Magic in Propertius’s Oeuvre

Magic is already prominent in Propertius’s very first poem (1.1):

ergo velocem potuit domuisse puellam: 15

tantum in amore preces et benefacta valent. in me tardus Amor non ullas cogitat artes, nec meminit notas, ut prius, ire vias. at vos, deductae quibus est fallacia lunae

et labor in magicis sacra piare focis, 20

en agedum, dominae mentem convertite nostrae, et facite illa meo palleat ore magis! tunc ego crediderim uobis et sidera et amnis posse Cytinaeis[1] ducere carminibus. et vos, qui sero lapsum revocatis, amici, 25

quaerite non sani pectoris auxilia. fortiter et ferrum saevos patiemur et ignes, sit modo libertas quae velit ira loqui. ferte per extremas gentes et ferte per undas,

qua non ulla meum femina norit iter. 30

vos remanete, quibus facili deus annuit aure, sitis et in tuto semper amore pares. nam me nostra Venus noctes exercet amaras, et nullo vacuus tempore defit Amor.

And hence he was able to tame that fleet-footed maiden: prayers and good deeds like his work wonders in love.

But Love runs slowly in my case,[2] and devises no schemes, and forgets to use the methods he once knew well.

So you, who have tricks to make the moon looking to be drawn down, performing your magic rites on hallowed hearths, here is your chance, come, change my mistress’s heart, eclipse the light of her cheeks, fainter than mine.

I’ll believe in your claims then, that Thessalian spells have power to drain the sea of its floods and stars of their light.

And you, friends, who at this late stage still urge me to stand, find me something to help a heart that’s sick.

I’d suffer the |torments by|[3] knife or savage cautery bravely, to win the freedom to talk as my fury craves.

Send me to some far out-post, over the ocean,

where none of her sex would know the route I took: but remain in Rome, if the god is kind and has heard you, be always carefully matched in a safe affair.

That Passion in me is the cause of nights of anguish, my lack of Love is present every hour.[4]

The excerpt begins with the end of the story of Milanion, who won the hand of Atalanta, the daughter of Iasus.20 Preces (line 16) clearly has a religious ring (the addressee is not stated, but should be understood as Aphrodite rather than Atalanta),21 which is emphasized when Propertius (as the text clearly invites us to identify the speaker), next reflects on his situation in relation to the god Amor; in this case, the gods remain unpropitious, as was summarily stated in line 8 of this poem: cum tamen aduersos cogor habere deos, “even if I am forced to suffer adverse gods.”

The idea of adversity is repeated at the end of the quoted passage. Hopelessness (and the cautionary advice that results from it) informs the end of the poem. This is a final commentary on the vain—as we see—appeal to unspecified magic specialists in lines 19 and following. At and en agedum clearly mark addresses or exhortations,22 and these words also introduce the speech Propertius directs first to his friends and then to a generalized audience—addresses that do not include the gods, as should be noted. The forceful demand that the magic specialists ameliorate his situation is in clear contrast to the plea that he directs toward the rest of his audience, which is only that they find ways to deal with an inalterable situation. Magic was a last resort.[5] [6] [7] [8] [9] [10]

The characterization of this magic is interesting. The specialists are fully credited with having (quibus est) a trick that makes the moon appear to be forced down and with the practice of painstaking, i.e., elaborate, rituals (labor).24 They claim to be able to alter the movement of water and light with Colchian (likely a reference to Medea)25 formulas or songs, but this claim needs proof. The speaker does not make any reference to the kind of activity he wishes to be performed, but only to the desired outcome: that the beloved become paler than himself, that she be even more emotionally involved than he himself. The absence of ritual detail is in keeping with the lack of any indicator regarding the status, age, or sex of the specialists invoked.

Until this point I have not commented on the phrase in magicis sacra piare focis (line 20). Commentaries[11] are quick to point out that sacra must be an internal accusative, meaning “to perform rituals,” “a purificatory sacrifice,”[12] or to emend the phrase. But the former would be unparalleled[13] and does not account for the juxtaposition of magicis and sacra at the center of the line. To expiate something always means to alter its status, either to cleanse an object or person from defilement or to undo an illegal or impious action. Sacra piare is an unmitigated paradox. Semantically it implies an opposition between magic and sacred ritual,[14] syntactically an alteration of sacred ritual, and pragmatically the coexistence of sacral and magical “systems.” After all, the invocation at vos . . . en agedum follows directly on Propertius’s complaint about the god Amor’s unrelentingly negative attitude. This is not, as Margaret Hubbard claims, a formal device to balance the invocation of his friends,[15] but signals that he is willing to employ the last resort (without providing details or implying possible criminal action), even if he is hopeless. But finally, the only source of relief is poetry, the liberty to give vent to what anger dictates (line 28).[16] This conclusion is important for all of Propertius’s poetry.

  • [1] Hcrtzbcrg for transmitted Cythalinis (obelized by Fedeli 1980); the reference to Thessalyor to a Colchian Medea is without doubt, but the precise form of the adjective—due to the lack ofsufficient parallels—is uncertain.
  • [2] Taken from J. Booth 2001, 64.
  • [3] Cf. Bennett 1969, 33 on 3.24.11, who, surprisingly, does not extend the notion oftorture—so clearly alluded to in the following verse (libertas. . . loqui)—to this passage (n. 10).
  • [4] Translations of Propertius in this chapter are those of Hodge and Buttimore 1977, 17.Here, I have adjusted only their rendering of line 19.
  • [5] See Cairns 2007, 1—7 for the Propertian version of the story.
  • [6] J. Booth 2001, 65-66.
  • [7] Fedeli 1980, 79 on at.
  • [8] This interpretation is in opposition to the tendency to downplay magic in analyses of Prop.1.1 as does, for example, M. Prince 2003. Prince argues that the prominent and differentiated treatment of magic is merely transgressive. Cf. Fulkerson 2002 for an appraisal of the magic subtextin Ov. Her. 13.
  • [9] The perfect tense of the participle (deductae) is rightly stressed by Fedeli (1980, 79). I followCairns (2007, 8—9, who follows Shackleton Bailey) and Fedeli, in interpreting/a/lacia as expressingskepticism. However, this is not simply an inversion of the traditional Hellenistic motif of trustingmagic in matters erotic (Fedeli 1980, 80). As the following interpretations will show, it is importantto note that this doubt is not total and that it does not exclude experiment and tentative belief. Forthe alleged technique of the trick, see Hippolytus, Refutatio Haeresium 4.37 (quoted by Cairns, 2007,8—9). For a suggestion based on modern North African magical practice, see Tupet 1976, 97—100,and (following Tupet) Harmon 1986, 1934: “hypnotic suggestion.”
  • [10] Above, n. 16.
  • [11] E.g., Camps 1961 ad loc.; Fedeli 1980, 80. The interpretation suggested by Hodge andButtimore 2002, 68 (following Sandbach), “to expiate a religious offence,” is impossible.
  • [12] Thus Cairns 2007, 9.
  • [13] As pointed out by A. E. Housman. The discussion of the passage by Tupet (1976,350—51) does acknowledge Propertius's typical originality in wording, but does not address difficulties of meaning: “accomplir correctement des rites.”
  • [14] Fedeli's statement (Fedeli 1980, 80) “il valore di tali sacrifici c fortemente limitatodall’espressione in magicis focis” at least recognizes the tension.
  • [15] Hubbard 1974, 17-18.
  • [16] Newman 1997, 465; similarly Lyne 1998, 165.
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