A philtre is a magical potion that causes a person to fall in love. Philtres, also called love potions, have been used in Magic since antiquity. When drunk, a philtre is supposed to make the recipient fall in love with the giver.
Recipes for philtres are given in Grimoires and books of Spells. A traditional formula calls for wine, tea, or water doctored with various herbs, drugs, animal parts, and other ingredients. The most common ingredient is mandrake root, also called “love apples,” a small and poisonous member of the nightshade family. The bad smell and taste of mandrake root are neutralized with orange and ambergris. Other common ingredients are the vervain, briony, fern seed, human Blood, dragon blood (a red gum), and the hearts and reproductive organs of animals.
One medieval philtre recipe called for grinding into a powder the heart of a dove, the liver of a sparrow, the womb of a swallow, and the kidney of a hare. To that was added an equal part of the person’s own blood, also dried and powdered. A 16th-century recipe called for “black dust of tomb, venom of toad, flesh of brigand, lung of ass, blood of blind infant, corpses from graves, bile of ox.”
The best results are obtained with philtres made by a practitioner of the magical arts, such as a witch.
A philtre is a magical potion that causes a person to fall in love with another. Philtres, also called love potions, have been common in Magic, folk magic and myth since antiquity. Important in the middle Ages, they declined in popularity in the 17th and 18th centuries in favour of spells and charms. Philtres are still brewed in modern times in various folk-magic traditions.
A philtre consists of wine, tea or water doctored with herbs or drugs. For best results, according to lore, it should be concocted only by a professional witch. When drunk, the philtre supposedly makes the recipient fall in love with the giver, which means great care must be taken that it is administered properly. In the tale of Tristan and Isolde, Isolde’s mother obtains a philtre that will make her unwilling daughter fall in love with her betrothed, king mark of Cornwall. Thinking it is poison, Isolde shares it with Tristan, the king’s knight who is escorting her to Cornwall. They fall irrevocably in love, which proves fatal to both of them.
There is at least one story of a philtre producing not love but insanity. According to the roman biographer Suetonius (69–140), the emperor Caligula (12–14) went mad after drinking a love philtre administered by his wife, Caesonia—thereby providing an excuse for the emperor’s irrational behavior.
The most common ingredient in philtres has been the smelly mAndrAke root, also called “love apples,” a poisonous member of the nightshade family. Orange and ambergris added a little flavor and pleasant aroma. Vervain, an herb, was also used a great deal and still is used in the 20th century. Other common ingredients are the hearts and reproductive organs of animals, such as the testicles of kangaroos, used by Australian aborigines, and the testicles of beavers, used by some North American Indians. In India, betel nuts or tobacco are added to philtres. A simple formula from Nova Scotia calls for a woman to steep her hair in water and then give the water to her intended to drink.
Herbs and plants are common additives: briony (similar to mandrake) and fern seed in England, the latter of which must be gathered on the eve of St. John’s Day. The Chinese use shang-luh, a plant that resembles ginseng. In Germany, a red gum called dragon blood is used.
One medieval philtre recipe called for grinding into a powder the heart of a dove, the liver of a sparrow, the womb of a swallow and the kidney of a hare. To that was added an equal part of the person’s own blood, also dried and powdered. This was mixed into a liquid and offered as a drink, with “marvellous success” promised.
In the 16th century, Girolamo Folengo offered this formidable recipe in his Maccaronea:
Black dust of tomb, venom of toad, flesh of brigand, lung of ass, blood of blind infant, corpses from graves, bile of ox.
Since philtres depend upon convincing someone to drink a brew that may not taste or smell pleasant, they are no longer as popular as other charms, such as grIsgrIs, dolls or poppets and spells. Even in the middle Ages, the limitations of philtres were recognized. One alternative recipe recommended rubbing the hands with vervain juice and touching “the man or woman you wish to inspire with love.”
In modern Witchcraft, the concoction of any love charm for the purpose of forcing love or manipulating an unsuspecting person is considered unethical by many Witches. It is preferable to make love charms to enhance love that already exists between two persons. Love charms also are acceptable if caveats are added, such as “for the good of all,” “if they are right for each other” and “if no one is harmed” (see Wiccan Rede).
- marlbrough, ray L. Charms Spells & Formulas. St. Paul: Llewellyn Publications, 1987.
- Thomas, keith. Religion and the Decline of Magic. New York: Charles Scribner’s Sons, 1971.