Wow, it’s been a long time since I posted on this blog – apologies! I cite the usual mad busy-ness of a PhD student as my excuse. With all the research, thesis writing, conference papers and job applications I’ve been doing, posting here has sort of fallen by the wayside. I’ll try to keep posting now and then though, so keep an eye on it!
Anyway, I have been spurred into posting today because of an event that happened yesterday. As some may know, the fabulous Almeida Theatre in London has been doing a season of Greek plays, including some excellent performances that have brought fresh life and new audiences to the ancient texts. Yesterday, the theatre set out to read the entirety of Homer’s Odyssey in a single day, travelling throughout London while doing so. Famous faces from stage and screen, including the magnificent Sir Ian McKellen and Stanley Tucci, read sections of the poem on foot, on buses, taxis, boats and even the London Eye.
It was the section on the Thames that particularly struck me, and which was the impetus for this post. As the performance neared the river at Tower Bridge, Odysseus was leaving the island of Calypso on his newly-built ship. He was spotted by Poseidon, god of the sea, who sent a huge storm to wreck him on the rocks. Odysseus would have drowned there and then, if not for the intervention of two goddesses, Ino and Athena.
The matching of the text with the setting was excellent, and as I watched the live stream online I realised that this was not the first time that the ancient god of the sea had been invoked here on the banks of the Thames. Almost 2000 years earlier someone deposited this curse tablet in the river near London Bridge:
Front side of the tablet. Picture from Tomlin, R. (1987) Inscriptions. Britannia. 18: 361.
Back of the tablet. Picture from Tomlin, R. (1987) Inscriptions. Britannia. 18: 362.
te rogo Metunus ut me vendicas de iste numene me vendicas ante quod veniant dies novem rogo te Metunus ut tu mi vendicas ante quod veniat dies novem // Exsuparantius Silviola Sattavilla Exsuparatus Silvicolae Avitus Melusso datus est pervici tibi Santinus Mag[. . .]etus apidimis Antonius Sanctus Vassianus Varasius datus est
I ask you Neptune, that you avenge me on this name, that you avenge me before nine days come. I ask you, Neptune, that you avenge me before nine days come. Exsuperantius, Silviola, Sattavilla, Exsuperatus (son of) Silvicola, Avitus, Melussus is given… I have prevailed upon you (?)… San(c)tinus, Mag…etus… Antonius, Sanctus, Vassianus, Varasius is given.
It’s not a particularly descriptive text, but there are some interesting details. For one, the petitioner uses Matunus, a Vulgar Latin spelling of Neptune influenced by spoken Celtic pronunciation. Neptune, in turn, is the Latin version of the Greek Poseidon who was wrecking Odysseus in Homer’s poem. The levels of cultural transmission at work here are staggering if you stop to think about them – from 8th century Greece (if not earlier) to Rome, and then on to London through hundreds, if not thousands of years. Through out all of that time and space, people adopted the worship of this god to their own cultural contexts, changing his name along with worship practices to keep them relevant to whatever new situation arose.
If Neptune’s vengeful punishments of Odysseus for the murder of the god’s son are anything to go by, the petitioner picked a very appropriate deity to address as the spirit of vengeance for this curse. The intentional twisting and bending of the curse text, visible in the images above, would have added further power to the appeal, making it more likely to succeed.
We don’t often think, up here on the northern fringes of the old Graeco-Roman world, of the classical gods ever being active in our earth, sea and sky. This curse tablet shows that the people alive at the time disagreed, and that they believed that Neptune had just as much power in the Thames as he did in the wine dark Aegean. Perhaps unknowingly, yesterday’s performance of the Odyssey on the Thames tapped into this long dormant belief, and brought Neptune back to London.