Malefic Traditional

Our continuing ties to ancient curses (Defixiones, Part 2)

In the Graeco-Roman world, if you had a problem, you might visit a shrine and use an iron stylus to write a note on a lead slip to a deity you thought might be sympathetic and effective for the type of help you needed. If you knew the name of someone responsible for your woes, you could put the finger on them and ask a variety of awful punishments be meted out. This might at first seem strange and foreign to you today, but looking into it a bit further, it actually connects to some quite familiar things.

First, I’d like to point out some linguistic connections we have retained: we still say spellbinding, breaking a spell. The root of the Latin word for a curse tablet, defixio, is fīgō, cognate with our word fix, in the sense of fasten, and likewise the nucleus of the Greek term for these objects, κατάδεσμος is δέω; “to tie”. The very word magic comes down to us from Old Iranian via Greek µάγος (magos), and Pliny’s transliteration of the adjectival noun µαγική (magike) seems to have been the original coinage that was eventually to push out Germanic words like dyr and galdr. Other European languages from Russia to Portugal also contain terms closely related to magia, demonstrating the pervasive influence of this Graeco-Roman tradition across the region.

For physical evidence, I’ll turn to the research of Marina Piranomonte.¹ Together with other academicians, she has worked painstakingly on the finds relating to the fountain of Anna Perenna and her Nymphs.

This site is important for several reasons: First, it is a fairly recent discovery, having only been found in 1999 during work on an underground carpark at Piazza Euclide in the area of Parioli in northern Rome. Our techniques of archeological excavation are vastly superior to those the Victorians applied at Aquae Sulis, for example, including careful documentation and preservation of the artifacts together with their context.

Next, rather than dealing with the finds of an entire town, the fountain is a relatively discrete location well outside of ancient Rome proper, across the large open area of the former Campus Martius. The shrine was closed up when Rome turned away from paganism, likely under Theodosius I, who made Nicene Christianity the state religion of Rome in 380, additionally forbidding the worship of the old gods, and the site was left unmolested until it was stumbled upon during the building of the carpark.

Finally, after its abandonment, the cistern was filled with clay deposits, which rendered the environment nearly anaerobic and thus preserved the contents to a remarkable degree.

I know I said I’d be moving to physical evidence, but some discussion of the deities enshrined at this location is necessary here. Anna Perenna is a little-known deity, who, though Ovid names her as Dido’s sister (the Queen of Carthage of Aeneid fame), seems to have originated as a mother goddess of the Etruscans. Under the Romans, she became identified with the yearly cycle—the assignment of this role seems simply due to a linguistic coincidence with the Latin phrase, per annum. Her rites took place on the Ides of March and were described as fairly Bacchic. Only three cultic shrines are known, this one, one in Sicily, and one in Cisalpine Gaul.

When I say nymphs, which Anna Perenna is also sometimes described as (as a mortal, she was drowned in a river, a typical nymph origin story), that’s likely to conjure images of beautiful young women. However, these nature spirits were really more closely aligned with Dionysus, the sileni, and Pan—deities of the untamed landscape. Nymphs, in particular, represented the seductive and dangerous qualities of such wild places. England’s Peg Powler, who lures victims to the water’s edge then drags them under, occupies this same type of mythic space, with similar traditions appearing around the world. This, coupled with the fact I mentioned in the previous part that these bodies of water were thought of as passages to the netherworld, makes this fountain an obvious place from which to send malign messages.

Now to the artifacts. Piranomonte describes these as:

[…] 549 coins, 74 oil-lamps, 22 randomly-scattered curse-tablets, 18 cylindrical containers made of lead-sheet, some containing poppets, […] a large copper-alloy pot or bucket (caccabus) with traces of use on a fire, seven pine cones, egg-shells, twigs and a number of small plaques made of different kinds of wood.

Since the shrine was both a religious site as well as a source of freshwater (it was located at a natural spring), all of these items have to be considered as votives specifically and deliberately brought into the place and deposited in the cistern.

