Toil and Trouble: Gnarly history of love spells & why it's best not to mess with people's free will
To make a “Love Potion,” according to The Complete Idiot’s Guide to Wicca and Witchcraft: Second Edition by Denise Zimmermann and Katherine A. Gleason (2003), you will need:
4 oz. distilled water
4 drops of lavender oil
5 drops cinnamon oil
3 drops clove oil
1 pinch Dragon’s blood powder (a natural plant resin)
1 small rose quartz crystal
Once all the ingredients are secured, the potion maker is instructed to combine them in a bottle, where they can sit for a specified number of days while getting infused with the maker’s intent. If this sounds nothing like the spell from William Shakespeare’s Macbeth (1606), it’s because “toil and trouble,” are not part of the contemporary witches' currency, who mostly deal in intention and herbalogy, along with some other philosophies, while adhering to the rule of three.
“Fire burn and cauldron bubble,” clearly provided for some impactful imagery, since pop culture is saturated with depictions of exactly that. And why not? Throughout history, people have never shied away from trying some seriously questionable things to obtain what they desire. But, more balanced and, dare we say it, scientific approaches have also been employed. And while the efficacy of some attempts is hard to measure, their history is incredibly interesting to explore.
Take, for example, The Book of Secrets of Albertus Magnus: Of the Virtues of Herbs, Stones and Certain Beasts. Though the work is attributed to the German Dominican friar, philosopher, scientist, and bishop, Albertus Magnus (1200 - 1280), also known as Saint Albert the Great and Albert of Cologne, it is more likely a collection of teachings and observations compiled by one or more of his followers. Indeed, the esteemed Catholic saint dabbled in a variety of magic.
The spells contained therein perfectly demonstrate some of the gnarly magical instruction that was around in Shakespear’s time, thereby influencing the profiles and antics of Macbeth’s supernatural entities. “Compiled in Latin near the end of the thirteenth century and translated into all major European languages, the book first appeared in English around 1550 and was subsequently reprinted many times over the next ninety years.”
A featured love spell entails mixing crushed earthworms with periwinkle; when consumed by one's spouse, it is supposed to boost affection between the couple. While this is more likely to boost one’s chances of gastric distress, during the Middle Ages, animal products were ”a common component in [spells, including] love potions, with recipes calling for anything from the fat of a snake and the head of a sparrow to the blood of a bat and the heart of a pigeon.”
In Secreti Medicinali (1561), Italian physician Pietro Bairo (1468 - 1558) writes that carrying a beryl stone will increase the love between a couple, while a magnet may reconcile them, and that wearing a crow’s heart will make them mutually supportive. He also suggests taking August-born swallows and putting them in a big pan, alive; baking them until they are shriveled; making a powder out of them and gifting said powder to a couple for more delightful kissing.
Since we’ve already touched on Shakespeare, let’s take a look at another reference to magic, this time in A Midsummer Night’s Dream (1605). In it, a fairy called Puck employs a love potion made from a flower called “love-in-idleness,” also known as the wild pansy (Viola tircola). Apparently, it was hit by Cupid’s arrow, which was intended for “the imperial votaress” (Queen Elizabeth I), but missed her. As a result, its juice became magic and its petals changed color.
This example is closer to the modern world of spells and witchcraft. Much like shamans, practitioners are considered healers with great knowledge of plants and herbs’ powerful properties. So when witches and Wiccan's need a little help in their lives, they turn to magic and employ the help of long-established pagan tradition to find it. But an ethics code prevents them from messing with other people’s free will; “harm none” is a cardinal rule in the Wiccan Rede.
This rule is ignored by Puck, who is instructed to place the magical pansy potion on Titania’s eyes, which would cause her to fall madly in love with her estranged husband Oberon upon waking up and seeing him. “The juice of it on sleeping eyelids laid/ will make man or woman madly dote/ upon the next live creature that it sees,” wrote William Shakespeare (1564 - 1616). It didn’t go well, as she saw someone else instead.
Stories and folklore are replete with examples of magical experiments failing when the cardinal rule is broken. “For example, in the legendary tragedy Tristan and Isolde, which has Celtic origins, a young couple drink a love potion that catapults them into all-consuming infatuation, which is super inconvenient given that Isolde is already engaged to marry Tristan’s uncle, King Mark.” The Celts who have been around since the Iron Age, were clearly onto something.
It makes sense, then, that practitioners of magic are expected to be responsible, especially when it comes to love. As such, spells and potions for this purpose are intended to work inward, like using magic to help them feel more worthy of love, or to attract unconditional love into their life. And while manipulating other people’s feelings, threatening their individual romantic and/or sexual autonomy, or otherwise harming them, is taboo, not all people heed the advice.
In 1957, a man from from Vineland, New Jersey, was arrested for the murder of a 13-year-old boy, who was decapitated and then buried on a farm where the man worked. The murderer “told police he had been studying black magic and needed a human skull to make into dust for a love potion to cast spells on women. He showed police where the skull was hanging on a string inside a two-burner kerosene stove in his quarters. He apparently was attempting to dry it out.”
While these are some extreme examples, there is reason to believe that some spells and potions were made with scientifically backed ingredients. Certain natural “aphrodisiacs” can help get someone in the mood, like ginkgo, which has been shown to boost blood flow to the genitals in both men and women. Furthermore, some studies have suggested that both maca and ginseng may be able to improve sexual function and combat erectile dysfunction.
The fact is, some herbs and spices from antiquity are no longer around for a variety of reasons, as such, studying their supposed benefits is difficult at best. But, attempts at brewing the perfect potion or sourcing the right ingredients for a spell, or finding the right aphrodisiac, have preoccupied humanity since ancient times. It’s no wonder that so many variants of spells have popped up in different cultures around the world.
Fortunately, National Geographic has compiled a few notable ones, so let's take a look below:
When mixed with herbs, the eggs of Uganda’s gray crowned crane — a bird that mates for life — are said to increase affection and monogamy.
In Africa, the bark of the yohimbe tree is said to have certain aphrodisiac qualities when steeped in hot water and consumed as tea.
Rum, honey, and red wine are mixed with tree bark and herbs to create mama juana, an aphrodisiac for men and women of the Dominican Republic.
The people of Madura Island in East Java are known for their jamu ramuan, a concoction of herbs that, when ingested, restores youth to women and makes them more desirable to their husbands.
On Dragobete day, the Romanian day of love, frozen snow is collected and its water used as a magic potion by young girls. The water is said to ward off illness for the rest of the year.
The Lappish Love Potion in Finland is an alcoholic brew made from blueberries instead of yeast.
Chocolate–used by the Aztecs as an aphrodisiac–has high levels of serotonin and Phenylethylamine, mood-lifting agents found in the human brain that increase energy and produce certain euphoric effects.
Eat your veggies: In the 19th century, asparagus–known for its aphrodisiac qualities–was served to grooms before their wedding night; in ancient Greece, carrots were consumed by both men and women to make them more desirable to each other.
And the quest isn’t over yet. Apparently, neuroscientists at the University of Oxford are proposing the possibility of producing “love drugs,” that could theoretically strengthen relationships. Furthermore, the idea of potential “anti-love” drugs that could be used to alleviate the pain associated with breakups, unrequited love, and other forms of heartbreak, is also being explored. And that’s fine, as long as we stick to the cardinal rule of love potion making: Do no harm.