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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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.

The wandering student

It’s been a little while since I wrote something on here – a combination of Christmas and a hectic work schedule are to blame! Today I thought I would give a little summary of what I’ve been up to over the last few months (skipping the boring bits, obviously!).

A lot of my time has been taken up with writing and editing various bits – I’ve finally started producing larger chunks of thesis, which is good progress. I’ve also been writing conference papers for TRAC (Theoretical Roman Archaeology Conference) and AMPAH (The Annual Meeting of Postgraduates in Ancient History) – both of which I plan to post, either on here or on academia.edu, after the conferences.

The research I’ve done around all this writing has been mainly in the form of site visits. In the wise words of Indiana Jones:

If you want to be a good archaeologist, you’ve got to get out of the library!

Taking my cue not just from the great man himself, but also an expanding body of archaeological interpretation based on the philosophical theories of phenomenology, I have been trying to get a better idea of the experience of writing curses for people on the sites they were found, and this can only really be done by physically being there. Before Christmas I went back to Bath, and this month I spent a week in Germany looking at the Trier amphitheatre and the temple of Isis and Magna Mater in Mainz. Now, I wouldn’t claim that I got the exact same experience as a Roman would have on these sites almost 2000 years ago, as so much has changed at all of them in the intervening time. Human experience is also not universal – what I feel, hear and see as a (relatively) young, fit male could be drastically different to people of different ages, abilities or genders. Nevertheless, there were things I noticed that I would never have appreciated no matter how long I started at the site plans in books. The amphitheatre in Trier has fantastic acoustics, even in its ruined state. Every minute sound made on the arena floor echoes out in the seating areas, something that a person digging a hole for a curse tablet would have been aware of.

Trier amphitheatre as it stands today.

Trier amphitheatre as it stands today.

At Bath, standing at the windows over-looking the spring, you get a real sense of the mystical power of the water. It bubbles and steams: it’s opacity masking whatever lies beneath. For anyone who believed that a goddess lived there, these sensory experiences would have confirmed her divine power, making it a prime place to try to communicate with her.

I have also had the chance to handle some of the original curses from Bath and Trier, thanks to the generosity of the museum staff in both towns. Much like the exercise of making my own tablets, this brought new insights into the physical process of doing a curse. I got a feel for how the tablets were made, their weight in my hand, how hard the person pressed with the stylus, and how they folded or rolled the tablet after writing.

All of this is valuable information, and the challenge now is to work it into my argument. Back to writing I go!

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!

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