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Spells, charms, erotic dolls: love magic in the ancient Mediterranean



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Statue of Eros of the type of Centocelle. Roman artwork of the 2nd century AD, probably a copy after a Greek original.
Wikimedia Commons

Marguerite Johnson, University of Newcastle

In our sexual histories series, authors explore changing sexual mores from antiquity to today.


It was a well-kept secret among historians during the late 19th and early 20th centuries that the practice of magic was widespread in the ancient Mediterranean. Historians wanted to keep the activity low-key because it did not support their idealised view of the Greeks and Romans. Today, however, magic is a legitimate area of scholarly enquiry, providing insights into ancient belief systems as well as cultural and social practices.

While magic was discouraged and sometimes even punished in antiquity, it thrived all the same. Authorities publicly condemned it, but tended to ignore its powerful hold.

Erotic spells were a popular form of magic. Professional magic practitioners charged fees for writing erotic charms, making enchanted dolls (sometimes called poppets), and even directing curses against rivals in love.

Magic is widely attested in archaeological evidence, spell books and literature from both Greece and Rome, as well as Egypt and the Middle East. The Greek Magical Papyri, for example, from Graeco-Roman Egypt, is a large collection of papyri listing spells for many purposes. The collection was compiled from sources dating from the second century BC to the fifth century AD, and includes numerous spells of attraction.




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Some spells involve making dolls, which were intended to represent the object of desire (usually a woman who was either unaware or resistant to a would-be admirer). Instructions specified how an erotic doll should be made, what words should be said over it, and where it should be deposited.

The Louvre Doll.
Wikimedia Commons

Such an object is a form of sympathetic magic; a type of enchantment that operates along the principle of “like affects like”. When enacting sympathetic magic with a doll, the spell-caster believes that whatever action is performed on it – be it physical or psychic – will be transferred to the human it represents.

The best preserved and most notorious magical doll from antiquity, the so-called “Louvre Doll” (4th century AD), depicts a naked female in kneeling position, bound, and pierced with 13 needles. Fashioned from unbaked clay, the doll was found in a terracotta vase in Egypt. The accompanying spell, inscribed on a lead tablet, records the woman’s name as Ptolemais and the man who made the spell, or commissioned a magician to do so, as Sarapammon.

Violent, brutal language

The spells that accompanied such dolls and, indeed, the spells from antiquity on all manner of topics, were not mild in the language and imagery employed. Ancient spells were often violent, brutal and without any sense of caution or remorse. In the spell that comes with the Louvre Doll, the language is both frightening and repellent in a modern context. For example, one part of the spell directed at Ptolemais reads:

Do not allow her to eat, drink, hold out, venture out, or find sleep …

Another part reads:

Drag her by the hair, by the guts, until she no longer scorns me …

A Coptic codex with magic spells, 5-6th century AD from the Museo Archeologico, Milan.
Wikimedia Commons

Such language is hardly indicative of any emotion pertaining to love, or even attraction. Especially when combined with the doll, the spell may strike a modern reader as obsessive (perhaps reminiscent of a stalker or online troll) and even misogynistic. Indeed, rather than seeking love, the intention behind the spell suggests seeking control and domination. Such were the gender and sexual dynamics of antiquity.

But in a masculine world, in which competition in all aspects of life was intense, and the goal of victory was paramount, violent language was typical in spells pertaining to anything from success in a court case to the rigging of a chariot race. Indeed, one theory suggests that the more ferocious the words, the more powerful and effective the spell.

Love potions

Most ancient evidence attests to men as both professional magical practitioners and their clients. There was a need to be literate to perform most magic (most women were not educated) and to be accessible to clients (most women were not free to receive visitors or have a business). However, some women also engaged in erotic magic (although the sources on this are relatively scarce).

In ancient Athens, for example, a woman was taken to court on the charge of attempting to poison her husband. The trial was recorded in a speech delivered on behalf of the prosecution (dated around 419 BC). It includes the woman’s defence, which stated that she did not intend to poison her husband but to administer a love philtre to reinvigorate the marriage.




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The speech, entitled Against the Stepmother for Poisoning by Antiphon, clearly reveals that the Athenians practised and believed in love potions and may suggest that this more subtle form of erotic magic (compared to the casting of spells and the making of enchanted dolls) was the preserve of women.

