Lindsay Watson looks at the dark side of ancient magic.
Of the various manifestations of Greek and Roman magic, arguably the most harmful and malign are defixiones (curse tablets), and compulsive love spells. A noteworthy instance of the former is a Romano-British defixio with a rather intriguing history. In the early nineteenth century, there came to light in the ruins of the temple of the Celtic god Nodens at Lydney Park in Gloucestershire a metal curse-tablet which invokes illness upon a suspected thief and reads as follows:
‘To the god Nodens. Silvianus has lost his ring. He has given half <of its value> to Nodens. May you not permit good health to anyone in the group to which Senicianus belongs until he brings <the ring> to the temple of Nodens’.
By a striking coincidence a ploughman had already discovered in 1786, in a spot at no great distance from Lydney, a valuable ten-sided gold ring which belonged to the same period as the just quoted curse and carried the legend ‘Senicianus, may you live in God’, a motto which superseded theologically an apparently earlier bust of Venus on the ring. It appears probable that Silvianus had his ring stolen by Senicianus, who then proclaimed via this inscription his Christian faith over the pagan affiliations of Silvianus, and by extension his ‘ownership’ of the ring.
These events had an intriguing afterlife. There is a likelihood that Tolkien, author of The Hobbit and The Lord of the Rings but in his professional life a scholar of Anglo-Saxon, got to know, in the course of writing The Hobbit, the story of the ring and its theft. His putative sources were twofold – Tessa and Mortimer Wheeler, who in the late 1920s excavated the temple at Lydney Park and consulted Tolkien about the name Nodens, and R.G.Collingwood, a fellow of the same Oxford college as Tolkien who had a particular expertise in the Latin inscriptions of Roman Britain and may well have drawn Tolkien’s attention to the Silvianus tablet. Aficionados of Tolkien have naturally seized on this possibility to postulate that the idea of a curse, a ring, its theft and rediscovery helped to inspire the key motifs of Tolkien’s famous novels, an appealing if necessarily unprovable notion.
Charming as these speculations are, underlying the story of Silvianus’ ring is a highly sinister form of magical practice. For the tablet invoking loss of good health for Senicianus unless he makes good his theft is an instance of what is called in Greek a katadesmos, a binding spell, or, to use the preferred Latin designation, a defixio. Written in Greek or Latin, such documents, of which nearly two thousand have now come to light, have been defined as follows: ‘defixiones, more commonly known as curse tablets, are inscribed pieces of lead, usually in the form of small, thin sheets, intended to influence <in a harmful way>, by supernatural means, the actions or welfare of persons or animals against their will’. The curser or cursers typically deposited the defixio in locations, such as graveyards or the temples of chthonic deities, which afforded access to the Netherworld and hence to the infernal powers – Hecate, Proserpina, Pluto, Hermes and the like – who were charged with executing the maledictions inscribed on the tablets, often in the shape of an injunction to ‘bind’ or ‘constrain’ the target. By the period of the Roman Empire it was also common to enlist the agency of deities with a distinctly local, not necessarily chthonic, colour, such as the dea Sulis of Roman Bath or the abovementioned Nodens, a god of healing, hunting and the sea, at Lydney Park. At the same time, maintaining the earlier focus on co-opting assistance from the Underworld, many curse tablets of this era call for assistance upon the nekudaimones, the spirits of the dead. The rationale here was that these were supposedly hostile towards the living and hence suitable parties to enact the malignant wishes contained in the defixiones. The practice of inscribing defixiones began in the Greek world of the 6th century BC and continued until somewhere between the 6th and 8th centuries AD. Particularly in the pre-Roman period, it was common practice to pierce the tablet with a nail, as a symbolic way of immobilising the autonomy of the target.
The Silvianus curse belongs to a special type of defixio known as a ‘prayer for justice’, that is, an appeal to the gods to visit punishment upon the perpetrator of an offence against the curser, often as here in the shape of a theft. Roman Britain was particularly rich in texts of this type, as shown by the large caches of curse tablets discovered in Bath (Aquae Sulis) and Uley in Gloucestershire. But for the most part defixiones inhabited a moral void; that is to say, they were essentially self-serving documents lacking any significant ethical justification. Under this last head fall the four further categories of defixio which have been identified by scholars: litigation curses, intended to muzzle pre-emptively the tongue of an opponent in the courtroom, amatory curses, designed to cause a person to fall irresistibly in love with one, trade curses, which sought to ruin the business of a commercial competitor (e.g. a rival brothel) and agonistic curses, aimed at corrupting the outcome of a contest of some kind, most often a chariot race in which the teams of fellow-competitors were to be nobbled by magical means. It is not of course suggested that curse tablets necessarily worked; but they were certainly believed to, as is clear from the sheer number of defixiones which have been unearthed, the universal fear in which they were held, and the widespread employment of protective magical devices against their deleterious effects.
