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LEARNING FROM CURSE TABLETS: WHAT THE DEFIXIONES TELL US OF THE ANCIENT WORLD
‘Defixiones…come to us largely unmediated by external filters…devoid of the distortions introduced by factors such as education, social class or status, and literary genres and traditions. Most of all, they are intensely personal and direct.’
(Cooper et al, 1992; v)
The curse-tablets or defixiones of the ancient world were buried as messages to the gods or spirits, asking for the binding of one’s enemies. Two thousand years later, archaeologists started reading their post. Now, these tablets are seen as far more than evidence of private magic being used to vent petty frustrations. The defixiones can be incredibly revealing; these texts inform us of religious beliefs, magic practices, the influences on these practices, language, class, education, technology, public life, private affairs, and, most tellingly, human nature. Within this essay, I shall be looking at all of these elements to see what we can learn from the defixiones. For while we might not get to see the ‘real’ author (but rather a highly emotional one), people confided in the tablets as they would be loath to do to a real person, and the picture which they paint of life in the ancient world is an incredibly vivid one.
WHAT ARE CURSE TABLETS?
Pulleyn (1997; p83) quotes D.R. Jordan in identifying the purpose of the curse tablets as being ‘to influence, by supernatural means, the actions or the welfare of persons or animals against their will’. These tablets, which were usually inscribed sheets of metal, held ‘appeals to a deity or supernatural force to inhibit physical or mental processes of the cursed’ (Wacher, 1978; p241). They would be buried underground, usually in a well or grave, so as to ‘make use of’ the chthonic powers, or ghosts of dead men (Liebeschuetz, 1979; p138). The curse tablets tend to fall into one of the following categories; ‘Competition in Theatre and Circus’, ‘Sex, Love, and Marriage’, ‘Tongue-Tied in Court: Legal and Political Disputes’, ‘Businesses, Shops, and Taverns’, and ‘Pleas for Justice and Revenge’, although there are miscellaneous exceptions which cover eventualities not included within these five groupings. Almost all of the curse tablets are directed towards living creatures, although there are a small number of examples which curse inanimate objects, such as public baths, the gates of Rome, or Italy itself (Cooper et al, 1992; ix, p21-2, p171-4). No matter the subjects which they cover, however, all fall into one of two categories – that of revenge, or a pre-emptive strike (Pulleyn, 1997; p86).
WHAT ARE ‘DEFIXIONES’?
In today’s literature, the curse tablets are usually referred to by the Latin term defixiones, rather than their Greek name of katadesmoi (Cooper et al, 1992; p3). Both titles refer to the constraining nature of the tablets; the earliest mention of the katadecmoi is found in the Attic writers, and ‘may reflect the fact that the texts of most early Attic examples begin with the word katadw,, ‘I bind’ – and possibly the idea that the rolling up of the tablets was a kind of binding’. This physical and metaphorical act of binding is also reflected in the later Latin term defixiones, which is derived from the verb defigo, meaning ‘to nail down’ (Jameson, Jordan & Kotanksy, 1993; p125).
HOW MANY ARE THERE?
In 1993, 1,100 examples of curse tablets had been excavated in Greece, all of which dated from the late sixth or early fifth century BC, up to the fifth century AD. While they have been unearthed at sites across the Mediterranean, Sicily and Attica have revealed the greatest finds from the classical and Hellenistic periods (Jameson, Jordan & Kotanksy, 1993; p125). More than 1500 curse tablets are now known in total; of these, two-thirds are Greek, and over half of the Latin examples have been found in Britain (Cooper et al, 1992; p5).
The numbers of defixiones unearthed which pertain to different subjects can give an indication of how important those matters were to the local peoples.
