Our ancestors, not knowing what was responsible for temporary performance failures in apparently vigorous men, attributed them to curses, or to something absorbed by them without their knowledge.  Certain women had a reputation for rendering men incapable of serving Venus, because of spells woven by them.

In Book II of Laws, Plato advises those who marry to be careful of these charms or bindings, which trouble the peace of couples, and, in Book IX, he adds that there is a kind of curse which, “thanks to certain reputation of enchantments and of what is known as binding, convince those who intend to hurt others, that they can do it in this way, and their victims, that in using these sorts of curses, they are in fact being hurt.”.

It is very difficult, he prudently adds, to know exactly what is true about this, and even if we did, it would still not be easy to convince others of it.  It is even useless to try to prove to some strongly convinced people, that they have nothing to fear from “little wax figures”, which someone may have placed at their door, or at a crossroads, or on the tomb of their ancestors.

“He who uses charms, enchantments and any other curse of this nature, to harm by such things, if he is a fortune-teller or instructed in the art of observing prodigies, may he die.

“If, having no knowledge of these arts, he is convicted of having used curses, the tribunal will decide what he must suffer in his person or in his possessions.”

Plato admitted, in certain cases, attenuating circumstances;  but the Athenians, who particularly hated sorcerers, usually condemned them to death, without even formally judging them like other citizens.

Tibullus exclaims, doubtless on leaving one of these sagae, sorceresses, fortune-tellers or abortionists, “What should I believe?  She told me that she could paralyse my love by her enchantments and by her philtres.”  And the poet is less confident than he wants to appear.  Poor Tibullus’ misadventure is worth telling.

His friend, Delia, having fallen ill, he is very upset.  It is nothing serious, to judge by the treatment he employs:  three times around the lady’s bed, he carries purifying sulphur.  After an old lady has pronounced her magical incantations, he chases away bad dreams, by offering to the gods a pious tribute of flour and salt.  Healing follows.

But the poet is badly rewarded for his care.  It is true that ingratitude is of every epoch.  The wayward Delia, scarcely back on her feet, starts to run around with anyone who takes her fancy, and Tibullus laments and curses the unfaithful lady.

He admits, “More than once, I would hold another woman in my arms, but, at the happy moment, Venus reminded me of Delia and betrayed my ardour.  Then the lady abandoned my bed, saying that I had been cursed, and, I blush to say it, told everyone of this shameful adventure.”  Tibullus believed himself to be enchanted and this autosuggestion was enough to paralyse his genital flight.

Ovid found himself in the same unfortunate position as his friend Tibullus, with his mistress Corinna.  But it is totally unusual for him, and he is careful to insist on this point, so that there is absolutely no doubt about it in our minds.  It could only have been a subtle poison to have produced in him such a change, unless he had had a spell cast on him.

Plato evokes “wax figures” but Ovid is even more explicit:  “Is it the magical virtue of a Thessalian poison which invades my members today?  Is it an enchantment or a venomous herb, which reduces me to such a sad state;  or has a witch engraved my name on red wax and stabbed fine needles into my liver?”

This seems to prove that, in Ovid’s time, “enchanters” used wax figures.  They wrapped them in cords or ribbons of different colours, then pronounced conjurations on their heads, while tightening the cords one after the other.

Ovid was evidently mistaken, and Tibullus, so worried about himself, finds reassuring and very plausible arguments for his friend.

“It isn’t an enchantment”, he tells him.  “It isn’t that evil herbs have invaded you during the night.  The real cause of your misfortune, is to have touched your mistress’ body too much, to have held her in your embrace for too long, to have been too pleased with her contact.”

The reason that Tibullus gives for Ovid’s passing frigidity appears most acceptable.  A few days or a few nights of rest would have been enough to cure him.  But it was believed, at this time, that the problem was due to having been bound or tied, and that, to conjure (or remove) the curse, it was necessary to follow certain practices.

We know a bit about these practices thanks to Apuleus, who has left us a curious description in his Metamorphoses.  “Take seven stalks of edelweiss, separated from their roots, and boil them in water at the waning moon.  Wash the patient with this water, at the beginning of the night, in front of the door to his house; and wash yourself with it too, you, the person doing this for him.  Then burn aristolochia grass, perfume the man with it, and enter with him into the house, without looking back, and he will immediately be delivered or unbound.”

This procedure is relatively easy to put into practice.  The one indicated by Petronius is more complicated.  It is a whole magical scene that he describes.

“The old woman pulls from her breast a net strewn with knotted threads, which she attaches around her neck.  Then, she takes some dust with her middle finger and mixes it with her saliva.  In spite of my repugnance, my forehead is anointed with it.  She invokes the god of gardens and orders me to spit three times, to throw little stones three times into my clothes.  They have been magically prepared by her and tinted purple.  Then her hands interrogate the sick organ.

“Faster than you can say it, it obeys the call and fills the old woman’s hands.  Then, trembling with joy, she says, “You see, you see…  but it isn’t for me that I have raised the hare.”.”

To be continued.