Curse of the month #4: June 2014

For the first time in the 10 months I’ve been doing this PhD I’m managing to post in two consecutive months – I might actually be getting better at this!

For this month I’ve got a tablet from Gaul, rounding out the three regions that my research is covering (Britain and Germany being the others). This curse is from an oppidum called Montfo, north of the modern French town of Beziers in what was the Roman province of Gallia Narbonensis. The tablet has been dated to around AD 50-60, so it is one of the earliest from my study area. As the southern parts of Gaul had a longer history of contact with Greek and Roman culture than the northern regions, this isn’t too surprising, and this curse shows some clear connections to Mediterranean cursing traditions. Having said that, there are some elements to the text that are overtly Celtic, which is incredibly interesting!

Reconstructed Latin text

quomodo hoc plumbu(m) non / paret decadet sic deca/dat aetas membra vita / bos gran<o>um mer(x) eoru(m) qui / mihi dolum malu fecerunt / Idem Asuetemeos / Secundina que illum tulit / et Verres Tearus // et Amarantis et / hoc omnia vobis Dii / interdico in omni/bus sortebus tam celebrare / Masitlatida concinere necra/cantum Col[. .]scantum et / omnes deos [. . . . . . . .]/ ta datus…
English translation

Just as this lead disappears and falls, thus falls their lifetime, limbs, life, ox, grain and goods, those who did me wrong, namely Asuetemeos who Secundina bore, and Verres Tearus // and Amarantis and all that is yours, oh gods, I forbid (them) by all spells to celebrate the Masitlatida and to sing the Necrocantus… and all gods… gave…
This curse starts with a sympathetic magical formula, which magically transfers actions done to the lead tablet onto the victims. We can assume that the victims are farmers, because the curse specifically targets their livestock and agricultural produce as a means to punish them for an unspecified crime.Taken as a list, the things that the petitioner curses are fairly random, and seem like things that came to their mind as they were writing rather than being pre-planned. This might explain the puzzling repetition in cursing their lifetime as well as their life.
One of the victims is identified by their mother’s name, a formula that is common in wider Graeco-Roman magic, probably because it was a more accurate way of targeting someone than using the father’s name (it doesn’t take a huge leap of imagination to realise why someone might not be 100% sure who their father was in this pre-Jeremy-Kyle-DNA-test world). Two victims bear names with Celtic elements, Asuetemeos and Verres Tearus, although the first’s mother has a Latin name and the second has the Latin Verres as part of his name. The mixing of Celtic and Latin names is something that we see in the tablets from Roman Britain too, but what is totally unique in this tablet is the last line.
We have no idea what the ‘Masitlatida’ is, nor the ‘Necrocantus’, although judging by its name the latter is probably some kind of song for the dead. Both of them are probably local rituals or festivals with some significance for people in the area. The petitioner explicitly bans the victims from celebrating the Masitlatida, thereby excluding them from the community, making them outcasts because of the crimes they have committed. In these rural communities the festivals of the religious calendar would have been important markers of the passing of time, and events at which community bonds could be formed and strengthened. So to be excluded from them could have serious consequences for the victims – they could miss a trade deal or a chance to secure a marriage proposal for one of their children. Their absence would probably be noted if the community was small enough, which may have had further negative consequences through gossip about certain people’s lack of respect for the gods. All of these imagined outcomes might have been going through the mind of the petitioner when they were writing the curse, and whether it actually worked or not is in some sense unimportant. The important thing for us to do as modern students of the material is to try to get into the heads of ancient people, to try to understand their concerns, their fears and the things that they considered essential to their lives as individuals within their communities. This one text brings home the very real contribution that the study of curse tablets can make to this endeavour, and helps us understand even more about the people living in the Roman Empire.