A formula for cursing

A formula for cursing
Circa 2 ACE. Roman curse tablet in 2.7 cm lead discovered in 1985 in Cologne, Germany (ID: Thesaurus Defixionum 285). Author unknown

A formula for cursing

II. Magic in women’s daily lives

In the ancient Greco-Roman world, it was very common, when one person was particularly spiteful or angry with another, to resort to a homemade magical procedure that consisted of inscribing incantations and curses on small lead sheets with an awl, a nail, or a headless needle. Once the imprecations had been written, the tablet was folded, rolled, or perforated and buried in a necropolis or other places associated with underground divinities, or near springs, wells, and watercourses in general (cf. Anna Perenna), as they were believed to serve as a connection to the underworld.

A characteristic feature of the rituals associated with curse tablets is the performative power of the word. Thus, with the awl in his hand, the defigens would recite the formulas that he was embedding in the lead, sometimes difficult to pronounce, strange and with terms in Greek or of unknown origin, faithfully believing that their contents would be fulfilled.

This type of magic is known as sympathetic magic and is defined by the idea ‘just like X has the property P, so let Y also have the same property P’: here, the tablet is conceived as the image of the one to be harmed and, therefore, whatever is inscribed on it will be suffered by the opponent, similar to what happens with voodoo dolls. For this reason, some of the verbs most frequently used in malefic formulas are vertere and its compounds ad-/in-/pervertere both in their literal sense of to turn/invert and in their metaphorical uses of to be hostile/unfriendly.

An extraordinary example of a sympathetic tablet is the one shown in the picture. This tabella, which has all the letters written backwards and from right to left to amplify the power of the magical simile, says: «Vaeraca, this is how it is going to be for you: may you go along twistedly [perverse] just like this is written in a twisted [perverse] way».


María Isabel Jiménez Martínez