Interview on Curse Tablets with The Secret History of Western Esotericism Podcast!

SHWEPI am delighted to share that I was recently interviewed by The Secret History of Western Esotericism Podcast (SHWEP) about curse tablets and the cult of Magna Mater!

I tackle a number of topics in this interview, including the diffusion of the Eastern cults into the Roman frontier, the reasons why someone might make a curse tablet, and the difference between religion and magic. (Spoiler alert: there aren’t any!)

My thanks to podcast host Earl Fontainelle for taking the time to talk about this exciting topic. We really got into some nitty gritty contextual issues which was a lot of fun (especially if the Roman legal code is your sort of thing!). In addition to the interview, I’ve provided a short reading list for those interested in the subject of magic and cursing in the Greco-Roman world. Of course, if magic in antiquity is your thing, I encourage you to listen to the other podcast episodes, as there are some serious heavyweights in the field (like Daniel Ogden and Richard Seaford) represented.

Listen to the podcast here.

Visit the SHWEP website here.


Thesis: The Public Lives of Private Cults

For many persons in a Master’s degree program, the final task to getting the degree is the production of a thesis. For those of you not in academia, the thesis is a research project of anywhere from 50-150 pages. In the thesis, the student is expected to demonstrate their knowledge of their chosen field as well as produce some new insight into their chosen topic. For those who go on in academia, the MA thesis is good preparation for the PhD dissertation in that you begin to hone the skills required to produce long-form, original research.

For my MA thesis, I chose the topic of Dionysiac associations in the Roman Empire (religious groups devoted to the god Dionysus). Dionysiac associations were particularly appealing to me as they are one of our chief examples of mystery cults (thus fitting into the more esoteric ends of my research agenda). In addition, we have significant material evidence for these groups which has not been fully contextualized, so there was some new ground to be broken.

Dionysiac cults also provide a particularly useful lens to study scholarly constructions of religion in antiquity, especially Roman antiquity. The question of where they fit in has preoccupied me for the past few years, especially since second-order scholarship is often at odds with the material record. Long story short: Dionysiac cults (and other mystery cults) are often placed on the periphery of religious models. This is due in part to the so-called “private” nature of these organizations, as well as the wild stories that circulated about these groups and their practices (for example, the Bacchanalia affair of 186 BCE). The evidence, however, suggests much more public integration for these groups than is normally allowed. In other words, our main models of conceptualizing Roman religion are insufficient to the task at hand, at least when we look at the evidence.

My paper works on two levels. The first focuses on theoretical approaches to Roman religion/religions in antiquity. At this point it should come as no surprise that I argue against many of our dominant constructions of religion in antiquity, such as juridical definitions of Roman religion or civic-centric models that place city (or polis) religion first. In this paper, I put forward my own model of Roman religion, that of “religious systems within a religious system.” Moreover, I argue for a pluralistic religious landscape in which the religious individual was able to choose religious services accordingly based on need.

Having established the plural nature of religion in antiquity and the importance of the religious individual, the second level of the paper focuses on these issues through the lens of Dionysiac cults in the Roman east. Here, I examine epigraphic evidence (i.e. inscriptions) and argue that Dionysiac cults were not on the periphery on religious life in the Roman east, rather they were a visible and important part of the religious and social life of the polis. I argue also that these groups overlapped with public life in several ways in the Roman empire and that it was the religious individual who was the mechanism that enabled these connections between the association and the wider public sphere.

The goal of my thesis was thus two-fold: to provide a re-evaluation of how we conceptualize Roman religion and to establish the normativity of Dionysiac associations. I think I accomplished these goals. You can find out for yourself as my thesis is up for reading at If you aren’t ready to read 100+ pages on Dionysiac cult, you can peruse the abstract below.

The Public Lives of Private Cults:
Dionysiac Associations in the Roman East

Stained with the scandal of the Bacchanalia and the mythology of a rabid god, scholarship on Dionysiac cult often characterizes these associations, especially those devoted to the Dionysiac mysteries, as being in opposition to the city. This paper, however, argues from epigraphic evidence that Dionysiac mystery cults were not marginalized in the Roman Empire, especially in the Roman east. Although Dionysiac mystery cults were fundamentally oriented towards the religious needs of their individual members, epigraphic evidence suggests that Dionysiac religious associations interacted with the public sphere in several significant ways. Moreover, these interactions suggest that being a member of the Dionysiac mysteries was viewed positively, not only by those who self-identified as initiates, but by the wider communities with which they interacted. Dionysiac mystery associations did not exist on the margins of acceptable society, rather they were visibly important contributors to the public good.

