Helena and magic

Helena and magic
450-440 BCE. Attic crater with red figures by the Painter of Menelaus, found in Egnatia (Apulia, Italy) and preserved in the ‘Musée du Louvre’ (Paris). In the detail, Menelaus tries to strike Helen, but mesmerized by her beauty, he drops his sword. Aphrodite and Eros watch the scene. Photography by Stéphane Maréchalle (2017) © ‘RMN-Grand Palais’ (‘Musée du Louvre’)

Helena and magic

I. Female divinities associated with magic

The boundary between magic, medicine, and ritual in the ancient world was quite blurred. As an example, the word phármakon identifies both healing remedies and deadly poisons, as well as love potions. These phármaka were produced from natural elements (herbs, flowers, roots, resins, etc.), within the reach of individuals specialized in their medical and/or religious use, but also by those who only possessed folk knowledge, primarily among women, who transmitted this knowledge through a feminine network.

Literary sources describe this practice, not without the tinge of misogyny that accompanies descriptions of women who break dominant norms. Helen of Sparta, daughter of the mortal Leda and Zeus, possessed a magical and hypnotic beauty that enchanted anyone who beheld her, including her husband Menelaus, who, in the image, drops his weapon, powerless. In an epic passage (Odyssey IV, 220-232), Helen describes to her guests some very gruesome scenes from the Trojan War, but before that, she offers them wine adulterated with a phármakon, a gift from Polydamna, an Egyptian woman: whoever drinks it will be able to forget their sufferings and be immune to pain.

This exchange of phármaka is also attested to in Greek tragedy. For example, Phaedra’s nurse proposes to her mistress the support of a network of women and the pharmakópeia they control: «If you are sick with some ailment that cannot be revealed, here are some women to help you face it »  (Euripides, Hippolytus, vv. 293-294, translation mine).

The mastery of these healing resources, where gender intersects with class, is one of the elements that converge in the stereotype of the femme fatale and the manipulative sorceress, who uses her sexuality and magical potions interchangeably.


Sara Palermo