Ancient Greek Love Magic – Spells for Separation: Curses, Sacred Words and a Magical Papyrus for Binding Lovers

In ancient Greece all forms of unrequited love had magical solutions. The lover could send Eros to do his bidding, curse the loved into her arms, or use aphrodisiacs.

In the ancient Greek world not all was fair in war, but it certainly was in love. Ancient Greek spell books and collections abound with magical cures for heartache. Though spells for attracting a mate were certainly most common, scorned and jealous lovers often sought not to attract but to separate.

Cursing Tablets were the Common Form of Separation

The most popular manner of cursing in all of Classical Antiquity was through cursing tablets, also known as defixiones. Over 1,600 such tablets have been found. Traditionally, the tablet was made of lead, the curse was inscribed in the lead, and then it was folded or rolled up and pierced shut with a nail and deposited, usually in a cemetery.

Defixiones were the most common form of separation magic in the ancient Greek world. They were used sometimes with the intent of separating two particular individuals, and sometimes to separate a person from an entire gender. That is the case of this fourth century BCE cursing tablet from Athens:

“I bind Aristocydes and the women who show off to him. He is never to have sex with another woman or youth.”

In this particular spell, there is some confusion as to the translation. The Greek word for youth or child, pais, could refer to unwed young women. The word could also, as it usually did, refer to young boys. In that case, the curser sought to keep Aristocydes away from sex entirely, including pederasty.

Magic Writing on Papyrus and Repeating Sacred Names

A common theme among the separation spells of Hellenistic Egypt is the writing of a simple command on either papyrus or pottery shard, sometimes with an ink of magical qualities such as the blood of a black ass, followed by the sevenfold reciting of magical names. Magical names, or words of power, were particularly important in later Greek magic. Their use allowed the speaker to tap into the great power of the gods or demons and set the magician’s desire into motion. Often they were adaptations of foreign deity names, at times even including figures of Christian myth.

One such spell was to be written in a mixture of dung, hair of the dead and fresh blooms:

“[Write] on the papyrus with my ink, saying: ‘May {name}, born of {name}, hate {name}!’ And you recite these true names over it 7 times … Here are the true names: IAKYMBIAI IAO, IOERBETH, IOBOLGHOSETH, BASELE OM, GITATHNAGS, APSOPS, O.EL.T”

Combining Separation and Attraction Spells

Separation spells could sometimes be combined with the attraction element, such as this fourth century BCE Macedonian defixio that attempts to separate a betrothed couple while allowing the man to be attracted to no one but the spellcaster:

“I register the rite and the marriage of Thetima and Dionysophon and those of all other women, widows, and maidens alike, but especially that of Thetima, and I deposit this spell with Macron and the demons. If I were ever to dig up, unroll, and read this tablet again, then may Dionysophon marry, but not before. May he take no woman other than me, and let me grow old beside Dionysophon, and no other woman. I am a supplicant woman before you. Take pity on Phila, dear demons.”


  1. Betz, H. D. (ed.), The Greek Magical Papyri in Translation Including the Demotic Spells, Chicago 1986.
  2. Collins, D., Magic in the Ancient Greek World, Oxford 2008.
  3. Ingemark, C. & Ingemark, D., Sagor och svartkonst under antiken, Lund 2004.