The first half of this paper concerns itself with methodological, analytical, and metacritical issues which inform this study of Dionysiac associations. My study importantly breaks with three dominant assumptions of Roman religion: the centrality of civic cult (or polis religion), the emphasis on communal religious expression (i.e. that there was no religious individual in antiquity), and embedded religion. In this respect, I make three important arguments. First, I argue that the Romans were able to distinguish between religious and non-religious phenomena and that religion was not embedded in antiquity. Moreover, I argue that we need to distinguish between religious and non-religious phenomena at a second-order level as a necessary prerequisite for the study of religion in antiquity. Second, I argue for a decentralized approach to Roman religion. Drawing off of Niklas Luhmann’s Systems Theory, I put forward a “systems within a system” model of Roman religion. This model premises an overarching system of religious communication patterns in which multiple expressions of those patterns co-existed with varying degrees of accommodation or exclusion. Third, I argue for the existence of the religious individual in antiquity. This religious individual was able to strategize and make religious choices based on individual needs in specific contexts. Importantly for this study, I engage modern sociological theory to argue that it is the religious individual who, through the adoption and display of a Dionysiac religious identity, acted as the link between the private Dionysiac associations and the public sphere.

The second half of this paper concerns itself with the epigraphic evidence for Dionysiac associations. Here I argue that private Dionysiac cults did not exist in contradistinction with the public sphere, but rather overlapped with the public sphere in significant ways. I identify three dimensions of overlap: locative, civic, and imperial. Each of these areas suggests that Dionysiac associations, especially those oriented towards the mysteries, led vibrant public lives. This can be seen in the monumentalization of Dionysiac identities on epitaphs, the public honours given to fellow members, dedications made by Dionysiac associations on behalf of the city, and the bestowal of honours on emperors, to name but a few of the ways that these groups and their members gained a foothold in the public sphere.

Although my main argument pertains to the status of Dionysiac groups in the Roman east, I make an additional sub-argument about the status of the Dionysiac individual. I argue here that Dionysiac cults were a positive locus for the fashioning of individual religious identity and that Dionysiac identities were valued outside of internal cultic boundaries in wider society. Building off of modern sociological identity theory, I demonstrate the ways in which an individual in the Roman Empire held multiple religious and social identities. Moreover, I demonstrate how the expression of a particular identity in a specific context reveals an individual’s expectations of that specific identity to be accepted in that particular circumstance. That an individual was able to negotiate social hierarchies using a Dionsyaic identity at all, I argue, is indicative of the relative acceptance and esteem accorded to Dionysiac mystery cults in the Roman east.

This study argues that being a Dionysiac in the Roman Empire was not marginalizing, but rather socially acceptable and even esteemed. Those who identified as Dionysiacs did so in the contexts of public honours and social projects that extended up to the highest reaches of social life. It is time that we stop seeing Dionysiac cults as the outsiders of Roman religion and recognize them for what they really were—important players in Roman society.

Read the full paper here!

Conference Paper: A Social Demography of Cursing at Mogontiacum

SCSI am happy to share that my conference paper proposal, “Rogo Te ut Me Vindices: A Social Demography of Cursing at Mogontiacum,” has been accepted to the 2018 Society for Classical Studies (SCS Conference) in Boston!

This project builds off of my work on the Mainz curse tablets and seeks to understand who was patronizing the Sanctuary of Magna Mater and Isis and who were engaging in cursing practices at the site.

Because this paper relies heavily on epigraphic and onomastic (the study of names) analysis, I will be presenting it as part of the “Latin Epigraphy and Paleography” session. Expect lots of diagrams, discussion of Roman naming conventions, and a smidgen of philology.

Here is the abstract:

Archaeological finds at the sanctuary of Magna Mater and Isis in Mainz (Roman Mogontiacum) have significantly contributed to our understanding of cursing in the Roman Empire since the site’s discovery in 1999. To date, thirty-four curse tablets from the sanctuary have been documented and catalogued.  Scholarship has only recently begun to investigate the ways in which these tablets inform our understanding of religious practices in the Germanic provinces. This paper contributes to the discussion of the Mainz curse tablets by offering a social demography of cursing at the temple of Magna Mater and Isis.

