“For a woman’s love: a really effective charm.
You should write these things on a tin sheet.”
So begins the text of a Coptic magical spell from the 6th/7th century. The things that should be written on the tin sheet are magical signs, drawn on the papyrus for reference and to be copied out when needed. These signs are the first of three parts of this spell, intended to gain a woman’s love. The second part is the burial of several items at the woman’s door.
“Offering: one wild plant, foam from a completely black horse’s mouth, and a bat. You should bury it at the woman’s door, and you will see its power quickly.”
The wild plant in question is the Greek aspartos, but this could be a variant spelling of asphaltos, bitumen – a sticky black substance that would fit in colour terms with the other two ingredients needed, foam from a black horse’s mouth and a bat.
The final stage is the recitation of the spell itself. This incantation includes the invocation of a magical being, Bersebour, the King of Demons (the ‘you’ in the translation). Even demons could be called upon for their beneficial powers, as available spirits rather than as evil entities.
“I adjure you by all your holy names, your offerings, your amulets, the thrones upon which you sit, your garments that clothe you, your completed stelae, [and your] places in which you dwell. I adjure you by all these things, for a heartfelt love, a pang, and a heartfelt madness of NN. Quickly! I adjure the great power of Bersebour, the King of Demons […] health […] understanding. I adjure you by all of these things. Do not let her eat or [drink or …] or sit until she becomes like these black dogs, who are crazy for their pups, and like a drop of water, suspended from a jar, like a snake coiled [for the] soul of XX, until she comes to so-and-so. Quickly! […]”
But who is this spell intended for, which woman is the target, and who wants to receive the “heartfelt madness” of her love? Rather than being written for a specific individual, this spell can be used by and for anybody. The spell does not insert names but placeholders that can be substituted by actual names as and when required. Where in the translation NN is written, this is the name of the target of the spell, while XX is for the person casting the spell.
Whether or not the spell was used and was as effective as its opening line claims we do not know. But the desire to attract the attention and love of another is a part of the human condition that transcends the centuries.
The front of the papyrus, which includes the symbols to be drawn on the tin sheet; the text continues for a couple of lines on the other side (c) Beinecke Rare Book and Manuscript Library, Yale University, P.CtYBR inv. 1791
Provenance: Unknown; Egypt
Date: 6th/7th century CE
Language: Coptic (Sahidic dialect)
Collection: Beinecke Rare Book and Manuscript Library, Yale University, New Haven (P.CtYBR inv. 1791)
Designation: P.CtYBR inv. 1791
Bibliography: T. C. Peterson (1964) A Collection of Papyri: Egyptian, Greek, Coptic, Arabic (New York: H. P. Kraus), pp. 38–39; S. Emmel in M. W. Meyer and R. Smith (1994) Ancient Christian Magic. Coptic Texts of Ritual Power (Princeton: Princeton University Press), pp. 158–159 [#74] and 353–355.