How distinct were magical practices and religion in Roman antiquity? In what ways did cursing and religion overlap? Most importantly, how did those who actually made the curses understand their actions?
I am happy to share that my latest article sheds some light on these questions! Published in the latest issue of the journal Magic, Ritual, and Witchcraft (University of Pennsylvania Press), my article, “Defixiones and the Temple Locus: The Power of Place in the Curse Tablets at Mainz,” argues that we can’t make any hard-and-fast distinctions between religion and magic in the case of the curse tablets form the Sanctuary of Magna Mater and Isis in Roman Germany. Instead of viewing the tablets as magic, I suggest we should look to the analogous practice of votive cult to understand the motivations of curse practitioners in Mainz.
This article stems from a research project I undertook with Tony Burke during my undergraduate studies. The original paper was further refined by the insights of Claire Fanger (editor of the journal), Kimberly Stratton, and an anonymous peer reviewer—all of whom encouraged me to think about the specific dynamics at Mainz and helped to bring out the core arguments of the paper. To them I am extremely grateful.
The abstract for the article is below. The full paper can be read in its pre-print form at Academia.edu.
Defixiones and the Temple Locus: The Power of Place in the Curse Tablets at Mainz
This paper surveys nineteen lead curse tablets from the sanctuary of Magna Mater and Isis in Mainz, Germany. Written in Latin, these tablets seek the divine help of Magna Mater and other deities in rectifying perceived injustices. When theorizing about cursing practices at the site, I argue that we need to look to the in situ context of the curse tablets and consider the other ritual deposits made at the sanctuary. Accounting for the co-presence of votary items alongside curse tablets can significantly aid our understanding of how the curse authors at Mainz viewed their practice. I argue that votive cult provides a compelling framework for understanding cursing at Mainz and the role of place in these materials. The curses at Mainz suggest that those who utilized cursing at the site made a strong connection between the figures petitioned in the curses and the physical site of the temple. The connection between the temple locus and cursing is illustrated by the uniformity of cursing rituals, the thematic content of the petitioners’ requests, and the sites of tablet deposition. Because of the close connection between votive cult and cursing at the site, I argue from the evidence supplied by the curse tablets examined here that we need to reconsider our formulation of cursing as a deviant or marginal religious practice and instead recognize all the ways that it fell within normative religious habits in Roman antiquity.