Prof. Kerill O’Niell

Colby College

As a scholar working at the intersection of literature (particularly love poetry) and material culture, I have long been intrigued by what we can learn about social hierarchy, gender relations, and belief systems from the study of ancient love magic. It is a research area to which I regularly return. I have published several articles about it: “Symbolism and Sympathetic Magic in Propertius 4.5,” Classical Journal 94.1 (1998) 49-80; “Ovid and Propertius: Reflexive Annotation in Amores 1.8,” Mnemosyne 52.3 (1999) 286-307; “The Lover’s Gaze and Cynthia’s Glance,” in Ellen Greene & Ronnie Ancona, eds., Gendered Dynamics in Latin Love Poetry, Baltimore: Johns Hopkins (2005) 243-268; “Cynthia prima,” in Paul Corcoran, ed., Line of Inquiry (2017) 58-59; and “Tibullus 2.5: Magical Laurels for Nemesis,” in preparation.

There is abundant evidence of the conservative nature of magic spells practiced in antiquity all around the Mediterranean basin. It has been culled from the text of spells recorded on lead tablets, magic bowls, or in magicians’ handbooks preserved in the sands of Egypt. Similar or even identical spells recur over a vast area for centuries. Nevertheless, there are major lacunae in our understanding of the function of individual elements within spells, the accompanying actions, and the mindset of the spells’ agents. My research project aims to fill in the lacunae in our knowledge by studying the current practice of love magic in the Western Cape.

The seeds for this project were sown during my tenure as director of a study abroad program in South Africa in 2004. I arranged for my students to meet with several traditional healers. In my conversations with these practitioners, I realized that there were an astonishingly high number of shared practices between ancient Mediterranean love magic and modern South African spells. Oral tradition of the Nguni peoples of South Africa relate that they migrated over the centuries from north to south, and contemporary practitioners have preserved many of the magical traditions that their ancestors brought with them. A close study of comparable love spells from these ancient and modern cultures will allow me to recreate and interpret the rituals that accompanied love magic in antiquity.

During my 2018 sabbatical, I began interviewing sangomas working in Langa and Khayelitsha but that research was interrupted by the water crisis on the Western Cape. With “Day Zero” looming, I had to abandon my research project, and leave South Africa. I am determined to complete that project this time around with a particular focus on spells of attraction (what the Greeks called agogai or katadesmoi) to draw your beloved to you, and separation spells (diakopoi) to repel your amatory rival. Thus, I wish to learn more about how sangomas perform the Bheka mina ndedwa (look at me alone) spell, or a Sondeza (come close) spell, or a Mlomomnadi (sweet mouth) spell whereby they empower their clients to speak so seductively that they can persuade anyone to become their lover. Right before I had to leave Cape Town in 2018, one sangoma had started to describe to me Masixhabane (let’s fight/argue) spells.

I believe that this project will lead to significant breakthroughs in our understanding of both ancient and modern love magic, and of the agonistic dynamics that have underpinned gender and power from antiquity to the present day.