Alpha, beta, beta, alpha

Melitta. Bacchis, don’t you know any of those old women — there are any number of them about, ‘Thessalians,’ they call them — they have incantations, you know, and they can make a man in love with you, no matter how much he hated you before? Do go and bring me one, there’s a dear! I’d give the clothes off my back, jewellery and all, to see Charinus here again, and to have him hate Simiche as he hates me at this moment.

Bacchis. Melitta! You mean to tell me that Charinus has gone off after Simiche, and that after making his people so angry because he wouldn’t marry the heiress, all for your sake? She was to have brought him five talents, so they said. I have not forgotten what you told me about that (…)

Well, love, I know a capital witch; she comes from Syria, such a brisk, vigorous old thing! Once when Phanias had quarrelled with me in the same way, all about nothing, she brought us together again, after four whole months; I had quite given him up, but her spells drew him back.

Melitta. What was her fee? Do you remember?

Bacchis. Oh, she was most reasonable: one drachma, and a loaf of bread. Then you have to provide salt, of course, and sulphur, and a torch, and seven pennies. And besides this, you must mix her a bowl of wine, which she has to drink all by herself; and then there must be something belonging to the man, his coat, or his shoes, or a lock of hair, or something.

Melitta. I have got his shoes.

Bacchis. She hangs them up on a peg, and fumigates them with the sulphur, throwing a little salt into the fire, and muttering both your names. Then she brings out her magic wheel, and spins it, and rattles off an incantation, such horrid, outlandish words! Well, she had scarcely finished, when; sure enough, in came Phanias; Phoebis (that was the girl he was with) had begged and implored him not to go, and his friends declared it was a shame; but the spell was too strong for them. Oh yes, and she taught me a splendid charm against Phoebis. I was to mark her footsteps, and rub out the last of them, putting my right foot into her left footprint, and my left into her right; and then I was to say: My foot on thy foot; I trample thee down! I did it exactly as she told me.

Melitta. Oh, Bacchis, dear, do be quick and fetch the witch. Acis, you see to the bread and sulphur and things.

Lucian: Dialogues of the Hetaerae, 4 (excerpts)
Translated by H. W. Fowler and F. G. Fowler

To the right of the sulphurous love charm, Love himself is kneeling: the golden ring depicts the winged Eros spinning an iynx. The magic wheel was attached to a string and was used to arouse desire or reclaim a lost love; its sound echoed the laments of a longing lover. A ring glitters on the hand of Aphrodite as well, who stands with relaxed elegance in the featured image above. She, too, holds an iynx in her right hand and supports a small Eros in her left, who is stroking her chin. This time it is Zeus who needs the witch… goddess’s expertise: his eventual success is indicated by the scene below, where – having transformed into a swan – he finds himself in the arms of Leda.

Luckily for us, in 2021 AD the horrid, outlandish words of the old hag appeared in a new translation (with minor flaws as regards sigmas and diacritics – but love doesn’t care for grammar). This is what the lament may have sounded like in the honeyed voice of the hetaira Melitta:


Gold ring from Naukratis (ca. 300 BC), inv. no. 1888,0601.1 © The Trustees of the British Museum. Featured image and details: Apulian red-figure loutrophoros (Louvre MNB 1148 Painter, ca. 330 BC), inv. no. 86.AE.680 © The J. Paul Getty Museum. Excerpt: The Works of Lucian of Samosata (Oxford: The Clarendon Press, 1905). For more outlandish adaptations, see the_miracle_aligner.

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