Desire between women

Within the multiplicity of spells found in the Greek Magical Papyri, two deal specifically with female same sex desire. In one of these, a woman by the name of Herais attempts to magically entreat a woman by the name of Serapis. In this spell, dated to the second century AD, the gods Anubis and Hermes are called upon to bring Serapis to Herais and to bind Serapis to her.

Statue of a young seated Hermes (the Greek messenger god) at rest.
Wikimedia Commons

In the second spell, dated to the third or fourth century AD, a woman called Sophia seeks out a woman by the name of Gorgonia. This spell, written on a lead tablet, is aggressive in tone; for example:

Burn, set on fire, inflame her soul, heart, liver, spirit, with love for Sophia …

Gods and goddesses were regularly summoned in magic. In the spell to attract Serapis, for example, Anubis is included based on his role as the god of the secrets of Egyptian magic. Hermes, a Greek god, was often included because as a messenger god, he was a useful choice in spells that sought contact with someone.

Anubis depicted as a jackal in the tomb of Tutankhamen.
Wikimedia Commons

The tendency to combine gods from several cultures was not uncommon in ancient magic, indicative of its eclectic nature and perhaps a form of hedging one’s bets (if one religion’s god won’t listen, one from another belief system may).

Deities with erotic connections were also inscribed on gems to induce attraction. The Greek god of eroticism, Eros was a popular figure to depict on a gemstone, which could then be fashioned into a piece of jewellery.

The numerous erotic spells in antiquity – from potions to dolls to enchanted gems and rituals – not only provide information about magic in the ancient Mediterranean world, but the intricacies and cultural conventions around sexuality and gender.

The rigid system of clearly demarcated gender roles of active (male) and passive (female) partners, based on a patriarchy that championed dominance and success at all costs, underpinned the same societies’ magical practices. Yet it is important to note that even in magic featuring people of the same sex, aggressive language is employed because of the conventions that underlined ancient spells.

The ConversationStill magic remains, in part, a mystery when it comes to erotic practice and conventions. The two same-sex spells from the Greek Magical Papyri, for example, attest to the reality of erotic desire among ancient women, but do not shed light on whether this type of sexuality was condoned in Roman Egypt. Perhaps such desires were not socially approved; hence the recourse to magic. Perhaps the desires of Sarapammon for Ptolemais were also outside the bounds of acceptability, which led him to the surreptitious and desperate world of magic.

Marguerite Johnson, Professor of Classics, University of Newcastle

This article was originally published on The Conversation. Read the original article.

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Australia’s history of live exports is more than two centuries old



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A sheep undergoing live export in 2017.
Animals Australia

Nancy Cushing, University of Newcastle

A recent episode of 60 Minutes has captured public attention and the political agenda by airing dramatic video footage from Animals Australia, showing the fate of Australian animals in the live export trade.

Video shot secretly by a crew member shows sheep on five separate voyages from Fremantle to the Middle East last year. They are buffeted by the movement of the ship, strain to breathe in the hot, noisy and acrid atmosphere between decks and trample the dead and dying under their hooves.

But while these glimpses inside a transport ship are new, the practice of live animal export is as old as the European colonisation of Australia.




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Animals of the new colony

The first arrival of animals that would later be exported from Australia, including sheep, cattle and goats, can be dated with unusual precision to January 1788.

Like the convict workforce who made up the bulk of the human cargo on the First Fleet, the livestock, purchased mainly at the Cape of Good Hope, were considered necessary to transplant a British society and economy in Antipodean soil. Live animal import from other colonies, like India and Batavia, and from Europe continued throughout the first century of colonisation.

Hoists were used to load and unload live animals in ports without purpose-built ramps. This photograph demonstrates the practice in India in 1895.
Source: William Henry Jackson, World’s Transportation Commission photograph collection. Library of Congress

Breeds that suited the climate and their roles in the colony, especially those that helped displace native plants and animals and Indigenous peoples, were sought after and carefully nurtured.

Gradually the inward flow of animals reversed. Flocks and herds increased to the point where some could be sold on to other destinations. Initially, this was to the other colonies Britain was establishing in the region, such as Van Diemen’s Land (now Tasmania), Western Australia, New Zealand and South Australia. These animals were primarily traded to establish new populations at their destinations.

Animals from New South Wales were also sent to the French colony of New Caledonia, and in small numbers farther afield to Russia, Japan and India. As numbers rose, larger-scale live export for consumption became established.

