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!

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Experimental cursing – putting theories into action!

What would making a curse tablet actually be like?

This is the question I’m thinking about at the moment, and as you can probably imagine, it’s not an easy one to answer. I’ve been spending the last few weeks researching the impact of sensory experience on the things people do, and why they do them in the specific ways that they do, and there are some excellent books and articles by archaeologists, anthropologists and sociologists who work on this area. However, reading about something is one thing, actually doing it is another entirely.

With that in mind, I bought myself a sheet of lead and set about making some copies of ancient curses.

scissors croppedLead is a soft metal, as I’m sure most of you knew already. I was easily able to cut my large sheet into smaller sections with kitchen scissors or a sturdy knife. Thankfully the sheet I purchased was around the same thickness as ancient sheet lead – around 1mm, so cutting, folding, rolling and piercing should be roughly equivalent to how it felt to the Romans. Its softness means that it never really feels like metal – it doesn’t clink when knocked against things and doesn’t have the same slick, frictionless feel that other metals do. It is shiny and cold however, and when cold it feels less flexible.

It soon warms up when you start handling it, and you get used to the malleability quite quickly too. I cut the sheet into smaller tablets roughly equivalent to the size of ancient curse tablets, and played around with different ways of writing on them. At first I was surprised by how small they were, considering how much text was crammed onto the tablets, but again I got used to it quickly.

The first text I copied was from one of the Uley tablets (no. 4). I wrote the tablets with either a steel nail or a brass screw – the closest things to ancient writing implements (iron or bronze styli) that are readily available in a modern hardware store. Writing on the lead was easy. You as much control over the nail as you would over a pen, and you don’t need to press too hard to make a shallow impression. However, the deeper you try to gouge into the metal the less refined your writing.

My version of Uley tablet no.4.

My version of Uley tablet no.4.

This is my name, written while pressing as hard as I could. You can see the letters are less neat then when pressing more softly.

This is my name, written while pressing as hard as I could. You can see the letters are less neat than on the others where I’m pressing more softly.

As you are writing you feel the contors of the metal, totally unlike a flat piece of paper. It’s hard to tell from the pictures but even before it is folded or rolled there are bumps and grooves that effect the shape of your letters and the direction of your lines. if this is true of the lead I used, which was produced using modern industrial methods, it must have been even more significant when dealing with the hand-made sheets produced by Roman smiths. Something I noticed right away is how the light catches the words you write. It was a sunny day today, and the light coming in through the window really made the letters stand out, even as I was writing them. You get a sense of that from the pictures – the angles of the letters catch the light in different ways.

I copied the Uley tablet directly from my database, meaning I had more of a guide than the original writer, Biccus, who might have composed it as he was going. To try to put myself more into the position of the ancient authors I did two further experiments. One of the Bath tablets (Tab. Sul. 62) was written backwards, but done from a straight text – a conclusion based on some of the mistakes the writer made. I made myself a straight version of the text on paper, then wrote it backwards onto a tablet.

Straight text and copy of Tab. Sul. 62

Straight text and copy of Tab. Sul. 62

Writing backwards was a challenge at first, but gets easier as you go. Letters with curves are the hardest, especially S, which I never properly mastered in capitals or cursive! I tried both handwriting styles (my attempt at capitals is pictured), and cursive is far harder because there are more curved letters, and also fewer symmetrical letters.

The other experiment I did to get closer to the ancient experience was to write a curse in English off the top of my head. Working in my mother tongue freed me from the restrictive feelings of writing in another language, and I think it flowed easier. I recorded myself – there’s a video here – and you can see how quick the writing is. You can also see where I pause as I’m thinking of the next thing to write. Essentially I tried to make my own Bath curse, and did quite well!

As you can see from the picture of the Biccus tablet, I also tried piercing the tablets with nails. This was relatively common in the ancient world, and I wanted to see how easy it was. Through one sheet of lead 1 mm thick it is possible by hand, although not without some strength and effort. Some of the tablets were pierced after folding, sometimes through four layers of lead. I tried this too, and found it impossible without a hammer.

I’ve learned a lot from making these tablets. It’s not the most scientific experiment – my materials aren’t exactly the same as those available in the ancient world, nor do I have the same experience of literacy as the people who wrote the curse tablets I am studying. Nevertheless, I think I have a better understanding of the feel of the materials and some of the actions that went into making these objects.

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.

A Year in Review

As of this month, both my PhD and this blog are a year old – hurrah!

This is a Roman statue of a child holding (strangling?) a duck. I'm sure there's a metaphor for a PhD in it somewhere...

This is a Roman statue of a child holding (strangling?) a duck. I’m sure there’s a metaphor for a PhD in it somewhere…

In celebration of my first anniversary as a PhD student and blogger I thought I would write a little retrospective of the last year: of the things that went well, the things I’ve learned and the things I need to improve as I look forward to second and third year.

