6 Ridiculous Beliefs About Romance In History
Between dick pics, people on Tinder with no apparent manners, and the popularity of Netflix & Chill and emoji eggplants, you'd be forgiven for romanticizing the past, where surely everybody was swooning in corsets and trading decorous glances over gruel. Right? Oh my god so wrong. If there's one area where history gets weird, bonkers, and frankly rather grotesque, it's in what people have been willing to do over the ages to win somebody else's love. If you hate seeing the latest ridiculous pick-up lines in your inbox, at least nobody's setting an eel on fire for you.
Sometimes traditions of wooing in historical periods were extremely regulated; the courtly love tradition of the 11th-13th centuries in Europe, for instance, had loads of rules of behavior, all centered around a noble dude worshipping an unavailable lady (and showering her with gifts with no expectation of response). But when things didn't succeed as planned, people were willing to get a little ... creative. Hence, for instance, an amazing spell from a Coptic Egyptian papyrus designed to be buried at a lover's door and ensnare him (it's also from one man to another, making it a weird bit of LGBT history to boot).
And if that failed, there were other options. Bones, bat blood, and placenta, for instance.
1. That Poking A Clay Effigy Would Cause "Uncontrollable Passion"
The ancient Greeks were no slouches when it came to seduction, and they didn't just rely on wine and nice music. According to experts at the University of Chicago, there were two particular types of love spell (eros, done by men, and philia, done by women), and they both had some interesting magical tricks up their sleeve. The most terrifying one by far, though, is the one involving a clay effigy and a voodoo-like pin ritual:
Make a clay effigy of a woman, kneeling and bound. Pierce the effigy 13 times with pins. Seal the effigy inside a clay pot alongside a lead tablet inscribed with the following spell:
“Rouse yourself for me and go into every place, into every quarter, into every house, and bind [the woman]. Lead [the woman] to me. Prevent her from eating and drinking until she comes to me, and do not allow her to have experience with another man, except me alone. Drag her by the hair, by the guts, until she does not stand aloof from me and until I hold her obedient for the whole time of my life, loving me, desiring me, and telling me what she is thinking.”
2. That Froth From Black Horses Could Spark Romance
This amazing method of luring in a lover comes from Coptic Egyptian papyrus, this one devoted to specific magical spells. The Peabody Museum at Yale has a spell translated from the papyrus that might make your skin crawl slightly:
"For a woman’s love, a really effective charm. Write these signs on a sheet of tin. Offering: wild herb, froth from the mouth of a completely black horse, and a bat. Bury it at the woman’s door. You will see its potency quickly.”
It's not all about froth, though. You're also supposed to address "the king of the demons" to make the object of your affections “like a dog that is crazy for its pups”.
3. That Bones In A Bed & Bat Blood Would Break Up A Marriage
What do you do if you're tired of your partner? Cast a spell to make them utterly useless in bed, obviously. Jacquerline Borsje has done some pretty amazing translation work on love charms in early medieval Ireland, and found one in particular that was meant to "take away somebody's wife": put a bone in their bed, apparently render him impotent, and reap the rewards. Charming.
Borsje also points out that this idea of a bony companion actually isn't all that new; she also traces the idea back to Constantinus Africanus, an 11th-century physician who wrote extensively about objects that were meant to break up marriages if placed in the marital bed, including "the testicles and blood of a cock," "needles used for the last care of the dead," and, creepiest of all, "letters written in bat's blood". Makes sense; you'd probably break up with anybody who decided to leave bloodied cockerel-testicles on your nice new mattress.
4. That Horse Placenta Could Grow A Magical Love-Plant
The idea of a magical "romance plant" will be familiar to anybody who's studied Shakespeare; in A Midsummer Night's Dream, Puck smears the juice of love-in-idleness, a kind of wild violet, on the eyes of lovers to comedic affect. (Hilariously, the Royal Shakespeare Company actually asked the Royal Society Of Chemistry to investigate whether this was possible back in 2002 as a publicity stunt. The chemists, with an admirably straight face, reported that it had no emotional impact.) But things go further than that if you're inclined to do a bit of gardening.
A 15th-century document held in Oxford's Trinity College Library has a particularly charming recipe for growing a herb with a serious amorous reputation. To fertilize it, though, you need the placenta from a just-born foal "and all associated material" (probably the umbilical cord). But the rewards will be worth it: the text alleges that the unnamed plant, a herb with three leaves, will cause any person who touches it to fall in love immediately.
5. That Cat Brains & Heads Could Cause Impotence
The Nordic Middle Ages had a lot of interesting things about them, but for anybody looking for love, they could be perilous places. According to court records, there was a persistent problem with people trying to get revenge on partners or break up relationships using cat brains and severed feline heads. And not by randomly leaving them around in beds.
The procedure was that the person who desired to cause problems (apparently, always a woman for a dude) could make him impotent by carrying around, or giving him, cat brains, heads, or skulls. This was viewed as so genuine a cause for later erectile issues that, on some occasions, the women were hauled up in court to be held "responsible" for their witchcraft. No justice, alas, for the poor cats.
6. That Torturing Animals Would Make Someone Fall In Love With You
Both of these ones come from 16th-century Venice, which was apparently a disturbing place to be wooed (or, indeed, be either an eel or a bird). According to the historian Guido Ruggiero's work on the Renaissance, the Venetians were particularly nasty when it came to attracting love. If you wanted to catch a beloved's attention (and not, apparently, get thrown in jail for being completely insane), you should get a few live eels, stick them in the head and heart with needles, and then cover them with hot coals. In case you wondered if the Venetians were uniquely awful, historian Christopher Faraone assures us the Greeks did this too, except with live lizards.
Torturing birds was also apparently fine for the Venetians; you either skinned one and poked it with four needles, or took out its heart and burnt it over a fire. The important thing was that this, like most of the other disgusting spells, would be done in secret, because even the Venetians recognized that a lover would likely not take "dead, skinned bird with needles in it" as a romantic gift. Funnily enough.
So don't bemoan your situation just yet. As bad as online dating might be, it's not nearly as awful as live eels. Although cat brains could potentially come in useful for your next breakup. (I'm joking.)
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