By 1996, Britain had yielded over 250 curse-tablets, almost all of which were found at the temple of Mercury at Uley in Gloucestershire, and the sacred Spring of Sulis Minerva at Bath (Tomlin, 1996). That the overwhelming majority of these British tablets are concerned with stolen property can be traced to either the archaeological ‘hazards of preservation and discovery’, or the fact that recovering stolen property was the sole preoccupation of the Britons of late antiquity (Cooper et al, 1992; p177). That the majority of bath-house tablets are concerned with thefts is perhaps understandable, however – thieves have been a problem in such establishments since the time of Plautus, and are mentioned by Catullus, Seneca, and Petronius (Fagan, 1999). It is also fitting that most of the sites yielding defixiones from Roman Britain are those which also house appeals for health; ‘forces that bestow health could also withhold it’ (Salway, 1981; p688). The numbers cannot be taken as unusually disproportional either; more curse tablets have been found dedicated to revenge and justice than anything else. The second largest group is that of the legal defixiones (Cooper et al, 1992; p177, 117). Evidently these were the areas where people felt they needed the most assistance. In ‘third place’ are the love defixiones; approximately a quarter of the surviving curse tablets concern ‘matters of the heart’ (Cooper et al, 1992; p78). Of these, the defixiones concerned with homosexual desires [see Appendix, example 5] comprise less than 1% of the total as a whole (Daniel & Maltomini, 1990); that they do appear at all, however, enables us to gain a more accurately representative idea of life in the ancient world.
WHAT ARE THEY MADE OF?
Some believe that the defixiones were originally thought of as ‘letters to the deities of the underworld’; corroboratory evidence comes from some of the curse tablets actually describing themselves as such, and, as mentioned below, that in the ancient world lead was used as a writing material (Pulleyn, 1997; p85). However, while the majority of the surviving curse tablets are made of lead or lead alloys, other materials were also used; papyrus and wax were the most popular alternatives, although others favoured limestone, ceramic bowls or gemstones. Strips of gold or silver were prescribed for Roman spells restraining anger, but these materials were usually reserved for curative medical spells or protective amulets (Cooper et al, 1992; p3, 31).
The popularity of lead for the making of the defixiones has a four-fold explanation; it was cheap and readily available, the sheets for the tablets were easy to make, it was the most common (and possibly the earliest) writing material, and its physical characteristics (e.g. being cold, lustre-less, weighty and ordinary) were well suited to the context in which it was used. It is notable, however, that the earliest tablets do not ask that their intended victims become like lead - this associative development came later, as the popularity of lead for the curse tablets grew [see Appendix, example 2]. Another point in lead’s favour was that it was also a substance that could easily be stolen – some ‘recipes’ for curse tablets recommended those unable to buy lead could steal it from nearby water pipes (Cooper et al, 1992; p4). It ought also to be remembered that the archaeological record may have ‘skewed’ the results in lead’s favour, as it were – other substances, such as papyrus or wax could have been more popular than is currently believed, but they did not survive burial (or effective drowning) as the lead tablets did (Petrovitch, 2000).
It is notable that the tablets found at Aquae Sulis (Bath), although usually referred to as being made of lead, have been found to contain other metals; one in five is two-thirds lead, while the rest are alloys of lead and tin, that have sometimes been fused with copper. It has been suggested that this alloy, seemingly peculiar to England, was a by-product of the local pewter industry, much as the Greek lead used in curse tablets could have been a by-product of their silver mines (Cooper et al, 1992; p3-4). Evidently, the choice of material for the curse tablets can reflect both the fashion of the times, and also the products produced by the local industries.
WHY WERE THEY NAILED?
As is indicated by the Latin term of defixiones, iron or bronze nails were often used to pierce the metal tablet after it has been rolled or folded (Pulleyn, 1997; p82-3), as is particularly evident from the early Attican remains (Jameson, Jordan & Kotanksy, 1993; p125); this action cannot have had purely practical reasons behind it. Although in some cases the nails were used to fix the tablets to walls, as at Aquae Sulis (Fagan, 1999), or to the floor of stadiums, as at Lepcis Magna (Heintz, 1998), the defixiones would usually be buried underground or cast into water sources, where their being folded and nailed together would be a superfluous preventative measure against being read by another. Indeed, it is believed by Kagarow that the nails themselves held symbolic meaning for the authors of the tablets; their presence was intended to add pain and misery to the spell, in a manner akin to the voodoo doll practice. This explanation, however, does not account for the appearance of nails in love spells. Far more plausible is the idea that their function was to fix or bind the curse, physically as well as ‘magically’, as the double-meaning of their name would suggest (Cooper et al, 1992; p18).
WHERE WERE THEY BURIED?
