erotic services in ancient Egypt: love spells

Erotic services were an important subsector of ancient ritual services markets.  Among a collection of ritual service texts from Egypt from about the second to the fifth century, roughly 20% concern love and sex.[1]  Men’s love interests in general differed significantly from women’s love interests, with social circumstances objectively constraining neither men’s nor women’s sexual activity.

Spells for male users vastly predominated among love spells directly seeking sex.  A careful categorization of love spells from across the ancient Mediterranean world shows that 87% of love spells directly seeking sex were written for male spell users.[2]  Here’s an example of an ancient love spell for a male user:

Pudenda key spell: Take an egg  of a crow and the juice of the plant crow’s-foot and gall of a river electric eel, and grind them with honey and say the spell whenever you grind and whenever you smear it on your genitals.

This is the spell to be spoken: “I say to you, womb of {spell target}, open and receive  the seed of {spell user} and the uncontrollable seed of the IARPHE ARPHE (write it).  Let her, {spell target}, love me for all time as Isis loved Osiris and let her remain chaste for me as Penelope did for Odysseus.  And do you, womb, remember me for all the time of my life, because I am AKARNACHTHAS.”

Say this while grinding and whenever you rub your genitals, and in this way have intercourse with the woman you wish, and she will love you alone and by no one will she ever be laid, just by you alone.[3]

This spell’s focus on the spell user’s penis isn’t an idiosyncrasy: Osiris’s penis is an important element in the love story of Isis and Osiris, and other love spells also involve smearing material on the spell user’s penis.[4]  The sexual biology that generates male paternity uncertainty also tends to generate male concern about female sexual fidelity (“she will love you alone and by no one will she ever by laid, just by you alone”).  A sense of powerful agency also typically supports male sexual self-confidence.  In this spell, that psychological need is expressed with a conjunction of the user’s seed (semen) and magical “uncontrollable seed,” as well as with the imperative, “womb, remember me for all the time of my life.”

While male love spell users were highly interested in having sex, they weren’t interested in having sex with just any woman.  Female prostitutes probably were more readily available than were providers of erotic spells.  Prostitutes also probably provided faster, cheaper, and more reliable service than did erotic spell providers.  Erotic spells, however, served the needs of men interested in having sex with a specific woman that the man selected from the general population of women.  Men’s genital focus existed in conjunction with men’s interest in the specific person of a woman.

Love spells for female users tended to be oriented to gaining affection, rather than specifically sex.  Here’s the first part of an ancient love spell for a female user:

I will bind you, Nilos, who is also {called} Agathos Daimon, whom Demetria bore, with great evils.  Neither gods nor men will procure a clean getaway for you!  On the contrary, you will love me, Capitolina whom Peperous bore, with a divine passion, and in every way you will be for me an escort, as long as I want, that you might do for me what I wish and nothing for anyone else, and that you might obey no one save only me, Capitolina, and that you might forget your parents, children, and friends.

The first sentence of the above spell is completely conventional for such ritual services.  The next two sentences seem like a transcription of Capitolina’s oral request.  That request describes love without physical specificity (“love me…with a divine passion”).  It primarily concerns attention (“forget your parents, children, and friends”) and general personal services (“be for me an escort … do for me what I wish .. obey no one save only me”).  The rest of the spell consists of fairly conventional spell text, along with restatements of the request for attention and affection:

Accomplish everything for me and rush in and take away the mind of Nilos, to whom this magical material belongs, in order that he might love me, Capitolina, and that Nilos, whom Demetria bore, might be inseparable from me, every hour and every day.  … bind Nilos, who is also {called} Agathos Daimon, whom Demetria bore, to me, Capitolina, whom Piperous bore, for his {whole} life.  Nilos shall love me with an eternal affection; immediately, immediately; quickly, {quickly}.[5]

The spell describes spirits “releasing all who have drowned, have died unmarried, and have been carried away by the wind.”  Committing suicide without using instruments that break the surface of the body, e.g. drowning oneself, is more typical of female suicides than male suicides.  Dying unmarried indicates lack of affiliation, not necessarily lack of sex.  These distinctive references may represent Capitolina’s suicidal ideation and her fears for her life’s end.  In any case, the primary focus on affiliation and affection characterizes love spells for female users compared to those for male users.

