Store Banner Desktop

Store Banner Mobile

Friedrich Paul Thumann, (1834-1908), "Cupid (Eros) and Psyche."

Four Ways to Love: How the Ancient Greeks Used Magic to Fulfil Hopes, Dreams, and Desires

Getting your Trinity Audio player ready...

For the ancient Greeks, 'love' was categorized into distinct words, each representing a different kind of infatuation; which is considerably different from our ideas of generalizing all aspects and types of 'love' into a single word. This played a significant role when working with magic spells and amulets, as the intention of the magic would be focused on what kind of love or relationship a person was seeking to obtain or strengthen.

Common Terms for Love

 The most commonly used 'love' terms in Greek were:

  • agape: selfless, unconditional love. This was a love that you extended to all people, regardless if they were family members or distant strangers. It is the love that all people should strive to have towards other human beings. Agape was later translated into Latin as caritas, which is the origin of the word "charity."
  • philia: a type of love referring to friendship, and highly valued by the ancient Greeks. It was connected with deep comradely friendship, such as warriors who fought together on the battlefield. It was also about showing loyalty to your friends, sacrificing for them, and sharing your emotions with them. Philia could also refer to the love between parents and their children, although sometimes 'storge' could also be employed to explain that kind of love.
  • storge: a type of familial love. It can be similar to philia when referring to the love between parents and children. As a general idea, storge is the kind of love which comes from familiarity or dependency and, unlike philia or eros, it is not connected with any personal qualities of the other person.
  • eros: named after the Greek god of fertility, eros was usually used to say what agape and philia cannot be, or represent, which is sexual or lustful love. Eros did not always have a positive connotation as it was viewed as dangerous, an irrational form of love that could possess a person.

Magic Spells for Eros

For the people who lived in the Ancient eras, magic also served the purpose of explaining relationships between cause and effect by using ideas, analogies, and symbolism which people could relate to. In his book, "Ancient Greek Love Magic"(2001), Dr. Christoper Faraone explains about love magic and the meanings of love in ancient Greek magic.

Like most Roman era spells related to eros, it is common to find ones which commanded ghosts to prevent the female victim from enjoying everyday life and dragging her to the man who was performing the spell. Although the God Eros is mostly associated with rituals and conditions related to passionate love, Pan could also be the source of this sudden and uncontrollable love sensation.

The Eros Farnese, a Pompeiian marble.

The Eros Farnese, a Pompeiian marble. (Public Domain)

Many ancient Greek incantations were designed to induce eros seizure and some of them were very short and simple. Those spells focused on the victim’s desire in a way that was unbounded by time and space. However, this is not the case for the most popular Greek eros types of charm, the 'agoge' spell, which had a consistent narrative: it “leads” the woman immediately from the house of her father or husband to the practitioner, a movement that mimics in some obvious ways the transfer of a bride from her old home to her husband’s home, as Dr. Faraone described.

Spells narrating female victims being set on fire or the burning of figurines with herbs and spices were probably some of the most popular eros magic, or agoge spells, in Greek antiquity. They were intended to cause the woman to burn with passion.

A second type of eros magic, though not as popular or violent as other agoge spells, appears often in the context of traditional courtship and marriage: the throwing or presentation of enchanted 'apples’ or other kinds of similarly seeded fruit. Magic spells involving apples and pomegranates had been used much earlier in history, with records dating back from a 9th century BC cuneiform collections of Neo-Assyrian ritual texts.

A Red-Figure Plate with Eros as a youth making an offering.

A Red-Figure Plate with Eros as a youth making an offering. (Public Domain)

Popular Love Spells Relating to Philia intentions

Males were not the only users of love magic in ancient Greece, although they had some monopoly over spells used to induce eros, desire. Women were equally adept in performing magic spells, but the types of magic they used, and contexts in which they used them, were considerably different. They were often designed to retain or regain philia or agape, to create affection in a spouse, a lover, or some other person to whom the practitioner already had contact.

Pederastic scene at the palaestra: man and youth about to make love.

