Love Spells in Pop Culture: A History
From Tristan and Isolde to "The Craft," we walk through pop culture's dalliances with love spells and potions.
Photo by Bonninstudio via Stocksy
Who among us hasn't lit a black pillar candle, queued up a Samhain album, and carefully followed the handwritten directions of a love spell given to us by a chick named Laura who claimed to be a witch? Of course, those amateur-hour spells never worked, which is a familiar outcome when you look at pop culture's history of love spells and potions.
And that history started a long time ago. Love magic was present in the ancient civilizations of the Greeks and Romans, as evidenced in the Greek Magical Papyri, dating back as early as the 2nd century BC, which contained love charms along with other spells, hymns, and rituals. Fast forward a few centuries, and spells and potions had found their way into early popular tales. Some versions of the story of Tristan and Isolde dating back to the 12th century feature a love potion (including the seminal 19th-century Wagner opera).
In 1868, casting love spells was already a well-known enough trope that it was embraced by teenagers.
Ever heard the one about the spell that causes the victim to fall in love with the first person they see? (Only in about half of the countless storylines featuring a love spell, right?) Well, that dates back to around the dawn of the 17th century—Shakespeare's A Midsummer Night's Dream prominently featured such a love potion (which, in that instance, was made from the juice of a flower).
An early appearance of love magic in popular novels was in the classic Little Women, when the March sisters perform a play written by Jo featuring a love potion, titled "The Witch's Curse: an Operatic Tragedy." It seems that in 1868, casting love spells was already a well-known enough trope that it was embraced by teenagers.
By the time the 20th century rolled around, and especially once television, with its ever-regenerating need for titillating storylines, came into play, love spells were well established as a fantasy plot point. It was used in everything from a 1960 episode of The Twilight Zone adapted from a John Collier short story (which was also adapted into both the 1950s and 1990s Tales From the Crypt versions), to a 1970 episode of Bewitched, where—oops!—the love potion ends up in the clam dip at the Stephens' party!
They'd also popped up in pop music. "Love Potion No. 9," the 1959 song by the Clovers, told of an aphrodisiac peddled by a "gypsy" that makes the subject love/kiss everything he sees, including an unappreciative cop. That last kiss caused the destruction of the potion, but the love for the song itself continued throughout the decades—it was covered by many artists, including the Searchers, Neil Diamond, the White Stripes, and Alvin and the Chipmunks. The 1956 Screamin' Jay Hawkins hit "I Put a Spell on You," was named one of the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame's 500 Songs that Shaped Rock and Roll, and was also covered by Nina Simone and performed by Creedence Clearwater Revival at Woodstock. Three decades later came Tone Lōc's 1989 popular single "Funky Cold Medina," in which he tests out the titular substance (seen as a steaming potion in the music video) "better than any alcohol or aphrodisiac" on his dog, which becomes amorous, and later has to fend off marriage-crazed ladies.
A prominent manual for witches came out in 1970. Aspiring witches, including the love-struck seeking charms, could consult the first such tome by a major publisher, the now-classic Mastering Witchcraft: a Practical Guide for Witches, Warlocks, and Covens. It presents witchcraft "for those wishing to practice traditional European Witchcraft as a craft rather than a New Age religion", according to its description on Amazon, and includes spells for love and lust.
In the 1990s, witches and their love magic were cropping up everywhere in film, TV, and literature: 1993's Hocus Pocus with its three sister witches, 1998's WB series Charmed and its three other sister witches, the Harry Potter juggernaut. Sandra Bullock starred in two witchy movies: in 1992's Love Potion No. 9, a spell given by a gypsy (as in the eponymous song) changes the subject's voice so the opposite sex is attracted and the same sex is repelled. Then in 1998's Practical Magic, her character wants to avoid falling in love so she creates the "Amas Veritas" anti-love spell describing a man she didn't think existed: "He can flip pancakes in the air. He'll be marvelously kind. And his favorite shape will be a star. And he'll have one green eye and one blue." I have not seen this movie, but I'm going to assume that she finds a man who fits that very description.
What do these disparate love spells in literature, film, TV, and song have in common? Like alchemy, they're all pretty much doomed attempts to artificially create something that is notoriously unyielding to attempts to force it: love.
Most stories that use love spells ignore their implicit lack of consent.
Considering that a working love spell is an aphrodisiac that circumvents the recipient's free will, love spells are of dubious morality, not far removed from Mickey Finns and Spanish fly. Most stories that use love spells ignore their implicit lack of consent—one of the only potions with ethical restrictions is found in "The Up-to-Date Sorcerer," a 1958 Isaac Asimov short story in which the spell only affected subjects who weren't already married. At the other end of the spectrum is the love-inducing "tincture" from a 2007 episode of the British sitcom The IT Crowd: supplied by a mysterious blind sorcerer named Maurice, who earlier in the episode proved to be an olfactory expert capable of detecting trace ingredients, gets a whiff of his coworker's dosed tea and asks, "Why are you drinking Rohypnol, Jen? Are you having problems with insomnia?"
Perhaps because of this moral issue, story lines that involve love magic tend to fall into two outcomes: either they work as intended, but with an asterisk, or they don't. Let's look at some examples.
Love Potion No. 69: Spells with Sexy Results
There are some successful love potions in pop culture, but they tend to result in something terrible. At least two fictional married couples were united by a love potion, and neither union was the most positive. In the Mighty Morphin Power Rangers TV series, villainous Rita Repulsa gives Lord Zedd a love potion (Zedd took an antidote and their love proved to be legit). And in the Harry Potter series, evil incarnate, aka, Lord Voldemort, was the product of parents who were bonded by a love potion.
In the "spells that work" category, there is a "wait, this isn't right" variation. For example, in the 1989 movie Teen Witch, title witch Louise uses magic to gain popularity and the interest of her crush, but gives up her powers to believe in herself instead. Awwww.
Love Potion No. 666: Spells Gone Horribly Wrong
It's much more common in pop culture for spells to not work out. In one episode of Buffy the Vampire Slayer, Xander's love spell works on everyone except his intended, and in another episode, a letterman jacket that renders the wearer attractive to everyone causes all kinds of mayhem. The love spell in the 1996 high school witch movie The Craft is such a "success" that it turns into attempted rape. And more recently, on an episode of My Little Pony: Friendship is Magic, the lesson is although magic is OK in friendship, don't use it to land love. Ponies affected by a love potion realize too late that it is in fact a love poison, so they are doomed to lovesickness, compelled to gaze gaga-eyed at each other and call each other ridiculous pet names forever. This, of course, threatens to break down the social order until the antidote—avoiding the gaze of one's beloved for one hour—is enforced.
If pop cultural conventions have taught us anything about love charms, it is that they can work—just in a way that the user of said charms probably wishes they hadn't.