Curse tablet of the month #11 – July 2015

It’s been far too long since I posted one of these, but I’ve been spurred into action by yesterday’s exciting images beamed back to earth from Pluto. If you haven’t seen them already, they are totally worth a look and can be found here.

The success of the New Horizons space probe might be the first time mankind has visited the dwarf planet Pluto, but the Graeco-Roman god after which is was named had regular visitors to his underworld kingdom – Odesseus, Aeneus, Orpheus and plenty of other heroes travelled to the underworld and occassionally dealt with its shadowy ruler. He was also regularly invoked in ancient magical rituals as the power behind the restless dead and other chthonic spirits. In two connected curse tablets from Chagnon, near Saint-Etienne in modern France, he is called upon with Persephone, the goddess whom Pluto abducted and made his queen.

denuntio personis infra/scriptis, Lentino et Tasgillo / uti adsint ad Plutonem / et ad Proserpinam hinc abeant / quomdo hic catellus nemini / nocuit sic [. . .] nec / illi hanc litem vincere possint / quomodi nec mater huius catelli / defendere putuit sic nec advo/cati eorum e[os d]efendere non / possint sic illos [in]imicos / Atracatetracati gal/lara precata egdarata / hehes celata mentis ablata / {et ad Prosepinam hinc abeant} //
aversos ab hac l[i]te esse debent quomodo hic catellus aversus / est nec surgere potesti / sic nec illi sic transpicti sint / quomodo ille / quomodi in hoc monumento ani/malia obmutuerunt nec surge/re possunt nec illi muti / Atracatertracati gallara / precata egdarata he/hes celata mentis abla/ta

I denounce the persons written below, Lentinus and Tasgillus, in order that they may depart from here for Pluto and Persephone. Just as this puppy harmed no one, so (may they harm no one) and may they not be able to win this suit; just as the mother of this puppy cannot defend it, so may their lawyers be unable to defend them, (and) so (may) those (legal) opponents magical words //

be turned back from this suit; just as this puppy is (turned) on its back and is unable to rise, so neither (may) they; they are pierced through, just as this is; just as in this tomb animals (or souls) have been transformed/silenced and cannot rise up, and they (can)not… Magical words.

This is one of the longest and most elaborate curses from my study area, and gives plenty of information about why it was made and how it was expected to work. The Latin is vulgar and full of errors, but it is clearly a legal curse, made to control opponents at a trial. The victims are symbolically sent to Pluto and Persephone through the power granted by sacrificing a puppy. Animal sacrifice as part of a cursing ritual is rare – the only other example from the north-western provinces is from another legal curse found in Frankfurt, in which there is a reference to killing a songbird to silence the opposing lawyers. Here on the Chagnon curse, the power of the dead, and those who rule over them, is plain to see, and the petitioner is attempting to harness that power to attack both Lentinus, Tasgillus and their lawyers.

On both tablets, the same sequence of magical words are repeated: Atracatetracati gallara precata egdarata hehes celata mentis ablata. It’s true that some of these are good Latin words, but they are mixed up with nonsense words to create a sequence that is not supposed to make sense to mortals. Formulas like this added to the mystery of the ritual, and the petitioners would have believed that the spirits who read the curse would understand them perfectly well. These words, along with the sacrificed puppy and the nail that was driven through both tablets, made the curse more likely to reach the intended audience of underworld powers and therefore more likely to succeed in helping the petitioners to win their trial.