The analogies employed for action at a distance (Defixiones Part 3)
here’s a pop-culture connection between the ancient defixiones (curse tablets) of Roman Britain and our own times. It’s also an interesting because it involves two artifacts from separate locations, one an inscribed lead sheet, and the other a ring of gold.
The ring was found in Silchester, in Hampshire county in the South of England which sits atop the Roman town of Calleva Atrebatum. The item is a massive signet with a faceted band and a raised central square bearing the reversed letters VE and NUS to either side of a bust of the goddess named. The letters are backwards so that when pressed into hot wax, the impression would come out right. Around the outside of the ring is inscribed:
VIVAS IIN DE[o]
Live in God
Even this brief inscription contains two scribal errors, IIN has an extra i and DE should be deo. Also, while it may seem like my capslock is stuck, these inscriptions are typically in majuscule, and I’ve formatted them here to reflect that. This is a common Roman Christian motto, together with the personal name, Senicianus, so it seems an odd pairing with a signet of a pagan deity but remained just a curiosity for some 150 years.
Then, 80 miles away at the site of a temple to the Celtic god Nodens at Lydney, a lead sheet was found. Nodens makes an appearance in H. P. Lovecraft’s The Dream-Quest of Unknown Kadath. The placename Lydney seems to derive from a variant of the same god’s name, Ludd. Naturally, the tablet also bears an inscription:
DEVO NODENTI SILVIANUS ANILUM PERDEDIT DEMEDIAM PARTEM
ONAVIT NODENTI INTER QUIBUS NOMEN SENICIANI NOLLIS PETMITTAS SANITATEM DONEC PERFERA[t] USQUE TEMPLUM [No-]DENTIS
To the god Nodens: Silvianus has lost his ring and given half (its value) to Nodens. Among those who are called Senicianus do not allow health until he brings it to the temple of Nodens. (This curse) comes into force again.
This inscription contains a number of spelling variants: DEVO for Deo, ANILUM is written instead of anulum, PERDEDIT is used rather than perdidit, DEMEDIAM is used for dimidiam, and PETMITTAS should be permittas—which I’d classify as an actual error. The first part of Nodens was simply on a damaged section of the piece.
These two objects seem to tell a story: Seniacus stole this ring from Silvianus and Silvianus donated money to the temple of Nodens, as well as cursing Seniacus with this defixio in order to try to get it back.
J.R.R. Tolkien, who was an Oxford professor and so living in this same region, was definitely aware of these items:¹
[A]rchaeologist Sir Mortimer Wheeler […] called in Tolkien in 1929 to advise on the odd name of the god—and also spotted the connection between the name on the curse and the […] peculiar ring.
It is now widely acknowledged that Tolkien conflated and fictionalized them into the One Ring. That’s right, this pair of artifacts inspired The Lord of the Rings. To memorialize the connection, the Tolkien Society set up the “Ring Room” at The Vyne, former home of the family that once owned the Ring of Silvianus, displaying it together with a first edition of The Hobbit and a copy of the curse.
As a reminder, the Tolkien ring’s inscription runs:
Ash nazg durbatulûk, ash nazg gimbatul,
Ash nazg thrakatulûk agh burzum-ishi krimpatul.
One ring to rule them all, one ring to find them,
One ring to bring them all and in the darkness bind them.
The Black Speech of Mordor is one of the more fragmentary and undeveloped ones in Tolkien’s world. He may have modeled it on Hurrian, which would’ve recently been deciphered when The Lord of the Rings was being penned but if so, he’s way off. I think he was mainly aiming at something that seemed to him very foreign and crude, with sounds he thought unpleasant. At any rate Saruman’s uber-Orcs, the Uruk-hai, share the first part of their name with an ancient Sumerian city (𒌷𒀕). In any case, Tolkien lifts significant details from Silvianus’ story just within the One Ring’s rhyme; he casts a binding spell against all named Seniacus in the darkness of a temple shrine to bring his ring back.
The central theme of the sympathetic magic Silvianus shows his firm faith in—the ability of one object to act on another from a distance—seems to have been what caught the author’s eye. The name Sauron seems quite close to Silvianus for a linguist well versed in applying sound changes and Tolkien’s watercolor image of his character seems to reflect the spiky crown Venus wears on the ring. For the name’s transformation, begin with Siluianus to give the proper value to Latin v, minus the masculine ending -us (Siluan), changing the l to r, swapping the u and r, as well as blending it with an earlier draft of the dark lord, Sûr (Siurian), and lowering the vowels from for a more sinister sound, (Sauron).
That Silvianus becomes an evil lord in the novels is likely down to the supposedly demonic quality of the curse, as well as the fact that Seniacus appears to have been a Christian (though it’s worth noting both that this might not have been the case, and even if so, the magic performed was not affected by the change), with whom the devout Roman Catholic Tolkien would tend to sympathize. I, however, find it hard not to side with the pagan in this case, as someone who has clearly been wronged and is seeking justice in a manner fully in accordance with the norms of his society—it should be clear by now that employing curses was far from a deviant activity in the Graeco-Roman world.
Also, it turns out that Seniacus was a pretty common name in Celtic-speaking areas like the banks of the Severn Estuary where Lydney sits, making it fairly unlikely that these two objects are actually related. I would have been hesitant to connect the items, not because Venus is Roman and Nodens Celtic, as gods are typically syncretized, and so would not present a problem, but because pagans tended to be monolatrous—that is, while they recognized many gods, they generally only worshipped one, so wearing a ring with an image of Venus, and then asking Nodens for justice would not make sense in this context. The ubiquity of the name cursed also implies that it could have messed with a lot of innocent people.