Pederastic scene at the palaestra: man and youth about to make love. (Public Domain)

Although philia spells sometimes did aim at arousing the victim’s sexual desire, the images of mad, burning passion and torture were entirely absent and generally the desired results of philia magic were docility and amiability. Indeed, this type of magic was often used to heal a broken or dysfunctional relationship or to protect a working but fragile one.

This fits well with magical practices such as the use and making of amulets, ointments, and potions which are all popular in healing magic. However, we should not idealize philia spells because, like the eros spells, some rites were clearly designed to dominate and control others by binding or debilitating them. This was well portrayed in philia spells that used binding techniques or narcotics to control their male victims. Sometimes men would become suspicious that their wives and concubines were using magic spells to control and undermine their autonomy.

Use of Knot Spells, Facial Ointments, and Amulets

A very popular ancient magical spell practice in the Near Eastern region was the tying of knots, which was aimed at inhibiting a husband’s anger. This was related to another type of magic spell of Neo-Assyrian tradition which often involved the use of knotted or beaded cords to enhance one’s attractiveness in the eyes of a superior.

Two other forms of spells, special rings and facial ointments, were also present in the Greek magical tradition and used for similar purposes. Evidence indicates that both the Greeks and Assyrians used magical rings to increase their personal charisma, especially in the eyes of their kings and masters.

Plato's Symposium, depiction by Anselm Feuerbach.

Plato's Symposium, depiction by Anselm Feuerbach. (Public Domain)

According to Dr. Faraone, Greek recipes found in a 4th-century AD magical handbook present examples of stones been worn for magical purposes: if a man wears a dendrites stone, “he will be loved ( egapemenos) and well heeded by all gods and mortals and he will be successful in whatever he wants”; or if a man wears a sapphire engraved with Aphrodite, “he will be charming, famous, and victorious in every lawsuit.” Another late Greek magical recipe claims that when aerizon, a special kind of jasper, is set in a small gold ring, it is “especially effective before kings and leaders,” a belief that seems to have been known to Pliny the Elder more than three centuries earlier.

In ancient Greek culture, women seemed to use amulets, facial ointments, and potions for very similar goals: to increase the affection, or to lessen the anger, of a husband or a male authority. These philia charms were aimed at emotional and endocrinal responses in their male targets. That was different from the agoge spells and “apple spells,” which were designed to provoke madness and lust in the female victims.

Aiding a Larger Group

The philia amulets were often made to increasing a person’s charm to all men and women, and love potions were apparently designed to change the victim’s mood, friendliness, and affection towards all who come in contact with him or her. Different effects could be achieved in order to benefit a larger group of people. For example, if a wife successfully performed philia magic on her angry husband, she was also performing a service for the whole family and perhaps even the whole neighborhood, as Dr. Faraone explained.

Painting from the lower Rhine, 1470–80, showing love magic.

Painting from the lower Rhine, 1470–80, showing love magic. (Public Domain)

The biggest differences between eros magic and philia magic probably arise from their very different origins: eros magic, in the arts of cursing - where the precise identity of the target is crucial; and philia magic, in the arts of healing and protection - where the intention of the magic spell was to have as much of a diffuse effect as possible.  Eros magic was usually performed from afar and focused strongly on the name of a single victim, while the desired effect of philia magic seemed strangely diffused.

Top image: Friedrich Paul Thumann, (1834-1908), "Cupid (Eros) and Psyche." Source: Sofi/CC BY NC 2.0

By Marina Sohma


Schodde, Carla, "Greek words for love, in context" (2013) (accessed Jan 13, 2017)

Roman Krznaric,  'the ancient greeks' 6 words for love' (2013) (accessed Jan 13, 2017)

Neel Burton, M.D. , 'The 7 types of love' (2016) (accessed Jan 17, 2017)

Smithsomian Museum, 'Magic spells in antiquity' (accessed Jan 13, 2017)

Faraone's book: (accessed Jan 13, 2017)

marinasohma's picture

Marina Sohma

Marina has an undergraduate degree in Anthropology, focused on ancient human evolution and archaeology. She did a post graduate year of studies in Renaissance History and discovered, among many things, that her passion belongs to the ancient world.

Marina is... Read More

Next article