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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One thought on “Curse Tablet of the Month #8: October 2014

  1. Pingback: Curses! | Curse Tablet of the Month #9: November 2014

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