Podcast episode

Episode 148: Curses! Sarah Veale on Roman ‘Curse-Tablets’

Sarah Veale is a historian working on ancient temple-based curse-tablets in the Roman world. We talk about her work, particularly on the Roman temple of Magna Mater and Isis in modern Mainz, Germany. This temple has provided us with thousands of so-called curse-tablets, strips of lead inscribed with requests for divine intervention, folded or rolled up, and then thrown into one of the many fire-pits at the temple to be activated by the flames. This conversation brings up a lot of fascinating material for students of western esotericism, along with several important cautions: it leads us to question further the easy divisions sometimes drawn between religion and magic, to beware of relying solely on elite textual sources when interpreting the religious beliefs and practices of everyday people, and to look at some of the ways in which practices which we might be tempted to classify as ‘deviant’ or ‘fringe’ in hindsight have actually been mainstream religious staples in their time.

Specific points discussed include:

  • The Roman cult of Magna Mater, or How An Anatolian Goddess Ended Up On the Romano-German Frontier Being Invoked in Curses,
  • The domestication of ‘Eastern’ cults in polytheist Roman society,
  • The Galli and their peculiar ways,
  • The practice of offering votives in modern times and in antiquity,
  • The ancient cult of Asclepius, and
  • Some important insights into the religion vs. magic controversy, with some helpful cautions against interpreting religious practices based solely on elite textual sources.

Recommended Reading:

  • Audollent, Auguste. Defixionum Tabellae. Frankfurt am Main: Minerva, 1967.
  • Assmann, Jan. “When Justice Fails: Jurisdiction and Imprecation in Ancient Egypt and the Near East.” The Journal of Egyptian Archaeology 78 (1992): 149-162.
  • Blänsdorf, Jürgen. “The Defixiones from the Sanctuary of Isis and Mater Magna in Mainz,” in Magical Practice in the Latin West: Papers from the International Conference held at the University of Zaragoza 30 Sept.–1 Oct. 2005. Edited by Richard L. Gordon and Francisco Marco Simón. Boston: Brill, 2010.
  • ——. Die defixionum tabellae des Mainzer Isis- und Mater Magna-Heiligtums:defixionum tabellae Mogontiacenses (DTM). Mainz: Generaldirektion Kulturelles Erbe, 2012.
  • Dickie, Matthew W., Magic and Magicians in the Greco-Roman World. New York: Routledge, 2001.
  • Eidinow, Esther. Oracles, Curses, and Risk Among the Ancient Greeks. Oxford: Oxford University Press (2010).
  • Faraone, Christopher. “The Agonistic Context of Early Greek Binding Spells.” In Magika Hiera: Ancient Greek Magic and Religion, eds. Christopher A. Faraone and Dirk Obbink, Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1997. 3-32.
  • Faraone, Christopher A. “Molten Wax, Spilt Wine and Mutilated Animals: Sympathetic Magic in Near Eastern and Early Greek Oath Ceremonies.” The Journal of Hellenic Studies 113 (1993): 60-80.
  • Gager, John G. Curse Tablets and Binding Spells from the Ancient World. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1992.
  • Gordon, Richard. “Imagining Greek and Roman Magic.” In Witchcraft and Magic in Europe, Volume 2. Edited by Bengt Ankarloo and Stuart Clark. Pennsylvania: University of Pennsylvania Press, 1999. 163-275.
  • Graf, Fritz. Magic in the Ancient World. Translated by Franklin Philip. Cambridge, Massachusetts: Harvard University Press, 1999.
  • Johnston, Sarah Iles. “Describing the Undefinable: New Books on Magic and Old Problems of Definition.” History of Religions 43, no. 1 (August 2003): 50-54.
  • Jordan, D.R. “A Survey of Greek Defixiones Not Included in the Special Corpora,” GRBS 26 no. 2 (1985): 151-97.
  • Lamont, Jessica L. In Blood and Ashes: Curse Tablets and Binding spells in Ancient Greece. Oxford University Press, Oxford, 2023.
  • Rives, James B. “Magic in Roman Law: The Reconstruction of a Crime.” Classical Antiquity 22, no. 2 (October 2003: 313-339).
  • Stratton, Kimberly B. “Early Greco-Roman Antiquity.” In The Cambridge History of Magic and Witchcraft in the West. Ed. David J. Collins. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2015. 83-112.
  • ——. “Magic Discourse in the Ancient World.” In Defining Magic: A Reader. Edited by Michael Stausberg and Bernd-Christian Otto. Sheffield: England, 2012.
  • Tambiah, S. J. “The Magical Power of Words,” in Man 3.2 (1968): 175-208.
  • Tomlin, R.S.O. Roman Inscribed Tablets of Tin and Lead From the Sacred Spring at Bath. Oxford: Oxford University Committee for Archaeology, 1988.
  • Veale, Sarah L. “Defixiones and the Temple Locus: The Power of Place in the Curse Tablets at Mainz,” Magic, Ritual, and Witchcraft, 2017, 12(3), 279-313.
  • Versnel, H.S. “Beyond Cursing: The Appeal to Justice in Judicial Prayers.” In Magika Hiera: Ancient Greek Magic and Religion edited by Christopher A. Faraone and Dirk Obbink. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1997. 61-106.


, , , ,