A hidden process

As in the present, this trade had distinct phases, some more visible than others. The process began where the animals were raised, generally on lightly stocked rangelands in the interior. They were driven on foot or loaded onto rail carriages to be taken to ports, where they waited in open yards to be loaded onto ships.

Thus far, the animals were moving through public spaces, where their treatment and conditions could be seen and in some cases recorded. Members of the public could register their concerns and seek to have mistreatment addressed. And even in a period when animal welfare was still an emerging concept, some did.

Railcars laden with frightened stock led to complaints about overcrowding and lack of access to food and water. One observer labelled such treatment “as gross a case of cruelty as it is possible to conceive”.

However, once the animals were hoisted or walked onto ships, they became invisible. No outsider could see them. Only those involved with the voyage knew how densely they were packed, how secure their pens were, whether their dung was cleared away, or how much food and water they received over journeys that could last for weeks. In the case of sheep, the advice was to pack them like wool bales, so tightly pressed together that they prevented one another from falling over.

In many cases, the animals were barely seen at all, except by one another, being left to their own devices on short voyages. During longer trips they would be tended to minimally, because of the toxic environment created below deck by what were termed their “exhalations of carbonic gases”.

Even the evidence of how many died on the voyages was hidden. Their bodies were thrown overboard before reaching port and few records were kept.

Animals carried on open decks could be seen while at the docks and had access to better-quality air, but were more vulnerable to high seas and inclement weather.

Animals carried on open decks could be seen while at the docks and had access to better-quality air, but were also vulnerable to high seas and inclement weather. Sheep in pens on a ship’s deck, Sydney Harbour, circa 1929.
Sam Hood photograph, State Library of New South Wales, Home and Away, 4066.

At the other end of the journey, the exported animals came back into view. This was often when the most useful accounts were recorded. Complaints about their poor condition, reduced numbers or the loss of entire shipments of animals were considered worthy of writing about in local newspapers by those who had eagerly awaited their arrival. It is at the receiving end of the export process that accusations of flimsy pens, overcrowding or the loading of animals that were not fit for the voyage can be found.

Taking this longer view of the Australian live export trade shows just how extraordinary the opportunity to see what happens during live export is. Animals Australia has noted that “Australia’s live sheep trade has operated for over five decades with only those financially invested in the trade having visual access to the conditions and welfare implications for the sheep on-board”.




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This has been an issue for much longer than 50 years, but it’s now possible for outsiders – including farmers, politicians and members of the public – to see the appalling conditions of the live export trade for themselves.


The ConversationThis article is based on a blog post originally published by White Horse Press.

Nancy Cushing, Associate professor, University of Newcastle

This article was originally published on The Conversation. Read the original article.


A brief history of fake doctors, and how they get away with it



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Impersonation of doctors is a modern phenomenon that grew out of Western medicine’s drive towards professionalism.
from shutterstock.com

Philippa Martyr, University of Western Australia

Melbourne man Raffaele Di Paolo pleaded guilty last week to a number of charges related to practising as a medical specialist when he wasn’t qualified to do so. Di Paolo is in jail awaiting his sentence after being found guilty of fraud, indecent assault and sexual penetration.

This case follows that of another so-called “fake doctor” in New South Wales. Sarang Chitale worked in the state’s public health service as a junior doctor from 2003 until 2014. It was only in 2016, after his last employer – the research firm Novotech – reported him to the Australian Health Practitioner Regulation Agency (AHPRA), that his qualifications were investigated.

“Dr” Chitale turned out to be Shyam Acharya, who had stolen the real Dr Chitale’s identity and obtained Australian citizenship and employment at a six-figure salary. Acharya had no medical qualifications at all.

Cases of impersonation, identity theft and fraudulent practice happen across a range of disciplines. There have been instances of fake pilots, veterinarians and priests. It’s especially confronting when it happens in medicine, because of the immense trust we place in those looking after our health.

So what drives people to go to such extremes, and how do they get away with?

A modern phenomenon

Impersonation of doctors is a modern phenomenon. It grew out of Western medicine’s drive towards professionalism in the 19th century, which ran alongside the explosion of scientific medical research.

Before this, doctors would be trained by an apprentice-type system, and there was little recourse for damages. A person hired a doctor if they could afford it, and if the treatment was poor, or killed the patient, it was a case of caveat emptor – buyer beware.

But as science made medicine more reliable, the title of “doctor” really began to mean something – especially as the fees began to rise. By the end of the 19th century in the British Empire, becoming a doctor was a complex process. It required long university training, an independent income and the right social connections. Legislation backed this up, with medical registration acts controlling who could and couldn’t use medical titles.

