Ancient Romans used magical inscriptions to bring vengeance on enemies, unrequited lovers, bad neighbours and relatives.
Archaeologists have unearthed the rare finds of these curses at the Viminacium site in the eastern region of Serbia, in the former Roman province of Moesia Superior. At its prime, the ancient city of Viminacium had a population of around 40,000 people, which made the city a third larger than Pompeii, and was home to many nationalities.
Miomir Korac, the chief archaeologist at the Viminacium site has said “This is a very important archaeological discovery because it shows us how luxurious the life in Viminacium was or how much hope they had in the ‘curse tablets’ so that they used precious metals,”
According to his knowledge, “such tablets have never been found inscribed in gold anywhere. According to the Roman customs, gold was never put into graves.” So these archaeological finds, which are believed to date back to the 4th century AD, show evidence of a changing religious landscape, as both Christian and pagan gods are called upon. Korac goes on to say “Opposing deities appear on these tablets, as if invoking both Christ and the Antichrist today, or Christ and pagan gods, and that is weird. This shows us that the process of converting to Christianity was slow.”
These curse tablets, are known as tabella defixionis in Latin, and have inscriptions which read, “Let all forces and demons help that…”
Korac noted that people who live in that part of Serbia today are known for being superstitious.
Curse tablets were used throughout the Graeco-Roman world together with what we call now voodoo dolls. D.R. Jordan describes the curse tablets in his archaeological survey as follows:
“Defixiones, more commonly known as curse tablets, are inscribed pieces of lead, usually in the form of small, thin sheets, intended to influence, by supernatural means, the actions or the welfare of persons or animals against their will”.
History of Curse Tablets
The earliest of these tablets dates back to the Greek colony of Selinus in Sicily in the early 5th century BCE. The subject was generally of (1) litigation curses including political curses, which were usually prepared prior to or during a trial and were designed to influence the effectiveness of speeches made (most likely) on behalf of the defendant (2) competition curses, particularly of Roman circus (ie chariot racing) (3) trade curses, usually found in the classical and Hellenistic Greek worlds, were used against rival tradesman (potters, pipemakers, shopkeepers, etc) (4) erotic curses – both separation and attraction – most of which were written by men in pursuit of women, though women for men and same sex spells were also found (5) prayers for justice, mostly in terms of seeking restitution of stolen goods – most of which involve an unknown victim.
Many curses were usually inscribed with a stylus not only on tablets but also in the shape of human figures. Originators would ask the gods, local spirits, or the deceased to bring down a specific disaster on on a person, group or object. For all their pragmatism the Romans were a superstitious bunch and believed the gods and spirits did control nature either directly or via oracles, soothsayers and those practising magic or religion.
Many curse tablets which have been found are written in ancient Greek and also in indecipherable languages and unknown symbols, whose meaning is lost today. However, The language of the curse was of binding and restraining. While physically, the curse tablets might have nails driven through them to represent physical binding, the language itself is composed so that the problem can be solved by restraining a person or object.
Some examples of Curse Tablets
“Just as the dead man who is buried here can neither speak nor talk, so may Rhodine die as far as Marcus Licinius Faustus is concerned and not be able to speak nor talk. As the dead man is received neither by gods nor humans, so may Rhodine be received by Marcus Licinius and have as much strength as the dead man who is buried here. Dis Pater, I entrust Rhodine to you, that she be always hateful to Marcus Licinius Faustus. Also Marcus Hedius Amphio. Also Gaius Popillius Apollonius. Also Vennonia Hermiona. Also Sergia Glycinna”.
What the Greeks called these spells is still hotly debated amongst scholars, but the best candidate may be katadesmos meaning ‘a binding’ and used by Plato (Republic 364c). The best word in Latin is defixio, a derivative of the verb defigere meaning ‘to fasten.’ About 75% of them only consist of only the victim’s name or provide no other identifying information about the person other than the name, suggesting that to know and use a victim’s name was itself an act of power over the victim. Repetition was a common element of the spell – as this restraining spell of the 5th century BCE shows:
“The tongue of Eucles and the tongue of Aristophanis and the tongue of Angeilis and the tongue of Alciphron and the tongue of Hagestratos. The tongues of the advocates of Eucles and Aristophanis”. (SGD no 95 = CT no. 49)
This latest discovery in Viminacium is being hailed as unique as previous curse tablets have been made in lead, not a valuable precious metal such as gold and silver
Sources and further reading:
- Curse tablets from Roman Britain http://curses.csad.ox.ac.uk
Ancient Origins http://www.ancient-origins.net/news-general/significance-roman-curse-tablets-recognised-memory-world-register-001804
Bath curse tablets https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Bath_curse_tablets
Lead Scroll found at East Farleigh Roman Villa http://www.maag.btck.co.uk/ExcavationsatEastFarleigh/LeadScroll
- Roman ‘curse tablets’ summoning up demons discovered in ancient Serbian tomb by Fiona Keating, 2016 http://www.ibtimes.co.uk/roman-curse-tablets-summoning-demons-discovered-ancient-serbian-tomb-1574782
- Viminacium https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Viminacium
- The Woman of Larzac http://www.academia.edu/1011969/The_women_of_Larzac
- Mary Beard, John North, S. R. F. Price. Religions of Rome: Volume 2, A Sourcebook. 1998. P. 268
- Ogden, Daniel. “Binding Spells: curse Tablets and Voodoo Dolls in the Greek and Roman Worlds.” Witchcraft and Magic in Europe: Ancient Greece and Rome. University of Pennsylvania Press (November 1999) ISBN: 0812217055