Ancient 'Mad Libs' Papyri Contain Evil Spells of Sex and Subjugation
Ancient, magical spells of love, subjugation and sex: It may sound like a "Game of Thrones" episode, but these evildoings are also found on two recently deciphered papyri from Egypt dating to around 1,700 years ago.
One spell invokes the gods to "burn the heart" of a woman until she loves the spell caster, said Franco Maltomini of the University of Udine in Italy, who translated the two spells. Another spell, targeted at a male, uses a series of magical words to "subject" him, forcing him to do whatever the caster wants.
The two spells were not targeted at a specific person. Rather, they were written in such a way that the person who cast the spell would only need to insert the name of the person being targeted — sort of like an ancient "Mad Libs." [In Photos: Two Ancient Curses Discovered in Italy]
Researchers date the two spells to the third century A.D., but the names of the ancient spell writers are unknown. The spells are written in Greek, a language widely used in Egypt at the time.
Archaeologists Bernard Grenfell and Arthur Hunt discovered the spells in Oxyrhynchus, Egypt, more than 100 years ago, among a haul of hundreds of thousands of papyri. Over the past century, scientists have gradually studied and translated the papyri. Many of them are now owned by the Egypt Exploration Society and are housed and studied at the University of Oxford in England.
Maltomini is part of a larger group of editors and contributors from multiple institutions who analyzed and translated the most recent batch of these magical texts, which will be published in an upcoming volume of "The Oxyrhynchus Papyri," a series a books devoted to publishing the papyri from Oxyrhynchus.
A love spell
The deciphered love spell invokes several gnostic gods. (Gnosticism was an ancient religion that incorporated elements of Christianity.) It says that the spell caster should burn a series of offerings in the bathhouse (the names of the offerings didn't survive degradation) and write a spell on the bathhouse's walls, which Maltominitranslated as follows:
"I adjure you, earth and waters, by the demon who dwells on you and (I adjure) the fortune of this bath so that, as you blaze and burn and flame, so burn her (the woman targeted)whom (the mother of the woman targeted) bore, until she comes to me…”
Then, the spell names several gods and magical words. It goes on to say, "Holy names, inflame in this way and burn the heart of her…" until she falls in love with the person casting the spell.
Animal droppings and magic
The text of the other deciphered spell calls for the person casting it to engrave onto a small copper plaque a series of magical words, including the phrase translated as "subject to me the (name of the) man, whom (the name of the man's mother) bore…" and then to stitch the plaque onto something the man wears, such as a sandal.
The spell, if successful, was supposed to force the manto do whatever the spell caster wanted,the ancient text says.
On the back of that papyrus is a list of recipes that use droppings from animals to treat a wide range of conditions, including headaches and leprosy. Some of the recipes simply say that they help "promote pleasure." One recipe says that a combination of honey and droppings from a bittern bird, used in a way that isn't specified, will "promote pleasure," according tothe ancient text.
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Owen Jarus is a regular contributor to Live Science who writes about archaeology and humans' past. He has also written for The Independent (UK), The Canadian Press (CP) and The Associated Press (AP), among others. Owen has a bachelor of arts degree from the University of Toronto and a journalism degree from Ryerson University.
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