24 November 2014

Curses and Cures: Roman Spell Tablets

Ancient Roman spirituality religion was an interesting blend of superstition and quid pro quo. The Roman relationship with the supernatural was based less on mystical communion than a divine bartering system: I perform the correct ritual, and you give me what I want. Magic was an everyday factor of Roman life, from amulets and charms to fortune telling and spell casting.

votives in the shape of body parts
(source: thevotivesproject.com)
Amulets were worn for protection, luck, and good health, much like religious symbols and devotional medals today. They were also left in temples and other sacred places as votive offerings when petitioning a deity. Such offerings usually illustrated the request, such as the body part in need of healing. Votives could be made from just about any material, from clay or wood to stone, ivory, glass, metal, or even gems. Amulets were popular in jewelry, especially pendants and rings.

Amulets and votives could be used as-is, but spells had to be more specific, especially if that spell was a curse. Curses had to be written, usually scratched on curse tablets called defixiones made from inexpensive metal like lead or pewter. Illiterate people either visited the local magic shop to pay for a personalized spell or employed ancient copy-and-paste from other tablets. Composition wasn't as important as identification - the simplest curse might be nothing more than the target's name.

curse tablet with nail holes for added
oomph (source: wikipedia.com) 
There seems to have been little fear of karmic retribution; people freely cursed business competitors, political opponents, romantic rivals, personal enemies, anonymous criminals, basically anyone who pissed you off. (Vendors hung out near sporting events selling curses against each competitor to fans of the opposition!) You could turn it up a notch by adding symbols, writing the spell backwards, piercing holes in the metal, or providing a helpful drawing of the requested retribution. Completed spells were buried, thrown into water, or left at a temple or sacred spot. Curses were also left in graves to seek justice on the behalf of the deceased or protect the tomb from grave robbers. 

A cache of such tablets was found in the temple of Sulis Minerva at Bath, England. Minerva being a logical kind of gal, most of these curses aren't about jilted lovers or jealous rivals but requests for justice, as if the goddess were a divine Don Corleone. Here's a great one cursing a jewelry thief:
as long as any person, whether slave or free, keeps silent or knows anything about [the theft], may he be cursed in his blood and eyes and every limb, and have all his intestines eaten away if he stole the ring or knows about [who did].

Another man was not happy after having his clothes stolen from the public bath:
deny sleep and health to the one who has done me this wrong, whether man or woman, slave or free, unless he reveals himself and brings these goods to your temple.

curse tablet condemning
the unfortunate Dr. Porcello
(source: livescience.com)
This tablet from Italy is the ultimate Yelp review. It curses a veterinarian named Porcello, who apparently did not treat someone's pet very well:
Destroy, crush, kill, and strangle Porcello and his wife Maurilla: their souls, hearts, buttocks, livers...
Now that is an unsatisfied customer.

Unsurprisingly, love spells were as popular as curses. There were spells to increase attractiveness or sexual prowess, to punish infidelity or get revenge after being jilted, to prevent a lover from straying, and of course to ensnare your object of desire. Virgil described "tying the bonds of Venus" with special ribbons, binding the subjects together forever. 

In the Roman world of spiritual quid pro quo, the quickest way to a desired outcome was a magic spell. The votive offering and the defixio were two of the most ubiquitous means of Roman curses and cures.

Heather Domin writes historical, romantic, and speculative fiction. Her upcoming novel THE HEIRS OF FORTUNE, set in Augustan Rome, is soon to be released. 

23 November 2014

Author Interview & Book Giveaway: Shirley Graetz on SHE WROTE ON CLAY

This week, we're pleased to welcome author Shirley Graetz with her latest release,  SHE WROTE ON CLAY. Join us again on Sunday for an author interview, with more details about the story behind the story. One lucky visitor will get a free audiobook copy of She Wrote on Clay. Be sure to leave your email address in the comments of today's post or Sunday's author interview for a chance to win. Winner(s) are contacted privately by email. Here's the blurb.

Set nearly 3,800 years ago on the banks of the Euphrates, the novel traces the journey of Iltani, a gifted girl from a scribal family, who dreams of becoming a scribe. In order to fulfill her destiny she enters the gagû, becoming a nadītu, an elite class of monastic women. There, she is expected to lead a sheltered life and be cared for by her aunt and taught by a fellow nadītu-scribe. But life is not that simple; she is soon forced to deal with many unforeseen misfortunes.  After eventually reaching her goal, she is invited by a male scribe to take part in engraving the stele for King Hammurabi; an invitation which will cause turmoil and uncertainty in her peaceful existence.
            The unique feature of She Wrote on Clay is not only the exceptional account of the nadītu women, but also the integration into the plot of original Akkadian material (cuneiform letters, contracts etc.), vivid testimonies, which are rarely encountered by anyone outside the field of Assyriology.