The place of deposit for the curse tablets was almost as important as the texts themselves; their ‘magic’ could only be initiated by the defixiones being buried in either a grave, a chthonic sanctuary, a body of water, a place of relevance to the curse or victim, or a non-chthonic sanctuary (Petrovitch, 2000). Those early tablets – of which there have been ‘discouragingly’ few unearthed in recorded excavations – tend to be found in graves and chthonic sanctuaries. By contrast, in later times the tablets could also be discovered in wells, or places close to their intended ‘victims’ (Jameson, Jordan & Kotanksy, 1993; p125). The location of their hiding place depended on the type of curse employed. Curses against charioteers, for example, would usually be buried either in the stadium itself, or in a cemetery nearby; at Carthage, for example, defixiones have been found buried at the foot of the podium wall, and in a cemetery of officials situated immediately north of the amphitheatre. These locations would have been ‘perfect’, due to their proximity to the cemetery, and to the amphitheatre where violent and untimely deaths were plentiful – ghosts would have been omnipresent (Heintz, 1998). It was these - nekudaimones - who were to be ‘harnessed’ by the authors of the curse tablets; the ‘preferred candidates were those who had died ‘untimely’, violent’ or ‘premature’ deaths, as they were considered to be unable to ‘reach the underworld completely’ (Heintz, quoted in Tassel, 2000; p50), and their spirits were believed to ‘roam about in a restless and vengeful mood near their body’. Some tablets even promise these dead souls ‘respite from their unhappy fate once they carried out their appointed task’. Despite this, the role which these nekudaimones actually played in the curse process is unclear; they could have been the messengers who brought the curses to the gods, or it could have been they who carried out the curses, under the ‘watchful eye’ of the gods (Cooper et al, 1992; p12, 19, 20).
It is notable that through a study of dreams, the Oracles, and his own personal observations, Plato had come to believe that the gods spoke with their own special language. This dialektos, while unintelligible to most mortal ears, could be understood by those believed to be possessed by daimones, and other beings thought to be caught between ‘our world’ and ‘theirs’, such as the dead souls (Cooper et al, 1992; p10). The nekudaimones would therefore make perfect intermediaries.
Another reason for depositing such a tablet among the dead, would be to take advantage of the miasma which were believed to generate. Contact between the dead and the tablet would engender pollution of the intended victims by analogical or sympathetic magic – this miasma would ‘unlock’ the curse. Indeed it has been suggested that one of the reasons the Selinous lex sacra covers the subjects which it does was a response to the manipulation of the miasma. The nineteen curse tablets which have been found there thus far may have been one of the prompts for this text; it was ‘to deal with comparable miasma arising from deaths and perhaps from ineffective funerary rites for those dead, and to provide ritual cleansing from the pollution of hostile spirits similar to those instigated by curse tablets’ (Jameson, Jordan & Kotanksy, 1993; p128-9).
That the defixiones were typically hidden by earth or water has another beneficial reason behind it; the majority of tablets would be buried in secret, as their power was dependent on their not being discovered or removed (Petrovitch, 2000). However, for certain types of defixio, such as that which cursed a thief, having the victim know he had been ‘fixed’ would prove a confession-incentive (Cooper et al, 1992; p176-7). Indeed, some thieves, having learnt that they were the target of such a defixio, would often be frightened enough to purchase the tablet in order to secure release from the curse (Fagan, 1999).
The actual depositing of the curse tablets is one which could have been carried out by either their author, or a professional; it has been suggested that, as some scribes or magoi were hired to create the tablets, their services would extend to burial. Obviously, dropping a piece of metal (or similar) into a well could be carried out by those who were not trained professionals – burial at other locations, however, was far riskier. It is wholly conceivable that the scribes would ‘extend their services’ to cover illicitly burying a tablet in a race-ground, or defiling a grave in order to ‘place the tablet in the corpse’s right hand’ (Cooper et al, 1992; p20). Keeping the burial a secret, therefore, would protect the curse from being broken and the author from suspicion; neither the law nor the victim could make trouble for him if they did not know of the tablet.
WHO DID THEY INVOKE?
