Saturday, November 26, 2016
Love Potions in History, article in Chamber's Journal 1893
Love Potions in History, article in Chamber's Journal 1893
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AN expedient much practised in bygone years for inspiring and securing love was the Love-philtre, or amatory potion. It has been remarked that one of the grandest musical works in existence would never have been written had not Tristram and Ysonde drank the magic love-potion, which was so strong that it united them even after death; for ‘from his grave there grew an eglantine which twined about Ysonde's statue above, and though three times they cut it down, it grew again, and ever wound its arms about the image of the fair Ysonde.’ Going back to still earlier times, it is well known that the Roman poet Lucretius took his life in an amorous fit caused by a love-potion; and Lucullus lost his reason in the same way. In the middle ages, love-powders were advertised for sale, the pernicious effects of which became a matter of serious comment. At a period, too, when credulity in all kinds of occult influences taught that enchantment could be introduced into the human frame in the shape of food, or along with it, many an unlucky person was accused of using forbidden charms, and occasionally burnt at the stake as a witch. Indeed, the composition of love-philtres was supposed to be one of the most powerful of witches’ functions, and as such they fell under the legislative ordinances of our forefathers.
But the ignorant empiric, also confident in his own qualifications, never scrupled about the preparation of love-philtres, maintaining that they could be produced by the pharmaceutical art, apart from any mystical process. Hence, relying on his own medical skill, he sold these much-coveted compounds to anxious lovers, who readily paid exorbitant prices for them. As such amatory powders and potions only too frequently contained pernicious ingredients, injurious effects were occasioned by taking them, an abuse which necessitated legal interference. Again, conjurers and mountebanks made a profitable trade of love-philtres at country fairs, enticing the simple-minded folk by rehearsing to them the wonderful properties of their love-producing commodities. Shakespeare has represented Othello as accused of winning Desdemona by such means:
She is abused, stolen from me, and corrupted
By spells and medicines bought of mountebanks.
Formerly, too, the village apothecary kept love-philtres among his stock of drugs; and Gay, in his Shepherd's Week, relates how Hobnelia was guilty of resorting to this questionable practice:
As I was wont, I trudged, last market-day,
To town with new-laid eggs, preserved in hay.
I made my market long before twas night;
My purse grew heavy, and my basket light.
Straight to the 'pothecary’s shop I went,
And in love-powder all my money spent.
Behap what will, next Sunday, after prayers,
When to the alehouse Lubberkin repairs,
These golden flies into his mug I‘ll throw,
And soon the swain with fervent love shall glow.
Similarly, in the Character of a Quack Astrologer, published in the year 1673, we are told how he induces a young heiress to run away with a footman by persuading a young girl ’tis her destiny; and sells the old and ugly philtres and love-powder to procure them sweethearts.’ It will be seen, therefore, from how many sources love-philtres were procurable, a proof of the wide extent to which this curious delusion prevailed in bygone times. Even at the present day it survives in our midst, cases occurring every now and then of persons being fined, in different parts of the country, for either selling or persuading love-sick damsels to purchase various mysterious compounds for influencing the affections of others.
In the preparation of the love-philtre, much importance has from the earliest period of its history been attached to the numerous ingredients used in its composition. Both in ancient and modern days, certain animals and plants have been supposed to be specially adapted for such a purpose, and have long gained a notoriety through being thus employed. Italian girls still practise the following method: a lizard is caught, drowned in wine, dried in the sun, and reduced to powder, some of which is thrown on the obdurate man, who thenceforth is theirs for evermore. A favourite Slavonic device, writes Mr Finck, in his Romantic Love and Personal Beauty, ‘is to cut the finger, let a few drops of her blood run into a glass of beer and make the adored man drink it unknowingly. The same method is current in Hesse and Oldenburg; and in Bohemia, the girl who is afraid to wound her finger may substitute a few drops of bat’s blood.’ Another form of this mode of procedure current in the Netherlands is thus: Take a host or holy wafer, but which has not yet been consecrated; write on it certain words from the ring-finger, and then let n priest say five masses over it. Divide the wafer into two equal parts, of which keep one, and give the other to the person whose love you desire to gain. Formerly, in our own country, a nest of young swallows was buried in the earth and such as were found with their mouths shut when disintepred were supposed to allay a lover’s feelings.
In Scotland, according to Mr Walter Gregor in his Folk-lore of the North-east of Scotland, two lozenges were taken, covered with perspiration, and stuck together and given in this form to the one whose love was sought, the eating of them being thought to excite affection. A curious old recipe once popular amongst the English peasantry, informs us that ‘inside a frog his a certain crooked bone, which, when cleaned and dried over the fire on St John's Eve, and the ground fine and given in food to the lover, will at once give his love to the administerer.'
From time immemorial flowers have been much in request as love-philtres, a highly popular one having been the pansy. In A Midsummer Nights Dream, Oberon tells Puck to place a pansy on the eyes of Titania, in order that, on awakening, she may fall in love with the first object she meets:
Fetch me that flower; the herb I showed thee once
The juice of it on sleeping eyelids laid
Will make a man, or woman, madly dote
Upon the next live creature that she sees.
A favourite plant with the old herbalists was satyrion, a name applied to several species of orchis. As far back as the days of the Roman Empire, it was commonly supposed that the roots of the satyrion supplied the satyrs with food, and prompted them to commit those excesses for which they became proverbial. Kircher relates the case of a youth who whenever he visited a certain corner of his garden, became so love-sick that he mentioned this strange circumstance to a friend. On examining the spot, it was found to be overgrown with a species of satyrion, the odour of which alone had the effect of inspiring love.
