It’s hard to tell which area of a person’s life attracts the most magic and ritual: love or money. Ultimately, there’s nothing wrong with wanting more of either of them. Folklore bursts at the seams with various charms and practices to help people bring more money and love into their life. In this post, we’ll focus on love magic and folklore.
Even royalty was not above using love magic—or appearing to do so. In 1469, Jacquetta, Duchess of Bedford, was accused of using witchcraft to compel Edward IV to marry her daughter, Elizabeth Woodville.
Some accounts of love magic do exist in the written records. An old belief explains that practitioners of love magic would work with “Venus and the spirits thought to be under her control” (Page 2018: 52). Naturally, there’s no way of knowing if ordinary people gave praise to Venus, goddess of love. Elsewhere, demons had divine permission to “arouse the senses” and to tempt people so they could figure out their specific weaknesses. Yet others believed some demons might focus on “carnal love” or use their astrological knowledge “to incite lust” (Page 2018: 54). Back to Venus again, then!
But the ‘demonic’ side of love magic is a huge topic, and I feel it’s somehow more instructive to focus on the potions and charms available to more regular people. Some of what follows focuses on divination, or the practice of trying to foretell the future around love. We’ll also look at charms and some of the magical practices recommended to bring a new love into your life.
One caveat before we start: remember ethics. Casting a spell to bring love into your life is fine, as long as you’re not specific about the identity of your next partner. Otherwise, you’re interfering with a person’s free will. If you’re looking for specific love spells, then try my Halloween spells or mirror spells. Good luck!
Hit ‘play’ to hear the podcast episode, or keep reading!
Love potions, or philtres, were popular from the Middle Ages until the 17th century when spells and charms became more popular. The decline in popularity was largely due to the way you had to administer them. Put simply, you chose the person you wanted to fall in love with you and gave them the philtre to drink. This is hugely problematic in terms of consent, and something that many branches of modern witchcraft avoid. Indeed, Roman biographer Suetonius claimed Caligula drank a love philtre given by his wife Caesonia, except it drove him mad instead (Guiley 2008: 269).
Many philtre recipes start out with a base of wine, tea or water, with the addition of herbs and other ingredients. Mandrake was a common ingredient, along with briony and fern seed in England. If you wanted to use the latter, you needed to gather the fern seed on St John’s Eve. Vervain also appears in several recipes, along with animal parts.
A medieval recipe told you to grind a dove’s heart, a sparrow’s liver, a swallow’s womb, and a hare’s kidney into a powder. Then you dried your own blood to a powder and added an equal part to the mixture. This powdery concoction was added to liquid and drunk by your intended (Guiley 2008: 269).
Girolamo Folengo even offered a recipe in the 16th century containing: “Black dust of tomb, venom of toad, flesh of brigand, lung of ass, blood of blind infant, corpses from graves, bile of ox” (Guiley 2008: 269). Quite frankly, it sounds more like death metal lyrics, but there’s no evidence as to whether this formula worked.
The biggest problem with philtres as getting your intended to drink it, especially if it smelled foul. Alternatives did exist, such as rubbing vervain juice into your hands and then touching your intended (Guiley 2008: 270). Yet it still relies on forcing someone to do something they may not want to do.
Love Magic and the Dead
According to Lady Jane Francesca Wilde (1888), a particularly potent Irish love charm involved dead bodies. The charm instructs women to tie a piece of skin from a corpse’s arm to the person they want to love them. It needs to be tied on while this person is asleep, and then removed before they wake up. The woman also needs to carefully preserve the skin to retain her lover’s ardour.
If that wasn’t enough, you could also put the skin strip under your head while you slept so you would dream of your future husband. According to Lady Wilde, a serving girl tried it for a laugh, only to find she dreamed of her master. When the lady of the family died, the serving girl then tried the ‘tie dead skin to the arm’ trick, and the master married her within the year. Trouble was, a year and a day after the wedding, a fire broke out in her bedroom. It destroyed the strip of skin, breaking the charm and turning the master’s love for her into hate.
It’s still preferable to Tinder.
Divination for Love
If you’re single and don’t want to be, it’s only natural that you might turn to divination. Indeed, asking about love or future partners is one of the most common types of divination on record. Many tarot readers offer specific readings for love.
But many of these romantic techniques don’t involve extra tools like cards or runes. Jacqueline Simpson and Steve Roud note the ‘formula’ to many of the divination procedures. Do something a certain way at a certain time to learn something about your love life/influence it in some way (2003: 217). It can branch off into love magic at this point if you’re starting to influence an outcome.
The types of divination cluster at certain times of the year, such as Halloween, St Agnes’ Eve, Valentine’s Day, Midsummer’s Eve, New Year (2003: 217). Here, the ‘power’ of the day adds to the divination to give it more clout. Often, the divination is performed at midnight for even more oomph.
Though Simpson and Roud note the divination performed at weddings is far less complex. Consider the rite of throwing the bouquet to determine the next one to marry! (2003: 218) Even putting a piece of the wedding cake under your pillow to dream of your intended is far easier than the Halloween love spells (2003: 218).
Watch the Birds
One strange form of love divination involves Valentine’s Day, called ornithomancy. So, my single ladies, pay attention to the first bird you see on Valentine’s Day. It’ll predict your future partner’s career (it says ‘husband’ in the folklore, but let’s update that, yes?). A canary means a doctor, a goldfinch is a wealthy person, while doves indicate a happy marriage, and woodpeckers mean you’ll stay unmarried.