Unlike the curses uttered within the plays of the time, the defixiones invoked chthonic deities, such as Hades, Persephone, and Hermes Cthonios, most probably because these powers were seen to be suitably ‘dark and uncanny’, and also because the Earth was associated with justice (Pulleyn, 1997; p90). In some instances, the place of deposit dictated which deity the tablets should be dedicated to - the tablets from Bath, which number over 130, were all dedicated to the goddess of the Spring, known variously as Sulis and Minerva (Cooper et al, 1992; p13). For others whose choice of god was a little less restricted, connections to the Earth and the Underworld were paramount, and those possessed of dark powers were also popular, as can be seen in the order of preference for those gods to whom the spells were addressed. Top of the list for the Greek tablets is Hermes, followed by Hekate, Persephone, Hades, Gaia and then Demeter. Others addressed their curses to Zeus, Kronos, the Furies, or the all inclusive “all the gods and goddesses”. The Latin tablets reveal a different set of deities, the most common of which were the spirits of dead ancestors (manes), Jupiter, Pluto, Nemesis, Mercury, and a selection of water nymphs (Cooper et al, 1992; p12-3). Of these, the manes, water nymphs and Hades seem to be the most ‘logical’ choices, given their proximity to the places where the curse tablets would be left.
‘In general, two factors seem to have governed the selection of gods and spirits and their names: first: local customs and beliefs: and second, the recipes available through the formularies owned and used by local experts.’ (Cooper et al, 1992; p13)
As stated above, choice of deities reflected local beliefs and fashions. Even in those instances where the gods named are not those of the author’s own religion, this is still indicative of little more than these local beliefs and fashions. The ‘highly syncretized’ spells excavated from Egypt and North Africa, dated between the third and sixth centuries AD, contain a mixture of invocations to foreign gods such as Iao, daimones ‘with secret names’, and Egyptian deities such as Seth, Osiris and Thoth – Thoth, interestingly, is usually identified as the Egyptian counterpart to Hermes [see Appendix, example 1]. Interestingly, later tablets have also incorporated Jewish and Christian elements (Cooper et al, 1992; p13). The osmosis of influences worked both ways in the Mediterranean; Egyptian influence on the inscriptions of the defixiones can be most clearly seen in the later examples of the Roman period, as the gods who are invoked in these tablets are international, and their co-operation is sought via threats, rather than polite requests (Cooper et al, 1992; p6-7). The range of these deities seen in the later tablets is not so much indicative of polytheism – those who invoked the gods of another culture were not necessarily willing to absorb them into their lives – but a willingness to experiment, and embrace the foreign if such a practice was seen as beneficial.
WHAT DID THEY SAY?
As a general rule of thumb, the older the tablets are, the simpler their inscriptions; the majority of the fourth and fifth century BC examples from Attica and Sicily make no mention of a deity or spirit, or any form of binding, giving only the name of the intended victim (Cooper et al, 1992; p5).
By the first century AD, the practice of inscribing formulaic instructions on the tablet had replaced the previous custom of listing little more than the intended victims’ names. Farone has identified four key groups of the formulae found on the later curse tablets: ‘a direct binding formula’, ‘a prayer formula’, ‘a wish formula’, and ‘a similia similibus formula’, which asked that the victim should develop the attributes of a certain object (e.g. ‘cold and lifeless’ lead) (Pulleyn, 1997; p83). Such formulas make few appearances on the Greek tablets of the classical and Hellenistic periods – from the first century AD onwards, however, the language used was ‘richly variegated’, and the invocations to the gods and spirits had become far longer and more complex. Drawings of the intended victims, as well as the ‘probably astrological’ charaktêres ‘became omnipresent’ (Cooper et al, 1992; p5). While they later became far more brutal, in the classical period curse tablets were ‘designed to incapacitate the victim rather than kill him’ (Pulleyn, 1997; p82-3).
Interestingly, scholars studying this evolution of style have postulated that there was an earlier ‘more primitive’ stage in the curse tablets’ history, whereby the tablets themselves were left blank, and simply made the subject of a rite or ceremony where the victims would be named. This hypothesis has been supported by the discovery of a cache of approximately forty blank tablets in a provincial outpost in Aquitania, and also by the precedents set by amulets; magical words and objects were typically separated, and the practice of inscribing an amulet was a ‘comparatively late development’ in classical antiquity (Pulleyn, 1997; p83-4). It is thought that the popularity of inscription corresponded with the ‘growth of written language in Greek culture’, and that the ‘prayers, invocations and incantations’, which would have traditionally been an oral accompaniment to the depositing of the tablets, gradually took their place on the tablets themselves (Cooper et al, 1992; p7). Pulleyn (1997; p84) has also suggested that ‘the progression to writing might have been motivated by the belief that this somehow made the process more definite and therefore more emphatic, more likely to be effective’; by making the wishes of the author tangible, they gain in power.
