22 March 2013

Curse Tablets

Welcome back. Today, instead of jangling your serial senses by beginning an entirely new topic, I will take this opportunity to build upon my last blog topic.

Last week, I owned up to my plumbing curse, and in the accompanying photo addendum, I showed borrowed photos of ancient Roman plumbing (i.e., toilets). Put these posts together and what have you got? Curse tablets of course!

Have you ever heard of curse tablets? I hadn’t before seeing a write up last August. (See my P.S.) That ancient Greeks and Romans would go to such lengths to put a curse on someone is both frightening and fascinating.

What Are They?

Aptly named, a curse tablet is a curse or binding spell--defixio, if you’re up on your Latin-- inscribed on a thin small sheet usually of lead or a lead alloy. These tablets have been found throughout the Greco-Roman world. They apparently began with the Greeks as early as the 5th century BC and continued with the Romans until the 6th century AD or later.

Curse tablet related to a judicial process.
Written in Doric Greek on lead,
5th century BC, 6cm x 10cm with 4 folds.


Though only fragments may have survived, the tablets are typically 1.5 to 3 inches wide and 2.5 to 5 inches long, rolled or folded with the writing inside and the ends possibly folded over, and placed--sometimes nailed--in graves or tombs or on temple walls or thrown in wells or pools. Unrolling or unfolding the ancient tablets is a challenge, especially if they’ve been nailed.

Although the message varies with the cause of the curse, the tablets are from individuals generally asking one or more gods, commonly from the underworld, to punish or influence the behavior of one or more individuals, either named or unknown (e.g., whoever stole my…).

While some curses have erotic motives aimed at attracting a person from his or her spouse or lover, those seeking punishment can be downright brutal:
- consume by fevers which are likened to him wrestling with another man
- twist their tongues to the point of uselessness
- total inability to function, in particular her ability to reveal secrets
- crush, kill…may he dilute, languish, sink and his limbs dissolve.

Wording of Special Interest

Much of the interest in curse tablets derives from their actual wording. Whereas our knowledge of the ancient Greek and Roman world is from writings by the elite, the aristocrats, curse tablets carry the voices of noncitizens, women and slaves. Roman Britain is a principal source of new tablet discoveries and has thus become a center for study of the tablets.

Wrap Up

My addressing this topic is not to imply that I’ve traced the source of my plumbing curse to any ancient tablet. I have no idea if my curse is ancient or if it began with me. Unlike my experience, I don’t recall my father being particularly burdened by or having any special problem changing faucet washers or the like. I’m not too sure about my mother’s side of the family. Growing up, I do remember seeing her father, my grandfather, with large washtubs in a kitchen, but he was only making dill pickles.

Thanks for stopping by.


The article that got me started--“Roman Curses Appear on Ancient Tablet”: http://news.discovery.com/history/archaeology/curse-ancient-roman-lead-scroll-120821.htm

“Curse Tablet”: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Curse_tablet

Johns Hopkins University Archaeological Museum collection:

 “Curse Tablets of Roman Britain”: http://curses.csad.ox.ac.uk/

“A Corpus of Writing-Tablets from Roman Britain”:

Facts and Details about Ancient Greek Curses: http://factsanddetails.com/world.php?itemid=2026&catid=56

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