The folklore doesn’t actually say if it needs to be a physical bird or an image of one. After all, where I live, I’m most likely to see a pigeon (someone who wants to return to their place of birth), sparrow (landscape gardener or tree surgeon), or blackbird (aid worker) first. So your environment is going to dictate which bird you see!
We’ve talked about charms before, in that they exist as short rhyming verses, spoken aloud either during an action or while making a talisman. This makes them an accessible form of magical practice, acceptable even to those who would never dream of practicing ‘witchcraft’. A good example of a popular and seemingly innocuous charm would be: “Star light, star bright, first star that I see tonight, I wish I may, I wish I might, have this wish I wish tonight”.
Naturally, people turned to charms as part of their drive to find love. Laura Mitchell explores the way these love charms changed over time, particularly a specific ritual from the 16th century (2013). The person who wanted to know who they would marry was directed to ‘sow’ hemp seed around their fire on New Year’s Day, while reciting a rhyme. Then they should go to bed, lying on their righthand side, and to speak only to recite their prayers.
The Ritual Changes
By the late 19th century, the ritual had changed, with a version shown in the BBC program Victorian Farm. A woman who wanted to know who she would marry should go to her local churchyard at midnight on Midsummer’s Eve. Then she should scatter hemp seed, while reciting the charm: “Hemp seed I sow. Hemp seed should/will grow. He who will marry me, come after and mow.” She should either see her future husband in the churchyard, or in her dreams.
Mitchell notes the change in date from New Year’s Day to Midsummer’s Eve between the 16th and 19th-century rituals. The rhyme and hemp seeds remain the same, but the prayers and fire are replaced with a churchyard. Simpson and Roud relate an alternative version, also to be performed on Midsummer Eve. At the stroke of 12, run around the church scattering rose leaves and rosemary. Chant “Rose leaves, rose leaves, rose leaves I strew, He that will love me, come after me now” (2003: 239). Roses make more sense in a love charm, though Mitchell suggests the use of hemp might reference its use to make rope, thus ‘binding’ the couple.
Interestingly, a variation on the charm appeared in a 1914 issue of the Folklore journal. This version came from Jersey, and the single woman should sow hemp seed in her garden. The charm ran; “Hemp seed sow, hemp seed grow, for my true love to come and mow”. She had to hurry back to her house, but if she looked back, she’d see her future husband mowing the seed (le Bas 1914: 248).
Another love charm involved putting your boots on the floor under your bed. They needed to form a T beneath your pillow. Once in bed, you’d say, “I’ve put my shoes in the form of a T, Hoping my true love to see, Let him be young, or let him be old, Let him come and visit me.” Then you were supposed to dream of him (le Bas 1914: 248).
An Italian Love Charm
A dispatch sent to the Oakland Tribute from Amalfi in Italy referred to a nearby grotto used in love magic (Loomis 1956: 134). Called “the Grotto of the Pirate”, the folklore advised single girls to go there by moonlight. Once there, they needed to throw three pebbles at a particular rock. Surprisingly, they didn’t need to hit it, though apparently, it was useful “to recite the name of a likely young man or two during the pebble tossing” (Loomis 1956: 134). The dispatch noted that older people in the area commented that girls rarely needed to return a second time to the grotto.
Did such love magic actually work?
Aside from the Amalfi grotto charm, there are no real records of these practices having been actually used. A practitioner may have recorded their existence, but not their results. By the laws of averages, at least some of the people who used them must have had results. Whether that’s through their efficacy or coincidence is lost to time.
Over the centuries, the desire to compel another to love you was replaced by a desire to simply know there was a partner in the future. Perhaps, if nothing else, these practices serve to provide comfort to the lonely. After all, there is nothing more human than wanting a meaningful, emotional connection with someone else.
Naturally, the onward march of time gives rise to its own folkloric practices. Look at the trend for attaching padlocks to bridges, because nothing says ‘love’ like scratching your initials into a cheap padlock. Who knows what we’ll be doing to attract and commemorate love in future decades?
Have you tried any of these love divinations? Let me know!
Guiley, Rosemary Ellen (2008), The Encyclopedia of Witches, Witchcraft and Wicca, third edition, New York: Facts On File.
le Bas, John (1914), ‘Jersey Folklore Notes’, Folklore, 25:2, pp. 242-251.
Loomis, C. Grant (1956), ‘Italian Love Charms’, Folklore, 15:2, p. 134.
Mitchell, Laura (2013), ‘Love and the Longevity of Charms’, The Recipes Project, https://recipes.hypotheses.org/1033.
Page, Sophie (2018), ‘Love in a Time of Demons: Magic and the Medieval Cosmos’, in Sophie Page and Marina Wallace (eds), Spellbound: Magic, Ritual, and Witchcraft, Oxford: Ashmolean Museum, pp. 18-63.
Simpson, Jacqueline and Steve Roud (2003), Oxford Dictionary of English Folklore, Oxford: Oxford University Press (aff link).
Wilde, Lady Jane Francesca (1888), ‘The Fatal Love-Charm’, Ancient Legends, Mystic Charms, and Superstitions of Ireland, https://www.libraryireland.com/AncientLegendsSuperstitions/Contents.php.
Nutty about folklore and want more?
Add your email below and get these posts in your inbox every week.
You'll also get my 5-step guide to protecting your home using folklore!