Let’s begin with the pinecones. The pinecone remains a symbol of fertility, health, and good luck across Europe, with folk beliefs stating women wishing to become pregnant should place them beneath their pillows. It also features prominently in Near Eastern religions, in particular the abkallu figures tending trees in Mesopotamian reliefs and the snake-staff of Osiris. A pinecone-tipped staff called a thyrsus was also the emblem of Dionysus and his followers; satyrs and maenads, all of which I’ve already explained relate closely to nymphs. The pine’s seemingly magical ability to remain green through the winter is the source of these beliefs, and also why the tree and its cones remain a symbol of our Christmas. I’d suppose the other pieces of wood also relate to this type of idea.

And speaking of Christian symbols borrowed from pagan beliefs: eggs. Yep, eggs are another emblem of fertility used nearly worldwide. And of course, these continue to be a part of our tradition in the form of “Easter” eggs.

The cooking pot is complete with an arc-shaped hanger from which to suspend it over a flame. It’s a pretty classic witch’s cauldron, though a small one, so add Halloween to the modern holidays we’ve found correspondences for.

Now for some trickier material: the containers. These seem to have been used in some form of malign magic, and their exteriors were inscribed in similar fashion to defixiones and made of the same material. They were generally a set of three containers of graduating size, each nested within the next in the fashion of matryoshki, and were hermetically sealed.

The number three, in addition to connecting to images of Graeco-Roman myth, particularly those of the underworld, especially with the three-headed figures of Cerberus and Trivia (Ἑκάτη, Hekate), but also to folk belief right down to today. You are quite likely to have said some version of “the third time’s a charm” without considering the tradition of magic behind the utterance. For those who would point to Christianity’s Holy Trinity as the origin for the phrase, I say perhaps, but the Holy Spirit was more or less an invention of the First Council of Constantinople in 381, and there was a variety of pagan trinities to draw the idea from well predating it.

Next, some of these containers held poppets made of wax and other organic materials, such as flour, sugar, herbs, and milk. All the figures were formed around slivers of animal bone, some of which had fallen out, revealing they also bore inscriptions. Some of these poppets were partially wrapped in lead sheet and/ or pierced with nails.

If this sounds like the stereotypical “voodoo doll”, it is. However, such effigies actually have no place in the vodun of West Africa, nor in their forms practiced on this side of the Atlantic. Rather, it is a tradition of Western witchcraft with its origins in Graeco-Roman ritual and ultimately from the ancient Near East, which was ascribed to Afro-Caribbean religions in order to cast them in a negative light.

And so we come to the lamps. The use of lamps as offerings shows continuity from Graeco-Roman practices as well. Just one notable example came in the Gymnasium area of Corinth (Κόρινθος) where a deposit of some 4000 lamps was found, and so dubbed Fountain of the Lamps. The lamp flame, like the pool of water, is another stand-in for the idea of mediation between worlds—the wishes of the devotee are communicated as they ascend from the earthly plane to the celestial one. The Christian votive candle is symbolically identical, and candles and incense are used in the context of prayer worldwide. Furthermore, the lamp as a magical object obviously raises echoes from The Book of One Thousand and One Nights tale, Aladdin.

Six of these lamps contained rolled up defixiones placed into them as a wick would be. If throwing lamps into a body of water seems a bit self-defeating, this puts it right: Just as a flame sends communication upwards, a heavy piece of metal sends it downwards to the chthonian deities—this is a nega-lamp.

Finally, we have the coins. I was honestly surprised to learn the sacred spring at Aquae Sulis contained 12,000 coins, as the idea of throwing coins into a fountain for luck seems so comparatively modern. Piranomonte reports of the ones at the Fons Annae Perrenae:

[C]oins were found, […] attesting to the practice of throwing money into water as a sign of devotion to the resident nymph(s) or deity.

I wondered if the practice simply came down to “cutting out the middleman”—offering the coin itself as a votive rather than paying a magical practitioner to perform a binding via a defixio. The introduction to Piranomonte’s article reports:

[T]he shift at the nymphaeum away from inscribed text as the effective cursing mode in favour of alternatives seems suggestive in the wider context of the long retreat both from public epigraphic culture (except at the level of the administration) and from personal literacy.