This little nostalgia trip was partly inspired by my trip up to Milton Keynes last week. The Open University Arts Faculty invited me and two other second-years to talk to this year’s intake of new PhD students, and the questions they asked reminded me of the concerns I had at the same time 12 months earlier. What is probation like? How do you organise such a huge project? Where do I even start? Obviously, everyone’s PhD is completely different to everyone else’s, but there are some things that are common to us all, and we tried our best to put the new students at ease. The main thing I kept repeating was that they should be enjoying their research. There is no point in committing three years of your life to something that you hate, and thankfully I have a topic that I really, genuinely enjoy researching.

One of the new students asked us something perceptive, and on reflection I think my answer says a lot about me. He asked if we could go back and do our first year again, what is the one thing we would change. I initially joked that I might work faster, but in the end I said that I wouldn’t change anything, because the mistakes I made have helped me grow as a researcher, and I think I’m better for having made them. The example I gave to show this was the week I spent around November last year reading psychology literature, something that I thought would be useful but ended up being a bit of a dead-end. Although it was a week I could have better spent on more relevent literature, the experience has helped me to identify other areas that at first seem interesting but ultimately don’t contribute much to my project. My answer to his question is a symptom of the optimism that I try to make my default position on everything. Things go wrong, and we can’t help that – we’re only human after all – but what we can do is put our mistakes down to experience and try not to repeat them.

I have done plenty of good things though, which far outweigh the mistakes. My research has come on really well, with a finished database and a solid theoretical base. I have had some presentation experience, at the OU and at Cirencester Museum, which will stand me in great stead when I start speaking at academic conferences this year (hopefully more on that in a later blog). I have also been teaching with the Brilliant Club, which has given me a fantastic opportunity to introduce students at three secondary schools to the ancient world – something I didn’t get the chance to study at my own school. Teaching students aged between 11 and 18 has given me a new perspective on the material I study, and has forced me to think about Roman religion in new ways. It has also been great fun, and I’d recommend any PhD student get in contact with the Brilliant Club and give it a go!

Last, but not least, I count this blog as one of my successes. I hope you have enjoyed reading it, because writing it has certainly helped me clear up some of my ideas about ancient cursing. It will continue to post as reguarly as possible, and I’d love your feedback too! If you have any suggestions, comments or questions about what I post, about Brilliant Club teaching, about doing a PhD or anything else, feel free to drop me a message through the contact page or send me a tweet.

Here’s to the next two years!

I'll try!

Techno-joy!

I am quite a lucky person. That’s true of many facts of my life, but it’s one particular aspect that I’ve been immensely thankful for over the first year of my PhD research. I have techno-joy. The idea comes from Eddie Izzard, who splits people into two camps – techno-fear and techno-joy. Those of us with joy will gleefully sit in front of new tech and click away, experimenting with shiny new buttons until we get the right result or accidentally delete the internet – usually the former.

Techno-joy effects non-humans too.

My techno-joy has helped me learn a host of new things that have become vital to my research, from organising my bibliography with EndNote to making detailed distribution maps of curse tablet find sites on Adobe Illustrator. It’s also been instrumental in getting me used to writing blogs, and I’m now really happy getting these posts to look as good as possible whilst still communicating information I hope people will want to read!

This is all great, but the most important thing I’ve been able to do is create a database of every curse tablet from my study area. Unfortunately, curses have been somewhat neglected by historians and archaeologists over the past century or so, meaning that the places they get published tend to be either old and hard to come by, or in such obscure journals that few libraries have them in their collections. Thanks to wonderful modern tech however, whenever I have managed to track a publication down I have entered all the information onto my digital database so it’s there for my constant reference. As I mentioned in my last post, I’m about finished digging in library basements, and the final total for curses from Roman Gaul, Germany and Britain stands at just over 300 – many fragmentary or unreadable, but a good number with texts long enough to get some juicy social and religious information about the people who were making them.

A screen shot from my database, made in MS Access 2010.

A screen shot from my database, made in MS Access 2010.

Having all the curses on a single database means I can quickly see patterns, and trends, like how the theft of clothing is the most common motive for cursing at Bath, but virtually non-existent in Mainz. I am getting useful data about gender, ethnicity and social status too, which will form the core of my social interpretations of the curses.

I still have a lot to learn, and I’m slowly making my way through books and online courses about the finer points of database creation and management. If you are a database wizard, I would love to hear your top tips – send me a message or write in the comments section below. Equally, if you’re just dipping your toe in the wonderful world of digital humanities for the first time and want some advice, get in touch and I’ll see what I can do!

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