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Defixiones: Curse Tablets

By: Grahame Johnston - Updated: 7 Sep 2012 | comments*Discuss
Defixiones Archaeology Roman Dormant

What are Defixiones?

The word defixiones, as used by archaeologists, is from the ancient Roman term tabulae defixiones which translated means curse tablets. Ancient defixiones were used to convey messages to influential gods and spirits, usually asking them for victory over an enemy by ‘binding them up’ in some kind of horrific trouble. The root idea is to bind or tie up.

Archaeologists have been discovering tabulae defixione artefacts for centuries but until adequate systems of interpretation and translation were available, many examples simply lay dormant, their dark curses remaining a hidden mystery.

What Are They Made Of?

The majority of the surviving curse artefacts are made of lead or lead alloys. Less costly was the popular papyrus and wax alternatives and some others favoured limestone, ceramics, and even semi-precious stones. Thin strips of gold or silver have been discovered on Roman spells limiting anger curses, but these metals were usually reserved for protective amulets or curative medicinal spells.

The apparent popularity of lead for making defixiones has a five-fold explanation.

  • Lead was one of the cheapest metals available.
  • It was easy to shape into writing sheets.
  • It was already a common writing material.
  • Its cold, weighty, sinister, dull appearance was well suited to its use, and
  • It was a material that would endure harsh climatic elements.

A Nail Hammered Through

To reinforce the ‘binding’ nature of the curse, after the sheet was rolled up like a scroll, an iron or bronze nail was regularly used to pierce the metal scroll. Although many tablets were affixed to walls or floors by the nail, this action did not have a purely practical reason behind it.

As most defixiones have been discovered buried underground or deep down in water sources such as water wells, the need to hammer a nail through becomes irrelevant. Instead, the nails themselves held special symbolic meaning for the writer of the tablet. The nail impressed greater pain and suffering to the recipient of the spell, in a manner similar to the voodoo doll practice. However, in love spells the nails reinforced the binding of the recipient to obey the words on the tablet even although they would never read them.

Where Were They Placed?

The final resting place for most curse tablets was almost as important as the text on them. The power of the curse could only be initiated if the defixione was buried in a grave, graveyard, chthonic stronghold, a deep body of water (usually where the target of the curse drew water from), a relevant place to the curse or victim, or any other place that held superstitious or evil function.

Defixiones were laid as close to the victim as possible. For example, a curse on a chariot racer would best be concealed in the stadium itself while one targeting a prominent bureaucrat would need to be buried near his government office.

However, many defixiones have been located in graves and a suitable explanation for depositing curse tablets among the dead would be to take advantage of the miasma that was believed to generate in these places. Close contact between the decaying dead and the cursing tablet would engender enhanced pollution of the intended victim by empathetic magic – the curse would be ‘unlocked’ by the mysterious mist of miasma.

Archaeological Usefulness

As appealing as it is to investigate the cultic mysteries behind the curse tablets it is not in the domain of the professional archaeologist to speculate on the who, what or whys of ancient defixiones. Once discovered they become no more than one additional artefact type that must be analysed in the light of its material composition and relevance to the overall archaeological expedition.

The vast majority of the defixiones studied appear to germinate from little more than selfishness and greed. Rivals in sport and business are cursed to fail; opposing sides in legal disputes are cursed to lack of memory and speech-impediment so as to lose. Archaeology consistently produces a stream of artefact evidence that clearly demonstrates that human intent has often changed little over thousands of years.

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