Ancient Same Sex Love Spells

Magic in the ancient world provided one means to help people deal with what life threw at them, whether health, money, or love, among the whole gambit of human day-to-day experiences. In some cases, spells were written for certain people, with the object of the spell as well as the spell’s user named within the text. Other spells were less specific, with places holders (‘so-and-so’) instead of the name, meaning they could be used by whoever had need. An example of such a spell is this one to attract a woman. Here, we’ll never know who used this spell or the identity of the woman who was the focus of their desire. However, with spells that name both parties, we get a rare glimpse into individual lives and – in the case of love spells – individual desire. And, in a small number of instances, love spells with names provide clear evidence for same-sex desire.

Love Spells between Women

In 1889, a relatively small piece of papyrus, torn at the bottom, was found in the cemetery at Hawara, located at the entrance to the Fayum depression. Dating to the 2nd century CE and written in Greek, the text itself is a love spell in which Herais daughter of Thermoutharin adjures a deceased spirit (Euangelos) and the gods to attract and bind to her Sarapias daughter of Helen. The wandering, restless souls of deceased spirits were frequently called upon in spells, with the promise of eternal rest in store for carrying out such demands. Note how the combination of Egyptian and Greek gods (Anubis and Hermes respectively) reflects the multicultural world of Egypt during this time. In total, the refrain ‘to attract and bind’ is repeated three times and a series of magical words, or voces magicae, imbue the spell with added power – they would have been understandable to the beings invoked.

“I adjure you, Euangelos, by Anubis and Hermes and all the rest down below; attract and bind Sarapias, whom Helen bore, to this Herais, whom Thermoutharin bore, now, now; quickly, quickly. By her soul and heart attract Sarapias herself, whom <Helen> bore from her own womb. [magical words: MAEI OTE ELBOSATOK ALAOUBETO OEIO […] AEN]. …”

P.Hawara 312 = PGM 32; translation from Brooten, Love Between Women, p. 78
P.Hawara 312 (c) University College London

Jumping ahead a bit in time to the 3rd or 4th century, a lead tablet found in el-Ashmunein (Greek Hermopolis) bears 62 lines of Greek text in a small hand. As with the previous spell, he user of this one, Sophia daughter of Isara, invokes the spirit of a deceased male – “a fire-breathing daemon”, a “corpse-daemon” – to inflame the heart of her intended target, Gorgonia daughter of Nilogenia. Gorgonia will be targeted at the bathhouse, where her flushed, naked skin would be washed by an attendant – the daemon in disguise who will work its erotic magic, setting a burning desire within her.

“… Listen and do everything quickly, in no way opposing me in the performance of this action; for you are the governors of the earth. [section of magical language] By means of this corpse-daemon, inflame the heart, the liver, the spirit of Gorgonia, whom Nilogenia bore, with love and affection for Sophia, whom Isara bore. Constrain Gorgonia, whom Nilogenia bore, to cast herself into the bathhouse for the sake of Sophia, whom Isara bore; and you [=the king of the underworld deities], become a bath-woman. Burn, set on fire, inflame her soul, heart, liver, spirit with love for Sophia, whom Isara bore. Drive Gorgonia, whom Nilogenia bore, drive her, torment her body night and day, force her to rush forth from every place and every house, loving Sophia, whom Isara bore, she, surrendered like a slave, giving herself and all her possessions to her, because this is the will and command of the great god [section of magical language] …”

PSI I 28 = Suppl.Mag. I 42; translation Brooten, Love Between Women, pp. 84–86

The remaining lines (two-thirds of the whole text) repeat the same point and invoke multiple deities. The repetition and use of formulary and magical words, in both texts we’ve seen, remind us that the power of the language and invocations don’t come from the women themselves, but the (male) professional who wrote this piece. How Herais and Sophia expressed their desire will never be known.

PSI I 28, image from Brooten, Love Between Women (pl. 8)

Love Spells between Men

Moving still further in time, a Coptic text on a square of parchment provides the only example in that language (rather than Greek) of a love spell between men. Unfortunately, the provenance of the spell is unknown, but the dialect suggests somewhere in middle Egypt, and the date is broadly 6th/7th century. A man Apapolo son of Nooe uses a powerful invocation to bind another man, Phlo son of Maure. Phlo will be unable to rest until he finds Apapolo and his desire is satisfied. 

[magical words: Celtatalbabal. Karašneife Nnas Kneife, by the power of Iao Sabaoth! Rous Rous Rous Rous Rous Rous Rous Rous]
“I adjure you by your powers and your phylacteries and the places upon which you dwell and your names that in the way that I will take you and place you at the door and the path of Phlo the son of Maure, you will take his heart, his mind (?), you will master his whole body! If he stands you will not let him stand, if he sits you will not let him sit, if he sleeps you will not let him sleep! He will seek after me from village to village, from city to city, from field to field, from land to land, until he comes to me and he subjects himself beneath my feet – me, Apapolo, the son of Nooe – his hands filled with all good things, until I fulfil with him the desire of my heart and the request of my soul in a good desire and an unbreakable affection, now, now, quickly, quickly, do my work!”