The curse tablets found at the sanctuary record the names of forty-six persons who lived in Germania Superior between 65 and 130 CE. This paper begins with an overview of the temple site and cursing practices at the sanctuary of Magna Mater and Isis. Next, I offer a sketch of the social landscape of Mogontiacum, locating it as an important regional hub for commercial, administrative, and military endeavors. Having positioned Mogontiacum as an important regional hub, I turn to a consideration of how the cults of Isis and Magna Mater arrived in the city. I formulate the presence of Eastern cults in Mogontiacum as a unique product of Romanization, one which was tightly connected to the presence of the Roman military. Finally, I turn to a close analysis of the curse tablets themselves. In this section, I consider the linguistic and onomastic markers of indigeneity on the curse tablets and the social networks in which their authors were embedded. I argue, using social network analysis of small groups, that the authors of the curse tablets were likely persons indigenous to the region who underwent a degree of Romanization, but existed at the lower end of the social hierarchy. The Mainz tablets thus not only offer an important record of temple patronage in Germania Superior, they also witness the religious lives of lower-status persons who are normally excluded from the historical record. In the Mainz tablets, these hidden voices speak loudly about the social relationships that informed their daily lives, even if those relationships were cursed.

I am looking forward to presenting this paper at the SCS and hope to see you in Boston!

Forthcoming Publication: Defixiones and the Temple Locus: The Power of Place in the Curse Tablets at Mainz

I am happy to announce that my paper, “Defixiones and the Temple Locus: The Power of Place in the Curse Tablets at Mainz,” has been accepted for publication in the journal Magic, Ritual, and Witchcraft (University of Pennsylvania Press)!

This paper is a direct result of a research project on cursing in antiquity that I undertook in 2014-2015.  This project looked at curses located in temple sites and what that might mean for understanding religious practices in the Roman Empire. My forthcoming paper looks specifically at the curse tablets form Mainz (Roman Mogontiacum), and argues that we need to consider cursing at this site as an religious activity akin to other forms of religious petitioning at the temple.

Here is the abstract:

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.

I look forward to updating when the article is out!

ESSWE6 Conference Wrap-Up


As many of you know, the ESSWE conference is held every two years. Having attended the one in Gothenburg (Sweden) in 2013, I was excited to attend this year’s conference in Erfurt (Germany). I was doubly thrilled as I co-organized two panels on esotericism in antiquity with Dylan M. Burns (Freie Universität Berlin) and I presented a paper at the conference.

The conference was organized by Bernd-Christian Otto of the University of Erfurt. Rather than hosting the conference at the university proper, Otto arranged for the ESSWE to meet at the AugustinerKloister, the place where Martin Luther (yes, that Martin Luther) took his vows to become a monk. Not only was the site well-suited for an academic conference, it was nice to not be holed up in university chambers all day. Also, the conference site was extremely well-organized, which I could certainly appreciate.

With the Mainz Curse tablets.
With the Mainz curse tablets.

As part of the NSEA panel on Magic and Alchemy, I presented a modified version of my forthcoming paper on the curse tablets at Mainz. This paper deconstructed three scholarly frameworks for studying cursing in antiquity and then offered a new way of looking at the tablets. I would say more about this, but you can read the results in the journal Magic, Ritual, and Witchcraft when the article comes out!

Kloisters 2The NSEA panels demonstrated the variety of topics being studied under the NSEA banner. We had a presentation on alchemy from Olivier Dufault (Ludwig-Maximilians-Universität München). Trevor Luke (Florida State University) gave a paper on Pliny’s construction of deviance. Dylan M. Burns and April DeConick (Rice University) both presented on Gnosticism, and Alberto Alfredo Winterberg (Freie Universität Berlin) looked at the reception of gnosticism in modern esotericism. This being the first ESSWE conference with NSEA organized sessions, I was very happy with the breadth of topics, our speakers, and our ability to avoid the dreaded manel.

