Tabellae Defixionum: Roman curse tablets.


On the blog we have several articles about witchcraft in ancient times: Egypt, Greece, Rome... But it was necessary to specify the Roman curse tablets, tabellae defixionum, which are one of the most notorious examples of the structure of spells, popular thought and sympathetic magic of the ancient world. Their main merit is that they are not instructions, but the authentic proofs of the performance of the rituals.

Defigo is a verb that means to nail, to bind, to fix. This is precisely what those who made these curses intended. As in all cultures, magic and witchcraft also existed in Ancient Rome, although the latter was condemned by Roman laws, since normally an evil desire for someone was linked to social and political issues, which could directly affect the urbs and the State. Examples of this are political movements, poisonings, and other conspiracies. Proof of this is, for example, the testimony of Tacitus, who tells us that, after the death of Germanicus, it was said that:

<< ... there were on the floor and on the walls buried remains of human bodies, incantations and curses, and the name of Germanicus engraved on sheets of lead, half-burned ashes covered with blackened blood, and other curses with which it is believed to consecrate souls to the infernal numbers >>. Tacitus, Annals II. 69.3

Then, those who did have objectives considered malevolent had no choice but to carry out their acts in a hidden and nocturnal manner. It should be borne in mind that witchcraft was, on the other hand, the only alternative for those who were in an inferior position (slaves, women, peasants or merchants...) and who had no legal possibilities against powerful people. This is confirmed by the way in which most of them are written, in Greek and in vulgar Latin and full of spelling and/or syntactic mistakes.

The tabellae defixionum were made, therefore, secretly and at night, they are lead tablets, barely a few centimeters long, on which curses were written against the enemy, and which were then bent and mistreated, and in late times, also pierced with nails, to inflict the same damage, before burying them or throwing them into a well. condemning him to the infernal gods. Some of the texts are written upside down, only legible through the use of a mirror, and there are also those with illustrations of the victim or the infernal gods to which he is condemned. An example of this could be the so-called "sethiana" tablets, because they represent snakes and gods with animal heads.

Although the ritual could be carried out by anyone, it seems that there was the (paid) figure of the magician-defigens, who was more learned in the matter and acted as an intermediary, performing the curse. He had to correctly fulfill all the parts of these curses for their effectiveness, however, the importance of them lies in their classification of aggressive magic.

Burying the curses in graves sought to provoke in the victim the same situation as the deceased:

<< Just as the dead man cannot speak or converse, so may Rodhine die beside Licinius Faust without being able to speak or converse. Just as a dead man is not received by gods or men, so may Rodhine not be received by Licinius Faustus, and may he have the same strength as the dead man buried here. Pluto, our Father, I entrust Rodhine to you so that he may feel eternal hatred for Licinius Faust (...)>> (CIL, IV, 140)

It was also done with the intention that the spirit of the deceased, who cannot rest in peace, would help the magician-defigens by turning his hatred against the cursed person. This was not simply a request, but an order, through the use of magic words:

<< I conjure you, whoever you are, spirit of the premature dead, by the powerful names of insudunasoi aprak. Oaina ageathea simoubuarre karophasiouneta seuroai echmasiroul ebbo... R iao iaeompsonpa. Make a magical tie to the horses of the green team (...) that they cannot run, or even walk, that they cannot even leave the stables, or follow the streets or the lines, or take the curves, that they fall with their own charioteers. Well, he orders you ablanatahnabalas and ancherephronephiphoubin (...) >> (López Jimeno, 2001, nº438)

There were several types of premature deaths, according to the customs of antiquity. Of course, the children, but also the young men and maidens who died before they were even married. Likewise, those who died violently and the deceased who did not receive adequate funerals. There are vestiges of lamellae that were not left near the tombs or mass graves, but that they were desecrated to place the lamella in specific places of the deceased.

In any case, these spirits were rabid, fierce and aggressive, suitable for throwing against enemies.

The gods of the underworld and the earth are preferred to help those who curse to persecute and condemn their enemies. We have seen in one of the examples that Pluto was mentioned, but other chthonic and underworld divinities were equally required.

