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.

Bibliography

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

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