The rest of the conference was lively and insightful. As always, I find that I am able to learn something useful even if the topic at hand doesn’t apply directly to antiquity. Nevertheless, there was plenty of material for those who study antiquity. In addition to the two NSEA panels, Richard Gordon gave a key note address that provided a longitudinal view of magic in antiquity and Jörg Rüpke also gave a key note lecture on the work being done in his group at the University of Erfurt.

The next ESSWE conference will be held in Amsterdam in 2019. I for one am looking forward to it!

(Photos of the Augustinerkloister and Mainz courtesy of Jimi Veale.)

NSEA Panels at the 6th International ESSWE Conference

NSEA(This post is partially cross-posted from

The preliminary schedule for the 6th International ESSWE Conference in Erfurt is out!

I am happy to report that the Network for the Study of Esotericism in Antiquity has two panels scheduled, both on the first day of the conference (Thursday, June 1st).

I will be speaking about the curses form the temple of Magna Mater and Isis in Mainz at the first panel, Magic and Alchemy.

For your convenience, the NSEA panel schedule is below.

Esotericism and Deviance in Antiquity 1: Magic and Alchemy
Chair: Dylan Burns
Thursday, June 1st, 11:30 – 13:30

  • Spiritual Forgery: Late Antique Gold-makers, Theologians, Imposters and the Beginnings of the Alchemical
    Olivier DuFault
    Ludwig-Maximilians-Universität München
  • Defixiones and the Temple Locus: Illicit Practices, Religious Agencies
    Sarah L. Veale
    University of Toronto
  • Constructing the Canon of Deviance in Pliny the Elder
    Trevor Luke
    Florida State University
  • From illegibility and secrecy to a ritual writing system? The use of Charakteres in Coptic sources
    Kirsten Dzwiza
    University of Erfurt

Esotericism and Deviance in Antiquity 2: Gnosticism
Chair: Sarah L. Veale
Thursday, June 1st, 14:30 – 16:30

  • Ancient Gnostic Sex Magick: Status Quaestonis and New Developments
    Dylan M. Burns
    Freie Universität Berlin
  • A Secret Way to the Divine: The Two Books of Ieou and the Nomina Barbara
    Anna Van den Kerchove
    Institut protestant de théologie – Faculté de Paris
  • Deviant Christians: Resistance to Accommodation Among Esoteric Groups in Antiquity
    April DeConick
    Rice University
  • Remembering “the Gnostics: From mnemohistorical stereotype appropriation to the attempt of reconstruction in Neo-Gnostic Catholicism
    Alberto Alfredo Winterberg
    Freie Universitat Berlin

The conference takes place June 1st through 3rd, 2017. For more information, please see the ESSWE website. I hope to see you in Erfurt!

Movin’ On Up: The History PhD At York University

York University

I am happy to announce that I will be pursuing a PhD in History at York University starting in September!

Those of you in academia already know the sort of effort that goes into the PhD application process—the research proposals, personal statements, transcripts, and reference letters that comprise a successful application. My process was no different. At the end of the day, I applied to two programs that offered the best fit for what I do, University of Toronto Classics and York University History.

I was very fortunate to receive offers from both programs! The decision wasn’t easy by any means. But let’s face it, being able to choose between two strong PhD offers is a “high-class problem.”

I chose York because it offers the sort of innovative and interdisciplinary framework I believe is so essential for doing scholarship in an interconnected world. I can’t give you a run-down of all the ways York is a top-ranked school, or how prestigious the program is. York gets a bad reputation that isn’t made any better by botched promotional efforts (like this ad campaign that misspelled “engineering”) or York’s unofficial slogan, “If you can hold a fork, you can go to York.” What I can say is that York is stacked with amazing faculty who are doing important research despite the dodgy optics.

My PhD research will focus on questions of death and religiosity in Roman antiquity. Although we have a lot of work on epitaphs, graves, and burial in antiquity, we tend not to have too much in-depth research on the religious concerns that might have informed these burial practices. Focusing on death also allows me to continue to dip my toes into areas like cursing and magic—two areas which tend to take up the bulk of my research time, despite my efforts to do more “serious” scholarship!

In many ways, this is a return to form for me. My first degree had a concentration in history, albeit the modern political sort. (If you want to talk détente, rapprochement, or the two Germanies, come at me! Actually—don’t! It’s been awhile!) I am excited to be joining York’s History Department for my PhD and look forward to doing some serious history on Roman antiquity over the next several years.

