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She said “I’m gonna make it up right here in the sink”
It smelled like turpentine and looked like India ink.

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The song “Love Potion No. 9” was a hit for The Clovers in 1959 and then again for The Searchers in 1965. But the ingredients of the titular potion were left a little vague in Jerry Leiber and Mike Stoller’s lyrics. It is, after all, supposed to be a magic potion, and the key to magic is secret knowledge, the possession of the witch, available for a price— maybe a soul. Love Potion No. 9’s constituent elements remain unknown, but the effects were all too public:

I didn’t know if it was day or night
I started kissin’ everything in sight
But when I kissed a cop down on Thirty-fourth and Vine
He broke my little bottle of Love Potion Number Nine.

In other words, the potion resulted in a rash of sexual harassment before being quashed by the law. Love potions—or “philters” if you’re old school—can do that to people. Consider, after all, their purpose.

The anthropologist Charles Lindholm goes right to the aorta: “Sexual desire both binds and disrupts the human community. Wayward and powerful, it unites couples but can also divide them; it is a precondition for the reproduction of society, yet it is simultaneously a threat to custom and order.”

So, Lindholm continues, “magic, the passionate desire to conquer ‘the domain of the unaccountable’ is often called into play in an effort to control the force of sexuality.” The point of such love magic is to enslave the targeted objection of affection, to overcome the individual’s will, to drive them crazy with desire for the potion administerer. In sum, writes Lindholm, “The target loses all sexual autonomy and the ambiguity of human love relationships is, in theory, negated.”

Perhaps unsurprisingly, some of these magical mixtures turn out to be simply poisonous. Here’s one from India that was written up in the British Medical Journal. A “young widow,” having procured a pill from an “old witch,” proceeded to poison her “hard-hearted swain” and his father, who also ate the food the pill had been secreted into. Neither man died, but the woman was arrested and charged with causing harm. Chemical analysis of the pill found it was made of Indian hemp, which could have been one of two plants, and datura, a poisonous genus. “As, however, it was evident that she had really had no other intention than to gain the man’s love, and had the poison administered in ignorance, she was merely sentenced to simple imprisonment for a short period,” the BMJ author writes.

Of course, you can always eschew the witch or other middle-person. In the Carolina mountains, the ethnographer James Mooney reports, it’s DIY. Liverworts with heart-shaped leaves are supposed to do the trick. All you need to do is collect them and dry them before a fire. “A girl can infallibly win the love of any sweetheart she may desire by secretly throwing over his clothing some of the powder made by rubbing together a few heart leaves.” And if one sweetheart isn’t enough, a “score of lovers” will result from “simply carrying the leaves in her bosom.” This plant-charm is believed to be so powerful that it is “equally efficacious if used by one of the opposite sex.”

Of course, freelance potion-making has its hazards. In a ghastly 1957 case from Vineland, New Jersey, a man was arrested for the murder of a 13-year old boy. The body had been decapitated and found buried on the farm where the man worked. The murderer “told police he had been studying black magic and needed a human skull to make into dust for a love potion to cast spells on women. He showed police where the skull was hanging on a string inside a two-burner kerosene stove in his quarters. He apparently was attempting to dry it out.”

(This is a good place to note that you should take these examples of love potions from around the world only as examples of the concoctions designed to enslave the object of affection. Don’t actually make or apply them to anybody. Let the ethnographers and folklorists, and in some cases the police, look into them more closely. They are best studied from afar.)

In Pukhtun culture, leatherworkers are regarded as being the second lowest ranking among the occupational groups. In addition to curing and making leather goods, they are the jack-of-all-trades guys. They work as messengers and guards for higher ranked males; they set bones; they help with large-scale butchery. And they remain useful after death.

“Among the Yusufzai Pukhtun of Swat in Northern Pakistan,” Lindholm explains, “the most efficacious love magic is the water that has been used to bathe the body of a dead leatherworker.”

This is another witch-mediated love potion, at least traditionally. Lindholm describes the process: “Mounted on a wild pig, an animal which is anathema to the Muslim Pukhtun, the witch makes her way into the village graveyard and exhumes the corpse of a newly dead male leatherworker. She hangs his body from a tree, washes it, and sells the water to women who will give it to their husbands or lovers in their tea. Sometimes men are also reputed to use this potion, but only to enchant a homosexual lover, never to use on a woman.”

“Modern Pukhtun,” Lindholm reports, “say they no longer believe in the witch-on-a-pig aspect, but they continue to have faith in the power of the magic water, claiming that it is still actually collected, sold, and used. Rumors of disinterred leatherworkers are pointed to as proof of the continuation of this practice.” Lindholm theorizes that “death and promiscuity stand in complementary opposition with the water, which symbolizes the passage from life into death, also utilized to symbolize the analogous passage of a man from autonomy to sexual slavery.”

The Rev. W. Howell and R. Shelford, M.A., concur in more genteel terms. The point of such hopeful love magic is that “the recipient is supposed to know no rest nor peace of mind until he or she cohabits with the giver of the charm.” Howell and Shelford explore the Sea-Dayak “jayan or love philtre.” (The Sea-Dayak are better known today as the Iban people of Borneo.)

“The basis of all jayan is coconut oil,” they write, “which must be made by a girl who has not yet arrived at the age of puberty, but other ingredients, which have been revealed in dreams, may be added, and one of us was informed that the tears of a female porpoise were very potent, but that these were difficult to get, for the porpoise must first be deprived of her young, whereupon she will shed tears, which can then be collected.”

Wait just a second. Making a mother porpoise cry by taking or killing her young and then collecting her tears? A porpoise, John Steinbeck reported from the Sea of Cortez, “cries like a child in sorrow and pain.” Is love really worth having to cause that? Also, how do you tell this difficult-to-get-substance apart from seawater? Could Howell and Shelford have had their Anglo-Saxon legs pulled?

Our intrepid anthropological correspondents do include a couple of incantations to go along with the jayan recipes. Both incantations start with ego-boosting praise for the potions themselves. They translate these as “you are no common or useless potion” and “you are indeed no common philter”—as if the mixtures needed their confidence bucked up. Come on, magic porpoise tears and coconut oil, please don’t let this be a new cocktail on the re-launched Love Boat. You can do it!

Ethnography’s most vital lesson may be the knowledge that others might see what we consider absolutely normal to be quite bizarre. Consider the commercial concoctions of Valentine’s Day, for instance, from the eyes of a Sea-Dayak. Frozen dessert product Love Potion #31, “a pink and red treat filled with hearts?” What about the pesticides poured on roses and those who farm them? What’s love got to do with that? And chocolates laced with chemical additives, whose ingredients may be just as opaque as the stuff in that old Love Potion No. 9?


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American Ethnologist, Vol. 8, No. 3, Symbolism and Cognition (Aug., 1981), pp. 512-525
Wiley on behalf of the American Anthropological Association
The British Medical Journal, Vol. 2, No. 666 (Oct. 4, 1873), p. 407
The Journal of American Folklore, Vol. 2, No. 5 (Apr. - Jun., 1889), pp. 95-104
American Folklore Society
Western Folklore, Vol. 17, No. 1 (Jan., 1958), pp. 61-62
Western States Folklore Society
The Journal of the Anthropological Institute of Great Britain and Ireland, Vol. 34 (Jul. - Dec., 1904), pp. 207-210
Royal Anthropological Institute of Great Britain and Ireland