15/02/2016 05:39 GMT | Updated 12/02/2017 05:12 GMT

The dark side of love


*Nikolas Oktaba [2015] is doing an MPhil in Classics. Picture credit: Wikipedia.

A trip to the closest grocery store last week yielded ample material for reflection, especially in this most perilous of seasons. Sunday was Valentine's Day and because of that legions of rotund babies have established camps in shops from Los Angeles to Liverpool. What torture to weave your way through aisles of plastic flowers and miniature teddy bears, taking great pains not to destroy hastily erected bastions of cardboard displaying sacks of chocolate. How painful to navigate the shops bedecked in pink and red, thinking of that special someone - or how that person does not yet exist - as from every angle there is a concentrated bombardment of Cupids pointing their blunted arrows at passersby. Truly, it is one of the most dreadful of holidays, if only for its fixation on one of the most visceral of human emotions: love. The quickening of breath. The uncertain glances. The fear of rejection. The comfort of companionship. The electricity of the erotic. It is a high-stakes holiday masquerading under the false safety of a fat baby. It's enough to make one very anxious.

To an ancient Greek, images of Eros - Cupid's Greek counterpart - would cause consternation as well, though for different reasons. Far from being the vaguely mischievous angel that we know from numberless ranks of greeting cards, he was actually a hostile and demonic force. He did not bear a toy bow. His arrows were not tipped with multicolored suction cups. Eros bore goads [spiked sticks], chains and flames; he carried the bow and arrows of war. Erotic passion was intertwined with sorcery, sickness and torture. These feelings of erotic passion are also, in some cases, tragic; indeed, the playwright Euripides uses the term nosos¸ or illness, to refer to it in his plays. People who are suffering from (unrequited) erotic desire are described as having pallid, deathly complexions and greatly diminished motor abilities. There is a fine line between love, erotic passion and debilitating illness; these feelings, in the end, are an affliction brought forth by a full-scale assault at the hands of Eros.

Eros - whether as a divine figure in his own right, the reification of the passions that he engenders, or the passions themselves - is the primary source of torture in both archaic and Classical Greek thought. In Euripides' Hippolytus, Phaedra notes that Eros has attacked her with many kentra, or goads. Daphnis, a young shepherd in the first Idyll of the bucolic poet Theocritus, wastes away under the influence of erotic distress. The witch (and jilted lover) Simaetha in Idyll 2 describes her own symptoms of desire for the man who left her: she develops cold sweats, a fever and becomes catatonic. In response, she takes recourse to an ancient form of sex-magic called the iunx, which involved the systematic torture and ritual crucifixion of a European woodpecker. It is a well-attested form of magic, one that is often accompanied by elements of the agogē, a spell designed to forcibly drag someone to the caster for sex. Simaetha exhorts the powers that will enact her magical will to drag her former lover to her home by force. It is a brutal spell, one that is designed to transform the natural lubricity and madness of the bird to the caster's target.

Luckily, some of these spells survive on papyri discovered in Egypt. One reads:

"Do not enter through her eyes or through her side or through her nails or even through her navel or her frame, but through her psyche. And remain in her heart and burn her guts, her breast, her liver, her breath, her bones, her marrow, until she comes to me..."

This particular spell is addressed to a figure known as 'The Flesh Eater', a personification of the herb that figures most prominently here, namely myrrh. Various parts of the woman are to be burned by demonic forces, but their point of entry is her psyche, a word that means spirit, but was also used as slang for the vulva. Not only is this poor woman subjected to visitations by erotic demons, but she is going to suffer excruciating genital torture. Other spells related to the ones discussed above require the torture of animals such as cats or iguanas. All quite gruesome.

Maybe the relentless hordes of tubby infants aren't quite so bad after all.