Erotic magic and prostitution

Erotic magic and prostitution
Circa 490 BCE. Hetera at the symposium, Attic cup with red figures attributed to the painter Makron. Phtography by Marie-Lan Nguyen (2011) © Metropolitan Museum of Art

Erotic magic and prostitution

II. Magic in women’s daily lives

Unable to maintain relations with his beloved, Ovid (Amores III 7, 49ff.) blames magical filters. The fact that this is the only explanation the poet conceives for this event indicates how widespread was the idea that women possessed or resorted to magical knowledge to attract and keep sexual partners, and how strong was the belief in the efficacy of these practices.

Greco-Roman literature exploited this stereotype, especially in misogynistic satirical stories and poems such as the Dialogues of Courtesans by the Greek writer Lucian of Samosata (2nd century AD). Through them, the supposed life of prostitutes is recreated, a model of a woman far removed from the feminine ideal of the time. These dialogues, with an important component of female rivalry, are the perfect arena in which to develop this rhetoric. They also show the extent to which contemporary audiences assumed that prostitutes engaged in these practices. 

Luciano depicts the female characters with this knowledge as stigmatized by multiple labels that make them an other, the accumulation of which constitutes the stereotype of contemporary witches: foreign, of low social class and dubious reputation, unmarried or widowed, old, poor and sexually uninhibited. However, this stereotype also served as a social excuse for the men who spent their fortunes on courtesans: they were subjugated by their spells.

«Glycera: Why, Thais, do you think the Acarnanian has fallen for her beauty? Don’t you know that her mother, Chrysarium, is a witch who knows Thessalian spells, and can bring the moon down? People say she even flies of a night. She’s the one who’s sent the fellow out of his senses by giving him a drink of her brew, and now they’re making a fine harvest out of him.» (Luc., DMeretr. I 281 ff.; translated by M. D. MacLeod).


Miriam Blanco Cesteros y Raquel Martín Hernández