JON KANEKO-JAMES looks back at the strange and wonderful love spells & curses used in the UK over the centuries
Love spells seem to be one of the oldest two kinds of spell known to man: just before we decided to hit the other primeval human on the head a lá 2001 A Space Odyssey, it would seem that we first decided we’d like to make out with his hot sister.
Love magic and divination are incredibly central to many of the ways that we celebrate holidays in Britain: Halloween was sometimes called ‘Nutcrack night’ after the tradition of your couples throwing paired bunches of hazelnuts into the fire. If the two nuts burned together, the couple would stay together, if they broke apart or exploded in the heat, the couple would be destined to part.
In Worcestershire, and several other parts of the country associated with weaving, would throw a ball of wool out of the window at midnight on the full moon, believing that the first person to pick it up and whisper her name would be the man she would marry.
And that wasn’t the only way to divine the identity of your love: you could peel an apple carefully, being sure to get the skin off in one strip, and then throw it over your shoulder: where it would form the name of your proposed lover. Another technique much vaunted in Medieval/Early Modern England was to drip either hot lead of wax into a cup of cold water, where it would form a shape symbolic to the profession of your future love.
And divination wasn’t the only resource that lovers could resort to: just as the Ancient Greeks used gruesome love magic including lizard penises and bat semen, the Medieval British turned to love spells of their own, albeit using slightly less crinegworthy components like magical dolls. One of the many accusations in the horrific Scottish witch trials of the 1590s was that a cabal of witches had used a wax image of King James VIth to gain control of the monarch in order to strengthen the position of his court competitor, the Earl of Bothwell. The simplest effigy spell I’ve ever heard is from Leonard. R. N. Ashley’s Complete Book of Spells and Curses: take the bone from a sheep’s shoulder and a sharp knife. Pierce the shoulder bone and say:
“It is not this bone I wish to stick,
But the heart of N, I wish to prick,
Be he asleep or wide awake,
I’d have him come to me and speak.”
By far the nastiest, and strangest, spell I’ve ever seen is this enchantment, also collected in Ashley’s Complete Book of Spells and Curses:
At midnight on a Monday, Wednesday or Thursday, the witch prepares a fire. She then takes a small amount of salt in either hand, adds a bit of coriander and a small piece of sardine and passes the mixture from hand to hand, saying:
“I conjure thee, salt and corriander,
And the Devil: I conjure thee.”
She then throws the mixture onto the fire and says:
“Thus, as thou art burning,
Let the heart of (name) burn,
And bring it hear to me here.
“I conjure thee by the Sardine Queen,
And by the anme of Hell,
And by the Navigators who sail the sea.
“I call thee (name),
And by the Devil, I conjure thee,
Him that is most able
By all the Devils in Hell,
Devil of the Star,
Enter into (name),
And bring him here to me,
Devil of the abattoire,
Guide him here to me;
Devils of the Cocodover,
Bring him here to be as fast as you can…”
Now, most of the formula of this spell dates back to the same sort of thing we see all the way across Europe and Near East: bring me a lover as fast as possible, regardless of whether they want to come, and hurt them if they resist. It’s a formula repeated by men against women, women against men, gerbils against… lady gerbils? The thing that really gets me is the fact that the components look more like something you’d have on toast than the wicked components of a terrible magical spell (and I read a lot of this stuff; salt for purification, yes, but coriander?) I suppose, I just can’t take it entirely seriously when I imagine some wicked 17th Century witch (naked and smeared in ointment, as the definitely-not-sexually-motivated inquisitors liked to imagine them) throwing bits of Sardine into the fire and calling upon their monarch to deliver her lover. Maybe it’s just me. Maybe you had to be there. I’ll admit though, it doesn’t beat the Greeks and their lizard-penis-rohypnol.