**Q&A with Shirley Graetz**

What got you interested in women who lived 4000 years ago in ancient Mesopotamia (Iraq)?

I was studying Assyriology- that is the history of ancient Iraq which is also called Mesopotamia.  I was learning cuneiform script and the ancient language Akkadian. These languages were spoken over 4000 years ago.

While searching for a topic for my MA and PHD thesis, I came across many women who were writing different kinds of letters to all sorts of people.

Among these women were the naditu women, a class of monastic women whose lives really intrigued me. I started to read more and more about them and the letters, sales contracts, adoption contracts and inheritance contracts that they wrote. The fact that all of these ancient letters were written in cuneiform on clay fascinated me even more.

Did women really know how to write back then?

Well, actually most of the people 4000 years ago did not know how to read or write. The cuneiform script was hard to learn as it included more than 600 signs. There were schools called E-Dubba- meaning- the house of tablets- in which boys from affluent families would learn how to read and write and then became scribes. They would write documents for the temple or the kings or for anyone who would pay for their services.

Although only boys went to school, it was not forbidden for girls. Thus we know of some women who became scribes, especially amongst the naditu women.

You were studying for an MA and PHD - how did you come to write a novel?

My academic studies only answered some of my questions concerning the naditu women. These dry studies did no address questions like: What did they feel? Were they happy? Did some of them want to escape their status of being a “nun”? Did some regret never having married and not having children? All these questions were churning around in my head.  And one day, the story just burst out on paper (not cuneiform) to answer all these unasked questions.

Is writing a novel different than writing an academic dissertation?

In academic writing, everything, every thought and claim has to be with proved with references to previously written material. One is not encouraged to use one's imagination. Writing a novel is just the opposite.  There is the plot, which is influenced by historical sources I use, but the sources are full of gaps. There are many questions I had to answer using my imagination. Although all the characters are based on a specific historical source, it is not enough. I had to get into the character's skin and flesh them out so that they would seem real. 

At the beginning I felt uncomfortable that I was not using footnoting each sentence. But in a novel, references are background, not foreground.   

Was the research for your novel different than for your academic studies?

Of course! In academia you usually focus on a narrow topic. For my novel I had to widen my research. I had to learn about details of the life back then, such as kind of food did they eat, what clothing they wore. I also had to absorb details concerning the architecture, art, life, customs, and religion of this time period.  I had to learn about what it meant to love, give birth and die for these Mesopotamian women. For instance, in order to imagine Iltani’s house (the heroine), I looked at many house plans and eventually I drew a plan of her house. That way I could imagine it every time I was describing a scene in the book. I looked at a hundreds of artifacts from that period in order to get a sense of their style and their craftsmanship.

How did you find the time to write both a novel and a doctorate? 

I got up very early (4 o'clock in the morning) and wrote my novel until I had to get my children (3 little children) off to school. I then went to the library to work on my doctorate. Although both were labors of love, I felt driven to write the novel—after all I wanted to know what would happen to my creations, and every morning I would learn a little more.

Find the novel here: http://www.amazon.com/She-Wrote-Clay-Shirley-Graetz/dp/0989263126 

22 November 2014

Curses and Cures: Superstitions

One of the most powerful superstitions among the indigenous people of Australia is the concept of ‘pointing the bone’, often called ‘singing a person to death’. To grasp this concept requires an understanding of the traditional aboriginal mindset. This is most important because of its isolation from that of modern Western thought. We need to realise that religion and the Dreamtime myths are at the core of traditional aboriginal society.

The fact that tribes interacted for trading or ceremonial purposes meant that a common set of religious beliefs about the Dreamtime came into being. The aborigines have lived in Australia for at least 60 000 years, that huge time span allowing the uninterrupted belief in an essential harmony between human beings, the land and the Dreamtime. Ellis (1984), Flood (1983) and Stanner (1979), in important studies explain that the Dreamtime is a number of things unified in one. It is a sacred, heroic time long ago when spirit beings began all phenomena. They set the stars in their courses, created the earth, and all material and spiritual life. They created laws (or rituals) to provide meaning to, and to perpetuate this way of living. They stored spirit power in animals, plants and sacred sites. The Dreaming refers to an aborigine’s awareness and knowledge of the Dreamtime, and is a metaphor suggesting that this awareness is enhanced by dreamy, quiet, vague and visionary fantasy or trance states. The land and rituals serve as reminders.

