooks and love spells; on the one hand, he argues for many suggestive parallels in these later sources, but on the other [End Page 542] hand, he declines to give us a more extensive survey of this material because it contaminates the oral and amateur traditions he wishes to reconstruct with a synthetic professionalism that mingles native Greek with Near Eastern elements. This interpenetration of traditions calls for a much more detailed analysis, if the later material is to be invoked at all. Such an examination would have resulted in a different book from the one Faraone has chosen to write, but it is a book that still needs to be written.
Faraone distinguishes two basic types of love spells in Greek tradition: those designed to induce uncontrollable passion (eros) in their victim and those designed to secure or augment affection (referred to by philia and various other terms). After an initial delineation of this typology and a survey of the various media of evidence in the first chapter, the heart of the book consists of a detailed treatment of each type of spell in chapters 2 and 3.
Eros magic (often designated as agogê spells because they aim to torment victims with lust and "lead" them out of their homes toward the practitioner) is usually employed by men to enchant women but in a minority of cases is appropriated by prostitutes wishing to bind or lure back a male client. The imagery of such spells can be extremely violent, asking that the victim be burned, whipped, or tortured until he or she gives in to the enchanter. Faraone relates this phraseology to the traditional Greek perception, attested in many poems and vase paintings, of eros as either a pathological disease or a divine agent that violently attacks its victims; I miss a reference to Bruce Thornton's review of this theme in Eros: The Myth of Ancient Greek Sexuality (Boulder, CO: Westview Press, 1997). Faraone includes a detailed discussion of the iynx, a bird tied to a spinning wheel for torture, as a device actually used to effect such spells in classical Greece, as suggested by Pindar's reference in Pythian 4.213-19; Faraone compares this instrument to other forms of animal torture and slaughter common in oaths and curses. He convincingly argues against the notion, popularized by his teacher J. J. Winkler, that the violence of these spells is somehow cathartic or meant to transfer the enchanter's own...