Which is to say that the option for individuals to execute their own curse texts was slowly dying out, and even the ability to employ a professional to do so seems also to have dwindled toward the end of the site’s use. Still, there seemed to be other options, as there were lead sheets that only contained images or charakteres—magical writing resembling letterforms.

However, two of the lamps each contained a coin, providing a smoking gun for my theory. Lamps are offered with defixio wicks, lamps are offered with coins, coins are substitute defixiones: QED. So consider the old gods of the netherworld you are contacting the next time you pitch a penny into a wishing well.

Read Subsequent Articles in this Series

Part 3: Sympathy for Sauron

Part 4: Bargaining with the Gods

Part 5: Secundina’s Beef

Part 6: More Than Money Can Buy

Part 7: The Punic Curse Trail

Part 8: Hellenism Schmellenism

Read Previous Articles in this Series

Part 1: The Curses of Aquae Sulis


  1. In “Religion and Magic at Rome: The Fountain of Anna Perenna” from Magical Practice in the Latin West, Gordon and Simón, eds., 2005. I reference the work throughout.

The Curses of Aquae Sulis

A reexamination of the defixio (Defixiones Part 1)

While visiting Bath, we went to the Roman ruins there. To be frank, my expectations were not high, because at street level, the town center is all gray Palladian orderliness built around an insect-in-amber Gothic abbey. Neither does the museum’s entrance offer much promise, feeling like the sleek modern update of a Victorian hotel lobby. But then you step through into a secret garden.

You arrive rather abruptly on an open-air balcony overlooking the Great Bath. Generally, the largest pool in a Roman bath is the natatio (“swimming pool”), which is typically neither as large as that at Bath nor heated, where this one is fed with water from the hotspring, so it is simply designated the Great Bath. Then, as I described of another in situ archaeological museum, you proceed downward through the strata of history, viewing the excavations of the site, together with displays of the artifacts found there.

There were some elements I had not seen before that showed the intermingling of Roman culture and that of the native Celtic Britons. That that I was familiar with some of the other materials in no way dimmed my enthusiasm, in fact they told the story of just how much of their way of life the Romans brought with them even to this distant outpost of their empire, as well as how modern in many ways these people were.

As to this last point in particular, there was a lead ingot which had all the characteristics we associate with such an object; a trapezoidal bricklike shape, a standard weight, a raised edge at the top of the casting to show it was whole (similar to what is done for coins—if material was scraped off this raised area is quite visibly uneven allowing such thefts to be detected), and an inscription telling us under whose authority it was cast. Each ingot weighs 155 pounds and reads

IMPeratoris HADRIANI AUGusti
[property of] Emperor Hadrian Augustus

And on the topic of this metal, and unexpectedly, I learned that the collection of defixiones at Bath is actually one of the largest yet found, and definitely one of the largest and most important in the archaeology of Roman Britain.

Defixiones, sometimes called curse tablets, are sheets of lead varying greatly in size, with the smallest around 1×1¾ inches and the largest 4¾×10¼ inches (Roughly 2.5×4.4/ 12.1×26.1 cm). These sheets were typically inscribed and sometimes drawn on, then folded or crumpled, sometimes with a lock of hair or other component enclosed within, and sometimes pierced with nails.

The most common place to find them in this state is buried in graves or tombs, which is one of the reasons I would not have expected to see them in the thermae and associated temple at Aquae Sulis (the name for the Roman walled town where modern Bath now stands), which did not contain a necropolis or any other such structure. But, as I learned, wells and pools were another place in which defixiones could be deposited—basically as places proximal to the chthonic powers which such bodies of water were thought to be the portals to.

As with many things in the field of knowledge relating to Mediterranean antiquity, I ran across the defixio while doing research for Gods & Heroes. I read a great many books, both from the actual tradition as well as modern archaeological texts, both of which contain a great deal of information on this tradition. The second category in particular continues to grow: some 1600 separate items identifiable as defixiones have been discovered so far, and there is a great deal of continuing scholarship on the topic. Furthermore, the materials I read focused mainly on the corpus of defixiones from the Italian Peninsula during the Republic, while these artifacts appeared across the Greco-Roman World, from Africa to the Rhineland, and for an entire millennium, from the fifth century BC to the fifth century AD.