There is “a oneness of person, body, spirit, ghost, shadow, name, spirit site and totem” (Stanner) in aboriginal beliefs. The Dreamtime is not an historic event but corresponds to the whole of reality. It is eternal. It is “a vertical line in which the past underlies and is within the present” (Elkin, 93). Corroborees are the most common means by which an aborigine acts as, and becomes, a spiritual being or totem.

It is clear that the power of belief is much more deeply rooted in the traditional aboriginal mind than it is in that of Westerners. Messing with that mind is a serious dislocation of traditional beliefs. Rituals involving fear, isolation and suggestion are the province of senior men like the medicine man or sorcerer. (One term is distinguished from the other by his attitude to evil; the medicine man heals, the sorcerer destroys). His power is drawn from faith, ritual and special knowledge of the Dreaming. He is the individual who can examine the mind of the dead to determine whether foul play was involved in a death, and he is the one who can cast spells.

Where a society’s understanding of itself relies pretty much on belief and the mysterious knowledge of a medicine man there is only a small step to accepting that a man can be cursed through the casting of spells by a sorcerer or healed through the powers accepted as the province of the medicine man. Just how this change – from sickness to health or from a state of fitness and joie de vivre to depression and death – can be brought about is not important. What is the central focus here is that a mind that believes that some other man has the power to heal or destroy will respond according to that belief system. One that does not believe is perfectly safe. (In 2004 Prime Minister of Australia, John Howard, upset some aboriginal elders to the point that a ‘bone’ was pointed at him. He is still very much alive in 2014).

So what is the process? John Godwin (163 – 76) and Ronald Rose (30 – 36) describe, in separate publications, one case that they have researched. What is detailed here varies little from other accounts. The gist of what they have to say is repeated here in my words. "Bone pointing" is a method of execution that, if prepared carefully, never fails to kill its victim. It consists of a powerful curse and a method of application. The so-called ‘bone’ may be human, kangaroo, emu or even wood. The shape of the killing-bone, or kundela, varies from tribe to tribe. It can be anything from six to nine inches in length and looks like a long needle. At the rounded end, a piece of hair is attached through the hole, and glued into place with a gummy resin from the spinifex bush. Before it can be used, the kundela is charged with a powerful psychic energy in a ritual that is kept secret from women and from those who are not tribe members. To be effective, the ritual must be performed faultlessly, the victim must know he has been boned - gossip, rumour or just a whisper can start the sometimes fatal process of autosuggestion, and he must be born into aboriginal culture and believe absolutely the lore and consequences of being boned.

The bone is then given to the kurdaitcha, who are the tribe's ritual killers.

The name, kurdaitcha, has been used by Europeans to mean the slippers the killers wear while on the hunt. The indigenous name for the slippers in Northern Australia is interlinia, while in Southern Australia the term is intathurta. The slippers are made of cockatoo (or emu) feathers and human hair—they leave no footprints. The killers’ bodies are coated in human blood and kangaroo fur, which is stuck to their bodies. Masks of emu feathers complete the ritualised costume. Kurdaitcha hunt in pairs or threes and are relentless in the pursuit of their quarry.

Once the man is caught, one of the kurdaitcha goes down onto one knee and points the kundela. The victim is said to be frozen with fear and stays to hear the curse, which takes the form of a brief piercing chant. Then, task completed, the kurdaitcha return to their home village and the kundela is ritually burned.

The condemned man may live for several days or even weeks. But, he believes so strongly in the curse, that he will surely die. It is said that the ritual loading of the kundela creates a "spear of thought" which pierces the victim when the bone is pointed at him. It is as if an actual spear has been thrust at him.

The ‘enlightened’ Westerner may have some sympathy for another point of view. From 1969 to 1980, H.D. Eastwell, a psychiatrist, studied aboriginal men in Arnhem Land. Sorcery syndrome (gross fear of death) was common. Symptoms were agitation, sleeplessness, visions, and protruding eyeballs. Fear was precipitated by trauma, for example, death or serious illness of a close relative, or a dispute over wives. A few victims died. Eastwell (1982) concluded that since the victim was outcast and deprived of water, dehydration rather than fright may have caused death (5 – 18).

A sorceror’s curse can be a deadly weapon. It works because a deeply-entrenched belief system is violated by an inimical intruder. Making and using the bone is said to be dangerous knowledge and unless the incantations and movements are precise according to ritual the curse can rebound with devastating results. The only ways to effect a cure are the retraction of the curse by the sorcerer who laid it, or the effects nullified by one at least equally well versed in the lore. Without this intervention, the victim’s future is grim.