Vervain has long been in repute as a love-philtre, and in many rural districts has the reputation of securing affection from those who take it to those who administer it. Another ingredient of the amatory potion once highly prized was cumin-seed. It is still popular with country lasses in Italy, who endeavour to make their lovers swallow it in order to insure their continued attachment and fidelity. Or, if the lover is going to serve as a soldier, or has obtained work in a distant part of the country, his sweetheart gives him a newly-made loaf seasoned with cumin, or a cup of wine in which cumin has been previously powdered and mixed. Then there is the basil, with its strange mystic virtues, which in Moldavia is said to stop the wandering youth on his way, and make him love the maiden from whose hand he happens to accept a sprig. Rarely does the Italian girl pay a visit to her sweetheart without wearing behind her ear a sprig of this favourite plant. Hence, it was considered an invaluable ingredient in love-potions. The mandrake, which is still worn in France as a love-charm, was in demand for the same purpose because, writes Gerarde, ‘it hath been thought that the root hereof serveth to win love.’ He also speaks of the carrot as ‘serving for love-matters,’ and adds, that the root of the wild species is more effectual than that of the garden. The root of the male fern was in olden times much sought for in the preparation of love-philtres, and hence the following allusion:
’Twas the maiden’s matchless beauty
That drew my heart a-nigh;
Not the fern-root potion,
But the glance of her blue eye.
Among further plants employed for the same purpose may be mentioned the crocus, purslane, and periwinkle; while the leaves of hemlock, dried and powdered and mixed in food or drink, were said to influence the affections of another. The well-known wild-flowers, Our Lady’s Bedstraw and the Mallow were thought to possess the same property; and among the Scottish peasantry the roots of the orchis were dug up, and, when dried and ground, were secretly administered as a potion.
With the Indians, the mango is a favourite plant for the production of the love-philtre. Tradition tells how once upon a time a young girl plucked one of its blossoms and offered it to Cupid, uttering these words:
God of the bow, who with spring's choicest flowers
Dost point the five unerring shafts; to thee
I dedicate this blossom; let it serve
To barb thy truest arrow; be its mark
Some youthful heart that pines to be beloved.
Other plants equally in request are the lotus and the champak, the latter being a plant of the greatest rarity. The jasmine, too, is reputed to be all-potent in love-matters; and it may be remembered how Moore represents the enchantress Namouna, who was skilled in all manner of charms and talismans, instructing Nourmahal to gather at midnight certain blossoms which would have the effect, when twined into a wreath, of recalling her Selim's love. Accordinly, the flowers having been duly gathered as directed, the enchantress Namouna, whilst singing the following invocatory lines, weaves the mystic chaplet which is to have such wondrous influence:
The image of love, that nightly flies
To visit the bashful maid,
Steals from the jasmine flower, that sighs
Its soul, like hers, in the shade.
The dream of a future or happier hour,
That slights on Misery's brow,
Springs out of the almond silvery flower,
That blooms on a leafless bough.
Beans are said to have been accounted efficacious as love-philtres. The case is recorded of an old woman who was scourged through the city of Cremona for having endeavoured to conciliate the affections of a young man through the medium of some beans over which mass had been celebrated. Indeed, all kinds of ingredients seem to have been used in the preparation of these amatory spells, and it is recorded how a young woman in the seventeenth century was indicte by the legal authorities of Leipsic for administering a love-philtre composed of bread, hair, and nails, to a man, whom it sickened.
Occasionally, in foreign countries, confidence was reposed in the power of written charms, which were administered in drink or food to the person whose love it was desired to secure. In some cases, it would seem, such philtres were considered to have the desired effect without being swallowed. Thus, St Jerome relates how a young man passionately enamoured of a damsel of Gaza, having failed in the usual amatory charms, repaired to the priests of AEsculapius at Memphis, from whom he acquired magical faculties. Returning after a year’s absence, he introduced certain mystical words and figures sculptured on Cyprian brass beneath the lady’s door. This contrivance had the desired effect, for soon she began to rave on his name, ‘to wander with uncovered head and dishevelled hair, for she had become distracted through the vehemence of love.' But in cases of this kind there was not always the same success. We are told, for instance, how a Norwegian peasant whose suit had been rejected sought to inspire the lady he loved with corresponding affection by mystical means. So he carved certain Runic characters on pieces of wood; but not being sufficiently skilful in this mode of talismanic science, instead of furthering his purpose, he did the reverse, and threw the damsel into a dangerous illness. Fortunately, a northern chief witnessing her sufferings, and hearing that Runic characters had been carved, sculptured those that he considered more appropriate, which being laid beneath her pillow, soon restored her to convalescence.
Oftentimes philtres were expressly given to counteract the effects of love, and to soothe the susceptibilities of those who were suffering from misapplied affection. Thus the Savaea Indica, a species of the willow, one of the sacred plants of India, had the reputation of driving away all feelings of love; and the amaranth was thought to be a good antidote to love. The water-lily was supposed to possess a similar property, and the Agnus castus was given to calm despairing lovers. In short, there was no lack of expedients resorted to in bygone years either for inspiring or dispelling love, many an amusing instance being given in our old romances and fairy tales. Such a practice may seem ludicrous in the present age; but it cannot be forgotten how great a hold it once had on the popular mind. How far this was due to the stories circulated, is a matter of uncertainty; but tales like the following one, handed down with every semblance of truth, no doubt largely helped to propagate a piece of folly which was once productive of so many mischievous effects. The story goes that Charlemagne was enamoured of a very unattractive woman, whose corpse at her death he would not quit. Archbishop Turpin, suspecting sorcery, searched the body, and underneath the tongue found a ring. This he put on his own finger, whereupon the monarch became strangely attached to the Archbishop, who flung the ring into the lake near Aix. But the mysterious influence of the ring did not cease, for the king became so enamoured of the lake that he built a palace on its shore, where he spent the remainder of his life.
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