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Please let me grow old with him; the desperate plea of a lover from the 4th century BCE

Some 24 centuries ago, a woman probably named Phila, was in love with a man named Dionysophon. We don’t know whether the man reciprocated or encouraged her love in any way; we don’t know whether he made promises he didn’t intend to keep. What we do know is that Mr. D was making plans to marry another woman, Thetima, but we have no idea whether this was a marriage of love or an arranged one. We know that this love triangle played out in Pella, historic capital of the kingdom of Macedonia in the first half of the 4th century BCE (400-350 BCE).

Seeing the man she loved marrying another, Phila must have made her pleas to Venus, goddess of love and lovers. It seems that her prayers went unanswered and Mr. D went on with his plans. In her desperation, the ditched lover resorted to extreme measures; she decided that, if gods wouldn’t listen, she’d plead her case to the demons. She must have approached someone who had a reputation as a wizard or witch, to have her plea written on a thin strip of lead. It reads:

incantation_strip_of_lead

“By this written spell, I bind the marriage of Dionysophon to Thetima or to any other woman, whether widow or maiden; I entrust this spell to Macron and the demons. Dionysophon may never marry, unless I, myself, dig up and read this strip; even then, he may marry no other woman but me. Please let me grow old with him; I implore you dear demons. Have pity over Phila, because I am abandoned and bereft of friends. But please keep this piece of writing for me, so that these things don’t happen and so that Thetima gets lost and I get joyous and happy […].”

incantation_drawing

In the mind of Phila (and many of her superstitious contemporaries) the only way to get this message delivered to the demons of the underworld was for a person to carry it there. Since the living were barred from entering, the only people who could do so were the dead. So Phila found a way to have her message wrapped around the arm of a dead man (possibly Macron, whose name is mentioned in the spell) before he was interred. Phila trusted that the message would be delivered as soon as Macron crossed into the underworld, after his funeral.

incantation_transcript

Such messages (kalled katadesmoi) are occasionally found in ancient Greek cemeteries, proving that the practice was widespread throughout the Greek world. This one is written in simple, informal Greek, in the Doric dialect that was spoken by Macedonians around the time Philip the Great came to the throne. Today, Phila’s spell can be seen at the museum of Pella.

We will never know what happened to Phila. Was her plea answered? Did Dioysophon marry Thetima or did he go back to Phila and lived with her happily ever after?

What we do know is that Macron kept her message safe all this time, revealing it only reluctantly, under the scrutiny of a persistent archaeologist so many centuries later.

 

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