Eastwell, H.D. (1982). Voodoo death and the mechanism for dispatch of the dying in East Arnhem. American Anthropologist, 84, 5-18.

Elkin, A P (1969). Elements of Australian Aboriginal philosophy. Oceania, 40, 85-98.

Ellis, R (1984). Aboriginal Australia; Past and present. Sydney: Shakespeare Head/Golden Press.

Flood, J. (1983). Archeology of the Dreamtime. Sydney: Collins.

Godwin, John. Unsolved: The World of the Unknown, pp. 163–76 Rose, Ronald. Living Magic, pp. 30–36

Stanner, W (1979). The Dreaming. In, White man go no dreaming, 23-40. Canberra: ANU Press.

Ian Lipke became a teacher of primary children in 1958, transferring to secondary schools in 1964. He has taught in schools in remote and metropolitan areas of Queensland, Australia. He left school teaching in 1977 to lecture at the University of Queensland and at Queensland University of Technology. Throughout the late 1980s and 1990s, he was a deputy principal at several high schools, before retiring to manage his own tutoring business. In 2006, he returned to postgraduate studies through research at the University of Queensland. His whole life has been devoted to academic studies, which he very much enjoys. He is the author of NARGUN.                       

21 November 2014

New & Noteworthy: November 21

Blythe Gifford’s next Royal Weddings book, WHISPERS AT COURT, is scheduled for release from Harlequin Historical in June, 2015. Set in medieval England in the court of Edward III, it tells the story of an English countess and the French hostage she at first hates, but comes to love. Their story unfolds beside a real historical love story, that of the king’s daughter Isabella and the French hostage she eventually wed. See www.blythegifford.com for more details.

Kim Rendfeld continues to write about the history behind her latest release, THE ASHES OF HEAVEN'S PILLAR (2014, Fireship Press). Her recent guest and contributing posts include "A Visit That Changed a Life and Led to Sainthood" about the founder of St. Riquier Abbey for English Historical Fiction Authors, "Say What? Lots of Languages in Charlemagne’s Realm" for Anna Belfrage’s blog, and "Sturm: One of Charlemagne’s Lieutenants in Spiritual Warfare" for Tinney Heath's Historical Fiction Research.

If you'd like to meet Kim in person, she will be at the Friends of the Library author fair and book sale 9 a.m. to 2 p.m. Saturday, November 22, at the New Castle-Henry County (Indiana) Public Library, about 50 miles east of Indianapolis.

20 November 2014

Excerpt Thursday: SHE WROTE ON CLAY by Shirley Graetz

This week, we're pleased to welcome author Shirley Graetz with her latest release,  SHE WROTE ON CLAY. Join us again on Sunday for an author interview, with more details about the story behind the story. One lucky visitor will get a free audiobook copy of She Wrote on Clay. Be sure to leave your email address in the comments of today's post or Sunday's author interview for a chance to win. Winner(s) are contacted privately by email. Here's the blurb.

Set nearly 3,800 years ago on the banks of the Euphrates, the novel traces the journey of Iltani, a gifted girl from a scribal family, who dreams of becoming a scribe. In order to fulfill her destiny she enters the gagû, becoming a nadītu, an elite class of monastic women. There, she is expected to lead a sheltered life and be cared for by her aunt and taught by a fellow nadītu-scribe. But life is not that simple; she is soon forced to deal with many unforeseen misfortunes.  After eventually reaching her goal, she is invited by a male scribe to take part in engraving the stele for King Hammurabi; an invitation which will cause turmoil and uncertainty in her peaceful existence.
            The unique feature of She Wrote on Clay is not only the exceptional account of the nadītu women, but also the integration into the plot of original Akkadian material (cuneiform letters, contracts etc.), vivid testimonies, which are rarely encountered by anyone outside the field of Assyriology.

**An Excerpt from She Wrote on Clay**

At this point in the novel, Iltani is living in the gagû and eagerly awaits her first lessons with her tutor (Amat-Mamu) who has been hired by her father to teach her. She is taken to her house by one of the servants.

            Translations of original ancient texts and words in akkadian are shown in italics.