While later curse tablets from elsewhere in the Mediterranean ‘present the fiction that someone is to read the texts and to act on their instructions’, the early fifth century BC curse tablets found at Selinous, in Western Sicily, bear no suggestion of a reader. With all of the nineteen tablets thus far found, it is as though ‘the very act of inscribing or the place of deposit were enough in itself to affect the persons named’. (Jameson, Jordan & Kotanksy, 1993; p127-8). This form of sympathetic magic – by which the words themselves are imbued with a power of their own – is ‘aided’ by the practice of inscribing the texts in certain special ways. Some of the defixiones found are written backwards, a practice believed to make the curse even more binding (Fagan, 1999). (The pictured Phrygian tablet features letters written backwards for added power. As though that’ll help you understand what it says…) The tablets found in the sanctuary at Selinous feature names written backwards or with the letters facing right, and two are written ‘in a spiral, as if the words are twisted’. It has been postulated that this analogous magic was believed to be ‘activated’ by the tablets’ proximity to the dead (Jameson, Jordan & Kotanksy, 1993; p128-9). Such a technique is a further indication of the tablets’ physical features affecting the curse itself – as the lead was hoped to make the victim cold and heavy, so writing their name backwards would mystically change or ‘scramble’ them (Cooper et al, 1992; p5). [See Appendix, example 3]
WHO WROTE THEM?
On many tablets, particularly the earlier ones which include little more than the names of the intended victim and a plea to a deity, it is almost impossible to accurately ascertain the reasons for their creation. Equally confusing can be their sometimes choosing to identify persons by their occupation but giving no further details; in these instances, the curse tablet could be directed towards a business rival, or simply an individual who happens to work as a seamstress or stall-keeper. It is wholly possible that mentioning the victim’s profession was intended as additional information to aid their accurate identification (Cooper et al, 1992; p152).
From the second century AD, it had become customary to identify victims of the curses by matrilineal descent. This practice, which is also common in Jewish spells, can be explained in several different ways. One suggestion is that it was born of the need for precise identification of the victim; following the principle of pater semper incertus, only the mother can be named with certainty. Alternatively, the practice could have been influenced by the method of identifying slaves by matrilineal descent. A further suggestion is that the habit was influenced by Egyptian rites – in early spells from both Egypt and Babylonia, matrimonial lineage appears, and both Egyptian, Christian and Jewish monuments had been known to identify the deceased by the matrilineal line (Cooper et al, 1992; p14). It has also been postulated that using the mother's name to identify their child is a simple reversion of common practice, intended to increase the potency of the curse just as writing backwards did (Petrovitch, 2000). Cooper et al (1992; p14) feel that, while the Egyptian explanation is the most likely, the practice could have arisen from a combination of these hypotheses, as the people of the ancient Mediterranean were known for their adoption of others’ rites and beliefs.
As most curse tablet authors preferred not to name themselves – presumably for fear of making themselves the accidental victim of the curse – the sex of the inscriber can be quite hard to determine, and there have been few defixiones found which can be positively ascribed to a female author (Pulleyn, 1997; p171). The context in which they were written can help in this matter – defixiones pertaining to rivalries in the exclusively male field of charioteering, for example, would have been written by men. [See Appendix, example 7] It is also known that the legal defixiones were employed by all classes and both genders; not only did women commission them, but several Greek and Sicilian tablets ‘mention women as potential witnesses’, which ‘contradicts the traditional view that women had no legal standing in Greek courts’ (Cooper et al, 1992; p119-20).
WHO ELSE WROTE THEM?
