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Creating the Curse : writing the curse

Some tablets bear only names but many carry longer texts. Curse tablets from Britain that protest against theft typically contain the following elements, in varied order and sometimes repeated (see Uley 2). The tablet opens with an appeal to the god, addressed usually as deus or dominus or occasionally by other attributes, for example the numen, supernatural essence or power (Uley 72). The text identifies itself, for example as a gift (donatio) or prayer (preces) (Uley 72), or, more legalistically, as a memorandum (commonitorium) (Uley 2). The victim may announce a complaint (queror) (Uley 1) or ask (rogo) (Uley 43) the god to act on his or her behalf. Terms with a connotation of cursing are rarely used in the tablets presented in this website, though they are met in tablets from London (defigo) (see People, goods and gods - victims and wrongdoers) and Bath (configo, execro, devoveo). The tablet names victim and thief, fur (Hamble), where the latter is known. When the perpetrator is unknown, catch-all clauses are employed, for example ‘whether man or woman, boy or girl, slave or free’ (Uley 72). In one Bath tablet the perpetrator is identified by religion, ‘whether pagan or Christian’, in another from Norfolk by civilian or military status. The crime (see People, goods and gods - stolen goods and justice) and, occasionally, the place at which it was committed are set out (Pagans Hill 7). The contract with the god is often introduced as a gift (do, dono, donatio), either of the thief's name (Hamble) or body (Uley 55) or of part of the stolen property. No agreed rate for a god’s services is obvious. One tablet offers half a stolen sum of money (Pagans Hill 9), another a third (Uley 2). To bring the perpetrator to account, the god is called on to deny them, or to consume, their health (sanitas) (Uley 1), life (vita) (Hamble) or blood (sanguis) (Brean Down), echoes perhaps of the language of sacrifice. A tablet from Ratcliff on Soar, Nottinghamshire asks Jupiter to exact compensation for stolen money through a thief’s ‘memory, his inner parts (?), his intestines, his heart, his marrow, his veins . . . ‘. Thus the thief could pay back (redimere) (Caerleon) what had been stolen to balance the account. The god is asked to ‘fix’ the thief, drawing on the binding sense of curse magic (see People goods and gods - the workings of magic), by causing their bodily functions to cease from working. A Uley tablet (Uley 72) asks that the thief not eat, drink, sleep, sit, lie, defecate or urinate. Occasionally death is threatened (Uley 43). To make amends or halt these effects, the property should be brought to the temple (Uley 2). This might achieve reconciliation (concordia) (Uley 72). Sometimes however the conditions were impossible to satisfy: a fragmentary tablet from Bath seems to ask the thief to sell a modius (a measure equivalent to 8.6 litres) ‘of cloud and smoke’. previous: materials and manufacture          next: nailing and folding