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.

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