One of the things about Greek and Roman curse tablets that immediately stands out is their grotesque cruelty and viciousness. Here are some samples of the tortures to which the authors of such texts would see their victims subjected: ‘may he see himself dying in every part of his body except for his eyes’, ‘so that worms, cancer, an infestation of worms may enter his hands, head, feet, enter his limbs and marrow’, ‘burst my enemy’s veins’, ‘I chop <Saturnina> completely into pieces’, ‘rip the drivers from their chariots and overturn them to the ground so that they fall … especially at the turning points, along with their own horses, with harm to their bodies and breaking of legs’. But even in those defixiones that called for justice the punishments were frequently disproportionate to the crime – in fact they were, ironically, often more savage than the morally vacuous ones.
Quite how ferocious defixiones might be has been dramatically reaffirmed in the last two decades by a sequence of major new finds, mostly in Latin. One example is a disturbingly sadistic defixio from Rome invoking endless torments and a protracted death upon a woman named Caecilia Prima, quite possibly the revenge of a betrayed or disappointed lover. Another is the thirty four strong cache of curse tablets from the joint sanctuary of Isis and Magna Mater in the centre of Mainz (Roman Moguntiacum), which came to light around the turn of the 21st century during digging operations for a new car park. But in fact defixiones, from their earliest appearance, routinely imprecated death and destruction upon their targets; a fact which scholars have been curiously unwilling to acknowledge, despite the ubiquity of formulations such as ‘I bind, I bury deeply, I cause to vanish from mankind Eunomos’, ‘may Rhodion perish along with his workshop’, ‘kill him, dispatch, slay, choke Porcellus and wicked Silla his wife’, ‘make him <a chariot driver> into a corpse’.
The violence of defixiones is matched by that of amatory magic. Paradoxical though it might seem, the love spells of Greek and Roman Antiquity were remarkably brutal, a fact which has provoked considerable scholarly unease. For knowledge of such spells we are mostly reliant on the so-called Greek Magical Papyri (PGM), which, despite their title, were discovered in Egypt, a centre of Greek civilisation from the time of Alexander the Great. They consist for the most part of a series of lengthy magical recipe books containing spells of a highly diverse character, written mainly in Greek, but also showing a great deal of native Egyptian influence. The surviving papyri date mostly to the 3rd-5th centuries AD. Their content is however tralaticious, going back many centuries earlier, being reflected for example in Greek poetry of the 3rd century BC. The bulk of what we now know as the PGM had already been unearthed by the first half of the 19th century, but owing to a succession of tragic misfortunes which almost invites the cinematic trope of the Pharaoh’s Curse, they were not systematically collated and published in a proper scholarly edition until the first half of the 20th. The number of the PGM, which stood at 130 in 1986, is constantly being augmented by the appearance of new texts, also hailing from Egypt and especially from the rich papyrus-trove of Oxyrhynchus.
Some 40% of the PGM consists of love spells – spells which routinely exhibit a startling amalgam of savagery and violence. Here are a couple of examples:
‘Go [viz. the demon enacting the spell] into every place and seek out her and open her right side and enter like thunder, like lightning. like a burning flame, and make her thin, pale, weak, limp, incapable of action in any part of her body until she leaps forth and comes to me’,
‘Do not enter through <the target’s> eyes or through her side, or through her nails … but through her ‘soul’ (i.e. her vagina). And remain in her heart and burn her guts, her breast, her liver, her breath, her bones, her marrow, until she comes to me, loving me and until she fulfils all my wishes … inflame her and turn her guts inside out, drain out her blood drop by drop’.
Such spells regularly speak of ‘torturing’ the target of the spell into compliance with the desires of its author, and brook no resistance, as in the following instance,
‘Cause her … to be sleepless … but if she wishes to fall asleep, spread under her prickly leather scourges and thorns upon her temples, so that she may nod agreement to a courtesan’s love’.
