51 Finding the “Other” in Classics: Researching the Yoruba Society to Understand Erotic Magic and Ritual in Ancient Rome
by Kate Shimamoto
This paper is largely inspired by Shelley Haley’s “Black Feminist Thought and Classics: Re-Membering, Re-Claiming, Re-Empowering” where she analyzes the ancient world through an afrocentric feminist viewpoint. Haley’s work is revolutionizing how we approach and study antiquity, and I hope this paper helps honor the powerful impact she has made on Classics.
Classics, by definition, establishes an “other” as it divides the Ancient Greco-Roman world from the rest of the Mediterranean. Even though Ancient Rome was comprised of many diverse cultures, the majority of classical scholarship and curricula only focuses on Ancient Greece and Rome. Through the disregard of non-Greco-Roman civilizations, the way we study Classics preserves the same exclusionary and xenophobic attitudes that the Romans held towards foreign societies. However, how much more could we understand about Rome by researching and contrasting previously disregarded “other” societies of the Mediterranean?
This project is a comparative study between Ancient Rome and Yoruba that analyzes the gendering of erotic magic in antiquity. As seen in both cultures, magic was mainly associated with women in literature even though it was practiced by all people, regardless of class or gender. Using an afrocentric feminist approach, this type of research contextualizes Rome within the broader cultural world of the Mediterranean to better understand how magic was perceived in the Roman society.
Magic in Antiquity
Magic was ubiquitous throughout the Ancient Mediterranean and was an important aspect in the spiritual lives of the ancient people. In particular, erotic sorcery was a popular form of magic practiced by people of all classes and genders. Erotic magic was most commonly used to inflict sexual longing or attraction in a subject, confine a subject to celibacy or fidelity, or induce or treat impotence and infertility. This magic existed in many forms, including potions, binding spells, lead curse tablets, and Kolossoi voodoo figurines.
The Greek Magical Papyri is one of the largest surviving collections of spells, hymns, and rituals that gives scholars insight into these erotic magical practices. Discovered in Egypt, these papyrus texts detail specific instructions and formulas to perform sex magic. Translated below is an example of a typical agoge binding spell from the Papyri.
Agoge VI: […] Let her not be able to sleep for the entire night, but lead her until she comes to his feet, loving him with a frenzied love, with affection and with sexual intercourse. For I have bound her brain and hands and viscera and genitals and heart for the love of me1
Agoge VI is a spell that was performed by men to inflict eros on a female subject. In addition to incanting the words, this agoge instructs the male to have a Kolossoi doll of the subject to further strengthen the binding. The majority of spells found in The Greek Magical Papyri describe magic being performed by a male in a similar structure as Agoge VI. However, several spells exist that either do not specify the gender of the caster or were written for females specifically. Agoge IV is an example of a binding spell that would have been performed by either a male or a female.
Agoge IV: Take a shell from the sea and draw on it with myrrh ink the figure of Typhon given below, and in a circle write his names, and throw it into the heating chamber of a bath. But when you throw it, keep reciting these words engraved in a circle2
Gendering of Magic in Roman Literature
While material records indicate that magic was used mostly by men, Roman literature portrays women as the main practitioners of sex magic. Oftentimes these women were depicted as using magic in manipulative and controlling ways. One example of this can be seen in book III of Ovid’s Amores, as he blames his impotence on the witchcraft of a vengeful woman:
Was I the wretched victim of charms and herbs, or did a witch curse my name upon a red wax image and stick fine pins into the middle of the liver? […] What prevents the cessation of my energy being due to magical practices? It is perhaps from that source that my powers became inadequate. Shame also played a part, for my very shame at what happened inhibited me. 3
Here, a female witch is accused of using magic to take away Ovid’s manhood, undermining his power and identity as a male. In a symbolic sense, this magical ability of women threatens Rome’s patriarchal society and the domination of the phallus. This passage would elicit great fear in any Roman man reading this, perpetuating the negative association of women and magic.
In addition, unlike male casters of magic, females were lumped under the monolithic label, “witch”. Similar to how the names of women like Dido and Cleopatra are rarely mentioned in ancient literature, the name witch takes away the identity and individuality of women spell casters by reducing them to a group. In addition, the label witch allowed for generalizations to be made, as witches were often stereotyped as dangerous and untrustworthy old hags. This characterization was likely reflective of the fear surrounding females having power from magic. Female prostitutes were also often generalized as witches due to their ability in seducing others. In a conversation between Glycera and Thais from Dialogues of the Courtesans, Glycera explains how Gorgonia’s mother brewed pharmaka to help Gorgonia seduce a male client, stating
Why, Thais, you don’t 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? Why, they 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.4
Even though Gorgonia was balding and not very attractive, the magic potion still encaptured the desire of the client. Again, we can see discomfort in the text due to the power Gorgonia holds. Her seductiveness is therefore blamed on her manipulation and trickery of the client through using sex magic. Since prostitutes threatened theself-control of others (namely males) as seen with the client, they were associated with sex magic and witches.
Lastly, even the Greek language is structured to associate magic with women. The Ancient Romans believed that magic was carried out by spirits called Daimones. In many texts, Daimones is written to be read as a female noun, emphasizing that the supernatural biddings are done by females. In addition, the word Pharmakis, which is used to refer to women, can also be interchanged to mean drugs and incantations.
