Magic in the Graeco-Roman World

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The clocks have been turned back by one hour and the dark nights are drawing in, the weather has taken a turn for the worse and its feeling very autumnal in my home village. It’s that time of year and it seems that everyone is gearing up for Halloween later this week. It does however seem a little bizarre that over the past few years we Brits are embracing this ancient festival (which is thought to have originated from ancient Celtic harvest festivals) more and more. Perhaps it’s the influence of our American friends and maybe it’s been a ‘commercial’ thing in Britain for longer than I give it credit for, but at the moment it’s dominating the little village where I live and you don’t have to look far to find a house decked out in ‘spooky’ decorations, bushes, hedges and plants cropped_Main_jackolantern_jack_o_lantern_turnip_wikicommonsadorned with wispy fake spider webs and more pumpkins carved into Jack o’ Lanterns of increasing intricacy than you can wave a wand at! I’m all for the excitement and hype of Halloween, but it’s not really what I’m writing this post about, I have an ulterior motive and Halloween is really just a convenient spring-board to think about a more classically inspired theme, one that like Halloween is shrouded in secrecy and magic and one that’s particularly supernatural. So, what could this be I hear you scream! Well my friends, I want to talk a little about magic in the ancient world, particularly the use of curse tablets and why the Greeks and Romans used them. I’m no expert, I’ve only recently looked into this area of study and even then it was from a point of view of assessing literacy levels in antiquity, nevertheless I think it’s really fascinating in its own right!

Curse Tablets – What we know

A brief overview…

Defixiones, or katadesmoi as they are called in Greek provide insight into a sinister corner of Ancient Greek and Roman culture that until relatively recently has fallen under the radar of what was thought to be worthy of serious academic interest. Why was this? Well, amongst other things, Gager (1999) suggests that the neglect of scholarly interest stems from the fact that such artefacts could somehow diminish the reputations of classical Greece and Rome who were considered to be…

‘bastions of pure philosophy and true religion’

(Gager, J.G. 1999, p. 3)

Yet it seems peculiar that despite the lack of scholarly attention, they were very common in the Graeco-Roman World and according to Gager…

‘everyone used or knew of them’

(Gager, J.G. 1999, p. 3)

Luckily, this pattern of scholarly neglect has not held fast and there has been much recent discussion of these supernatural tools.

But what exactly were curse tablets and what purpose did they serve?

gm_32366101Well to put it simply, curse tablets were more often than not very thin pieces of lead that were inscribed with tiny letters (usually using a bronze stylus) with the specific purpose of asking the gods, spirits or the deceased to take action or place a curse upon another individual, but perhaps more importantly, curse tablets were intended to bring other people under the power and control of whoever commissioned them. Although Gager (1999) points out that creating curse tablets was quite a simple process, there’s also considerable evidence that suggests many tablets were created by professionals, a process that Plato indicates was in practice during the fourth century. Once a curse tablet had been commissioned and created they were often folded or rolled up and squirreled away under the ground, perhaps tossed down a well, or maybe nailed to a temple wall and left to do their job!

Why curse tablets though, why did the Greeks and Romans use them?

There were many reasons someone might want to curse another and in many cases the answer to why people used curse tablets is far closer to home than you might think. To put this into context we’ll use one example. Think about the nature of entertainment in the ancient world with its festivals and spectacles all fiercely competitive and overwhelmingly public, then think about that competitiveness and the prestige of say, wining first prize at a festival like the Dionysia in Athens. Bearing in mind that winning at such a festival would probably mean the security of continued employment, not to mention an elevated position in society! So, in answer to the question why would some individuals use curse tablets? Why would they want to curse their fellow-man? Well, simply put….. PURE AMBITION! Competitors wanted to get the better of their rivals, to level the playing field so to speak, to increase the odds of winning and achieving the honour and prestige for oneself. Granted, it’s not very ethical in the face of our modern ideals, but it goes to show that at the heart of it some ancient individuals were fiercely ambitious and willing to go to any extreme to succeed! But winning in competitions was not the only purpose of curse tablets. Aside from ambition examples exist in matters relating to sex, love and marriage, legal cases, matters of justice and revenge and business disputes. It seems that the use of curse tablets was varied and could be put to use in a plethora of different situations!

Bibliography

Gager, J.G. (1999) Curse tablets and binding spells from the ancient world [Online], New York, Oxford University Press. Available at: https://ebookcentral.proquest.com/lib/open/detail.action?docID=430860 (28th October 2018).


If you are interested in learning more about the use of magic and curse tablets in the Graeco-Roman world then you could take a look at the following selected resources.

  • Curse Tablets and Binding Spells from the Ancient World – John G. Gager (1999)
  • Oracles, Curses, and Risk among the Ancient Greeks – Esther Eidinow (2007)
  • The Social Significance of Curse Tablets in the North-Western Provinces of the Roman Empire – Stuart McKie (2017)
  • Cheating Women: Curse Tablets and Roman Wives – Pauline Ripat (2014)

The Curse Tablets of Roman Britain is also a really useful website –

http://curses.csad.ox.ac.uk/ 

But in the meantime here’s some great examples of curse tablets…

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Curse Tablet found in London. Inscription reads: “I curse Tretia Maria and her life and mind and memory and liver and lungs mixed up together, and her words, thoughts and memory; thus may she be unable to speak what things are concealed, nor be able.” (translation: British Museum)

https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Curse_tablet 

lead-tablet

Inscription Reads – ‘Cast your hate upon Phanagora and Demetrios, and their tavern and their property and their possessions. I will bind my enemy Demetrios, and Phanagora, in blood and in ashes, with all the dead. Nor will the next four-year cycle release you. I will bind you in such a bind, Demetrios, as strong as is possible, and I will smite down a kynotos on [your] tongue’.

https://www.ancient-origins.net/news-history-archaeology/casting-hate-greek-curse-tablets-found-2400-year-old-grave-005654 

Thanks for reading!

Tony

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