Yo, Melanthios, I ain’t sure this dead-eyed witch sellin’ phallus curses is on the level

Fillet of a fenny snake,
In the cauldron boil and bake;
Eye of newt and toe of frog,
Wool of bat and tongue of dog,
Adder’s fork and blind-worm’s sting,
Lizard’s leg and owlet’s wing,
For a charm of powerful trouble,
Like a hell-broth boil and bubble.

The quote above is from the three witches, the Weird Sisters, in MacBeth. It reflects a genuine belief in folklore and tradition that magic sometimes required the use of obscene, gruesome ingredients. We have accounts of this from second hand sources, and also from sources written or even used by magic practitioners. However, there’s one particular page of papyrus written in Greek, dating from the 4th century AD that sort of pulls the pants down on this whole notion.

In a column on the left it lists assorted strange or gruesome spell components supposedly used in witchcraft and magic. In a column on the right it lists what each one actually represents. You see, according to the anonymous authors, their local magicians were filthy liars.

It was theatrics. If you made things seem more weird and gruesome and mystical, more people were likely to think you were legit. Given that many magicians in the ancient world were in it to make a buck, bullshitting of this nature was a valuable talent. It also meant your rivals weren’t sure what sort of stuff you were using, and if you did use weird and exotic ingredients, it meant you had some more mundane stuff to fall back on when supplies were low.

Here’s the twin lists, translated from Greek* (the headers are mine):

Name Used By Magicians

Actual Identity of item

head of snake

leech

ball of thread of snake

Wax stone

blood of snake

hematite

Bone of ibis

buckthorn

blood of hyrax-rock

this really is the blood of hyrax-rock

tears of baboon

juice of dill

dung of crocodile

Egyptian earth

blood of baboon

blood of gecko

seed of lion

seed of human

blood of Hephaestus

wormwood

hairs of baboon

seed of dill

seed of Hermes

dill

blood of Ares

purslane

blood from the eye

gall of tamarisk

blood from the shoulder

thorny plant

blood from the loins

chamomile

bile of human

juice of turnip[?]

tail of pig

scorpion tail [i.e. a plant]

bone of doctor

sandstone

blood of Hestia

chamomile

eagle

wild garlic

blood of goose

mulberry milk

spice of Cronus

piglet milk

hairs of lion

tongue of turnip [?]

blood of Cronus

cedar… [gap in text]

seed of Helios

white hellebore

seed of Heracles

rocket

blood of a Titan

wild lettuce

blood from the head

lupine

seed of bull

egg of dung beetle

heart of hawk

heart of wormwood

seed of Hephaestus

this means fleabane

seed of Ammon

houseleek

seed of Ares

clover

fat from the head

spurge

fat from the bell

earth apple

fat from the foot

houseleek

————————————————————————————————————————-

*Daniel Ogden, Magic, Witchcraft, and Ghosts in the Greek and Roman World: A Sourcebook, (New York: Oxford University Press, Inc, 2009), 198.

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