Curse Tablet of the Month #12 – November 2015

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.

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.

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.

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.

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!

Curse Tablet of the Month #9: November 2014

I’ve only just missed the chance for a Halloween special on this blog, but I couldn’t pass up the opportunity to feature one of my favourite curses from Roman Britain. It’s from a cemetery in the parish of Clothall, Hertfordshire, and evokes fantastically gory images, the sort of thing sadly missing from many of the more legalistic curses from Bath and Uley.

uetus / quomodo sanies / signeficatur / Tacita deficta

Tacita, hereby accursed, is labelled old like putrid gore.

Short and (not so) sweet, the curse consists of a single sentence, split over four lines. It was written backwards, right to left rather than left to right, and some of the letters are also upside down or sideways.

As can be seen from the drawing, the tablet was also pierced by at least four, probably five nails, and there are several smaller holes which apparently originally held lead wire, some of which survived.

The curse from Clothall as drawn by R. Collingwood (1931).

The curse from Clothall as drawn by R. Collingwood (1931).

Like the curse against Trutmo Florus that I featured last month, we do not know the exact motive that inspired this particular curse, but again we can assume that there was some spoken element to the ritual that made it clear what Tacita had done to deserve such a fate. In another similarity with the magic doll from Mainz, the physical manipulation of the object was key to the ritual. In this case it was the repeated driving of nails and wire into the already-inscribed tablet, which mirrored the intention of the words. The word defixa, which the petitioner erroneously wrote as deficta and which is translated here as to be cursed, literally means to fix down or to attach firmly, and that’s doubtless the intent behind such violent mutilation of the tablet. Tacita is to be driven down to the world of the dead by the combined force of the written words and the ritual actions.

To facilitate this curse, the petitioner deposited it into a grave with the intent that the spirit of the dead person would deliver it to some infernal power, who would then set about punishing Tacita. R. Wright’s (1952) translation of old like putrid gore for uetus quomodo sanies is grimly evocative of rotting corpses or diseased wounds, and is perfectly suited for the location of its deposition. It also matches the revulsion the Romans felt towards people who tampered with the dead, a feeling no doubt pressing on the mind of whoever dug down into the grave before committing this curse to the earth. There’s a twisting of the natural order in this too – with the dead ripped from their peaceful repose to disturb the world of the living. I think that’s one reason why the words were written in such a strange way – backwards and twisted around. By doing so, the writer has infused the written words with strange power, and through that power attempted to make the curse inescapable.

References:

Collingwood, R. in Westall, P. (1931) A Romano-British Cemetery at Baldock, Herts.The Archaeological Journal 88: 247-301.

Wright, R. (1952) Roman Britain in 1951: Inscriptions. Journal of Roman Studies 42: 103

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.

Curse Tablet of the Month #7: September 2014

Over the summer I have been focussed on one main goal: to finish my database of curse tablets. As I’m almost done I will be writing another post about what I’ve learned during the process, but for now here’s one of the last tablets to be entered!

If you are a regular reader of this blog you will have noticed that all the curse I have featured have something in common – they are all written in Latin. This shouldn’t come as too much of a surprise – it was the official language in the west of the Roman Empire – but it was not the only language spoken in the regions that I am researching. The Roman conquest of Gaul and Britain did not totally stamp out the native languages of the people who lived there, and they continued to be spoken throughout the Roman period and long after, transforming into the modern languages of Welsh, Irish, Gaelic, Cornish, Breton and Manx. Although they continued to be spoken, written texts in the ancient Celtic languages are extremely rare, and where they exist are written in either the Greek or Latin alphabet. The existing texts are mostly inscriptions, and all have been collected in the Recueil des Inscriptions Gauloises (R.I.G.). Significantly for me, the two longest texts written in a Celtic language are both curse tablets, one from Larzac and another from Chamalières. It is the latter that I have chosen as the curse tablet of the month!

The tablet from Chamalieres

The tablet from Chamalieres

Now, a word of warning. I am not a Celticist, nor would I ever claim to be one. The translation of this text comes from the R.I.G., but has been the source of considerable debate among people far more qualified than me. I would be delighted to hear from anyone with more experience in the field if they think my interpretation is lacking in some way!

Original text

Andedion uediiumi diiiuion risun artiu Mapon Arueriiatin  lopites snieddic sos brixtia anderon C. Lucion Floron Nigrinon adgarion Aemilion Paterin(on) Claudion Legitumon Caelion  pelign(on) Claudio(n) pelign(on) Marcion Victorin(on) Asiaticon Ađđedilli etic se couitoncnaman tonc siiontio meion poncse sit bue tid ollon reguccambion exsops pissiiumi tsoc cantirtssu ison son bissiet luge dessummiiis luge dessumiis luge dessumiis luxe

Translation

In the name of the good strength of the underworld gods, I invoke Maponos of Arverion. Pursue… those with the magic of the infernals. Gaius Lucius Florus Nigrinus the accuser, Aemilius Paterinus, Claudius Legitumus, Caelius the stranger, Claudius the stranger, Marcus Victorinus, Asiaticus Ađđedillus and everyone who would… these enemies. If it is reduced it is full. I straighten what is crooked. I (still?) see blind… place to my right, place to my right, place to my right.

