Ancient Roman Curses, Translated

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What do you do when you come home from a bad day at work, furious at someone? Do you pour yourself a drink? Blow off steam playing video games? If you lived in a time when people commonly believed in black magic, you might have used a different coping mechanism: casting a curse at the offender, usually by contracting with a witch or sorcerer.

In ancient Greece and Rome, if you meant business, you’d have your curse written down on a stone tablet called a curse tablet or defixio. These tablets were purported to bind deities like Hecate, the Greek goddess of witchcraft, to the sorceror’s will in order to make them punish the person named in the curse. Defixiones were sometimes mass-produced by sorcerers, with the curses pre-written and space left for information like the victim’s name and his or her alleged crimes.

Interestingly, the tablets often included “Voces mysticae,” untranslatable words that were thought to have magical powers, like the modern day “Abra Cadabra” (or Avada Kedavra, as the case may be.)  In ancient Rome, these words have been of Etruscan origin, or they may have been made up out of whole cloth. Nobody is quite sure.

LiveScience reports that two defixiones from the Museo Archeologico Civico di Bologna have recently been translated. The translations, with targets as high and mighty as a senator and as low as an animal doctor,  seem to illustrate how common  these cursing tablets were in Roman society.

It’s not hard to imagine reasons why a politician would be targeted, but what did the hapless veterinarian do? Celia Sánchez Natalías, the doctoral student who translated the tablets, speculated that perhaps  he just wasn’t good at his job: “Maybe this person was someone that (had) a horse or an animal killed by Porcello’s medicine.”

Either way, ancient curses were quite vicious. Here’s just a sampling of the one directed at Porcello:

“Destroy, crush, kill, strangle Porcello and wife Maurilla. Their soul, heart, buttocks, liver …”

Senator Fistus doesn’t get off any more lightly:

“Crush, kill Fistus the senator. May Fistus dilute, languish, sink and may all his limbs dissolve …”

Are you sensing a pattern here?