In short, it was a great opportunity to return to the topic.

Looking backwards a bit, the continuity from Greek κατάδεσμοι (katadesmoi, singular katadesmos) is clear. Matthew Dickie examines the attitudes of Tacitus toward various forms of magic shown in his Annals, finding:¹

Tacitus conspicuously does not like foreign cults. Yet his disdain for foreign religious practice significantly does not extend to the cults of the Greeks; they are treated with respect and are not dismissed as externae superstitiones as are Egyptian rites and the religious practices of the Celts, Germans, Jews and Christians.

In fact, many of the earliest Roman defixiones continued to be written in Greek, seemingly as part of the ritual until eventually Latin came to dominate.

Winding the clock back still further, there is a clear mutual influence between Egyptian and Greek magic rituals. Kimberly Stratton notes,

The late Egyptian magical papyri show also [sic] signs of contact with Greek magic, which in turn was influenced by Egyptian magic.

So much so that papyri, written as the name implies, on the expensive material imported from Egypt, became all but synonymous with magic spells in the Greek culture. The Egyptians also had a tradition that bears great similarity to that of the curse tablet; the execration text. These texts also seem to have worked by analogy, being written on items of clay or stone, sometimes even figures of bound captives, which were destroyed and buried.²

Moreover, we find that as soon as there is a written language, it is used for magical formulae, some apotropaic, but just as often meant to harm others. In Sumerian, one particularly cold curse runs:

Namtil niggiggani ḫena
May life be his illness!

In any case, the Greeks and then the Romans widely adopted these practices. Pliny discusses the magic arts in his Natural History, but devotes a full chapter to “The Origin of the Magic Art”, in which he decries its ubiquity, as well as the frauds its supposed practitioners perform, concluding:³

That it first originated in medicine, no one entertains a doubt; or that, under the plausible guise of promoting health, it insinuated itself among mankind, as a higher and more holy branch of the medical art. Then, in the next place, to promises the most seductive and the most flattering, it has added all the resources of religion, a subject upon which, at the present day, man is still entirely in the dark. Last of all, to complete its universal sway, it has incorporated with itself the astrological art; there being no man who is not desirous to know his future destiny, or who is not ready to believe that this knowledge may with the greatest certainty be obtained, by observing the face of the heavens. The senses of men being thus enthralled by a three-fold bond, the art of magic has attained an influence so mighty, that at the present day even, it holds sway throughout a great part of the world, and rules the kings of kings in the East.

That’s the background and tradition against which the defixio is set—the tradition is so pervasive that the power to “bind and loose” given to Saint Peter according to Matthew 16.19 can only be understood in this context.⁴


I had been looking for but failing to find a good citation showing that Greek magical practices incorporated those of the Near East to a large extent, which I knew to be the case. I finally found one in Gordon and Simón’s Introduction to Magical Practice in the Latin West:

In the late Republic, individuals such as the Pythagorean Nigidius Figulus (pr. 58 BCE), who almost certainly studied abroad, had access to a range of Greek occultic sources, themselves mediating material from Babylonia and Egypt.

It seems to be a well enough known fact that it is simply taken for granted.

Read Subsequent Articles in this Series

Part 2: Malefic Traditional

Part 3: Sympathy for Sauron

Part 4: Bargaining with the Gods

Part 5: Secundina’s Beef

Part 6: More Than Money Can Buy

Part 7: The Punic Curse Trail

Part 8: Hellenism Schmellenism


  1. The Dickie work is “Magic in the Roman Historians”, in Magical Practice in the Latin West, Gordon and Simón, 2005. The Tacitus work referred to is Ab Excessu divi Augusti Historiarum Libri (“Books of History from the Death of the Divine Augustus”), but is commonly referred to as Annales because of its year-by-year structure.
  2. “Early Greco-Roman Antiquity”, The Cambridge History of Magic and Witchcraft in the West, Collins and David, 2015.
  3. Quoted from the John Bostock translation, 1855.
  4. “Ancient Binding Spells, Amulets and Matt 16.18–19: Revisiting August Dell’s Proposal a Century Later”, Seon Yong Kim, New Testament Studies, 2016.