Sexuality in the Natural and Demonic Magic of the Middle Ages

The Magic Circle, John William Waterhouse (1886)

The Magic Circle, John William Waterhouse (1886)

Sexuality in the Natural and Demonic Magic of the Middle Ages

Megan Pepin

Tiresias:Vol.1 (2012)


A view of the medieval beliefs on the effects magic had on sexuality. Looks at the more agrarian ingredients used by natural magic, the corporeal methods used in demonic magic and the carnal associations demonic magic was believed to have.

Introduction: Throughout the Middle Ages – especially the later Middle Ages – ideas of magic played a large part in the formation of deviant sexual behaviours and it was believed that magic played a main role in sexual malfunctions and abilities. Natural magic formed the basis in the early Middle Ages for controlling sexual desires and behaviours. Demonic magic became the prevalent basis for sexual magic and atrocities in the later Middle Ages. Johannes Nider is credited with writing the first widespread work on demonic witchcraft – the Formicarius – in 1437, but far more influential was the Malleus Maleficarum, published in 1486. It was believed that through demonic magic, witches could control sexual desire and abilities. Demonic magic was also suspect because tradition held that witches would give themselves sexually to demons – or even to the Devil himself – as part of a trade for their powers. The natural magic of the early Middle Ages – as a whole, but particularly in regards to sexuality – was not the same type of social threat as presented by the fifteenth century developing ideas of demonic magic, its control over sexuality, and its sexual perversions.

For creating or dispelling certain aspects of sexuality, natural magic used physical objects found in nature which, through various methods, were applied directly to, or in direct proximity to, one of the two involved parties. Natural magic operates on the basis of the belief that certain stones, plants and parts of animals have inherent magical properties that one can exploit. Sexually, there were numerous ointments, potions or powders that could be used for various effects. Authorities frowned on natural magic because it was possible to cause harm to people – accidentally, as in the supposed love potion that killed Louis X, or on purpose, as was the case with the old woman who caused monks to burn with love for her “because they have eaten this much of my shit.” Conversely, natural magic was not as serious as demonic magic because if the object that was causing the sexual effect was removed, the affected person would revert to their original state of sense and ability – such as the case with the Count whose former mistress had placed a jar “that contains certain objects of sorcery … so that you would have impotence … for as long as [it] remained there.” Natural magic was often used for the purpose of increasing sexual pleasure or the frequency at which one was able to perform, and common prescriptions for these goals were to drink the juices of certain plants or to anoint one’s genitals with a mix of animal bile and crushed plant seeds prior to intercourse. Other common ingredients were animal genitals – testicles were particularly common – semen, blood – especially from birds – and various plants, such as valerian and vervain. It can be seen that natural magic used corporal objects to enhance or inhibit sexual desires and abilities in the Middle Ages.

Demonic magic had the ability to induce some of the same sexual desires or inabilities as natural magic, but did so through the medium of the esoteric activities of witches or the demons themselves. In the late Middle Ages, the definition of maleficum – very closely associated with sorcery – changed from simply meaning a harmful deed to meaning more specifically the magically motivated supplication to and worship of demons. In the fifteenth century, the idea arose that all magic was caused by the power of demons working through the medium of a witch because the use of a human was more of an affront to God. Demons themselves were believed to have been able to take semen from a man as a succubus and deposit it into a woman as an incubus, and as such the demon could pervert the procreative act, which was the main approved reason for sex. Through witches, demonic magic was frequently exercised to cause male impotence through illusory castration, a phenomenon which gained monumental acclaim in folk belief because of the ‘nest of penises’ story in the Malleus Maleficarum. Although demonic magic was known to be able to cause many of the same effects as natural magic – such as impotence and great sexual desire – it was most scandalously known for the sexual perversions in which its participants supposedly participated.

Click here to read this article from the University of Waterloo

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