<<I conjure you by your name, Gaia, Gaia, Hecate, subterranean Hecate and deep Lete (...) make Macrinus guilty (...) in the matter of the vineyards of Miletus (...) >> (López Jimeno, 2001, nº505)

<< I deposit this bond near you, gods of the earth Uesemigadôn and Core Persephone, Ereshquigal and Adonis the Barbarite, Hermes subterranean, Tout (...) and the potentate Anubis (...) >>

On the other hand, the materials used have a meaning: lead is a poor, malleable metal, and resembles the purpose of the curser, that is, to easily manipulate his victim. In addition, as already mentioned, these tablets had to be disposed of in a way that also symbolized the subsequent incapacity of the bewitched.

<< Just as this lead disappears and decays, so do the youth, limbs, life, ox, grain and possessions of those who have harmed me (...) >> (Martín, 2010, n°15)

These Roman execratory tablets have some similarities to Eastern spells (see, for example, the destruction of figurines in Mesopotamian exorcisms), so it is believed that these types of spells may have reached Rome via the East and Greece. The Greek magical papyri have the same structure, although the tabellae are only examples of curses. The first Roman tablet found is from the sixth century BC, in Selinunte, Sicily. Another similarity is that in these spells the pronouncement of the curse is always necessary, as is clear from the instructions of the already seen GMPs:

<< Take a lead plate, write the imprecation reciting it at the same time and place the plate to the figurines saying what follows (...) and at sunset, lay it in the tomb of a premature dead person or violently >> (Paris Papyrus, PGM IV, 329-334)

<<Take also a sheet of lead, and engrave on them the same formula (as on the wax figurines of a man and a woman), and tying the sheet to the figures with a loom thread, making 365 knots, say: Abraxas, fast!" (...) This is the formula that is engraved and recited>> (PGM IV, 296 ff.)

The spoken word in magic is always of a higher value, and in ancient times there was a faithful belief in the power of the performative word, that is, that words, exposed in concrete formulas, acquired a magical power (Kropp, 2010). The spoken manifestation turns what is said into a reality. In addition, the inclusion of "magic words" of difficult pronunciation and unknown origin, made the spell require maximum attention on the part of the one who performed it, as well as excusing the failure to comply with what was desired, if it had been mispronounced.

There are several types of tabellae. Faraone (1991) divided them by their formulas: the formula of binding (manipulation); the formula of prayer (the gods are asked for help); the formula of desire (evil is desired); and the formula of similia similibus, that is, that like acts on like. But this division is diffuse and loses much meaning if the Latin lexicon is unknown.

That is why other authors such as Marco Simón (2019) have preferred to organize the presentation by theme. In this way we find, for example, defixions with amorous curses. As seen in the PGM, these texts imply submission and revenge, some tablets are attached to wax or clay figures (kolossoi) to which pins have been nailed, tied or beaten. Archaeology has made it possible to see the practical application of spells on tablets where the names of those who wish to subdue or go mad are clearly indicated, including homosexual adaptations and amorous applications.

<<(...) I take away from Vetia, to whom Optata gave birth, the sense, the intelligence, the judgment and the will, so that she may love me, Felix, whom Fructa gave birth to, from this day on, from this hour on, so that she may forget her father and her mother and all her own and all her friends and all men for me, Felix, whom Fructa gave birth to.(...)>> (DT 266)

<< (...) that Allous' genitals, her vulva, her limbs, burn until she leaves the house of her husband Apollonius>> (Martin, 2010, 121)

<<May Juvinus remain sleepless for his love for me, Porphirius>> (Martin, 2010, 133)

Incredibly popular, many tablets have been found intended to curse the opposing racing team. This type of tabellae has generally been called agonistic or circus. In them, it is requested that the opposing team's horses be useless, or that the charioteers lose control. Here is a brief model:

<<I conjure you, demon, whoever you are, so that from this hour, from this day and this moment, you torture and kill the horses of the Greens and the Whites, and make the charioteers Claro, Felix, Primrose and Romanus collide, and kill them, do not leave even their spirit (...) >> (Audollent, 1904, nº 286)

But we also find them in more forceful circus matters:

<< Make it so that Gallicus cannot kill a bull and a bear in games, but be killed by them, in the name of the god (Seth?)...>> (DT 247)

There are some defixions focused on the results of the trials, an apparently more serious matter. The purpose of the judicial tablets was generally to prevent certain people from testifying, as this could cause problems for the defigens. To do this, it is enough to bury or submerge the tablets while what is written on them has been said.