Although it might not seem a simple task, writing on a metal tablet was not difficult, particularly when one had a bronze stylus, the preferred instrument of inscription
(Cooper et al, 1992; p4). Provided you were in possession of such a stylus, it was easy to make an impression on lead – it is not for the difficulty of the task of writing that the individuals would have commissioned outside ‘help’. For it is believed that the curse tablets were inscribed by two different sets of people; individuals seeking private fulfilment of their wishes, and professionals. Traditionally, the practice of preparing spells has been one ‘entrusted to specialists’, but the range of quality in both the grammatical and stylistic fluency seen on the tablets would suggest that two different parties were at work in the defixiones’ creation. For example, the ‘skilful, elegant, fluent semicursive texts’, dated to the third century AD, which have been found in wells in the Athenian Agora, indicate the work of a professional (Cooper et al, 1992; p4-5). In the second book of Plato’s ‘Republic’, curse tablets which could be bought directly from ‘wandering professionals’, are mentioned as a ‘common feature of Athenian life’ in the fourth century BC. These salesmen specifically targeted the wealthy, a revelation which puts paid to the idea that the defixiones were only employed by the ‘ignorant and superstitious’ lower classes (Cooper et al, 1992; p249). Despite this evidence, such professionals were believed to have played a more important role in the Roman period from the first to the sixth centuries AD, than in the classical or Hellenistic times (Cooper et al, 1992; p4).
WHAT CAN WE GLEAN FROM THE WAY THEY WERE WRITTEN?
By no means all of the defixiones found are attributed to the hand of a professional however; De La Bédoyère (1989; p158) has noted that in many instances ‘the grammar and quality of writing of these curses leave much to be desired’. Usually, these tablets are taken as evidence of their author’s poor education, although it can be suggested that for those writing from a standard text available at the temple or shrine, the very act of laboriously copying out the key phrases could induce mistakes and messiness. For some scholars, it is the grammar and quality of writing which proves the most fascinating element to scholars; the hand-writing can be employed as dating evidence, while the language used is ‘a major source of the Latin current in the civil province of Britain’ (Tomlin, 1996), because it is Latin as it was spoken (Fagan, 1999).
The wording of the defixiones can also reveal far more about their authors than simply whether they were copying the text from another standard tablet. Curse tablets which politely appeal to the gods for justice – rather than pre-emptively demanding an ugly fate for their enemies – are very well represented in the epigraphic record for Asia Minor. Vernsel has suggested that this could be the affect of social structures on theology – because the Asiatic Greeks, unlike the Peninsular Greeks, spoke to their kings in a reverent and submissive manner, and were accustomed to persuading them to instigate justice, their gods were treated in the same way. J.H.M. Strubbe also feels that such polite requests are due to the cultural practices of the Asiatics – such peoples held graves in great respect, believing them to be houses for the dead, and would severely punish grave-robbers. Such a policy of Do Not Disturb would mean that curse tablets would be politely worded, and would only trouble the dead for matters of the utmost import (Pulleyn, 1997; p88-9).
DID THEY HAVE A GOOD REPUTATION?
That neither Homer nor any other dramatist refers to the defixiones is taken as an indicator of their low status – curse tablets did not have a noble reputation (Pulleyn, 1997; p89). Yet their usage cannot be taken as ‘an index of the breakdown of classical rationality’; they were used for at least a thousand years, from the fifth century BC onwards, without any such detrimental effect becoming apparent. An equally pertinent point in their favour is that their usage was not restricted to the ‘superstitious’ lower orders; the presence of professional scribes indicate a wealthy market, as do some of the victims named. Some of the fourth century Attic defixiones, for example, mention famous orators and politicians, including Demosthenes and Lycurgus (Price, 1999; p102).
The majority of the defixiones can appear to be born of little more than selfishness and greed; rival sportsmen and shop-owners are cursed to fail, the opposing sides in a court-case are cursed to forgetfulness and speech-impairment so as they will lose, and marriages are cursed to end in divorce so as the husband or wife will be free to love another. Yet not all tablets had such base motives. Vernsel has referred to those defixiones which call for justice and revenge as ‘letters to the gods’, and believes they should be kept in a category distinct from the other curse tablets (Cooper et al, 1992; p175). Certainly, they do have differing characteristics, most obviously the author’s belief that right is on their side; an individual seeking restitution for his being wronged has higher moral ground to stand on than the jealous man seeking to curse a rival and profit from his misfortune. There is also that the deities invoked are directly involved in the plea, by the (often temporary) ritual transfer of the stolen goods – and sometimes the thief – to the ownership of the god, the theft effectively becomes their problem. Now it is both the gods and the human owner who have been ‘deprived, offended and dishonoured’ (Cooper et al, 1992; p175-6).
