Philtre, a potion that causes one to fall in love with another person, also called love potions, have been thought to be magical and used since antiquity. They were popular in the Middle Ages, but lost favor to charms and spells in the 17th and 18th centuries. Philtres are still produced in some folk-magic traditions, but not in neo-Paganism.
Traditionally the philter generally consisted of wine, tea, or water containing herbs or drugs. When made by a wise woman, or man, it was more potent. The giver gave it to the person that she or he loved, after drinking it, the recipient fall in love with the one giving the drink to him.
Of necessity, care had to be taken to assure the remedy was administered properly. In the tale of Tristan and Isolde, Isolde’s mother obtained a philter that was to make her unwilling daughter fall in love with her betrothed King Mark of Cornwall. Thinking it to be poison, Isolde shared it with Tristan, the king’s knight escorting her to Cornwall. They fell irrevocably in love, which proved fatal for both of them.
There is at least one tale of a philter that produced insanity instead of love. According to the Roman biographer Suetonius (69-140 AD), the Emperor Galigula (12-41 AD) was mad after drinking a love philter administered by his wife, Caesonia.
The ingredients varied from country to country. The most common, throughout history, was the mandrake root, also known as “love apples,” a poisonous member of the nightshade family. Orange and ambergris added a little flavor and pleasant aroma. Vervan, an herb, was commonly used and still is up to the present. Other common ingredients include the hearts and reproductive organs of animals, such as the testicles of kangaroos, used by the Australian aborigines; and beaver testicles used by North American Indians. Philtres of India included betel nuts or tobacco. In Nova Scotia a woman steep her hair in water that she gave to her intended to drink.
Herbs and plants were common additives: briony (similar to mandrake) and fern seeds in England, the latter of which must be gathered on the eve of St. John’s Day (see Sabbats). The Chinese used shang-luh, a plant resembling ginseng. In Germany, a red gum called dragon blood was used. As can be seen a variety of recipes and ingredients were used in different countries. The hearts and other organs were ground up.
Philtres begain decreasing in popularity following the Middle Ages because of their frequent unpleasant smell and taste. Alternatives were sought; one was to rub one’s hand with vervain juice and then touch the man or women whom one hoped to inspire with love.
In England using philters was penalized at one time under Anglo-Saxon law: for it was made punishable if any should use witchcraft for another’s love, or should give him to eat or to drink with magic. This prohibition also prohibited divining by the moon. Chanute renewed these prohibitions.
In neo-Paganism, the use of such concoctions is frown on by many in Witchcraft because such actions are considered manipulating people, which is in opposition of the Wiccan Rede. It is more preferable to make love charms to enhance the love which already exists between two people. A.G.H.
Guiley, Rosemary Ellen, The Encyclopedia of Witches and Witchcraft, New York: Facts On File, 1989, pp. 267-268
Spence, Lewis, An Encyclopedia of Occultism, New York, Carol Publishing Group Edition, 1996, p. 143