Curse-Maker Magic

Supernatural Rome

Roman culture confronted  many of the same questions about the paranormal and supernatural that we do. They worshiped the spirit of their dead ancestors in the festivals of Parentalia and Lemuria; ghost stories abounded. (Pliny the Younger wrote a letter to a friend, asking him if he believed in ghosts or whether he thought they were projections of people’s stress. Talk about modern!)

Kelli has always been fascinated by the study of ancient mystery cults and magic (her thesis was about suggestions of Orphic cult in Euripides’ Bacchae). Curses are one manifestation of how one person’s religion could be another’s magic. Necromancy (the raising of the dead) is another. The ancients also practiced spirit-raising, or exorcism.

References to the supernatural are not uncommon in the extent sources. For a literary look at how sibyls were thought to be “possessed” by a god, look no further than Virgil’s Aeneid.

THE CURSE-MAKER was inspired by Kelli’s interest in all forms of ancient “magic”, and how much commonality the ancient world has with our vampire and zombie obsessed culture. After all, the undead in Homer’s Odyssey hungered for blood … and drank it in order to communicate with the living.


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Did curses work? No one knows for sure. What we do know, thanks to archaeology, is that the act of placing a curse in order to procure a desired outcome (whether in a race, in love, in court, or as a victim of theft) was a common enough practice throughout the ancient world, even if illegal.

The famed Roman historian Tacitus discusses witchcraft and curses in his Annals; the third century historian Dio Cassius mentions them as well. These lead tablets—often folded,  rolled or nailed before being deposited at a sacred location or placed in the hand of a corpse so that the dead spirit would “deliver” the parcel to an underworld deity—transcended centuries and culture.

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To give you an idea of how the curse persisted, consider this bit of doggerel on Shakespeare’s grave: “Good frend for Jesus sake forebeare,/ To digg the dust encloased heare;/ Bleste be the man that spares thes stones,/ And curst be he that moves my bones.” This is nothing more than a grave curse, common in the ancient world, formulated to protect against grave-robbing and the deposit of—you guessed it—a curse tablet in the deceased person’s hand. Shakespeare was no messenger boy.

Curses could be “fixed”—the Latin word for one is defixio, which means “to bind”—by folding, by rolling, or by nailing the tablet. Sometimes figurines have been found with nails “binding” them … just like the cover of THE CURSE-MAKER.

The curses of Roman Britain were remarkable in that they were predominantly concerned with theft, and seemed to function as a kind of “neighborhood watch” program. This unique role—and the remarkable preservation of many of the curses, along with the health-spa aura of Aquae Sulis itself—inspired Kelli’s novel. Much of what she describes is theory, but one based in sound and careful research.

Temple, Gemstones and a Mask

No one seems to know much about Sulis–other than her identification with the Roman goddess Minerva (the Greek Athena). In fact, the temple pediment–probably the most famous image from the Roman site at Bath–seems to depict a bearded male god … a deity looking more like Neptune or Jupiter than the goddess of wisdom and war.

Two recovered gifts to Sulis really sparked Kelli’s imagination, and led to certain plot developments in THE CURSE-MAKER. One was a collection of gem stones, carved and uncarved. Another was a tin mask, apparently nailed into a wooden frame work. Click on the gallery above to view these special offerings.

How did these objects come to be deposited in the Sacred Spring, only to be recovered millennia later? Who threw them in and why? Read THE CURSE-MAKER for a possible answer …

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If you’re interested in reading more about curses and magic in the ancient world, Kelli suggests the following sources:

Curse Tablets and Binding Spells from the Ancient World
John G. Gager (editor)
Arcana Mundi: Magic and the Occult in the Greek and Roman Worlds
Georg Luck
Magic, Witchcraft and Ghosts in the Greek and Roman Worlds: A Sourcebook

Daniel Ogden
Magika Hiera: Ancient Greek Magic and Religion
Christopher A. Faraone