Secundina’s Beef

The rhetoric of pleas for justice (Defixiones, Part 5)

If you know something about defixiones—Roman curse tablets—you probably think of them as essentially preemptive; asking a god to injure a victim without presenting any particular reason for doing so. Those found at Aquae Sulis (modern Bath), however, are of an entirely different character as they are backward looking, based on some offence that has already been given, and appealing to a god with a so-called plea for justice. They generally cite thefts, typically by persons unknown as the reason for the punishment requested. Gordon and Simón summarize the type thus:¹

Such curses are […] similar to the world of real litigation they skirt or duck, with rhetorical skill far outweighing the establishment of facts in deciding the outcome or judgement.

These are not unique to Roman Britain, other examples have been found including in Greece, as well as more recently in the sanctuary of Isis and Mater Magna in Mainz. One in particular from Veldidena, now Wilten, a neighborhood in Innsbruck, is worth taking a closer look at as an exemplar. John Gager says it’s written in “unsophisticated Latin”² but I hope to show that the form and content are actually brilliant:

Secundina Mercurio et
Moltino mandat, ut siquis XIIII
sive draucus duos sustulit, ut
eum sive fortunas eius infi-
dus Cacus sic auferat quo-
modi ill[a]e ablatum est id quod
vobis delegat, ut persecuatis
vobisque deligat, ut
persicuatis et eum
aversum a fortunis[s]u-
is avertatis et a suis prox-
simis et ab eis quos caris-
simos abeat, oc vobis
mandat, vos [e]um cor[ipi]a-

Secundina commands of Mercurius and Moltinus that whoever has stolen two cows worth 14 denarii, that the untrustworthy Cacus carry off him and his possessions, just as hers were taken, the very things that she gives to you to track down. And she also assigns you to persecute him and separate him from his fortune and from his family and from those dearest to him. She commands this; you must catch him.

I should note that this defixio is often translated as being about a pair stolen necklaces rather than cows. The word draucus is the cause of this uncertainty: a Greek-borrowed δραύκιον gives the item of jewelry, but others have pointed to a Gaulish word referring to cattle instead. Given that both options are equally difficult to verify and the location of this find in an area where the Celtic language would have been spoken alongside Latin, and very likely not Greek, as well as the fact that everything else in this defixio refers to cattle, as do several others from the site, as we shall see, I have gone with cows.

Proceeding with the text, we see Mercury being called upon. He is, among many other things, the god of thieves, having himself rustled the herd of Apollo early in his career. Just as he is the god of disease and also healing, it makes sense to call on him to catch a thief, particularly of cattle.

As for Moltinus, he is a little-attested Gaulish god who seems to have been syncretized with Mercury, so we might suppose Secundina is just covering her bases, except that unlike Mercury, this guy is a chthonian deity although, certainly there is also Mercury’s role as psychopomp on that side), just the sort to communicate with via defixiones, rather than with ex vota we’ve seen done for Mercury before. Finally, his name is cognate with English mutton, and he seems to be a god of cattle. The common motif of Mercury riding a ram is a likely reason for the syncretization of the two deities.

Calling upon the mythical monster, Cacus, is also quite clever: first, his name simply means “bad”, but this son of Vulcan was known as a thief, particularly of Hercules’ cattle, dragging them by the tails into his cave, and so leaving behind a misleading trail. This is the sort of deviousness Secundina hopes Mercury and Moltinus can unravel in order to bring the thief to justice.

There is yet another aspect to the language of the prayer that is revealed here, and which I’ve not yet discussed. It’s embodied in the phrase, “infidus Cacus”. Let’s seemingly abruptly veer into the world of Greek drama; Eva Stehle notes:³

Speaking is dangerously performative in the world of Aeschylus. The prime example is Oresteia: Kassandra’s prophecies and visions of the curse in Agamemnon, the raising of the dead in Choephoroi, the Furies’ “Binding Song” in Eumenides.

This “dangerously performative” nature of speech is neither limited to this playwright nor even the stage, rather the play reflects the culture’s norms and beliefs; in this case the operative one being words have power. The tradition of wearing masks and assuming personae assures that the catastrophes the actors conjure do not befall them personally—in effect they hide their real selves from the gods.

Dysphemia (δυσφημία: “ill-omened speech”), of which the invocation of Cacus is an example, is easiest defined by what it is not—naturally, euphemia (ευφημία):⁴

[T]hose charged with prayer or song must speak words welcome to the gods and avoid any repellent to them. […] Euphemia along with its nonverbal corollaries of pleasing motion, music, and a beautiful visual scene constituted a human offering of charis to the gods. Charis, pleasure given or received, governs relations between humans and gods: it attracts the gods to prayer and celebration, honoring and delighting them, while suggesting that benefactions should be given in return.

