Wednesday, January 12, 2011

Ancient Mediterranean Defixiones

I told a friend I was working on a story set in the first century BCE Mediterranean. Part of my research for the story included an archaeological discovery of an ancient Greek merchant boat wreck. Nailed to the boat -- possibly by pirates -- was a lead curse tablet. Later, she loaned me some of her research books. Included in the loan was a book all about lead curse tablets, or defixiones.

Curse tablets are small sheets or strips of lead with magical inscriptions and figures on them. Most are folded or rolled and pierced with a nail. Apparently, the use of defixiones stretches (at least in the book) from 400 BCE to about 600 CE. The use was sometimes illegal -- banned both by Roman civic bodies and the Christian Church -- but that doesn't seem to have stopped folks from leaving bits of lead on graves, in wells, or buried under racetracks.

The person placing the curse employed a specialist: a scribe with knowledge of magical formulas to write them. Some scribes had a stock of them with blanks left for the target's name.

Defixiones imply that the magician is seen as someone marginal and powerful who mediates between the order of the civil structure of the polis and the chaos of the supernatural world.

A further implication is that throughout ancient Sumerian, Egypt, Greece and Rome the historic role of magic has has been to work against the established authority by placing tools -- for a price -- into the hands of the disenfranchised. Some of these people are the people with nothing left to lose: the slaves, second wives, and the accused. Some of them are, however, not so disenfranchised after all: envious land owners, charioteers, and theatre managers.

From a writing stand-point, at least on the long-term project that I'm working on, this presents a problem. I'm working on a series of stories set in an alternate ancient world. I want to have a different societal use for magic. Specifically, I want to explore two questions: what if magical technique were similar to or a part of the technique of using simple tools like the lever, the pulley or the incline plane? And, what if it were possible to build machines that were able to evaluate the calculus of morality? (Or, think of it this way: how can we build a scale like the one in the Egyptian Hall of Judgement, wherein a person's heart is weighed against Ma'at, the feather of Truth?)

From a modern standpoint, and one that vexes me as a Neo-Pagan, ancient curse tablets are the old-time flip-side to doing spells for sex, money and parking lots. Essentially, one goes to a specialist and pays them to prevent rivals from getting sex, money, or winning chariot races (the ancient version of parking spaces) leaving these resources available for the person paying for the curse.

The difficulty as a modern writing ancient characters is to have them think and react within their own time. My characters might not frame the following question “which is the most moral of spells: a spell to attract health, or a spell to bind sickness?” -- much in the same way I might not frame the question “Is it better to eat fruits and vegetables and exercise, or to wash my hands and wear a face mask?”

And, what exactly is the moral implication of Heron of Alexandria's steam top?

Okay, back to the manuscript.
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