Britain enthusiastically adopted the Roman tradition of writing curses on lead (or sometimes pewter) tablets. Maybe that tells us something about the British character. Maybe it doesn’t. Either way, because lead doesn’t rust, they left us a record of daily life, or of one odd corner of it anyway, that we can snoop around in.
How do you write a curse tablet?
There was a formula, more or less, although it was stretched to the point where some tablets had a name and nothing else. Generally, though, you’d start by appealing to a god, because there’s no point in cursing someone unless you can convince a supernatural power to do the job for you.
After that, the text (as one article puts it) “identifies itself” as a prayer or a gift or a memorandum. That way the god understands that it isn’t an overdue bill or a note from the school saying, “Your kid hasn’t been in class for the past six weeks.”
Is the god interested yet? If so, you can go on to the next step.
If you’ve ever sent queries to literary agents, the process isn’t that different. You start by making it clear that this isn’t an overdue bill or a letter from the school, then you find some desperate a way to hook their interest, then–
Never mind. We’re off the topic and most of them won’t respond anyway. I should probably have tried lead tablets. If nothing else, they’d stand out.
If you’ve engaged the god’s interest, you can now ask the god to act for you, and you’ll want to name your intended victim. But you won’t want to use the word victim. You’re the person who’s been wronged here. Remember that. All you’re seeking is–um, no, let’s not call it revenge. Let’s say you’re trying to set the world back into its natural order.
If you don’t know the person’s name, you’ll want to identify them as best you can. One tablet that’s been found says, “whether man or woman, boy or girl, slave or free.” Another says, “Whether pagan or Christian,” which raises an interesting translation issue, since pagan didn’t start to mean non-Christian until the fourteenth century.
Once you’ve got your target sketched in, you can talk about the crime, and curse tablets, for whatever reason, lean heavily toward theft. So name what was taken, and possibly the place where it was taken.
Then you get to the important stuff: What are you offering the god in return? Because even gods have to make a living. One tablet that’s been found offered half the stolen money. Another offered a third.
Once you’ve made your offer, it’s time to talk about what you want the god to do to your target. Most people asked for the thief to suffer so much that he or she would pay back what was stolen, and a lot of the suffering they requested involved health. One tablet asks for the target’s (as the article I found this in puts it) “bodily functions to cease from working” Another asks that the thief “not eat, drink, sleep, sit, lie, defecate, or urinate.”
But if you like, you can stop fooling around and ask that they just go ahead and die. It’s your curse tablet. Most of us don’t believe in this stuff anymore, so you don’t need to act responsibly.
Of course, if the thief returns your property to the temple, all this horrible stuff stops and you give the temple whatever you promised the god. Because gods need intermediaries, and temples are good at that.
Not everyone who wrote a curse tablet wanted a happy outcome, though. One tablet said the thief would have to sell 8.6 liters (that would’ve been a modius) of “cloud and smoke” to break the curse. Which isn’t easy in any age.
A warning: As a general rule, if you’ve asked for the thief to die you won’t get your property back.
Once you’ve written your curse, what do you do with it?
First, you’ll want to either roll your curse up or fold it so that only the god can read it. Or archeologists from later centuries–they seem to manage. Which may demonstrate that they’re gods.
You can also pierce your curse with nails. I’m not sure what that demonstrates, but it’s a nice bit of drama.
Then you can leave your curse at a temple or in a spring or river, or you can bury with some dead person who’ll be happy to deliver it, since they’re headed off to lands where, presumably, the gods have registered their mailing addresses.
Okay, burying tablets with the dead was rare in Britain but it wasn’t uncommon in the Mediterranean. Still, if you really, really want to do it that way, there is a precedent.
You can also bury it in a house or a shop. Or if you want your enemy’s chariot to wreck during a race, you can bury it in the amphitheater. Or since we’re using the present tense here, you can bury it at a busy intersection.
What do we learn from curse tablets?
We learn that a lot of stuff got stolen, and that a lot of it was stolen from the public baths. The sample may be skewed, though, by a collection of tablets that were found in Bath. That’s a British city with a hot spring where the Romans built–yes, you guessed it–baths. The local god was a combination of the Roman Minerva and the pre-Roman Sulis, and the spring became a popular place to leave curse tablets.
The Bath tablets leave me thinking that in an age before lockers were invented, people lost a lot of belongings at the baths.
Admit it: You’d wondered about that, didn’t you? Here’s a place where everyone shucks off their clothes and jumps in the water. And what happens to those clothes while no one’s inside them? Does anyone look after them?
And while we’re wondering, didn’t the victims of those thefts feel a bit naked walking home without them?
But it wasn’t just clothes that got stolen. It was also jewelry, gemstones, money, and household goods.
Who brings household goods to the baths? I don’t know. Maybe Sulis’s sacred spring had become known as a place to deal with theft in general, not just theft from the baths.
We also learn about the languages that were spoken in Roman Britain, because although some of the tablets were written by specialists many were scrawled by ordinary people, using whatever language or mix of languages they spoke, because the Roman conquest didn’t wipe out Britain’s Celtic languages, it just added some new ones: Latin, predictably, but also Greek and the assorted languages of other Roman provinces. From the continent came Germanic and Celtic languages (there were multiples of both); from the Mediterranean came Semitic languages (anyone ever heard of Palmyrene?).
These all left their traces on curse tablets.
The Bath tablets date from the second to fourth centuries, and most were in British Latin, showing the places where it diverged from Latin Latin–the words it had incorporated from other languages, the places where the grammar and spellings had wandered off in new directions.
Two tablets that have been found used Latin letters to write in a Celtic language, possibly Brythonic, the language of one of the two Celtic groups that settled in Britain. Brythonic’s believed to have been an unwritten language–except, presumably, for these lone curse tablets. Another tablet used the Greek alphabet to write in Latin, possibly because Greek added a bit of extra magic to the words.
If you really want a bit of magic spin, though, you can write your tablet back to front, as some people did. It’s no trouble for a god to read that, but it does make the archeologists work for their pay.
The tablets also show that it wasn’t just priests, scribes, and the upper classes who wrote Latin. Or who wrote at all, although a few tablets have been found with scratches that imitate writing–presumably made by people who couldn’t write but spoke the curse as they made the marks.
The scripts that people used on the tablets varied, but most were written in–yup–cursive, an everyday script used for documents and letters, which is–to simplify a bit– the ancestor of modern European handwriting. The words were rarely separated, although breaks between them were sometimes marked with points–and sometimes weren’t.
Punctuation wasn’t a major issue for either gods or scribes.
To my disappointment, the word cursive has nothing to do with the word curse. It’s from the Latin word for to run: The letters in cursive handwriting run together. The origin of the word curse is uncertain. It’s late Old English, and there’s no similar word in Germanic, Romance, or Celtic languages.