Curses at the 6th International ESSWE Conference

DTM 250

Regular readers of the blog will already be familiar with the ESSWE, aka the European Society for the Study of Western Esotericism, as well as the thematic network that I am co-director of, the NSEA (Network for the Study of Esotericism in Antiquity).

(If you aren’t familiar, do yourself a favour and get acquainted!)

In June, the University of Erfurt will be hosting the Sixth International ESSWE Conference. This year’s theme is Western esotericism and deviance. As part of the conference, the NSEA is organizing two panels, one on Gnosticism and another on Magic & Alchemy. While a more formal announcement of the panels will be forthcoming, I wanted to provide a brief heads up that, in addition to facilitating one of the NSEA panels, I will also be presenting at ESSWE6!

My paper will be on a topic which I’ve been working on for a few years now: curses. Specifically, I will be talking about the lead tables found at the Sanctuary of Magna Mater and Isis in Germany. In addition to translating some curses from Latin that have yet to be made available in English, I hope to offer a solid re-think of the categories that we use to talk about curses and demonstrate that our conceptualization of “magic” in antiquity is not as clear-cut as it is often portrayed.

I look forward to seeing everyone at the conference in June!

Refutatio Romana Wins the CSSR MA Essay Prize

Judean CoinEach year the Canadian Society for the Study of Religion (CSSR) awards three essay prizes: one at the undergraduate level, one at the M.A. level, and one at the Ph.D. level. The contest is open to anyone who is brave enough to submit their work, and persons from all of the various sub-disciplines of religion compete with each other for the top honour.

I am happy to announce that my essay submission was the prize-winning essay at the Master’s level for 2016! It won by unanimous decision. By now, many of you will be familiar with this paper, “Refutatio Romana:  The Political Dimensions of Religious Alterity in Tacitus’ Histories 5,” as I recently presented a version of it at the CLARE conference in Calgary (which, by the way, was a wonderful experience!). As I mentioned previously, this paper investigates Tacitus’ sudden shift on foreign religion from one of acceptance (e.g. in the case of the Germans or the Brits) to one of rejection in the case of the Judeans. Since I study Dionysiac cult, I analysed this disjunction through Tacitus’ discussion of the Roman wine god Liber and the Judean ritual of Sukkot.

Here is what the committee had to say about my essay:

The writer exhibits strong research and writing skills and a mastery of numerous contexts, literature and cultures in an examination of Roman and Judean understandings of religious and cultural identities, treatment of “the other,” and worship of the divine. Using primary and secondary sources on Plutarch’s and Tacitus’ writings, a strong methodological approach emerges that displays a breadth and depth of anthropological, postcolonial and literary analyses. Bringing ancient texts forward to contemporary relevancy in an engaging and well-constructed argument is accomplished with a good degree of self-awareness in terms of methodology, theory and self-location. This paper emphasises the ongoing need for strong textual analysis within the realm of Religious Studies.

This essay was written as part of a course at the University of Toronto on the Roman historian Tacitus, and I am grateful to my professor for providing the opportunity to prepare what has unwittingly become a quite well-traveled paper. I am also grateful to everyone who has, at one point or another, provided feedback on ways my argument could be improved and for additional angles to consider. Of course, I offer my sincerest thanks to the CSSR and the committee for this award.

Book Review: The Final Pagan Generation

I am happy to announce that I have a new book review in publication! The review is in the Journal of Late Antiquity and looks at Edward J. Watt’s The Final Pagan Generation, which examines how Christianity snuck into the Roman elite consciousness unbeknownst to the Roman elites.

Here is a snippet of the review:

“While much scholarship has been devoted to the Christianization of Rome in the fourth century ce, the lives and experiences of those who were not swept up in religious changes are often overlooked. Watts seeks to correct this imbalance with The Final Pagan Generation. A natural development from his previous work on social interaction in the Roman academy and the roots of religious dissent which culminated in riots in fifth century Alexandria, The Final Pagan Generation captures the religious timbre of the late Roman Empire, filtering historical and religious change through the eyes of those born in the early fourth century, when Roman institutions seemed unshakeable and Christianity was a marginal force in Roman life. Watts problematizes the view that the triumph of Christianity was inevitable, arguing instead that the changes of the fourth century, although writ large in hindsight, were incomprehensible to those living through them. Instead, he suggests a generational divide existed which isolated the final pagan generation from a younger cohort which sought new social and religious possibilities in a changing empire.”