Some scholars consider it odd that the majority of the defixiones contained no offer of payment for services or justification for their requests – such characteristics set the curse tablets apart from other aspects of religious life in classical antiquity, and the ‘publicly accepted norms of polis religion’. Unlike civic curses, which do not need to be accompanied with gifts for the gods – as the overseeing of justice is not an activity which requires coercion – curse tablets are concerned only with personal justice, itself often little more than a ‘selfish whim’. Indeed, it has been postulated that it is this selfishness which prevents the accompaniment of an offering with the curse tablet (Pulleyn, 1997; p94).
DID THE CURSE TABLETS WORK?
Perhaps the most pertinent question to be asked about the curse tablets is ‘did they work’? Unfortunately, the answer is not quite as simple. What is clear, however, is that the defixiones were believed to work by sufficient numbers of people as to make their powers a fact. Indeed, the preventative measures taken against them can be seen as proof of this power. That the curse tablets worked, or were seen to work, is the reason postulated by Cooper et al (1992; p23-4) for their being made illegal under Roman laws – in 389 AD, ‘a highpoint in the construction of Roman circuses’, an imperial decree was issued demanding public exposure of magic users, and forbidding charioteers from contravening this edict (Cooper et al, 1992; p45, 48). The defixiones were seen as dangerous, in both physical and political terms. Not only could they could exact bodily harm, but they also ‘stood outside’ society, and in opposition to the jurisdiction of the legal world. That the defixiones were believed to work would also account, at least in part, for the presence of so many protective charms and counter-spells in the ancient world. It is known that sportsmen used ‘defensive phylacteries and spells’ to counter the defixiones set against them, as did certain craftsmen and shop-owners. While most amulets were intended to ward off all evils, at least one has been found which was designed specifically to protect the wearer from defixiones (Cooper et al, 1992; p47, 154, 219).
Because of this power which they were believed to have, some of the defixiones were deliberately made public affairs. While secrecy was paramount with the more underhand curses, such as those made against rival charioteers, the ‘fix’ of these defixiones would be more effective if they were publicly known, as fear would prompt a confession. This practice is confirmed by second and third century AD ‘confessional inscriptions’ from Lydia and Phrygia in Asia Minor; there, those individuals who believed they were the unfortunate targets of the defixiones would erect a tablet of their own, either proclaiming their innocence or admitting their guilt, and thereby hoping to escape the illness and misfortune they were plagued with (Cooper et al, 1992; p176-7). Clearly, the psychological power of these tablets was immense.
WHAT WAS THEIR PSYCHOLOGICAL FUNCTION?
Roger Tomlin, in his discussion on whether the Bath tablets ‘worked’, notes that the very fact that the practice continued in Roman Britain for two centuries ‘implies that they did work… or were believed to’. He explains their continued popularity with a note that, at the very least, this practice ‘removed intolerable tensions’, ‘allowed a transfer of emotion’, and ‘relieved the injured party’s feelings’ (Cooper et al, 1992; p23). Pulleyn (1997; p86) has also suggested that curse tablets serve a psychological purpose for their author, as they allow frustration to be vented, and comfort to be gained from the thought that positive action had been taken. Through the commissioning and depositing of such a tablet in preparation for trial, for example, the pre-trial emotions of fear, guilt, uncertainty and even shame could be assuaged – the curse tablets were a boon to the nerves of the litigants (Cooper et al, 1992; p116-7). The defixiones are a good way for persons with no power to gain it; those who have no control over their lives ask their deities to provide it. [See Appendix, example 4] For not only do the defixiones allow individuals to wreak damage on their enemies in a relatively easy way, the use of curse tablets also avoids physical violence between parties. They serve to bring the matter out of your hands, lest they be dirtied, into the hands of the gods, and in so doing, act as a distancing tool, allowing the author to escape culpability.
Psychology can also explain the use of aggressive language in the defixiones as being suggestive of far more than just their authors’ passionate feelings. Cooper et al (1992; p81-2) believe the use of such words acts as a cathartic release, and that it gives the author an additional sense of power. In articulating his emotions in this way, while seeking to control another, the author of such a defixio is able to gain some psychological succour – the very act of commissioning and depositing a tablet can satisfy, even if its magic does not work as believed. This would explain why the curses often seem extreme, and somewhat out of proportion to the crime; one example from the Sacred Spring at Bath asks that whoever has stolen Basilia’s silver ring, or knows who did, ‘may be cursed in [his] blood and eyes [and] every limb, or even have all [his] intestines eaten away’ (De La Bédoyère, 1989; p158). Yet such a request reflects the passionate depth of Basilia’s feelings; to be able to give these feelings such an outlet is quite positive. That the defixiones functioned as such a ‘safety valve’ enabled the otherwise impotent to gain power and a release from their feelings; because of this, they were of vital use in the ancient world.