* * *
            Amat-Mamu’s house looked enormous. From the courtyard, Iltani counted five entrances to the different rooms, more than her own family had. The servant led her to a room full of tablets that were scattered on wooden shelves along the wall and packed into reed hampers on the floor. Everywhere she looked, she saw clay tablets in different sizes.
            “By Šamaš and Aja!” she exclaimed in astonishment. There were far more clay tablets here then her father had. She had never seen so many in one room before.
            “Please do not touch anything until Amat-Mamu arrives,” said the servant, and with a nod of her head, she left the room.
            Iltani had to fight the urge to pick up one of the tablets. But she would never have done such a thing without permission. There were several cushions on the floor and beside them a small basket and a pile of styluses and unshaped reeds. Iltani tried to imagine what they would do this first lesson. Perhaps Amat-Mamu will be interested in what she has learned with Abu, or ask her to inscribe a few signs. That’s what she hoped at least. Whatever happened, she told herself, she would do her best and not take offense if Amat-Mamu treated her harshly, as Abu had warned she might.
            “Ah, you’re here,” said Amat-Mamu hurriedly as she walked in. Amat-Mamu was shorter by a half a head than Iltani. She was a compact, plump little woman, with grey hair secured tightly in a knot.
            “Your first lesson will consist of watching me write an urgent letter,” she said taking clay out of the hamper and a few reed styluses. “Don’t just stand there,” she said beckoning Iltani, who was too perplexed to move. “And whatever you see, you must not, I repeat, you must not say a word or make a noise, even if you’re startled.”
            Iltani followed Amat-Mamu out of the house, fearful and disappointed. Where was her teacher taking her? She was walking so fast Iltani could hardly keep up. So they would not read or write anything today, it seemed.
            Amat-Mamu did not slow down or talk as they crossed the gagû. None of the houses looked familiar and Iltani was sure, that left alone here, she would have been terribly lost. They stopped at a small house. “Not a word,” Amat-Mamu put her finger to her lips as they entered the courtyard. The house was even smaller than her aunt’s, and badly in need of repair. In the courtyard stood an older nadītu, holding a clay pot over burning coal. “She is inside; she awaits you. I have given her a soothing remedy to drink, but the bruises and wounds . . . are very bad. She will need time and my best herbs to heal.”
            Iltani was frightened. What had happened? Apparently something very bad. But who would dare hurt a nadītu? They . . . we, she reminded herself, are under the protection of Šamaš and Aja. Anyone who tries to hurt us will incur the wrath of the gods.
            As they entered a small room, Iltani, following close behind, saw a woman sitting on a mattress. The woman’s eyes were red and swollen from crying. But what was worse, there were raw lash marks on her arms and legs. It looked as though she had been severely whipped. She was dressed in a thin white shift that revealed the bleeding gashes on her back. Iltani was so distressed by the sight she wanted to run away.
            “Tell me what happened,” Amat-Mamu said soothingly, no longer brusque.
            Eli-eresa, the young nadītu, spoke slowly.
            “I sewed a garment for a man named Sin-iddinam and delivered it to him. He promised he would pay me the following day, but when I went to collect what he owed me, he did not pay. A day passed, a week passed, still he did not pay. I sent three messengers and they all came back empty handed. When three months had gone by, I went to see him again, but he would only agree to pay me half the sum.
When I went to see him again, instead of paying me what he still owed me, he gave me a thrashing.”
            The room was so quiet Iltani was afraid they could hear her breathing.
            “And what is worse,” Eli-eresa continued, “he bragged that he beat five other nadītu. How could such a thing happen? How did we not know of this?” she asked in anguish. “Why did those nadītu not report it to the overseer, Rapaš-illi-Ea?”
            Iltani was so shaken she barely noticed that Amat-Mamu had had been taking down Eli-eresa’s story on a clay tablet.
            “Here, I have written a letter,” said Amat-Mamu.
“Not to the overseer but to a judge. I’ll deliver it to him myself if you like. Shall I read it to you?”
            Eli-eresa nodded.
            To my lord say; thus (says) Eli-eresa.
            I sold Sin-iddinam son of Ilšu-bani, a citizen of my city, Sippar, a garment. After he wore the garment for three months, he paid me a lower price, holding back half a shekel from the original price of the garment. I went to him, to remind him to give me the rest of the money, but instead he beat me viciously; as if I were not a servant of Šamaš. He has treated me in a way which is not acceptable in this land! The next day I went to him, and said: “Why have you treated me this way?”
            Thus he said: “I have beaten five nadītu of Šamaš, besides you. I will pay only those I wish to pay! No one takes anything from me.”
            My lord, you are my judge, pass a verdict on the case I have with Sin-iddinam.

            As they were leaving, Iltani noticed the older nadītu was smearing a brown ointment on Eli-eresa’s wounds. This woman looked familiar, yet Iltani could not remember from where.
            Amat-Mamu was silent all the way back and Iltani was too distraught to ask any questions. Just before reaching the house, Amat-Mamu turned to Iltani and asked: “What did you learn today that is worth remembering?”
            Iltani was speechless. What had she learned today that was worth remembering? Nothing about the art of the scribe. What she had learned was that all her notions about the life of a nadītu were perhaps the notions of a silly child, provided to her by her trusting Abu. That was her lesson for today.

