Literary Love Potions
What are the ingredients in some famous literary love potions and how do things work out post-ingestion?
Short answer: herbs, flowers, hard to find nature bits. And, not well.
One-way love potion are Illegal, of course. But even those literary couples who decide to drink love potions together often end up suffering deeply.
A love potion plays a key role in the myth of Tristan and Iseult. In most versions, said potion has been prepared by Iseult’s mother, the Queen, to ensure that Tristan’s uncle, King Mark of Cornwall, falls in love with Iseult. Tristan has been sent to travel with Iseult back to King Mark. But, on the journey, Tristan and Iseult drink the love potion and fall deeply in love with each other.
The question is: why did Tristan and Iseult drink the potion? Writers and librettist differ on details: did Iseult trick Tristan? Thirsty, did they just reach for the first liquid they saw? Did they knowingly choose to drink a love potion together? Storytellers also differ on whether the potion is dangerous or safe, powerful or a placebo.
Herbert James Draper. Tristan and Isolde. 1901
Here’s the version from M. Joseph Bédier’s Le Roman de Tristan et Iseult as translated in 1913 by H. Belloc.
‘When the day of Iseult’s livery to the Lords of Cornwall drew near, her mother gathered herbs and flowers and roots and steeped them in wine, and brewed a potion of might, and having done so, said apart to Brangien:
‘Child, it is yours to go with Iseult to King Mark’s country, for you love her with a faithful love. Take then this pitcher and remember well my words. Hide it so that no eye shall see nor no lip go near it: but when the wedding night has come and that moment in which the wedded are left alone, pour this essence wine into a cup and offer it to King Mark and to Iseult his queen. Oh! Take all care, my child, that they alone shall taste this brew. For this is its power: they who drink of it together love each other with their every single sense and with their every thought, forever, in life and in death.’
With their potion-fuelled or enhanced love, Tristan and Iseult are now doomed. The first and most dangerous complication: soon to be husband King Mark. Desperate to be together, Tristan and Iseult are haunted and hunted until they can finally be united in tragic death.
In Shakespeare’s Midsummer Night’s Dream, Fairy King Oberon tells Puck about the ‘love-in-idleness’ flower – viola tricolour, a wild pansy and the key ingredient in a powerful love potion.
‘Yet marked I where the bolt of Cupid fell.
It fell upon a little western flower –
Before, milk-white; now, purple with love’s wound –
And maidens call it love-in-idleness.
Fetch me that flower; the herb I showed thee once.
The juice of it on sleeping eyelids laid
Will make or man or woman madly dote
Upon the next live creature that it sees.’
In true Shakespearean fashion, the love potion gets placed on the wrong eyelids – eyelids! – and disaster ensues.
Edwin Henry Landseer. Scene from a Midsummer’s Night Dream. Titania and Bottom. ~1848-51
In Harry Potter and the Half Blood Prince, Ron Weasley gets similarly misstruck by potion-stuffed chocolate cauldrons meant for his bespectacled roommate.
The most dangerous love potion in JK Rowling’s Potterverse? Amortentia, which Hermione correctly identifies for Professor Slughorn.
‘It’s the most powerful love potion in the world!’ said Hermione.
‘Quite right! You recognised it, I suppose, by its distinctive mother-of-pearl sheen?’
‘And the steam rising in characteristic spirals,’ said Hermione enthusiastically, ‘and it’s supposed to smell differently to each of us, according to what attracts us, and I can smell freshly mown grass and new parchment and –’
‘Amortentia doesn’t really create love, of course,’ Slughorn tells the class about this mixture made of Ashwinder eggs, rose thorns, peppermint oil, moonstone and mother of pearl dust. ‘It is impossible to manufacture or imitate love. No, this will simply cause a powerful infatuation or obsession. It is probably the most dangerous and powerful potion in this room.’
If centuries of authors have not made it perfectly clear: these ‘love’ potions are do not try at home or anywhere else you might be.
Header: John William Waterhouse. Tristan and Isolde with the Potion. 1916