The social and familial position of women in the ancient Mediterranean world did not effectively constrain women’s opportunities to have sex with men for whom they developed an erotic passion. Erotic love spells sought to generate intense suffering in the spell target, usually a woman.  That passion would prompt the spell target to come to the spell user, usually a man:

attract, inflame, destroy, burn, cause her to swoon from love as she is burnt, inflamed.  Sting the tortured soul, the heart, of Karosa, whom Thelo bore, until she leaps forth and comes to Apalos, whom Theonilla bore, out of passion and love

Whenever I throw you, Myrrh, … as you burn, so also will you burn her, {spell target} … seek out her, {spell target}, and open her right side and enter like thunder, like lightning, like a burning flame, and make her thin, {pale,} weak, limp, … until she leaps forth and comes to me, {spell user}[6]

Love spells targeting women focused on motivating them to leap forth, not on enabling them to do so.  Among the elite women who probably predominated among erotic spell targets, what governed their erotic passion was within their minds and bodies, not the social circumstances objectively around them.[7]

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[1] The collection is called the Greek Magical Papyri (PGM); for English translations, see Betz (1992).  Faraone (1999) p. 15, citing Petropoulos (1988) p. 215, states that “about one-quarter of these texts are concerned with love and sex.”  Based on Betz’s spell list, I estimate that 18% concern love and sex.  The division of the texts into separate spells and the categorization of the spells allow significant margins for ambiguity.

[2] Faraone (1999) p. 43, ft. 9 (underlying counts).  Id. is an impressive feat of rhetorical contortionism to maintain willful ignorance of sexual biology and evolution.

[3] PGM XXXVI.283-94, trans. Betz (1992) p. 276.  PGM VII. 185-6 describes grinding up pepper with honey and coating one’s penis with that mixture to get an erection.

[4] E.g., among the Greek Magical Papyri, PDM xiv. 335-55; PDM xiv. 930-32; PDM xiv. 1026-45; PDM xiv. 1046-47; PDM xiv. 1047-48.

[5] From PGM XV.1-21, trans. Betz (1992) p. 251.  The variant spellings of Capitolina’s mother’s name exist within the text. An interesting comparison is PGM LXI. 1-38.  That spell explicitly signals a male user, but its first two parts have female-user attention and affiliation themes, and it lacks an explicit appeal for sex.  It may be a female spell that was adapted for a male user.  The last section, which may have been appended, describes how to get the woman to leave.

[6] PGM XIXa.51-53; PGM XXVI.333-60; trans Betz (1992) pp. 257, 277.

[7] Ritual service users in Roman Egypt apparently were economically secure.  Male erotic service users probably targeted predominately elite women because of class-based patterns of association and because these men’s high status and material resources served less well to attract similarly positioned women.  The sexuality of low-status women apparently was not significantly constrained normatively. Social circumstances and bodily circumstances are of course interrelated through life history.  For example, if a person grew up in a family with little food, the person probably would be undernourished and in poor physical health.  Similarly, a person might internalize social devaluation and legal repression of her or his sexuality.


Betz, Hans Dieter, ed. 1992. The Greek magical papyri in translation: including the Demotic spells Vol. 1, [Texts].  Chicago: University of Chicago Press.

Faraone, Christopher A. 1999. Ancient Greek love magic. Cambridge, Mass: Harvard University Press.

Petropoulos, J.C.B. 1988.  “The erotic magical papyri”, in Basil G.Mandilaras (ed.), Proceedings of the XVIIIth International Congress of Papyrology, Athens 25-31 May 1986, i (Athens, 1988), pp. 215- 222.

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