            Amat-Mamu observed her, waiting for a response. As none came, she said: “A scribe should be seen and not heard. And our services are not limited to those who pay us to write down and witness their business contracts. As nadītu scribes we must help our friends. I know that you will never forget what you saw today and that will make you a better scribe. A scribe whose hand competes with his mouth is indeed a scribe. A scribe who writes without error and without asking the speaker to repeat himself need never sew garments for a living.” 

Amat-Mamu held Iltani’s gaze until Iltani looked down at her feet and said, “Yes, Mistress, I understand.”

Find the novel here: http://www.amazon.com/She-Wrote-Clay-Shirley-Graetz/dp/0989263126 

19 November 2014

Curses and Cures: The King’s Evil: Scrofula and the Gold Angels

Ty cried out as the point of the curette burst open the smaller boil, and the surgeon twisted it in the wound to scrape away the yellow-pink mass inside. My friend shrieked again as the greater boil was lanced, kicking frantically at the hands that restrained him. This time blood as well as lumpy pus came out, pouring over the table’s leather rim.

“Cauter,” snapped the surgeon, and the student holding Ty’s feet let them go. Peter seized them quickly. Taking a rod topped with an eye-shaped lump of iron, the student thrust it into the hottest part of the brazier, then handed it carefully to his master, who laid it three times on Ty’s bleeding wounds. At the first touch Ty gasped and fell silent, his clenched fists flopping open, and the smell of burning flesh leapt up at us like scattering pigeons.
The Bitter Trade

Lymphadenopathy of the neck. Scrofula. A tuberculous swelling of the lymph glands – it’s unpleasant whatever you call it, and it needs to be cut out of your living flesh or treated with antibiotics.

In the Middle Ages and Early Modern period, scrofula was called The King’s Evil. Since the times of Edward the Confessor in the eleventh century, it was believed that the monarch’s touch could cure sufferers, and both English and French kings would hold grand ceremonies in which they touched hundreds of sufferers. This is called thaumaturgy, or miracle-working, and was derived from the divine right of kings.

Later, it was believed that receiving a gold coin called an “angel” (worth 6-10 shillings) would have the same effect, providing the monarch had touched it first. Queen Anne was the last English ruler to carry out this practice (her last “patient” was the infant Samuel Johnson in 1712!), but it carried on in France until the rule of Charles X in the 1820s.

The disease itself produces an unsightly lump, a “cold abscess” on the neck that turns the skin around it a blueish purple. If it has to be excised, there can be damage to the facial nerve, so we can empathise with victims hoping for a miraculous cure from their sovereign.

This is how the ceremony went (and one French king would treat up to 1500 people in a session!):
  The monarch touched (or, alternatively, stroked) the face or neck of the infected person
  The monarch hung the medal around the person's neck.
  Passes from the Gospel of Mark (16: 14–20) and the Gospel of John (1: 1–14) were read.. Mark 16 contains themes that confirm monarchs' immunity to infectious diseases:[. "They shall take up serpents; and if they drink any deadly thing, it shall not hurt them; they shall lay hands on the sick, and they shall recover." Mark 16:18
  Prayers were offered. Until the English Reformation, the prayers were addressed not only to God but also to Virgin Mary and the saints.

Charles II revived a declining tradition and was believed to have “treated” over 90,000 sufferers during his quarter-century reign: a very obvious example of his desire to reunite the country after the Civil War.

Scrofula became a rarity in the West as tuberculosis was brought under control. Sadly, the HIV epidemic has brought it back for about 5% of sufferers.

Piers Alexander is the author of The Bitter Trade, a historical novel set during the Glorious Revolution.

The Bitter Trade won the Pen Factor and a Global Ebook Award for modern historical fiction

*** Buy The Bitter Trade for 99c for until 2 December only! ***

To find The Bitter Trade on Amazon / Kindle: www.smarturl.it/UHamazon 

18 November 2014

Curses and Cures: Where Christian and Pagan Beliefs Intersect

An eighth-century pilgrim on his way to pray before the relics of a saint might recite a charm to protect his horse from injury. A midwife might whisper spells in an expectant mother's ear to hasten the birth, and if she feared the newborn was near death, she baptized the child. Such was the blend of Christian and pagan practices in the Dark Ages.

