Curse Tablet of the Month #3 – May 2014

I said yesterday that I’d try to blog more, so here’s an update on my rarely-monthly feature 🙂

Since I last posted I have worked through the 34 tablets found in the temple of Isis and Magna Mater in Mainz, modern Germany. This temple is interesting for all sorts of reasons, not least because it is the only temple in the whole Roman empire to be jointly dedicated to these two goddesses. They are both deities with eastern origins –  Isis was Egyptian and Magna Mater came from central Anatolia in modern Turkey. As my PhD is concerned with contexts, the reasons for this unique temple are really interesting for me, but as yet I don’t have many answers.

The curses from the temple are all prayers for justice – mostly relating to theft like at Bath. The one I’ve chosen to talk about here is DTM 3, and looks like this:

DTM 03 RĂĽckseite


The tablet is inscribed on both sides, and the Latin text reads:

rogo te domina Mater / Magna ut tu me uindices / de bonis Flori coniugis mei / qui me fraudauit Ulattius / Severus quemadmod[um] / hoc ego auerse scribo sic ille // omnia quidquid agit quidquid / aginat onmia illi auersa fiant / ut sal et aqua illi eueniat / quidquid mi abstulit de bonis / Flori coniugis mei rogo te / domina Mater Magna ut tu de eo me uindices

Thankfully the tablet is compete, so we can get a good translation that tells us some really interesting things about the people involved:

I ask you, Lady Mater Magna, that you avenge me in the matter of the fortune of my husband Florus. The one who has deceived me, Ulattius Severus: just as I write this wrongly, so shall // everything that he does, everything he undertakes, everything should go wrongly for him. Like salt and water shall it go for him. Everything he has taken away from me from the fortune of my husband Florus, I ask you Lady Mater Magna, that for this you avenge me.

Clearly we are dealing with the theft of money – evidently a substantial amount as the petitioner refers to it as a ‘fortune’ – by Ulattius Severus from Florus.

The first thing that strikes me about this curse is who is petitioning the goddess. It is a wife, maybe even a widow, petitioning Mater Magna on behalf of her husband. Now, this might not seem too outlandish to modern eyes, but in the Roman period the idea of a woman representing a male relative would have been unthinkable. Roman tradition put the head of the household – the paterfamilias – in charge of all family matters, and the legal profession was exclusively open to men. What this curse tablet does is show that, contrary to the submissive and passive view we often get of Roman women, they were perfectly capable of taking matters into their own hands when presented with a crisis.

There’s some really interesting magical language in the curse too. From the line “just as I write this wrongly” we might expect that the curse be written upside down, backwards or in anagram form as is often the case on curses. But Florus’ wife wrote her curse in the standard way of Roman writing – from left to right with all the letters and words in the right order. It seems that she considered the very act of making a curse tablet to be “auersus” – adverse, wrong or hostile – regardless of how she actually wrote the words on the lead.

From just this example we can see how much information that curse tablets can give us for the society in which they were used. They were a direct line from people to the gods, regardless of gender or social status. This made them powerful, dangerous and potentially hostile – not just to the victims but to society as a whole.


Blänsdorf, J., Lambert, P. Y., & Witteyer, M. (2012). Die Defixionum Tabellae Des Mainzer Isis- und Mater Magna-Heiligtums: Defixionum Tabellae Mogontiacenses (DTM). Mainz.

The busy life of a PhD student

I’m really bad at blogging regularly – oops! Despite the outwards impression I might sometimes give, I’ve been really busy these past few months, and although I’ve thought about blogging now and then I’ve only managed to get around to it today.

So, what have I been doing since January?

The short and obvious answer is “my PhD.” Actually it’s surprisingly hard to break down the specific things I have been doing, because a PhD is such a huge project that you end up doing random little tasks for a day or two, and then sort of forgetting about them. Like the days I spent going back through all 200 curses on my database adding one piece of information that I’d left out the first time. Or the day I drove up to Milton Keynes to the library for a book, only to realise on reading it that it was barely relevant.

Having said that, there are plenty of productive things I have done. The biggest is the aforementioned database, which currently includes 260 curse tablets from Britainnia, Gaul and Germania. It’s not finished yet – I know of at least 30 I need to add, and no doubt there are more to find in obscure epigraphy journals written 100 years ago. I also have a table on my database with over 300 personal names from the tablets, sorted by gender, ethnicity and social status. This is the sort of thing I’m really interested in, as hopefully it will give me some insights into the kinds of people who were using curses at different times and places.

I have also been reading – a lot. There’s always more too, and the end of my ‘to read’ list constantly eludes me, like a bank note on a string.

(C’mon, you know that’s still funny…)

I’ve also started writing. My probation report – basically a draft of my first chapter, including a literature review – is due in the next couple of months, and I’m giving a few papers at internal seminars and conferences. I might post bits and pieces of my writing on here, we’ll see how that goes!

Oh, and I’ve also been teaching! I’m now a tutor for the Brilliant Club, an organisation that puts PhD students in schools with low participation in higher education. To any PhD students reading this blog, I cannot recommend them highly enough. If you really want a challenge and some excellent experience, get involved!

So, a very packed few months, and it will only get more busy as we get closer summer and the end of my first year. I will try to blog more, please let me know if you’ve got any questions or any feedback on the what I post! My twitter is on the side bar, and there’s the feedback form too 🙂