Curse Tablet of the Month #8: October 2014

All of the curses I have featured on this blog have been fairly wordy affairs, some with inscriptions almost 20 lines long. I am concious that this could be giving the impression that making a curse tablet involved nothing more than scratching words onto a flat piece of lead and then dumping it into a hole in the ground. With this in mind, this month we’re going back to Mainz for our featured curse, to look at a tablet that is much more than just the words written on it.

For those of you playing along at home, the tablet is DTM 21 in Blänsdorf (2012) Die Defixionum Tabellae Des Mainzer Isis- und Mater Magna-Heiligtums, and it looks like this:

DTM 21

DTM 21

The words on the tablet are as follows:

Trutmo Florus Clitmonis filius

Trutmo Florus, son of Clitmo.

That’s it. Just one line, naming one individual and identifying him by his father’s name. No petition to a god, no sympathetic magical formula, no gruesome punishment for some heinous crime. There are dozens, if not hundreds, of curse tablets like this one, with nothing written on them but one or more names of intended victims. The assumption is that there must have been an oral component to the cursing ritual that specified why the person(s) was being cursed, and the punishments expected. Of course these spoken elements are now lost to us, and we are left scratching our heads as to their original purpose.

With this specific curse, however, we have a little more to go on. Tablet 21 was not found in the same deposit as most of the other tablets from the temple of Mater Magna and Isis, but off to the side on its own. In the same archaeological context, the excavators also found an oil lamp, a broken pot, some unburned fruit pips and a clay figurine.

The figurine found with DTM 21

The figurine found with DTM 21, now in the Römmerpassage Museum in Mainz.

The figurine was intentionally broken in half, along the line you can see in the above photo. When deposited it was intentionally twisted, with the head facing up and the phallus facing downwards. It has also been pierced in several places – the neck, chest, stomach, hips, back and anus.

At this point, I am willing to bet that a word has popped into the mind of at least some of you. It begins with a V, and has a long history of misconception and misrepresentation in the popular ideas about magic. I have come to realise that it’s a somewhat lazy comparison, but one that even the most serious and sensible Roman historians have been guilty of making, myself included. The truth is that sticking pins in dolls was probably not as prominent as the popular image of Voodoo (or Voudou as it is variously spelled) would have us believe, and anyway, it is a system of beliefs and practices that came out of the African diaspora in the 18th through 20th centuries so has little relevance as an interpretation for ancient Greek or Roman practices.

Far better, I think, is staying much closer to the finds themselves, rather than scooting to the other side of the Atlantic almost 2000 years later. These dolls are not uncommon in the ancient world, but are found much more frequently in the eastern Mediterranean than in the north-west. Mainz seems to be the exception to this, however, as two more were also found in the excavation of this temple. We can probably assume that the figurine is a representation of the victim, judging by the clear gendering of the model. Several other curses from Mainz list body parts to be cursed. Most focus on the limbs and marrow, but one mentions the neck, and another the heart and liver. It could be that this doll is a physical representation of those written formulas, accompanied by a spoken list of parts to be affected.

The person who conducted this particular cursing ritual did it in ways that were unique for their location. At Mainz the general pattern of cursing rituals seems to have involved longer, more detailed, written curses which were then deposited behind the statue of Mater Magna, occasionally after being melted or burned. The person who cursed Trutmo Florus decided to forgo this pattern, in favour of a largely spoken curse, accompanied by the mutilation of a clay doll as well as offerings of a pot, lamp and fruit. The motivation behind the curse remains a mystery unfortunately. The majority of curses from Mainz concern theft, so it’s probable that Trutmo had stolen something. Whatever he did, the petitioner sought justice from the gods by combining established and novel approaches.

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A Year in Review

As of this month, both my PhD and this blog are a year old – hurrah!

This is a Roman statue of a child holding (strangling?) a duck. I'm sure there's a metaphor for a PhD in it somewhere...

This is a Roman statue of a child holding (strangling?) a duck. I’m sure there’s a metaphor for a PhD in it somewhere…

In celebration of my first anniversary as a PhD student and blogger I thought I would write a little retrospective of the last year: of the things that went well, the things I’ve learned and the things I need to improve as I look forward to second and third year.

This little nostalgia trip was partly inspired by my trip up to Milton Keynes last week. The Open University Arts Faculty invited me and two other second-years to talk to this year’s intake of new PhD students, and the questions they asked reminded me of the concerns I had at the same time 12 months earlier. What is probation like? How do you organise such a huge project? Where do I even start? Obviously, everyone’s PhD is completely different to everyone else’s, but there are some things that are common to us all, and we tried our best to put the new students at ease. The main thing I kept repeating was that they should be enjoying their research. There is no point in committing three years of your life to something that you hate, and thankfully I have a topic that I really, genuinely enjoy researching.

One of the new students asked us something perceptive, and on reflection I think my answer says a lot about me. He asked if we could go back and do our first year again, what is the one thing we would change. I initially joked that I might work faster, but in the end I said that I wouldn’t change anything, because the mistakes I made have helped me grow as a researcher, and I think I’m better for having made them. The example I gave to show this was the week I spent around November last year reading psychology literature, something that I thought would be useful but ended up being a bit of a dead-end. Although it was a week I could have better spent on more relevent literature, the experience has helped me to identify other areas that at first seem interesting but ultimately don’t contribute much to my project. My answer to his question is a symptom of the optimism that I try to make my default position on everything. Things go wrong, and we can’t help that – we’re only human after all – but what we can do is put our mistakes down to experience and try not to repeat them.

I have done plenty of good things though, which far outweigh the mistakes. My research has come on really well, with a finished database and a solid theoretical base. I have had some presentation experience, at the OU and at Cirencester Museum, which will stand me in great stead when I start speaking at academic conferences this year (hopefully more on that in a later blog). I have also been teaching with the Brilliant Club, which has given me a fantastic opportunity to introduce students at three secondary schools to the ancient world – something I didn’t get the chance to study at my own school. Teaching students aged between 11 and 18 has given me a new perspective on the material I study, and has forced me to think about Roman religion in new ways. It has also been great fun, and I’d recommend any PhD student get in contact with the Brilliant Club and give it a go!

Last, but not least, I count this blog as one of my successes. I hope you have enjoyed reading it, because writing it has certainly helped me clear up some of my ideas about ancient cursing. It will continue to post as reguarly as possible, and I’d love your feedback too! If you have any suggestions, comments or questions about what I post, about Brilliant Club teaching, about doing a PhD or anything else, feel free to drop me a message through the contact page or send me a tweet.

Here’s to the next two years!

I'll try!