Ancient and Modern Cursing

It’s been a dramatic week in British politics, with the continued fallout from the so-called Panama Papers causing all sorts of problems for many high-profile people. The Prime Minister, David Cameron, has been at the centre of it all, finally admitting on Thursday that he profited from his father’s off-shore holdings. This revelation triggered wall-to-wall news coverage on TV and in print, protests outside Downing Street, and a particularly inventive Twitter hashtag that was trending for a fair few days: #cursedavidcameron (NB: if you go looking through the tweets be warned, the language is… colourful… and could easily offend. I accept no responsibility for the invective of others, so you click the link at your own risk!).

Now, as you can imagine, the nature of this social media trend was particularly interesting for me, considering my current research interests. I was busy at a conference while the hashtag was active, so didn’t get to contribute my own choice words on the subject, but nevertheless I was struck by the similarities between some of the tweets and the ancient curses that I am studying for my PhD. People cursed Cameron with a host of ailments, including sleeplessness, problems with eating, drinking defecation and urination, infestations of vermin and public humiliation. All of these can be found on the curse tablets from the Roman north-west, as in these examples:

Uley tablet no. 4. Translated by R. Tomlin (1993)

Biccus dat M/ercurio quidquid / pe(r)d(id)it si vir si m/ascel ne meiat / ne cacet ne loqua/tur ne dormiat/ n[e] vigilet nec sa/[l]utem nec sa/nitatem ne/ss[i] in templo / Mercurii per/tulerit ne co(n)/scientiam de / perferat ness[i] / me interceden/te

Biccus gives Mercury whatever has lost (that the thief), whether man or male (sic), may not urinate or defecate nor speak nor sleep nor stay awake nor [have] well-being or health, unless he bring (it) in the temple of Mercury; not gain conciousness (sic) of (it) unless with my intervention.

Groß-Gerau curse (AE 2007.1049)

ut illius manus caput pedes uermes cancer uermitudo interet membra medullas illius interet

worms, tumours and vermin shall invade his hands, head and feet, they shall invade his limbs and marrow.

Mainz curse no. 1 (DTM 1)

nec plum(i)bis nec auro nec argento redimere a numine tuo nisi ut illas uorent canes uermes adque alia portenta exitum quarum populus spectet

Neither through lead nor through gold nor through silver can they redeem themselves from your divine power, unless dogs, worms and other monsters devour them. May the people watch their death

Aside from the similar fates wished onto the victim, I would argue that the form and function of the curses and the tweets come from the same human desire. Aggressive magical rituals, as well as aggressive posts on social media, are methods by which people can attack  rivals, enemies or just people they don’t like, from a position of relative safety. Most ancient curses were anonymous, and lots of the people who tweeted #cursedavidcameron did so from twitter accounts that don’t use their real names and don’t have their real face as an avatar. This anonymity makes people more confident, and allows them to say things they would probably never say to the victim’s face – how many of the tweeters would actually curse the British Prime Minister in person, surrounded by his bodyguards, press corps and the rest of his entourage?

Cursing on Twitter (or on a lead tablet if you were an ancient Roman) is also cathartic. There is a sense of release, of physically acting to relieve the stress of a tense situation and to gain power in a situation of powerlessness. In the Roman context, the act of physically inscribing words into a sheet of lead would have given the same satisfying sensation as the hammering out of a vitriolic tweet on a computer keyboard gives a modern Twitter curser.

Of course, there are plenty of differences between ancient curses and modern Twitter. The mob mentality of Twitter hashtags like #cursedavidcameron is a serious worry, and there have been many cases of victims becoming seriously effected by similar trends in the past, to the point at which law enforcement has become involved.

Nevertheless, I think it’s really interesting that, despite being seperated by 2000 years, ancient and modern cursing still speaks to the same human desires. Twitter might be at the cutting edge of 21st century social media, but at its dark heart lies impulses that are much, much older.

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3 thoughts on “Ancient and Modern Cursing

  1. I wonder if the secure knowledge that this kind of letting off steam, however rude and/or inconsiderate, won’t actually result in the outlined, envisaged, usually outrageous physical harm has also not changed.

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  2. PS. – As for law enforcement getting involved, the Roman practice wasn’t legal, either – but do we have any evidence for ‘mob mentality’ in this practice? Do people get cursed multiple times?

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    • Hi Peter, thanks for your comments! There’s certainly a lot more to this comparison – I think I’ll get a conference paper out of it someday!

      To your first point, I think you’re right to some extent. The people who wrote curses in the Roman world probably didn’t expect the things outlined in their tablets to happen exactly as they wrote them, much like modern Tweeters don’t. Reading the tablets literally would be a mistake, and there is plenty of formulaic, metaphorical language that we would miss if we did. However, there has been some research done recently by Philip Kiernan that suggests that magical attacks like curse tablets could be manifest in real, physical symptoms through the psychosomatic mechanism (https://goo.gl/IDPAHL).

      As for mob mentality in ancient cursing, there is only a tiny amount of evidence. There are three curses from the Athenian agora that name the same wrestler, and three individuals turn up on more than one of the legal curses from the cemetery at Bad Kreuznach. Outside of these few I don’t know of any more examples, and there’s certainly nothing on the scale of what occasionally happens on Twitter.

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