Over the summer I have been focussed on one main goal: to finish my database of curse tablets. As I’m almost done I will be writing another post about what I’ve learned during the process, but for now here’s one of the last tablets to be entered!
If you are a regular reader of this blog you will have noticed that all the curse I have featured have something in common – they are all written in Latin. This shouldn’t come as too much of a surprise – it was the official language in the west of the Roman Empire – but it was not the only language spoken in the regions that I am researching. The Roman conquest of Gaul and Britain did not totally stamp out the native languages of the people who lived there, and they continued to be spoken throughout the Roman period and long after, transforming into the modern languages of Welsh, Irish, Gaelic, Cornish, Breton and Manx. Although they continued to be spoken, written texts in the ancient Celtic languages are extremely rare, and where they exist are written in either the Greek or Latin alphabet. The existing texts are mostly inscriptions, and all have been collected in the Recueil des Inscriptions Gauloises (R.I.G.). Significantly for me, the two longest texts written in a Celtic language are both curse tablets, one from Larzac and another from Chamalières. It is the latter that I have chosen as the curse tablet of the month!
Now, a word of warning. I am not a Celticist, nor would I ever claim to be one. The translation of this text comes from the R.I.G., but has been the source of considerable debate among people far more qualified than me. I would be delighted to hear from anyone with more experience in the field if they think my interpretation is lacking in some way!
Andedion uediiumi diiiuion risun artiu Mapon Arueriiatin lopites snieddic sos brixtia anderon C. Lucion Floron Nigrinon adgarion Aemilion Paterin(on) Claudion Legitumon Caelion pelign(on) Claudio(n) pelign(on) Marcion Victorin(on) Asiaticon Ađđedilli etic se couitoncnaman tonc siiontio meion poncse sit bue tid ollon reguccambion exsops pissiiumi tsoc cantirtssu ison son bissiet luge dessummiiis luge dessumiis luge dessumiis luxe
In the name of the good strength of the underworld gods, I invoke Maponos of Arverion. Pursue… those with the magic of the infernals. Gaius Lucius Florus Nigrinus the accuser, Aemilius Paterinus, Claudius Legitumus, Caelius the stranger, Claudius the stranger, Marcus Victorinus, Asiaticus Ađđedillus and everyone who would… these enemies. If it is reduced it is full. I straighten what is crooked. I (still?) see blind… place to my right, place to my right, place to my right.
Even though this curse is not in Latin, it conforms to many of the conventions of Latin cursing. The underworld gods are invoked, it is written on lead and was deposited in the sacred spring of a god – in this case Maponos. The fact that the first victim is given the title ‘accuser’ makes us think that this relates to a legal case, a common motive in all ancient cursing. The thing I find most intriguing about this curse is that even though it was written in Gaulish the names of the victims are almost all good, solid Roman names. A couple of them are probably even citizens of the Empire. On top of this, the writer of the curse must have been familiar with Latin if (s)he was involved in the legal system.
The conclusion to be drawn from all of this is that the petitioner made a conscious, personal decision to communicate with Maponos – a Celtic river god – in the language people had been communicating with him for centuries before, even though the form of communication – a lead curse tablet – was a new introduction that had come with the Roman conquest. It is tempting to picture the people of the north-western provinces as either Asterix-type barbarians or fully-Romanized clones of people living in contemporary Italy. Here we have evidence for something completely different. The petitioner at Chamalières was probably bi-lingual, and comfortably accommodated aspects of both Roman and Celtic culture in their personal world-view, using both to make sense of their surroundings and to manipulate them for their own benefit.