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LHMP #246 Frankfurter 2001 The Perils of Love: Magic and Countermagic in Coptic Egypt

Full citation: 

Frankfurter, David. 2001. “The Perils of Love: Magic and Countermagic in Coptic Egypt” in Journal of the History of Sexuality vol.10 no. 3/4 480-500.

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This article is interesting for the context it provides for Brooten’s (1997) discussion of Coptic Egyptian love magic directed from one woman to another. Although there is only a passing mention of Brooten’s work and of same-sex love magic, the background understanding is useful.

One particular story of a love magic is used as a lens to examine the larger topic: the legend of how the thaumaturge Macarius of Egypt removed a love spell from a young woman that had transformed her into a horse. Frankfurter asks, why a horse? What purpose was the spell meant to serve? What was the social context that made such a spell desirable? And how does this particular story fit into the context of Egyptian and Greco-Roman magic?

Egyptian magical spells typically use the language of binding and constraint, either to do or be unable to do something. Love magic in particular typically takes the form of disrupting an existing relationship (and thus making the person available to another) or imposing overwhelming desire for the person working the spell. The horse-transformation spell would appear superficially to be a disruptive one--making the woman unavailable to her existing husband/love due to the animal form. But as Frankfurter later demonstrates, the horse form is more likely to be a stranded remnant of a typical desire-inducing spell.

Interestingly, Macarius focuses his counter-magic (framed as Christian ritual) on reversing the transformation but does not engage directly with the sorcerer who imposed it. This isn’t uncommon in stories of magical conflicts. The use of magic by enemies or rivals to achieve their purposes was treated as normal and expected. What was important was to counter it and restore the original state.

These types of binding spells acted not only in the realm of erotic interest, but against athletes, business rivals, lawsuits, and politics. There was an entire industry of Coptic magic that has left many specific examples as well as generic templates to be filled in as needed. Examples in the context of relationships might include a mother cursing a woman “who has separated my son from me,” or one woman desiring another woman to be disfigured before her marriage takes place, or the breaking up of a marriage (to make one partner available). One generic template includes a long list of bodily organs that are to be filled with “burning desire and hot longing” until the target comes to the user to seek sexual relief. The language is often filled with violent and coercive imagery. Frankfurter suggests that this may represent the internal emotional state of the person using the magic--a way to express the frustration of thwarted desires.

The cultural context of Egyptian love-magic in the Roman era involves complex strong family bonds that are typically viewed as being a barrier to the desired relationship. To achieve the desired relationship, the spell user must disrupt an existing marriage, or remove the target from a protective family environment, or at least inspire them to remove themselves from it willingly. While women were frequent targets, men could be targeted as well and, as seen in Brooten, same-sex desire could be the context as well as heterosexual desire.

The question of “why a horse” is explored in terms of the Greco-Roman use of non-human animals’ sexuality to represent erotic desire unconstrained by rationality. Such representations often worked through long lists of animal couples, with both the male and female being framed as desiring participants. But the underlying purpose of the image metaphor was to invoke a state of overwhelming erotic desire and dependency, similar to that observed in animals in heat. Horses and asses were considered epitomes of sexual desire in Roman tradition. But while animal sexuality was a strong motif in Egyptian traditions (including symbolic meanings for human-animal copulation, whether in ritual contexts or as dream imagery), Egyptians tended to associate the horse with the foreign (Greco-Roman) ruling aristocracy and with military, rather than sexual prowess.

In the Macarius story, the woman who has been transformed into a horse is not depicted as acting in a state of arousal, rather the transformation represents her unavailability as a human lover and a cause for wasting away due to being unable to live successfully in either the equine or human contexts. This seems, in part, to be due to the somewhat different image of the horse in Egyptian contexts. But it may also be due to the way the Macarius story focuses on the monk as a counter-magician, as a defeater of sorcerers, rather than on the mechanics of love spells. Frankfurter notes that in the hagiography of early saints, extended intense magical duels with the local sorcerer were a standard motif. (Though the Christian figures in these stories typically use practices that are every bit as magical as their opponents’.) Thus the problem to be solved is the horse-woman’s unavailability to her husband, not the desired purpose of the spell placed on her, with its implications of animalistic desire.


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