Curse Tablet of the Month #10: December 2014

I’m lucky in the study area I work on, in that almost all of the tablets are relatively easy to interpret. Where the writing is legible (by no means true for all of the tablets by the way!) the readings can be quite simple. People in the north-west tended to be unambiguous when writing curses, sticking to simple and repeated curse formulas, statements of motive or the names of intended victims. The situation in the east of the Roman empire is very different. Cursing there was part of a complicated magical tradition, consisting of mixes of Greek, Egyptian, Roman, Jewish and later Christian traditions. The production of curses often relied heavily on ‘professional’ magicians working from spell books which contained magical signs and words that appeared unintelligible to ordinary humans. This gave them the impression of wisdom and authority, because they alone understood the correct ways to harness the supernatural powers that were believed to control life on earth. Due to the preservation conditions in Egypt in particular, some of their spell books have survived buried in the desert sands, and have been collected and translated together in volumes known as the Greek Magical Papyri (abbreviated to PGM). They are well worth the read if you are interested in ancient magic!

One of the strange creatures from the PGM, covered in vowels - considered to be the letters with the strongest magical powers.

One of the strange creatures from the PGM, covered in vowels – considered to be the letters with the strongest magical powers.

It is incredibly rare to see the influences of these eastern magical traditions in the north-west. There are a few protective amulets, written in Greek, that appeal to the same supernatural beings – Abrasax is a particular favourite, a demon with a cockerel’s head and snakes for legs – but almost no curse tablets. The exceptions to this come from Trier, now in Germany, but once the capital of the Roman province of Gallia Belgica. It was always an important city for the Romans, but from the late 3rd century onwards was actually one of the capitals of the Western empire, meaning that the city’s population would be made up of people from all across the Roman world. Around 30 curses were buried in the cellar of the city’s amphitheatre some time in the 4th century, but barely half of them contain a legible Latin text. Below is an image of one of the hardest to interpret.

Trier tablet number 20. Apologies for the terrible photo, it was taken with my phone in a dim library basement!

Trier tablet number 20. Apologies for the terrible photo, it was taken with my phone in a dim library basement!

The words inscribed on the tablet are nonsense. The letters are Greek, but form no recognisable words. The symbol on the right that looks like three crossed golf clubs is similar to some seen in the PGM, and the presence of a drawing is not a normal part of cursing in the north-west. Overall, it’s impossible to know what this curse is about, but I think there’s clear influences from the east. Writing in Greek is the obvious clue to this, but the unintelligible writing suggests the input of someone with at least a partial knowledge of the magical traditions developed in Egypt or somewhere similar. It’s probably fair to assume that there was a spoken part of the ritual that made it clear who was the intended victim of the curse, and what the reason for it was. We can guess that the curse was intended to be carried out by the spirits of dead gladiators or other who had met their ends in the arena – the untimely dead were prime targets for magic spells because it was felt that they would be angrier and more powerful than those who had died peacefully.

So there are definitely influences from the Greek world in the Trier tablets, but I don’t think we should get carried away. They seem to be an isolated collection, and the existence of eastern magical books in Trier can probably be explained by the increases in population movement caused by the importance of Trier as an imperial capital. Nevertheless, they are important tablets, even if they seem like jibberish!