Given the present social status and salaries of medical professionals, it’s easy to see why people would aspire to be doctors. And when the road ahead looks too hard and expensive, it may be tempting to take short cuts.

Today, there are four common elements that point to weaknesses in our health-care systems, which allow fraudsters to slip through the cracks and practise medicine.

1. Misplaced trust

Everyone believes someone, somewhere, has checked and verified a person’s credentials. But sometimes this hasn’t been done, or it takes a long time.

Fake psychiatrist Mohamed Shakeel Siddiqui – a qualified doctor who stole a real psychiatrist’s identity and worked in New Zealand for six months in 2015 – left a complicated trail of identity theft that required the assistance of the FBI to unravel.

Last year, in Germany, a man was found to have forged foreign qualifications that he presented to the registering body in early 2016. He was issued with a temporary licence while these were checked. When the qualifications turned out to be fraudulent, he was fired from his job as a junior doctor in a psychiatric ward. But this wasn’t until June 2017.

2. Foreign credentials

Credentials from a foreign university, issued in a different language, are another common element among medical fraudsters. Verifying these can be time-consuming, so a health system desperate for staff may cut corners.

Ioannis Kastanis was appointed as head of medicine at Skyros Regional Hospital in Greece in 1999 with fake degrees from Sapienza University of Rome. The degrees were recognised and the certificates translated, but their authenticity was never checked.

Dusan Milosevic, who practised as a psychologist for ten years, registered in Victoria in 1998. He held bogus degrees from the University of Belgrade in Serbia – at the time a war-torn corner of Europe, which made verification difficult.

3. Regional and remote practice

It’s easier to get away with faking in regional or remote areas where there is less scrutiny. Desperation to retain staff may also silence complaints.

“Dr” Balaji Varatharaju fraudulently gained employment in remote Alice Springs, where he worked as a junior doctor for nine months.

Ioannis Kastanis had worked on a distant Greek island with a population of only around 3,000 people.

4. It’s not easy to dob

Finally, there are two unnerving questions. How do you tell a poorly trained but legally qualified practitioner from a faker? And who do you tell if you suspect something is off?

The people best placed to spot the fakes – other hospital and health-care staff – work in often stressful conditions where complaints about colleagues can lead to reprisals. If the practitioner is from another ethnicity or culture, this adds an extra layer of sensitivity. It was only after “Dr Chitale” was exposed that staff were willing to say his practice had been “shabby”, “unsavoury” and “poor”.

So, why do they do it?

The reasons for fakery are as diverse as the fakers. “Dr Nick Delaney”, at Lady Cilento Children’s Hospital in Brisbane, reportedly pretended to be a doctor to “make friends” and keep a fling going with a security guard at the same hospital.

On a more sinister level, there are possible sexually predatory reasons, like those of bogus gynaecologist Raffale Di Paolo. Fake psychiatrist Mohamed Shakeel Siddiqui said he only did it to help people.

There are also the less easily understood fakers, like “Dr” Adam Litwin, who worked as a resident in surgery at UCLA Medical Center in California for six months in 1999. Questions only began to be asked when he turned up to work in his white coat with a picture of himself silk-screened on it: even by Californian standards, this was going too far.

So how do we stop this happening?

Part of the problem is our cultural dependence on qualifications as the passkey to higher income and social status, making them an easy target for fraudsters. Qualifications only reduce risk, but they can’t eliminate it. Qualified doctors can also cause havoc: think Jayant Patel and other bona fide qualified practitioners who have been struck off for malpractice, mutilation and manslaughter.

Conversely, no one complained about “Dr Chitale” in 11 years. The only complaints Kastanis received in 14 years were from people who thought his Ferrari was vulgar. The German junior doctor had an excellent knowledge of mental health-care procedures and language – obtained from his time as a psychiatric patient.

The ConversationMost of these loopholes can be closed with time and patience. What would help is if hospital and health-care staff felt sufficiently supported to report their suspicions to their employer, rather than to their colleagues. This would foster a more open culture of flagging concerns about fellow practitioners without fear of formal or informal punishment. It might also uncover more “Dr Chitales” before anyone is seriously harmed.

Philippa Martyr, Lecturer, Pharmacology, University of Western Australia

This article was originally published on The Conversation. Read the original article.


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