Erotic magic and tragic heroines

Erotic magic and tragic heroines
150-125 BCE. «The council of the witches», mosaic from Pompeii, Villa of Cicero, signed by Dioscorides of Samos. Photography by Raquel Martín Hernández (2023) © Raquel Martín Hernández

Erotic magic and tragic heroines

II. Magic in women’s daily lives

Women in literature represent an other, that is, a deviant character who serves as a counterpoint to the hero and to the self-image of men and their virtues. Contrary to archaeological evidence, literature presents women as the main users of magic, especially erotic magic.

In tragedy, heroines will resort to magic as a desperate solution to keep their partners or to attract the object of their desire, which characterizes them in a very negative way.

In Sophocles’ tragedy The Women of Trachis (vv. 569 ff.), Deianeira, the wife of Hercules, deceived by the words of the centaur Nessus before his death, uses his blood as a love filter to lure her husband back. However, she herself is torn about whether to do so, as she understands that using magic is dangerous and illegitimate. In so doing, Sophocles makes an interesting distinction between knowing about these practices and simply using them:

«Of rash crimes may I never know or learn anything, and I detest women who perform them.» (Translated by H. Lloyd-Jones)

Similarly, Phaedra (Euripides, Hippolytus, vv. 509 ff.) is tempted to resort to erotic magic by her wet nurse, who warns her to let herself be advised and use the filters without wanting to know more. «Knowing more» is a stigma for women and can have legal consequences.

To this «illegitimate knowledge», and to the fear and suspicion of what women might be doing in the privacy of their own homes, are added multiple marginal characteristics such as foreignness, slavery, old age and widowhood, to create a powerful female literary stereotype.


Raquel Martín Hernández y Miriam Blanco Cesteros