Magic and its Perception in Yoruba
The practice of magic and ritual were main centerpieces in the spiritual and religious beliefs of the Ancient Youruba people. Magic was closely tied with the Yoruba deity Oshun, who was also the goddess of love, fertility, pregnancy, romance, marriage, and healing. These spells often called on the goddess to promote fertility or to help with medicinal rituals and healing. In Yoruba society, there was a clear differentiation between gender roles; women’s greatest authority came from their role as a mother and the caretaking of others. Like Ancient Rome, there is a similar association of magic with females and feminine gender roles.4 Lucian, Dialogues of the Courtesans ed. and trans. M. D. Macleod, Loeb Classical Library (Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 1936-1967) pp. 358.
However, when magic was linked with the deity Ifá, the Yoruba god of divination, magic rituals were often used to control and restrain women. One type of magic practice is mágùn, which directly translates to “do not mount/fuck”. Records from Yoruba herbalists that practiced mágùn indicate that men secretly gave women this drug to control their virginity outside of marriage or to stop infidelity within marriage. If a female is infected with mágùn and breaks these constraints, she would break out in boils, pox, and other illnesses within seven days and would sometimes even die. In addition, if the female committed adultery with a male lover, the penis of the love affair was believed to become stuck and cause severe pain until the husband cancelled the spell. Through the occult of mágùn, males had control over a female’s body.
Compared to its actual practice, mágùn was portrayed vastly different in stories. Written below is an account that describes the affair between a wife unknowingly under this curse and her paramour.
At around 9 a.m., Mr. Akínléye dropped by to see his girlfriend. After greeting the people in the house, the woman welcomed him into her room. Thus Mr. Akínléye entered the trap that ended his life. He somersaulted three times and was gone to the home of no return. When the police came to investigate the incident they were surprised to see the condition of Akínléye’s trousers, and also of his penis, which had remained erect.5
Contradictory to how mágùn was actually experienced, this story portrays the male lover as the victim even though the curse was placed on the wife. Mr. Akinléye’s death redirects the blame from the husband (who laid the curse) to the wife herself, essentially condemning the wife for her own subjugation. This mirrors how Ancient Roman literature also skewed the narrative of erotic magic as a predominantly female practice used to manipulate others. Both portrayals employ gender inversion by describing women as the ones with threatening power and agency over men; this false narrative was then used to justify mágùn and the ostracism of witchcraft, reinforcing the systems that take away female agency in the first place.
In comparing how erotic magic in Yoruba and Rome was portrayed, I found that many of these connections reveal underlying dynamics of the societies themselves. In Yoruba, magic was primarily centered around marriage, chastity, and healing. As Shelley Haley articulates in “Be Not Afraid of the Dark”6, marriage was a societal expectation as motherhood was highly valued in Yoruba culture. Mágùn manifested out of a fear of women finding power outside of motherhood, breaking the system of marriage that placed women in a role of dependency to have value. In contrast, Roman magic often portrayed women as tricksters who used magic to emasculate or gain power over men. This narrative reflects the underlying fear of women gaining power in Ancient Rome and its threat to the patriarchal dominance of the phallus. Thus, this type of literature was a response to the tension that would have existed in society to restrain women. Ultimately, the portrayal of magic in both Yoruba and Rome reflect the fear of female agency and the deconstruction of ingrained systems from women getting power.
Reflection Analyzing the Yoruba and Roman worlds from an afrocentric, feminist viewpoint has been some of the most meaningful research I have ever done, and will forever change how I approach Classics. However, this project was also an experience in itself trying to navigate the great lack of resources/scholarship to compare Yoruba and Ancient Rome. Beyond Shelley Haley’s work, there is very little scholarship that compares Yoruba with Rome (or any African/Near-Eastern civilization for that matter) from an afrocentric viewpoint and nothing in the context of magic. Because there is no secondary scholarship to build upon, this research felt overwhelming at times as there is so much unexplored information. This also required lots of time to be dedicated towards sifting through primary sources and completely drawing my own conclusions, which can be intimidating. In the secondary sources I did read, it was challenging to see beyond the western slant and to differentiate bias from actual information. I recognize that my own work still reflects these types of biases, but I hope that continuing to grow my understanding of African civilizations will make seeing through this bias easier.
To be completely honest, I had no idea where this project was going to go or what connections I would find, if any. However, even in the relatively small amount of research, there were many powerful and insightful conclusions that help better understand both Yoruba and Roman society. It is astounding to imagine how much we could learn about the Ancient world if this type of scholarship was practiced throughout the field. As a young Classicist, it is inspiring to see how much incredibly meaningful work there is left to uncover. I hope that someday this kind of cross-cultural work will be a regular part of Classical curricula to more holistically and responsibly understand the Ancient Mediterranean world.
1 Hans Dieter Betz, The Greek Magical Papyri in Translation, Including the Demotic Spells (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1996) PGM 4.296-466.
2 Hans Dieter Betz, The Greek Magical Papyri in Translation, Including the Demotic Spells (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1996) PGM 7.467-77.
3 Ovid. Heroides. Amores. Translated by Grant Showerman. Revised by G. P. Goold. Loeb Classical Library 41. (Harvard University Press, 1914) pp. 476.
4 Lucian, Dialogues of the Courtesans ed. and trans. M. D. Macleod, Loeb Classical Library (Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 1936-1967) pp. 358.
5 Schiltz, M. A YORUBA TALE OF MARRIAGE, MAGIC, MISOGYNY AND LOVE. (Journal of Religion in Africa, 2002) 32(3), pp. 335–365.
6 Haley, Shelley Be Not Afraid of the Dark: Critical Race Theory and Classical Studies. (Prejudice and Christian Beginnings: Investigating Race, Gender and Ethnicity in Early Christian Studies, 2009) pp 27-50.