WHAT ELSE CAN THEY TELL US?
Because of the intimate nature of the tales which they reveal, the defixiones make for a highly engaging source material. They can fill in the gaps left by archaeological and literary sources. These tablets allow for a very human picture of life in the ancient world, and can make people long since buried come alive in the imagination, in a far more vivid way than simply uncovering a piece of jewellery or pottery.
One particularly good example of this is the case of Silvanius, and his missing gold ring [see Appendix, tablet example 6]. Just from the three-sentence defixio which he deposited at Nodens’ temple at Lydney in Gloucerstershire, asking for the god to curse the suspected Senicianus until he regained his property (De La Bédoyère, 1989; p158), we can deduce that the two men, who were probably visiting Lydney for health reasons, had been staying in the guesthouse from which the one stole the other’s ring. From the later addition of the word ‘redivivia’ renewing the curse, it is clear that Silvianus did not immediately recover his ring. However, much to the delight of some scholars, the story does not stop there. At Silchester, a polygonal gold ring ‘bearing an intaglio named Venus’ has been found, inscribed on the interior with the legend ‘May thou live in God, Senicianus. It has been suggested that this was the missing ring, and Wacher (1978; p241) has tentatively postulated that Senicianus had converted to Christianity after his healing-pilgrimage to Lydney failed to yield the results he wanted, little knowing he was cursed.
‘Such evidence, when it occurs, illuminates the personalities of Roman Britain with a sudden bright light, revealing their hopes and fears, ambitions and failures, which were not so very different from people today.’ (Wacher 1978; p241)
As Wacher has noted, curse tablets allow for a vivid picture to be painted of life, particularly if the puzzle has more than one piece to it, as in this instance it appears to.
AND IN CONCLUSION?
The defixiones offer us rather sober mirror to look into; one has only to sit in a traffic jam to know how popular curses remain in the modern world. While we now have the police and an ‘advanced’ judicial system, which theoretically removes the need for revenge, people still have not yet managed the art of living peaceably together. But instead of venting our frustrations with curse tablets, we now have therapists. Their confidential files could not be more revealing than the defixiones however.
The curse tablets function like postcards from the ancient world. They are able to teach us about the ‘behind the scenes’ secrets of peoples’ lives, and institutions such as the law-courts and circuses. We can learn intimate details of their jealousies, fears and desires, and above all, their religious beliefs. Just from studying the objects themselves, we can discover facts about local industry, and the education and status of their author. Peter Brown has noted that the defixiones act as though X-rays to reveal ‘pockets of uncertainty and competition’ within the society (Cooper et al, 1992; p122), but they ‘betray’ so much more. From the defixiones thus far uncovered, we know what was most important to their authors, a secret few other archaeological artefacts can reveal.
Statuette d'envoûtement en cire trouvée dans une église vers 1935. On peut reconnaître un personnage de l'Angelus de Millet. Elle est creuse et contient un papier plié, percé par les aiguilles. On suppose que le nom de la « victime » y figure
Le sabbat des sorcières par Francisco Goya
Curse Tablets and Binding Spells from the Ancient World» John Gager, Oxford University Press, 1992.
«Tabellae Sulis: Roman Inscribed Tablets of Tin and Lead from the Sacred Spring at Bath», R.S.O. Tomlin. Oxford University Monograph, 1988.
Some random facts about
More than 1500 curse tablets (defixiones) are now known. Two thirds of them are Greek; over half of the Latin tablets have been found in Britain.
Defixio is from the verb defigere, meaning: to fasten or fix, and hence 'to curse'.
These tablets reside in a gray area between religion and magic. The motives for most curse tablets are to curse thieves, embezzlers, rivals in a lawsuit, rivals in love or to gain love, and to curse charioteers and their horses.
The same person later added an Internet link from Journal of Roman Archaeology to this: Circus curses and their archaeological contexts.
The Bath tablets are from the third and fourth centuries and are an important source of vulgar Latin, or spoken Latin from this period of the Empire.
My thanks to the author of these messages too!