My Christian characters would insist the charms and spells were white magic, nothing to do with paganism, which they equated with devil worship. They weren’t cursing their neighbors with illness or inducing storms to destroy crops. Their intentions were good. They wanted a sick child to be cured or their fields to yield an abundant harvest.

A 13th century amuletic broach, shaped like an A and inscribed with the abbreviated prayer of AGLA: Atha Gebri Leilan Adonai ("Thou art mighty forever, O Lord"). Walters Art Museum, licensed under the Creative Commons Attribution-Share Alike 3.0 Unported license, via Wikimedia Commons
Officially, the Church preached against magic and the people who practiced it such as enchanters, dream interpreters, and fortune tellers. But to the populace, magic was a tool that could be used for good or evil.

The penalty for magical bad deeds was high. In the Carolingian era, witches and sorcerers were sealed in barrels and thrown into the river, or they were stoned to death.

However, the most popular uses of magic were beneficial and sometimes profitable. Amulets and their religious cousins, phylacteries, were sold to anyone who wanted to buy them. In Rome, the heart of Christianity, women tied phylacteries to their arms or legs.

A 13th century phylactery worn for protection. Walters Art Museum, licensed under the Creative Commons Attribution-Share Alike 3.0 Unported license, via Wikimedia Commons
Despite Church teachings, even clerics might ask an expert to interpret their dreams, or a manuscript copied by monks might contain a square to predict the course of an illness with the letters of the patient’s name and the number of the day they got sick.

Magic was so much a part of daily life that the Church realized it needed to take a different tack. If you can't beat them, co-opt them. Want rain? Don't use an incantation. Say a prayer instead. If you need to recite something while gathering medicinal herbs, try the Pater and the Credo.

Still, I can imagine desperate parents of a sick child praying to a saint and giving alms, then taking the child to the peak of the roof, where herbs were cooked while a spell was recited. Perhaps, they were appealing to any supernatural power who would listen.


Daily Life in the World of Charlemagne by Pierre Riché, translated by Jo Ann McNamara

Daily Life in Medieval Times by Frances and Joseph Gies

“Capturing the Wandering Womb” by Kate Phillips, The Haverford Journal, April 2007

Magic and prayer play an important role in Kim Rendfeld's novels, The Cross and the Dragon (2012, Fireship Press) and The Ashes of Heaven's Pillar (2014, Fireship Press), both set in the days of Charlemagne. To read the first chapter of either of Kim’s novels or learn more about her, visit kimrendfeld.com. You’re also welcome to visit her blog Outtakes of a Historical Novelist at kimrendfeld.wordpress.com, like her on Facebook at facebook.com/authorkimrendfeld, or follow her on Twitter at @kimrendfeld, or contact her at kim [at] kimrendfeld [dot] com.

17 November 2014

Curing the Hittite Way: Analogical Magic and Powerful Words

Hittite Mother Goddess Figurine

Like many ancient peoples, the Hittites of the Late Bronze Age (13thC BCE) in what is now modern Turkey, along with their semi-independent ally, Troy, believed that illness came from the gods. Sickness revealed a lack of harmony between mortal and immortal worlds that once restored would also restore physical well-being. Their definition of illness was considerably broader than our modern one often is. A quarrel between a wife and husband was viewed as needing the attention of the healer just as much as a cough or broken limb. Perhaps in this respect they had a more progressive, holistic view.

Although there is some evidence of herbal cures, poultices and brews of various sorts as well as practical wound treatments, most of what we know about Hittite cures is more magical than practical. They were particularly drawn to analogical magic. So if a baby in the womb was turned the wrong direction, they would hold a root vegetable, perhaps an onion, that had layers within layers and turn the inner layer as they said the proper words, and the assumption was that the baby also would turn in the same manner as the onion. This is an example that strains our credulity. Certainly they noticed the baby didn’t turn? But perhaps they accompanied this magical formula with some manual procedure and attributed the benefit to the prayer and rite.
Hittite Cuneiform Tablet
The cuneiform tablet only mentions rather opaquely an unidentified root vegetable, turning and special words. For Hittites words were of utmost importance and power. They had a saying, “The tongue is the bridge.” The words are the connection between human and divine worlds. Words have transformative power.

The Hittites were also early practitioners of “scapegoating” as a healing process. If you suffered from a pain in your chest, the healer would rub a mouse on the source of the pain, transfer some red and green wool threads from your chest to the mouse, and then send the mouse away—again with the proper incantations to the gods. Your pain was supposed to wander off with the mouse. In some cases it probably did, at least temporarily. Modern studies of placebos show a remarkably high success rate, after all. If your whole belief system built trust in the efficacy of a rite, it may well have accomplished pain reduction often enough to sustain the overall belief.

