materials and manufacture | writing the curse | nailing and folding | plumbing the depths

Creating the Curse : nailing and folding

The incisions of the stylus when freshly written would have shone against the grey oxidised surface of the lead. After writing the tablet was folded or rolled and the ends of the sheet were tucked over, making the document legible to the god alone. The rolling and folding also assisted in its magical effectiveness, helping to ‘scramble’ the text and perhaps the victim (see People goods and gods - the workings of magic). Often the tablet was pierced by nails: a tablet from London was pierced seven times. In literary accounts, witches kept nails among their magical toolkit: Pamphile (see Introduction - curses from Greece and Rome) for example kept nails from crucifixions among her magical paraphernalia. Nails and pins were also pressed into the wax figurines created for some binding spells. By a ‘sympathetic’ connection (see People, goods and gods - the workings of magic), nailing helped the curse to ‘bind’ or ‘fix’ the individual(s) named by the curse, rendering them unable to act until they had made amends.

‘Recipes’ preserved in magical papyri from Egypt (see Curses and cursive - scribes) describe other rituals to accompany the preparation of a curse tablet. One required the killing of cat, which was then to be stuffed with curses and buried in the circus floor. Alternatively the water in which the cat had been drowned was to be sprinkled on the spot where the curse was to be buried. Some tablets themselves also allude to such acts: a tablet from Gaul refers to the killing of a puppy in the curse procedure.

Recipes for tablets, especially those intended to produce sexual attraction, also called for the use of ousia (‘stuff’) associated with the person against whom the curse was directed. Such a practice is occasionally confirmed by archaeology. A jug sealed with a lead tablet, an ‘erotic curse’ addressed to the gods of the dead found in a cemetery at Mautern (ancient Favianae) in Austria also contained charcoal and possible remnants of human hair. Where the hair and clothing have decayed, their imprints in the metal have also sometimes survived.

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