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 x 1¾ inches and the largest 4¾ x 10¼ inches (Roughly 2.5 x 4.4/ 12.1 x 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


Addendum

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


Notes

  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.

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