 

Even though this curse is not in Latin, it conforms to many of the conventions of Latin cursing. The underworld gods are invoked, it is written on lead and was deposited in the sacred spring of a god – in this case Maponos. The fact that the first victim is given the title ‘accuser’ makes us think that this relates to a legal case, a common motive in all ancient cursing. The thing I find most intriguing about this curse is that even though it was written in Gaulish the names of the victims are almost all good, solid Roman names. A couple of them are probably even citizens of the Empire. On top of this, the writer of the curse must have been familiar with Latin if (s)he was involved in the legal system.

 

The conclusion to be drawn from all of this is that the petitioner made a conscious, personal decision to communicate with Maponos – a Celtic river god – in the language people had been communicating with him for centuries before, even though the form of communication – a lead curse tablet – was a new introduction that had come with the Roman conquest. It is tempting to picture the people of the north-western provinces as either Asterix-type barbarians or fully-Romanized clones of people living in contemporary Italy. Here we have evidence for something completely different. The petitioner at Chamalières was probably bi-lingual, and comfortably accommodated aspects of both Roman and Celtic culture in their personal world-view, using both to make sense of their surroundings and to manipulate them for their own benefit.

 

Ceci n'est pas un Gaulois

Ceci n’est pas un Gaulois

Curse tablet of the month #6: August 2014

All the curses I’ve featured as CTOTM have been from urban sites – whether temples of graveyards associated with Roman towns. This month I’d like to take us out into the Romano-British countryside, to a temple near the modern village of Uley, Gloucestershire. Uley is only 20 miles or so from Bath, and archaeologists found almost 200 curses when they excavated the site in the 1970s, making the Severn valley region the most prolific area for ancient cursing outside of Athens – quite the claim to fame!

 

All of the Uley tablets are concerned with theft, just like Bath, but because of its rural environment, the items that people report as stolen are very different. I have chosen this month’s tablet as a great example of this.

 

Uley 72

 

Latin text

Deo sancto Mercurio Honoratus conqueror numini tuo me perdidisse rotas duas et vaccas quattuor et resculas plurimas de hospitiolo meo rogaverim genium numinis tuui ut ei qui mihi fraudem fecerit sanitatem ei non permittas nec iacere nec sedere nec bibere nec manducare si baro si mulier si puer si puella si servus si liber nissi meam rem ad me pertulerit et meam concordiam habuerit iteratis praecibus rogo numen tuum ut petitio mea statim pariat me vindicatum esse a maiestate tua

English translation (R. Tomlin (1992) Inscriptions. Britannia 23: 311)

Honoratus to the holy god Mercury. I complain to your divinity that I have lost two wheels and four cows and many small belongings from my house. I would ask the genius of your divinity that you do not allow health to the person who has done me wrong, nor allow him to lie or sit or eat or drink, whether he is man or woman, whether boy or girl, whether slave or free, unless he brings my property to me and is reconciled with me. With renewed prayers I ask your divinity that my petition may immediately make me vindicated by your majesty.
You have to feel sorry for Honoratus. The thieves have made of with a number of his personal belongings of presumably some sentimental or monetary value. To any farmer four cows would be worth quite a lot – not only as livestock for dairy, meat and leather, but potentially as draft animals too. The loss of wheels would have had a serious impact on productivity too, hampering any attempt to move heavy feed or produce around the farm or off to market. He would believe that he was justified then, in asking Mercury, the god of the temple at Uley, to inflict illness, restlessness, hunger and thirst on those who had caused him so much loss.
Probably not how the culprits made off with Honoratus' cows.

Probably not how the culprits made off with Honoratus’ cows. You could never get four on that scooter for a start.

 

The Latin of the curse is of a good standard, with some errors common to Vulgar Latin (nissi for nisi, tuui for tui, etc). This, coupled with the confident handwriting, points to an author who was familiar with writing, so we should reject any image of uneducated, simple country folk. The curses from Uley and other rural sites in Roman Britain show that there was a surprising degree of literacy in rural areas, and people were probably bilingual in Latin and their native British Celtic language. Honoratus betrays his Celtic origins in his curse – despite his Latin name – by using the Celtic word ‘baro’ rather than the Latin vir when writing the common formula ‘whether man or woman.’ Whoever Honoratus was, he was aware of the correct ways to formulate a curse. The mutually exclusive alternatives of man or woman, boy or girl, slave or free are common throughout Romano-British cursing, as is some of the other language used. Nevertheless, this curse is not identical to any other, meaning that Honoratus didn’t copy from a manual or spell book, but composed it himself using what he knew about cursing from the culture in which he lived. Honoratus, like people across the north-western provinces, was able to adapt cursing rituals to suit his own purposes and circumstances.

 

We don't know whether Honoratus ever got his cows back, which is a shame.

We don’t know whether Honoratus ever got his cows back, which is a shame.