Catalina Popescu (University of Texas at Austin)
Scholarship has investigated the pharmaceutical value of love filters as situated in between aphrodisiacs and poisons. The ancients were aware of the nefarious properties of these filters, as we see in Antiphon’s Speech against the Stepmother. In societies with arranged marriages, where romantic relationships appeared suspicious (see Elpinice’s romance with Callias, Laurin 2005, pp. 181-2), falling under the erotic power of a woman was also viewed as somewhere between bewitchment and malady (Keuls, 1985, Faraone, 1999, 43, Musharbash, 2010, 272-88, Müller, 1998, 617–27, Págan Cánovas, 2011, 553–79, Sandroni, 2001, 303–7). In modern Romanian, the etymology of “erotic charm” is pharmakon (“farmec”), which shows that such an elusive substance could affect someone simply “on sight”.
Smiting beauty has a “binding” effect over the body of the beholder. Sappho even associated contemplation of a beloved with physical sickness and even lipotimia (31.6-10). Similarly, in Homer’s Iliad, Zeus falls physically under the spell of Hera with a little help from Aphrodite’ magic sash. Exercising her rights as a presba thea (Il.14.194) (which strangely evokes both revered seniority and postmenopausal status), Hera borrows a love token (Il. 14.193-240) for the purpose of seducing and distracting Zeus. Love has narcotic properties particularly when doubled by the spell of Hypnos. Sleep is thus a divine companion of eroticism and a natural consequence of erotic climax. In Homer, sleep translates as dangerous weakness and absence of crucial action, since love costs Zeus precious time on the battlefield.
In the story of Cupid and Psyche, Aphrodite herself is in the position of Hera and needs a special box of pharmaka from Persephone for her faded beauty since her maternal care for Cupid supposedly “wasted” her natural charms away (Met. 6.16). Similarly, to the Iliad, the pharmaceuticals inside have an elusive nature, and a soporific result. The naive narrator (Lucius) even says that there was not beauty in the box, just a deadly sleep which overwhelms curious Psyche (Met. 6.21: nec, formositas ulla, sed infernus somnus ac vere Stygius). The savvy reader though needs to read the episode in the established tradition regarding love filters, physiology of seduction, and erotically induced narcosis, where beauty itself is the carrier of a toxic state of torpor. Psyche’s innocence of filters, magic potions and narcotic properties of eroticism nearly kills her. What was meant to stimulate erotic desire is followed by overpowering sleep since mind-altering seduction ultimately has cataleptic properties which affect the body as a whole. As a result, Psyche falls into a comatose state, close to death, very similar to the effect magic filters have had when overused on hapless targets.
Read in the context of love potions and the episode in the Iliad, the pyxis of Persephone indeed contains beauty in its toxic and narcotic form known and dreaded by poets and empiric healers alike. The box contains the essence of Aphrodite and that of Persephone combined, since both are ancient lethal forces. According to Apuleius, Persephone is in truth another side of Aphrodite (Met. 11.6). Eros and Thanatos are intertwined in toxic beauty.