When we think of magic in the ancient world, we tend to think that what we today consider magic was, back then, simply religion. Certainly this holds true for things like worshiping many gods, divining the future, or other such activities. But there definitely was a subset of ancient practice that was considered to be against the grain. Those engaging in such practices go by many names: magoi (a term used to refer to ‘Eastern’ holy men), pharmakeis (those skilled with drugs and potions), goetes (spiritual practitioners who engaged the dead), and epodoi (singers of incantations). But all had one thing in common: they were perceived as working against nature, and thus society in general. According to Matthew Dickie, this is the dividing line between religion and magic in the ancient world. One appeases the Gods in a socially sanctioned manner, the latter employs a special skill to bend the natural forces out of alignment (Dickie 13-14, 34).
Those who perform magic are, accordingly, prepared to fly in the face of the moral scruple that restrain other people. They also do not feel the same religious constraints as do others, since they are believed not to respect the gods in quite the same way as other persons do.
~ Matthew Dickie, 38
Working with this model, it should come as no surprise that allegations of magic—i.e. engaging in socially deviant behaviour—were often targeted at those most marginalized in society. In fact, it was within these dis-enfranchised sectors where magic appeared to flourished most. Women, in particular prostitutes, were seen as experts in the magical arts.
Prostitutes were widely believed to be specialists in erotic magic, especially the use of philtres to sway the feelings of those around them (Dickie 83). For example, a woman may resort to a binding spell, to handicap rivals in the trade or lock down a steady client (Dickie 85-87). It was also thought that respectable men in society who financially supported brothels, perhaps by providing a madam with a regular stipend, were the victims of a well-administered pharmaka. After all, no clear-thinking man would donate his livelihood to such a person unless compelled otherwise (Dickie 83). What can be seen here is a pervading belief that prostitutes not only knew magic, but they employed it for their own gain.
These women were also sought by those outside the trade for their magical expertise. Those in troubled marriages might consult a prostitute to concoct a love potion to rekindle the affections of a wayward spouse (Dickie 89). Sometimes it cured a wandering eye for good: One court case attests to a wrongly administered dose that resulted in death of an unwitting victim.
Magic was dangerous territory, straddling the boundary between life and death. As Naomi Janowitz observes, “References to φαρμακον [pharmakon] in Greek literature, are always ambiguous. The potions were powerful; whether that power was for good or for evil depended on the outcome of each specific case” (12). Prostitutes, in their role as experts in aphrodisiacs, walked this tightrope as they attempted to influence the natural course of events.
But magical brews were not just the domain of sex-workers, they belonged to women in general. The idea that women were especially skilled with poisons trickled up to those in high-ranking positions. For instance, Macedonian queens (think Alexander the Great’s mother, the snake-priestess Olympias) were often accused of resorting to poisons to achieve political ends, such as installing a family member on the throne. According to Sarah Pomeroy, in addition to “decidedly male tactics” such as cunning and strategy, they also resorted to poison which was considered “to be a ‘woman’s weapon'” (Pomeroy 121).
Of course, there were many more activities that could be considered “magic” in the ancient world. Love philtres and magical concoctions are just a couple of techniques, but ones which were strongly linked to women, especially those on the fringes of society, either socially (as prostitutes were) or as outlier women who acted like men in exclusively male spheres (such as the political maneuverings of Macedonian queens). Whether used to captivate a lover or thwart a rival, women and prostitutes were seen to be especially skilled in these magical arts.
Dickie, Matthew W. Magic and Magicians in the Greco-Roman World. Routledge. 2003.
Janowiz, Naomi. Magic in the Roman World: Pagans, Jews and Christians.Routledge. 2001.
Pomeroy, Sarah B. Goddesses, Whores, Wives, and Slaves: Women in Classical Antiquity. Schocken.1975.
Photo by Brother O’Mara.