I mentioned earlier that the way defixiones are meant to work is via sympathetic magic. Third century Neoplatonist Plotinus discusses this concept in The Enneads (Ἐννεάδες):²
But how do magic spells work? By sympathy and by the fact that there is a natural concord of things that are alike and opposition of things that are different […]. [B]y the arts of physicians and magicians one thing is compelled to give something of its power to another.
Indeed, the idea is so central to magic in the ancient Graeco-Roman world that the name of the goddess of witchcraft, Ἑκάτη (Hekate), means “worker from afar”, and is thus semantically linked to the phrase “action at a distance” the very definition of sympathetic magic.
The mere act of using lead for curses, apart from the sending downward of its message that I mentioned previously, is a metaphor for the intended action. One very common formulation, used from early Greek katadesmoi (κατάδεσμοι) their word for defixiones, runs:
Just as this lead is useless, so too may the words and deeds of [person or persons] be useless.
This has been taxonomized as a similia similibus (like for like) formula, described by prominent scholar in the field, Christopher Faraone, as:³
[A] persuasive analogy […], in which the binding is accomplished by a wish that the victim become similar to something to which he or she is manifestly dissimilar.
Part of the ‘binding’ analogy also comes from the act of folding, rolling, or crumpling the lead sheet. The sympathetic magic metaphors around lead were extended depending on the way the curse was performed. If a defixio was cast into a body of water, as at Aquae Sulis or the Shrine of Anna Perenna, you might see ones like this:
Just as this lead is not visible but sinks down, so may the youth, limbs, life of [person or persons] sink down.
At the Temple of Isis at Mainz, Germany, however, the defixiones were thrown into sacrificial firepits within the sanctuary. Although initially an Egyptian goddess, the worship of Isis was widely adopted across the Roman world. Thus, one tablet found there reads:
SIC ILLORUM MEMBRA LIQUESCAN[t] QUAT[?]MODUM HOC PLUMBUM LIQUESCET, UT EORU[m] EXSITUM SIT
May their limbs melt just as this lead melts, in order that they may die.
This inscription is mostly standard Latin, except for the omissions of a -t and an -m, the second of which is a common feature of Vulgar Latin, and a semi-indecipherable word, that can only be some version of quemadmodum (meaning “just as”). And indeed, there are many examples in Mainz both of partially melted tablets as well as those that have been reduced to shapeless lumps of lead.
I’ve also mentioned that nails were used to pierce some of the poppets within containers found in the Shrine of Anna Perenna. Gordon & Simón note that this was often done to the defixiones as well:⁴
The binding ritual could also be performed on the lead plaque itself, as an analogue of the desire to harm the victim. Thus a large iron nail was driven straight through the lead […].
Another sympathetic magic tactic involves the way in which the text is written — sometimes words or names are reversed, and sometimes entire inscriptions, according to Jürgen Blänsdorf:⁵
[The] inversion of the normal direction of writing serves explicitly to model the intended fate of the target: such reversal was believed to have an unmediated effect on the target. The writing itself exerts magical power.
As such, the texts contain persuasive analogies such this one from Cologne:
VAERACA, SIC RES TUA[s]: PERVERSE AGAS, COMODO HOC PERVERSE SCRIPTU[m] EST
Vaeraca, in this way may you undertake your affairs backwards, just as this text is written backwards.
Again a few finals are missing from this inscription, and the spelling variant COMODO is used for quomodo. This one from Mainz seems to be of the same character:
PRIMA AEMILIA NARCISSI AGAT, QUIDQUID CONABITUR, QUIDQUID AGET, OMNIA ILLI INVERSUM SIT
Narcissus’ Prima Aemilia: (whatever) she may do, whatever she essays, whatever she may do, let all be reversed for her.
The use of genitive ending with the personal name Narcissus (i.e., Narcissi) indicates a relationship, but it’s unclear if Prima Aemilia is his daughter, wife, or lover. Also noteworthy is that the text begins along the edge of the sheet, turning at each corner, and so creating a box as yet another metaphor for restricting and binding the victim.
Again, you may feel that this was a long time ago in a different culture that’s impossibly alien and difficult to empathize with, but let me connect these ancient practices to our own supposedly modern behavior.
As this picture evidences we still will go out of our way to superstitiously avoid some situations—the one at work here is walking under a ladder is bad luck. You may protest that the ban on walking under ladders is a commonsense safety issue, but it’s not—also this isn’t even a ladder, but it doesn’t matter, as we’ll see. The superstition goes back way farther than that, to when the image of a ladder set in this way suggested a gallows, and walking beneath it meant an ignominious execution would be your fate. Before that, the right triangle made between the floor, the wall, and the ladder was imagined as representing the Holy Trinity, so walking through the middle was an act of blasphemy. Back further still, this same sacred triangle was thought of by ancient Egyptians as a place where both good and evil spirits rested and should not be disturbed, and so they avoided walking there.
What all of these superstitions have in common is the metaphor: the shape created by a ladder leaning against a wall was a symbolic image of something else, and the act of walking through that space became anathema because of what the analogy of doing so to the thing symbolized would mean. Rather than providing more examples, I’ll let you—I think you’ll find that many superstitions operate this same way.
Read Subsequent Articles in this Series
Read Previous Articles in this Series
- “The Hobbit ring that may have inspired Tolkien put on show”, Maev Kennedy, The Guardian, 2013.
- The quote is from VI.4.2.
- In Magika Hiera: Ancient Greek Magic and Religion, 1997.
- Magical Practice in the Latin West, “Introduction”, 2005.
- “The Curse-tablets from the Sanctuary of Isis and Mater Magna in Mainz”, ibid.