Here is a brief excerpt from my novel Hand of Fire, showing a healer named Briseis trying to use her array of tools to heal her mother, divinations, rites recorded on tablets, incantations, and analogical magic:  

Briseis believed her mother had given in to this illness, accepted defeat from the beginning. Illness generally came from the gods as punishment for violations against the gods’ laws. In case her mother had neglected a sacrifice or some similar affront— any more serious sin seemed unlikely—Briseis performed a snake divination at the temple to ask Kamrusepa directly how they had offended the gods. But the swimming snakes had given only a muddled answer as they touched the words inscribed in the great basin. The snakes failed to identify anything Briseis could correct. Even before she’d tried the divination it had seemed impossible to Briseis that her mother could have sinned so greatly that Kamrusepa sent the illness, but giving in to the disease felt like a sin to Briseis. Her mother had resigned herself to death too easily, and the gods abandoned her because she did not love life enough— their gift to all. She needed to be dragged back to life.
Briseis had an idea. “You two stay with Mama. I need some supplies.”
She ran downstairs to the back storerooms, the sound of the storm growing muted as she went deeper into the house with its thick walls. Once inside the library, the comforting odor of clay soothed her. Her mother, Briseis thought, was a mixture of lavender and earthy clay. She pulled tablets from the wooden pigeonholes, scanning the words formed with a reed stylus that her brothers said looked like bird tracks. She found it, “The Breath of Life Incantation.” It hadn’t made sense to her when she’d been required to copy it for practice three years ago, but it did now. Her heart felt light. She committed the rite to memory and tucked the palm-sized tablet back in its place.
She hurried through the megaron hall, the main room of the house with its two-storied ceiling and circular hearth, out to the main courtyard and into the kitchen opposite the stables. The wind-driven rain splattered under the portico’s shelter.
The cook, a middle-aged woman with a kinder heart than her boney, hard face indicated, looked up in surprise from sorting lentils when Briseis appeared at the door.
“For Mama, hurry. I need honey, mint and sweet wine.”
The cook quickly gathered everything on a tray, and Briseis carried it back upstairs. From the carved wooden chest next to the floor-to-ceiling loom in her mother’s sitting room, she grabbed a sachet of lavender and a clay incantation jar shaped like a fig.
Iatros and Eurome looked up when she entered the sleeping chamber. She set down the tray on the table and leaned in close over her mother. Antiope’s lips were parted, her eyes closed, their lids withered like fallen leaves in winter. The space between breaths felt impossibly long.
Iatros crouched by the bed, biting his upper lip, eyes fixed on his sister.
Briseis shifted her mother’s legs aside and sat down. She closed her eyes and waited while the fear she felt emptied out with each breath she exhaled. The power of the ritual’s words filled her mind. She called to Kamrusepa, praying for her to give power to this rite.
She opened her eyes and placed both hands on her mother’s chest, then her head.
“Antiope, wife of Glaukos, mother of Bienor, Adamas, Iatros, and Briseis, you have heard death whisper in your ear. You have mistaken that whisper for the nurturing breath that flows in and out of every human being. You have gone after death. Return now. Hear the breath of life.”
Briseis poured wine and honey into the fig jar, breathed into it, and then added the lavender and mint, crushing the leaves to release their scent as she held the jar close to her mother.
“Antiope, do you smell the spring? The time of new growth and blossoms? Remember the spring. Remember your children. Remember the sweetness of life. Remember that you love life. Take a strong breath.”
Silently Briseis added, Come back, Mama, I need you. Remember how much I love you. Antiope sighed and her eyelids fluttered for a moment. Iatros cried out.
Briseis’s heart leapt like a deer. “Mama!”
Daughter and son clung to their mother’s hands. They waited for Antiope to open her eyes and reassure them that she would live. They listened for the slow rattle to quicken. Instead it faded, caught once, tangled in a last wisp of life, then fell silent.
Tears ran down Briseis’s face, hot against her skin. Gradually her wet cheeks grew cold.

About the Author:
Judith Starkston writes historical fiction and mysteries set in Troy and the Hittite Empire. Ms. Starkston is a classicist (B.A. University of California, Santa Cruz, M.A. Cornell University) who taught high school English, Latin and humanities. She and her husband have two grown children and live in Arizona with their golden retriever Socrates. Hand of Fire is her debut novel.
Find an excerpt, Q&A, book reviews, ancient recipes, historical background as well as on-going information about the historical fiction community on Starkston’s website www.JudithStarkston.com
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