Monday, February 15, 2010


I came across some interesting material on ancient cursing in a book on swearing that I read last year.

...quite a degree of energy was involved in cursing. The ancient Greeks and Romans employed the cursing tablet. At one time the baths at Bath were full of these tablets and versions of the practice are still known in parts of modern-day Tuscany and Ireland. The stone tablet* was inscribed with the tailor-made curse of one’s choice and then buried or, more commonly, thrown into deep water.

The Romans favoured throwing the curse-inscribed tablet into a sacred place... but the backyard well or the nearest river or ocean were also favoured spots. Generally, where you flung your tablet probably depended on how far you had to lug it.

Many of these tablets have been recovered and restored, and one of the best-known now resides in the Archaeological Museum at Johns Hopkins University. This particular specimen, from around 50BC, contains a most grisly curse made against an allegedly villainous man with the rather ominous name of Plotius...

‘Good and beautiful Proserpina (or Salvia, shouldest thou prefer), mayest thou wrest away the health, body complexion, strength and faculties of Plotius and consign him to thy husband, Pluto. Grant that by his own devices he may not escape this penalty. Mayest thou consign him to the quartian, tertian and daily fevers of war and wrestle with him until they snatch away at his very soul.’

From this point, the curse itemises poor Plotius’ entire anatomy:

‘I give thee the head of Plotius... his brow and eyebrows, eyelids and pupils... his ears, nose, nostrils, tongue, lips and teeth, so he may not speak his pain; his neck, shoulders, arms, and fingers, so that he may not sleep the sleep of health; his thighs, legs, knees, shanks, feet, ankles, heels, toes and toe-nails, so that he may not stand of his own strength. May he most miserably perish and depart this life.’

A touch laboured perhaps, but very thorough. It’s also pre-emptive. In the full text the curser reveals that she fears that Plotius has organised his own cursing tablet, so she wants her curse to be visited on Plotius by the end of February. Payment is promised on delivery: ‘as soon as thou has made good my vow’. Wisely Cautious.

An iron spike was driven through this tablet before it was cast into the river, a symbol of the longed-for piercing of the enemy’s soul. Clearly a physical demise was insufficient: the soul too had to be targeted.
(Language Most Foul, Ruth Wajnryb)
[*I was under the impression that the tablets were more often metal – lead or pewter]

You can find a copy of the Plotius curse here.

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