Episode 7: Curses! Sarah Veale on the Cult of Magna Mater and Ancient Curse-Tablets

This interview was our first foray into using internet telephony. Please excuse the poor sound-quality, and concentrate on the fascinating subject-matter. The SHWEP technical department is working around the clock to improve the audio experience of our listeners.

Sarah Veale is a historian working on ancient temple-based curse-tablets in the A second-century CE (probably) relief showing a gallus with all his cool Magna-Mater stuffRoman world. We talk about her work, particularly on the Roman temple of Magna Mater and Isis located 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. What was going on here?

Sarah lays it out for us, and in the process brings up a lot of fascinating material for students of western esotericism. As well as exploring the details of what was going on at this temple and others like it in the Roman world, the conversation explores several important general points: it leads us to question  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, in hindsight, we might be tempted to classify as ‘deviant’ or ‘fringe’ may 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 Roman society,
  • The itinerant priests of Magna Mater, the Galli ( a second-century CE relief of one from the Capitoline Museum can be seen in the picture above), and their peculiar customs,
  • The practice of offering votives in modern times and in the ancient cult of Asclepius,
  • And how this practice might relate to the more antagonistic practice of cursing.

Interview Bio

Sarah Veale is a doctoral student at the York University’s Department of History, where she works on death in Roman antiquity. Her research profile includes Græco-Roman religious associations, magic, and curse tablets, as well as other ‘marginal’ religious phenomena in the Græco-Roman world. A former journalist, Sarah holds a Master’s of Arts degree in Religious Studies from the University of Toronto and a bachelor’s degree in Religious Studies and Classical Studies (double major) from York University.

Sarah has presented at academic conferences on diverse topics such as cursing practices in the Roman Empire, medieval Christian apocrypha, and discourses of religious alterity in antiquity. Her publications include a work on Iamblichan theurgy (‘Orientalism in Iamblichus’ The Mysteries‘) and her research on the curse tablets from Mainz (“Defixiones and the Temple Locus: The Power of Place in the Curse Tablets at Mainz,” in Magic, Ritual, and Witchcraft, forthcoming). In addition to all this, she serves as co-director and website administrator of the Network for the Study of Esotericism in Antiquity, an ESSWE thematic network which connects scholars of ancient esotericism.


Works Discussed in this Episode

  • Apuleius, Pro se de magia liber (Apologia), Helm, R. (Ed.), 1959. Teubner, Leipzig.
  • Blänsdorf, Jürgen, 2012. Die defixionum tabellae des Mainzer Isis- und Mater Magna-Heiligtums: defixionum tabellae Mogontiacenses (DTM). Mainz: Generaldirektion Kulturelles Erbe.

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, pp. 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, pp. 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.
  • 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 Cambridge History of Magic and Witchcraft in the West. Ed. David J. Collins. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2015, pp. 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. (Forthcoming)
  • 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, pp. 61-106.


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