Tuesday, December 13, 2011

A curse on you Plotius

http://www.pasthorizonspr.com/index.php/archives/12/2011/a-curse-on-you-plotius

The Johns Hopkins Archaeological Museum curates fragments related to five lead curse tablets from ancient Rome. One of these tablets (JHUAM 2011.01) was recently conserved and placed on view, along with the original iron nail (JHUAM 2011.06) associated with it.

Objects such as this one are evidence of a common practice in Greek and Roman antiquity to scratch curses onto tablets which were then deposited in wells or graves. While the earliest tablets only contained the name of the person to be cursed, later examples grew more elaborate, such as this example. Curses could be inscribed on basically anything, ranging from pottery sherds to gemstones, though lead is the most common material used for this purpose.

A recently conserved 2,000-year-old Roman curse tablet, spells out an anonymous plea for the grisly demise of a slave named Plotius. It is one of five tablets that have been part of the university's collection since 1908, when graduate student William Sherwood Fox began the painstaking process of studying and deciphering the lead tablets.


The transcript of the curse leaves nothing to chance in attempting to ensure that the slave Plotius will not enjoy his last few days!

"Good and beautiful Proserpina, wife of Pluto, or Salvia, if you prefer that I call you so, snatch away the health, the body, the complexion, the strength, and the faculties of Plotius.
Hand him over to Pluto, your husband. May he not be able to escape this (curse) by his wits. Hand him over to fevers—quartan, tertian, and daily—so that they wrestle and struggle with him.
Let them overcome him to the point where they snatch away his soul.
Thus I give over to you this victim, O Proserpina or Acherusia if you prefer that I call you so.

Summon for me the triple headed hound to snatch away the heart of Plotius. Promise that you will give him three victims (gifts)—dates, figs, and a black pig—if he completes this before the month of March. These I will offer you, Proserpina Salvia, when you complete this in an orderly fashion.

I give over to you the head of Plotius, the slave/son of Avonia. Proserpina Salvia, I give over to you the head of Plotius. Proserpina Salvia, I give over to you the forehead of Plotius. Proserpina Salvia, I give over to you the eyebrows of Plotius.
Proserpina Salvia, I give over to you the eyelids of Plotius. Proserpina Salvia, I give over to you the pupils of Plotius.
Proserpina Salvia, I give over to you the nostrils, lips, ears, nose, tongue, and teeth of Plotius, so that he may not be able to say what is causing him pain; the neck, shoulders, arms, and fingers, so that he may not be able to aid himself in any way; his breast, liver, heart,and lungs, so that he may not be able to discover the source of his pain; his intestines, stomach, navel, and sides, so that he may not be able to sleep; his shoulder blades, so that he may not be able to sleep soundly; his "sacred organ" so that he may not be able to urinate; his rump, anus, thighs, knees, shanks, shins, feet, ankles, heels, toes, and toenails, so that he may not be able to stand by his own strength.
No matter what he may have written, great or small, just as he has written a proper spell and commissioned it (against me), so I hand over and consign Plotius to you, so that you may take care of him by the month of February. Let him perish miserably. Let him leave life miserably. Let him be destroyed miserably.

Take care of him so that he may not see another month."

The entire Plotius curse tablet and Fox's 1911 transcription of the text. Image: Courtesy of the Johns Hopkins Archaeological Museum

Plotius's curse "was found rolled together with four others and pierced through by an iron nail," according to Elisabeth Schwinge, a graduate student in the interdepartmental program in Classical Art and Archaeology, which is based in the Krieger School's Classics Department. "The Latin name for a curse is defixio which means 'to pin down.'" The individual tablets are stand-ins for the cursed people, with the nail symbolizing their pinning-down, Schwinge said.

The original nail used to "pin down" the five tablets in ancient times. At the top of the nail, lead fragments from the tablets are still attached in place. Image: Courtesy of the Johns Hopkins Archaeological Museum

No one knows what Plotius did to invite someone to implore the gods to summon "the triple headed hound to snatch away [his] heart," or to plague him with fevers so intense that they "overcome him to the point where they snatch away his soul." And no one knows who placed the curse on poor Plotius – while the cursed person had to be identified very carefully, the identity of the person placing the curse was just as carefully concealed out of fear of retribution.  But Plotius' curse is now visible, in part due to the recent conservation work of the tablet by Sanchita Balachandran, the museum's curator.

Source: press release from Johns Hopkins University

More information:

  • The full story from John Hopkins University Museum
  • Fox, W.S., "The Johns Hopkins Tabellae Defixionum" PhD diss., Johns Hopkins University, 1911.
  • Fox, W.S., "An Infernal Postal Service," Art and Archaeology 1 (1914), 205-207.
  • Gager, J.G., Curse Tablets and Binding Spells from the Ancient World, Oxford; New York: Oxford University Press 1992.