The idea of charis (χάρις) of course gets back to the exchange of value I’ve discussed previously, putting it into this larger context. The amulet I cited in Part 4 skillfully uses euphemia, in its use of terms like “holy” (ἁγῖοις, lit. devoted to the gods), “everlasting” (ἀεί), “full fitness” (ὁλοκλήρουςα, completeness, perfection), and “health” (ὑγιαῖνούςα).

In curses, while the value exchange is still there, as we’ve seen, dysphemia is used to engender godly anger toward the intended victim in those called upon instead, consisting of elements like,⁵

[R]eferences to polluting realities such as death, cries of pain or grief, insulting language, and expectation of disaster.

In addition to being directive as to what Secundia wishes to befall whoever has wronged her, the punishments mentioned also act as dysphemia, falling into the final category of the above list.

According to Stehle, even the meter of the language used can be eu– or dysphemic: strophic language presents a steady, repetitive rhythm, fitting with the “pleasing motion” aspect of euphemia, while anastrophic language, with uneven and abrupt rhythms obviously is the opposite. My Latin is honestly not good enough for me to get a sense of whether anastrophe is also woven into this defixio, but perhaps one day I’ll attempt such a breakdown.

The loss of two cows or indeed anything worth 14 denarii would be a pretty tough one for almost anyone to simply accept and move past; one denarius is typically thought of as a skilled laborer’s daily wage. As such, Secundina’s seeking of divine intervention seems entirely the correct course. And she, or a magical practitioner working on her behalf, has performed the task admirably. The thieves are unknown, and there is no evidence apart from the missing cattle, so we turn to rhetoric in favor of their punishment instead. Elements pertinent to thievery, cattle, and punishment are invoked, with a dash of dysphemia thrown in to rouse the gods’ anger against the guilty party.

Personally, I hope if she didn’t get her cattle back, at least the thief was brought to justice.

Read Subsequent Articles in This Series

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

Part 2: Malefic Traditional

Part 3: Sympathy for Sauron

Part 4: Bargaining with the Gods


  1. “Introduction”, Magical Practice in the Latin West, Gordon and Simón, 2005.
  2. Curse Tablets and Binding Spells from the Ancient World, Gager, 1992.
  3. “Prayer and Curse in Aeschylus’ Seven Against Thebes”, Classical Philology, Eva Stehle, 2005.
  4. Ibid.
  5. Ibid, emphasis mine.

Serious and Playful Cryptolects

The ubiquitous ludling (Argots, Part 2A)

It is well known there are language games, also called secret languages or word games, and while I had some idea that other cultures had them, it turns out they appear basically everywhere and there is also a more scientific name for them: ludlings. It’s a portmanteau of the Latin words ludus “game” and lingua “language”.

The best known of these to an English-speaking audience is Pig Latin. This ludling most often appears today as a comedically penetrable code: people either say things in it with a surety they will be understood, or think they are being covert when they’re not. It was featured in the very well-known musical Gold Diggers of 1933, wherein Ginger Rogers sang an entire verse of “We’re in the Money” in Pig Latin. In one Three Stooges short, Larry speaks it to a woman in an effort to impress her, but she already knows it, and in another, Moe and Larry attempt to teach it to Curly.¹

Today, it has come to be generally used ironically in phrases like “ixnay on the [x]” (nix), or simply amscray (scram). Nix itself is a borrowing of Yiddish nichts, “nothing” with its meaning extended in an argotic way to become a verb meaning “cancel” or “reject”. 86, which carries the same meaning, is suggested by the OED as rhyming slang for nix, extending this ludus.

Still, when a French reader ran across the following passage in a Kotaku article,² they were flummoxed:

Next time, exne on the wiisucksne when you’re talking with the video games press.

One element of the “unintelligibility” of this phrase comes from the reference to the Nintendo Wii video game console and another from the fact it’s improperly formed; the article’s comments section included corrections to “ixnay on the iiway uckssay”. Add to that even a slight deficit in English comprehension and click! — the code works again, even though its use in a magazine article reflects its accepted comprehensibility among English speakers. If you watch the Pig Latin performance of “We’re In the Money”, which is available on YouTube, it’s quite strange and even unsettling.

The other shoe I’d have wanted to drop in a dramatic reveal, but have unfortunately already announced in this article’s subtitle, is that ludlings are also argots. Serbian Šatrovački (шатровачки), though it is often compared to Pig Latin, is generally classified as an argot rather than a ludling. The essential difference is a von Braunian one of attitude—if it’s used by marginal groups, it becomes sinister. Take Cockney rhyming slang; what’s more of a language game than that? But it seems clear the language was devised in order to communicate without either the gendarmes or “customers” (i.e., those being fleeced) understanding what was being said.