Notoriously, one of the spells in PGM 4 prescribes the fashioning of a female doll in wax or clay which is to be pierced with thirteen needles in different body parts and orifices: the purpose was not just to inflict by so-called ‘persuasive analogy’ pangs in the corresponding limbs of the woman who is represented imagistically by the poppet, but in particular to ensure that she ‘had no one in mind but the spell-caster’. Remarkably, the 1970s saw the discovery of a ‘voodoo doll’, now housed in the Louvre, fashioned precisely according to the specifications in PGM 4.
The Louvre Voodoo Doll
It will be clear by now that the appellation ‘love spells’ is a gross misnomer. The spells in question have nothing to do with love as we understand it. Their aim was to inflict physical and mental agonies upon their targets until these submitted willy-nilly to the desires of the spell-caster and remained with him (less commonly her) in a state of permanent sexual servitude. The hexes of the PGM spell out this out in the most unabashed terms,
e.g. ‘so that you may bring her to me and and glue head to head and join lips to lips and glue belly to belly and and bring close thigh to thigh and fit together black to black [pubic hair] and she carry out her own sex acts with me for all eternity’,
a formula repeated with minor variations in a host of amatory spells. In sum, what we are dealing with here are not love spells, but a highly purposive, indeed repulsively solipsistic, type of sex magic.
The exceedingly violent and aggressive tenor of these spells has, as mentioned earlier, much discomfited students of ancient magic, who have accordingly sought to rationalise it in a variety of ways. An influential, neo-Freudian approach has been to argue that the violence of the hexes operates as a form of emotional catharsis for parties in the grip of a helpless passion, by projecting back onto the unresponsive authors of such feelings the agonies which the lovers are experiencing. A second tactic has been to dismiss the verbal brutality of the spells as merely symbolic, while others again point out that the agonies invoked upon the victims of the spells are merely a temporary expedient, to be suspended once the victim yields – as if this in itself were not bad enough.
These evasions will not work. For one thing, the bodily discomforts invoked upon the love-objects in the spells, sleeplessness, wasting away, suffering fevers etc. are essentially the same as the symptoms of love as diagnosed by ancient clinicians, who regarded love as a psychosomatic disease with tangible physical manifestations; given this confluence, it seems counterintuitive not to allow the sufferings of the intended victims of love spells the same level of physicality as the symptoms of medically diagnosed lovesickness. A second obstacle to attempts to sweep under the carpet the ferocity of amatory spells is the superabundance of evidence for the belief that malign magic had the capacity to inflict harm, and in an intensely physical way. Finally, while it has been argued that the PGM spell which prescribes piercing a female figurine with needles, as well as its physical correlate in the Louvre doll, do not signify the infliction, by a process of magical transference, of actual pain upon the woman symbolised by the doll, this contention falls to the ground given that there is plenty of ancient evidence for the piercing of figurines by nails or needles in situations where it is incontestable that the purpose of such procedure is to cause hurt and physical damage to the individual represented by the poppet.
It would be remiss not to add that erotic spells of the type under discussions were also used by women against men and occasionally against other women – though the proportion of female-authored spells is much smaller than male-authored ones, a discrepancy which can be explained by a number of factors, some of them cultural. But in either event the ethos of the spells remains the same – violent, domineering, careless of the amatory and sexual autonomy of the target and above all driven by an egocentric desire for sensual gratification.
In view of their often distasteful and solipsistic character, many classicists of the nineteenth and early twentieth century reacted with dismay to the appearance of the PGM, the ethos of which sat very ill with the idealised view of the Greeks which then prevailed. And those scholars of the period who were independent-minded enough to reject their colleagues’ often dismissive view of the PGM as a crude mishmash of magic and superstition, preferring instead to engage with these texts as a valuable window into a sub-elite, late antique mindset, were frequently subject to sneers, suspicion and obloquy. An attitude which has not entirely died out. Within the last fifteen years the present writer was castigated by an eminent Latinist for concerning himself with the PGM – inter permulta alia a vital tool for understanding the many passages of Roman poetry which deal with magic – on the grounds that these were, as he phrased it, ‘classical rubbish’, the detritus of the Classical world.
Lindsay C. Watson is Honorary Associate Professor of Classics and Ancient History at the University of Sydney, Australia. His book on Magic in Ancient Greece and Rome was published in May 2019 by Bloomsbury.