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People, Goods and Gods: deities

Curse tablets from Britain invoke gods Roman and Celtic as their agents. Mercury is most popular, but other Roman deities include Mars (Marlborough Down), Jupiter Optimus Maximus, Nemesis (Caerleon) and Neptune (Hamble). Of local deities Sulis was addressed at Bath, Nodens at Lydney (Lydney) and ‘Niskus’ (whose name may be related to the archaic English term for water spirit, ‘nixie’), perhaps the river god of the Hamble. Local gods like provincial Romans had learned to read Latin.

Given the association between curse tablets and death (see Creating the curse - plumbing the depths), Mercury’s prominence in curse tablets may relate to his role as the guide who led the dead to the underworld. However Mercury is also the most popular of gods in Rome’s north-western provinces. In any case, when the gods were moved north they did not take all their powers or attributes with them and their identities were often reconfigured by a pairing with local gods, in a process commonly referred to as interpretatio. The most famous case of ‘double-naming’ from Britain is the matching of Sulis, goddess of the spring at Bath, with Minerva, Roman goddess of wisdom, addressed most often in curses as Sulis only, sometimes as Sulis Minerva. To judge from the individuals writing curses and recorded as dedicants on altars and buildings in the Bath temple complex, this identification of the two deities was acceptable to both provincials and to Roman outsiders. At Uley too a local god was identified with Mercury in name and iconography, although an appeal to the god also as Mars and Silvanus in one curse tablet suggests an ambiguous identity (Uley 2). Nodens at Lydney and Niskus in the Hamble tablet were also paired with Roman gods, respectively Mars and Mercury.

Among the few tablets from Britain so far found in graves (see Creating the curse - plumbing the depths), none appeal to the untimely dead or to the gods of the underworld (dii inferi) to expedite the wishes of the curse tablets, unlike curses in other parts of the Roman world. Demonic or magical powers mentioned in curses from other provinces have so far made no appearance in curse from Britain, although some are mentioned in amulets (See People, goods and gods - the workings of magic).

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