Erotic magic and judicial accusations

Erotic magic and judicial accusations
2nd century BCE. Papyrus with a marriage contract from Oxyrhynchus (PSI I 64). Among the clauses of the agreement the wife agrees not to administer magic drinks to her husband. Image PSIonline (2024) © ‘Biblioteca Medicea Laurenziana’, Florence

Erotic magic and judicial accusations

II. Magic in women’s daily lives

Magic does not seem to have been the subject of legal condemnation in classical or Hellenistic Greece. In cases where Greek literature testifies to the legal consequences of administering a drink that resulted in death, the conviction is for murder, not for performing magic.

Intentionality and knowledge of the art seem to have played a role in tipping the balance of justice in sentencing a person to death for administering a drink. Plato (Laws 932e ff.) says that in the case of poisoning (whether by drinking or by magic) the law should place responsibility not so much on the one who uses the poisons as on the one who knows how to make them. In this sense, Sophocles seems to excuse Deianeira (The Women of Trachis, v.1136) when the chorus says that she used the magic filter with the best of intentions.

The existing Greek testimonies of legal condemnations for the use of drink with fatal consequences always seem to fall on women. Thanks to Demosthenes (25.79-80), Plutarch (Dem. 14) and Harpocrates (s.v. Theôris) we know the case of Theôris of Lemnos. Accused of being a sorceress or a poisoner, she was condemned to death with her family for giving a man a drink with fatal consequences.  Ninos (Demosthenes 39.2 or 19.281), a priestess of mystery rites, was condemned to death for the same reason. The fear of women administering potions was so real that it was even recorded in marriage contracts, as illustrated by the marriage oath on papyrus PSI I 64: 

«I will not unite myself to another man, as women do, except to you, and I will not give you any love potion or anything harmful, either in food or drink.»


Raquel Martín Hernández y Miriam Blanco Cesteros