<< Let the freedman Priam be mute in every possible way (..) that no one can say anything about the inheritance, that everyone be silent and silent (...) >> (CIL, II, 7)

<< That they cannot act against us, that the goddess alienates them and that they cannot speak ill of us, that she silences them. G Domitius and Lucius Lartius, Tacitus Mute goddess... (...) given these to the god Savus, who sinks, so that he takes care of our enemies, sinks them, silences them and does not testify>> (Marco Simón and Roda de Llanza, 2008, pp. 110)

There are curse tablets that offer victims to the gods, as if they were sacrifices. They follow the model of the Roman ritual, but with the enemy as an offering to the divinities.

<<Q. Letinius Lupus (...) this is the man whom I offer, dedicate and sacrifice to your divine power, in order that you, Aquae ferventes – unless you do not prefer the name of nymphae or any other – may kill him, slaughter him during the next year >> (CIL, IX, 1823)

We have other offerings to the gods, not human, of stolen objects. These types of texts are possibly the most curious and different, because more than curses, they are denunciations. They are believed to have originated from popular theft advertisements. They do not ask the divinity to help find the thief, but rather to punish him. The divinity was implied because the stolen object was often offered to him, so that the thief became, without knowing it, a sacrilegious, because he would have stolen from the god and not from the human. This type of tablets have multiple examples in the baths of Bath (England), which instead of being buried were thrown into the waters of the Sanctuary of Sulis.

<< Basilia donates her ring to the temple of Mars, so that anyone who knows anything (...) may keep silent for as long as necessary, so that, if someone has stolen the ring or is an accomplice, his eyes and all his limbs will bleed, and all his intestines will be completely eaten away>> (Tabellae Sulis 97)

However, we have public denunciations, which follow the same pattern and are difficult to classify between curse tablets and supplicationes. See the piece of lead with a handle (to be hung) found in Baelia Claudia, present-day Tarifa:

<<Isis Myronima, I entrust to you the robbery I have suffered. Give me proofs of your divinity and majesty, so that you will publicly deprive of life the one who did it, who stole my property: a new white bed covering, a new rug, two used quilts; I beg you, Lady, by your majesty, to punish this theft>>.

And even more charmingly, the imprecation on a piece of carved marble, preserved in the Roman Museum of Mérida:

<<Goddess Ataecina of Turóbriga, Proserpina, by your majesty I beg you, I implore and beg you to avenge the robbery of which I have been a victim (...) six tunics, two linen cloaks, a shirt, and whose name I do not know (...) >> (CIL II, 462)

What is clear in the light of the numerous finds is that tabellae and execratory magic were not something that was known only to a few. And it wasn't exclusive to pagans, either. In some tablets, as was the case with the magic papyri, several gods are mixed, including angels and Jesus Christ himself.

There are also vestiges of some curse tablets made by Christians. In fact, recent research has suggested that the formulas of condemnation of the Apocalypse of St. John are inspired by nothing more and nothing less than the formulaic language of the curses of the Roman tablets.

Pietro V. Carracedo Ahumada -


-J. G. Gager, Curse Tablets and Binding Spells from the Ancient World, New York-Oxford, 1992.

-Luck, J. Arcana mundo. Magia y ciencias ocultas en el mundo griego y romano. Madrod, 1995.

-Marco Simón, F. Los contextos de la magia en el Imperio Romano: Incertidumbre, ansiedad y miedo. Prensas de la Universidad de Zaragoza, 2019.

Related Articles:

> The Punishment for Magic in Rome

> Magic in the work of Petronius (II): magical practices and beliefs.

> Greek Magical Papyri (III). Subjugation practices.

> Heka. Egyptian Magic (I)

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