Ashmolean 1981.940; translation from the Kyprianos Database of Ancient Ritual Texts and Objects (KYP T19; by Love, Dosoo, Markéta)

The original edition of this text, and so also subsequent translations, rendered the name of the spell wielder as Papapolo, but the revised reading follows work on the original parchment that Ed Love and I undertook several years ago. This revised reading with accompanying notes is available on the Kyprianos Database (links below).

A Final Note

A final note on the stories that these spells tell brings us to their modern history and the responses they received from the scholars who published them or wrote soon after their publication. Richard Wünsch argued that Herais, far from trying to attract Sarapias, was in fact cursing her (and more, that she herself was actually dead, having also been the victim of a curse spell). In the case of Apapolo’s spell to attract Phlo, the original editor Paul Smither, writing in 1939, referred to “The embarrassing identity of the sex charmer and charmed …” In other spells, not included here, the gender of one party had been modified by editors to create heterosexual situations – a century ago, it was sometimes easier to assume a grammatical error and unintentional pronouns (often connected with unusual names) than it was to understand the situation involved. But, this is no longer the accepted position, and what these love spells show us is that same-sex attraction was a very real thing in the ancient world.

*For further information about all the texts, and generally for magic from late Roman and early Islamic Egypt, check out the excellent Kyrianos Database, provided as part of the project Coptic Magical Papyri: Vernacular Religion in Late Roman and Early Islamic Egypt at Würzburg (links for specific texts are provided below).
As general bibliography, Bernadette J. Brooten, Love between Women: Early Christian Responses to Female Homoeroticism(Chicago: Chicago University Press, 1996) is a great starting point for discussion on the topic and can be read online here.

Technical Details: Text 1 (Herais and Sarapias)
Provenance: Hawara, Egypt
Date: 2nd century CE
Language: Greek
Collection: University College London, P. Hawara inv. 312.
Designation: PGM 32 (Papyri Graecae Magicae = Greek Magical Papyri)
Bibliography: Joseph G. Milne (1913), “The Hawara Papyri,” Archiv für Papyrusforschung und verwandte Gebiete, 5 (1913), p. 393; Richard Wünsch (1913), “Zusatz zu Nr. 312”, Archiv für Papyrusforschung und verwandte Gebiete, 5 (1913), p. 397; Karl Preisendanz (1931), Papyri Graecae Magicae. Die griechischen Zauberpapyri, Vol. 2 (Leipzig/Berlin: Teubner), p. 157–8 [no. 32]; Hans D. Betz (1992), The Greek Magical Papyri in Translation. Including the Demotic Spells(Chicago: University of Chicago Press), p. 266; Korshi Dosoo, Edward O.D. Love, and Markéta Preininger (chief editors), “KYP M483,” Kyprianos Database of Ancient Ritual Texts and Objects: accessed here.

Technical Details: Text 2 (Sophia and Gorgonia)
Provenance: el-Ashmunein, Egypt (Greek Hermopolis)
Date: 3rd/4th century CE
Language: Greek
Collection: Biblioteca Medicea Laurenziana, Florence, inv. 14487.
DesignationPSII 28 (siglum according to the Checklist of Editions); Suppl.Mag.I 42.
Bibliography: Medea Norsa (1911), “Editio princeps de PSI I 28 (ll. 1-62),” in Omaggio al IV convegno dei classicisti tenuto a Firence dal 18 al 20 aprile del 1911 (Florence), pp. 20–6 [no. 5]; Robert W. Daniel and Franco Maltomini (1990), Supplementum Magicum. Vol. 1 (Opladen: Westdeutscher Verlag), pp. 132–53 [no. 42] Korshi Dosoo, Edward O.D. Love, and Markéta Preininger (chief editors), “KYP M486,” Kyprianos Database of Ancient Ritual Texts and Objects: accessed here.

Technical Details: Text 3
Provenance: Egypt (unprovenanced)
Date: 6th/7th century CE
Language: Coptic (Hermopolitan dialect)
Collection: Ashmolean Museum, Oxford, inv. AN 1981.940.
Bibliography: Paul C. Smither (1939), “A Coptic Love-Charm,” Journal of Egyptian Archaeology25, pp. 173–4; Marvin W. Meyer and Richard Smith (1999), Ancient Christian Magic: Coptic Texts of Ritual Power(Princeton: Princeton University Press), pp. 177–8 [no. 84]; Korshi Dosoo, Edward O.D. Love & Markéta Preininger (chief editors), “KYP T19: Applied love spell for Apa Apollo against Phlo,” Kyprianos Database of Ancient Ritual Texts and Objects: accessed here.


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