Returning to Pig Latin, why is it called “Latin” when it clearly has nothing to do with that language? It is common to name ludlings by analogy to foreign languages: Double Dutch (English), Javanaise (French), Macaronic Latin (Romance languages), Mattenenglisch and Matteänglisch (German; two different ones, despite the similarity in names), Yuantang dialect (苑塘话, Hakka 客家話).

And what about the “pig” part? Again, many ludlings have names recalling animals and other nonhumans. Birds are often invoked, but some stranger ones include Korean Gwisin Mal or Dekker Mal (귀신말: “ghost language”, 도깨비말: “ogre language”), and Somali Af Jinni (“djinni language”). Some even run to inanimate objects like Russian Kirpichny yazyk (Кирпичный язык: “brick language”), Latvian Pupiņvaloda (“bean language”), German Löffelsprache (“spoon language”), and Swedish Fikonspraket (“fig language”). Many of those remaining refer to the type of gibberish they deal in, but only Romanian Greaca Vacească (“cow Greek”) matches the neologizing in Pig Latin precisely.

Latin, perhaps because of its role as a language of learning, seems to have been singled out for mockery. Macaronic Latin, which I mentioned above, is based on a somewhat nonsensical application of Latin endings to vernacular words with actual Latin words mixed in. The name of the language also refers to a rustic dumpling — the term was to eventually evolve into macaroni.

The German version is Küchenlatein, while French has Latin de cuisine—both “kitchen Latin”—which, while it seems a classist put down of the help, actually stems from the fact that monks dining together and often lacking a shared vernacular would inventively update the liturgical vocabulary they did share in order to communicate concepts more down-to-earth or modern.

In any case, a few precious words of this gibberish found their way into English dictionaries:

  • babblative: prattling
  • balductum: balderdash
  • circumbendibus: roundabout process

These puckishly prod the perceived pomposity of Latin, each via a slightly different stratagem. There are a few more terms I’ve run across in disused lexica of vernacular English that clearly share this origin:

  • inebrious: drunken
  • excrementitious and stercorarious: covered in feces
  • sinistruous and theftuous: hidden, secret

If this reminds you of the ersatz taxonomic binomial names appearing in Wile E. Coyote and Road Runner cartoons, it’s not by accident—it’s exactly this kind of nonsense, though at a less advanced level. And in English, there is a tradition of such code-switching shenanigans going back at least to Shakespeare that post-Bard came to be known as Dog Latin or Cod Latin. The dog element here, rather than referring to the sound of the speech is more to the idea of a mongrelized language and the cod doesn’t refer to the fish or the body part but the meaning of “joke”—ludus again.

As I noted previously in this series, there has always been a literary interest in argots, and indeed, there is a certain virtuosity at work, as Elyse Graham notes:³

[I]n dog Latin […], an appreciation of the misuse of the rules requires an understanding of the rules; it requires a subject position past that of a novice who can only follow rules and toward that of an expert who knows when to violate the rules.

On the borderlands between ludling and argot, Meredith Doran performed a yearlong study on the use of Verlan, formed by swapping syllables, among teens in minority communities on the outskirts of Paris (la banlieue). She finds of their use of the ludling as their preferred idiom:⁴

[B]anlieue youth language may represent a valuable alternative to mainstream French precisely as a tool for forging, negotiating, and expressing identities which stand outside the binary categories of mainstream discourse, allowing youths to define and express themselves through a linguistic bricolage that mirrors their sense of identity as mixed, evolving, and drawing from multiple cultural and linguistic sources.

It’s important to note that Verlan can be dated at least to a 12th-century version of The Madness of Tristan (Folies Tristan), wherein the titular hero gives his name as “Tantris” to conceal his identity. It seems to have also been used during the German occupation. Although not nearly as old, probably dating from at least the turn of the last century, based on the evidence in popular culture, Pig Latin also seems to have had its own renaissance. I’d guess because of the need for a cryptolect during Prohibition, and probably continuing through the Great Depression.

Read Subsequent Articles in This Series

Part 2B: Me Talk Pretty Ludling

Part 3: Rhyming and Stealing

Part 4: The Mysteries of Zūja-Go

Read Previous Articles in This Series

Part 1A: The Slang of Empyrea’s Automata

Part 1B: Canargy: a Cant How-To


  1. Three Little Pigskins, 1934 and Tassels in the Air, 1938, respectively.
  2. Luke Plunkett, “Capcom (Try To) Back Away From Anti-Wii Comments”, Kotaku, 2010.
  3. Elyse Graham, “Dog Latin: a comedy of errors”, OxfordWords blog, 2017.
  4. Meredith Doran, “Alternative French, Alternative Identities: Situating Language in la Banlieue”, Contemporary French and Francophone Studies, 2007.