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.