Introduction | Curses from Greece and Rome | Circus and court, sex and stealing | Curses in Roman Britain

Introduction: curses from Greece and Rome

The earliest known curse tablets from classical antiquity, found at the city of Selinus in Sicily, date to the late 6th or early 5th centuries BC. Many also survive from Athens of the 5th and 4th centuries BC and from the later centuries of the Roman empire. The tradition of writing curses in this form ends in the 7th or 8th centuries AD, although the practice of cursing itself continues to flourish. Through discoveries by archaeologists and others (see Curses recovered - finding and conserving) over 1600 curse tablets are now known, Greek texts accounting for approximately 110 of these. Ancient literature shows such tablets to be widely known and feared. For example the stock-in-trade of a witch, Pamphile, as reported in the novel The Golden Ass, included ‘metal strips engraved with mysterious letters’ (Apuleius, Metamorphoses 3.17). According to Pliny the Elder, writing in the first century AD, ‘there is no one who does not fear to be spellbound by curse tablets’ (Natural Histories 28.4.19). Such fear extended to the highest levels of ancient society. In AD 19 Germanicus, adopted son and heir to the emperor Tiberius, died in suspicious circumstances. Germanicus himself, according to the historian, Tacitus, believed that he had been put under a spell and ‘forensic’ examination of the house revealed evidence of the magic that slew him.

‘...explorations of the floor and walls brought to light the remains of human bodies, spells, curse tablets, leaden tablets engraved with the name Germanicus, charred and blood-smeared ashes and others of the implements of witchcraft by which it is believed that the living soul can be devoted to the powers of the underworld’

                           Tacitus, Annals 2.69, (trans. Gager)

The most common Greek term for these tablets, katadesmos, derives from the verb katadein, to ‘tie up’ or ‘bind down’. Defixio, commonly used by scholars as the Latin term for the curse, is in fact very rare in Latin documents. However the verb from which it derives, defigee, ‘to fix’, ‘to fasten’ or ‘to nail down’ is sometimes met on curse tablets, expressing one of the functions of the curse, to 'fix' its victim and prevent them from carrying out certain tasks or physical functions (see People, goods and gods - the workings of magic). The term used by Tacitus, devotio, is more common in the literary sources. In texts from Britain a frequent used term is donatio (see Creating the curse - writing the curse), ‘a gift’, albeit a gift with the connotation of one delivered by sacrifice.

David Jordan, a modern authority, defines them as follows: ‘inscribed pieces of lead, usually in the form of small, thin sheets, intended to influence, by supernatural means, the actions or welfare of persons or animals against their will’. He and others however warn that even the term ‘curse tablet’ is not always reliable. In particular curse tablets from Britain share many features with other prayers to the gods recorded on stone inscriptions (see People, goods and gods -the workings of magic).

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