Those of you with access to an online journal database or through your university library can read the full review here.

Of course, I offer my sincerest thanks to the editorial team at the Journal for Late Antiquity for helping to make this happen and being wonderful to work with!


The Island of Sacred Deer

Sacred Deer

The Temple of Artemis in Ephesus (Asia Minor, now Turkey) was a massive cult site which served a variety of community functions. Moreover, like other temples in antiquity, the physical space of the Temple of Artemis was designated as sacred. Nevertheless, such spaces weren’t always used for sacred purposes. For example, sacred land could be rented out to farmers, and sacred ponds could be accessed by fishermen for a fee (Dignas, 175-177). In other words, the goddess was a landlord.

According to Beate Dignas, the temple of Artemis also owned an island which teemed with sacred deer (Dignas, 176). Here’s what the geographer Strabo had to say about this island:

μετὰ δὲ Κολοφῶνα ὄρος Κοράκιον καὶ νησίον ἱερὸν Ἀρτέμιδος, εἰς ὃ διανηχομένας τίκτειν τὰς ἐλάφους πεπιστεύκασιν.

After Colophon and Mt. Coracius, there is a sacred island of Artemis; they believe that her deer enter [the island] for the purpose of giving birth.

(Strabo 14.1.29, translation mine)

I teased you a bit here. We don’t actually have too much information about the sacred deer. Making matters worse, this passage can be interpreted in several ways. Maybe these deer are just garden variety deer. Maybe they belong to the goddess and are used in her rituals or processions.

Dignas seems to interpret this passage as meaning that the island is used for raising sacred deer and that these special animals reside on the island (176). Although this meaning is not entirely clear, I tend to agree with her due to the use of the article τὰς. Such an article is not necessary (see how Strabo omits it when referring to Colophon and Mt. Coracius). Moreover, when the article is used, it can denote emphasis or possession. I am going with the latter use here and taking this as a possessive which gives a nod to Artemis, who is mentioned in the previous clause. Of course, that deer were sacred to Artemis is something that also bolsters this interpretation.

Careful readers of this blog will notice a theme emerging: the connection between sacred animals and sacred spaces which are kept pure of mortal interference. Indeed, we saw this earlier with the prophetic horses of the Germans, which were kept in a sacred grove that wasn’t contaminated by mortal concerns. If this interpretation of Strabo is correct, a case is slowly building for the quartering of sacred animals in similarly sacred spaces. This would make sense within the ancient context. Just as persons might be subject to strict purity regulations when participating in some rituals, it seems such places might have served a similar function for holy animals. The deer of Artemis being one such example.


Photo by Kev Chapman.

Divination by Horses


Divination in the ancient world took many forms. We’ve already talked about hepatoscopy, divination by means of the liver, as well as the fumes at Delphi. Most people are also familiar with augury, a popular form of divination which interpreted the calls and flights of birds. In the ancient world, nearly anything could be a source of prophecy. Hence, in addition to reading entrails and sussing out omens in the sky, we also have things like turomancy (τυρομάντεια), or divination by cheese, an especially delicious form of prophecy, if there ever was one.

As cultures encountered each other in the ancient world, divination could be used to distinguish the religious practices of one peoples from another. Case in point: the Germans, whose divination practices were seen (by Romans) as different from those of the Romans. I’ll be drawing here off the work of Tacitus, who provides a thorough (if biased) source on the Germanic tribes in his book Germany (a.k.a. de Origine et Situ Germanorum). Tacitus has a lot to say about the religious practices of the Germans. Sometimes they are similar to Roman beliefs and practices (e.g. the worship of Castor and Pollux in section 43), other times they are different (for example, the human sacrifice of the Semnones in section 39). Tacitus reports that divination with lots (e.g. runes) was the chief and most authoritative form of Germanic divination (Germany 10). But the Germans also seemed to have a method of divination that was peculiar to them (at least in the eyes of the Tacitus). They divined with horses.

Now, these were not just any horses, but sacred horses who lived in a sacred grove and were paid for by the Germans, who sought their pronouncement on important matters. Here’s what Tacitus has to say about it:

proprium gentis equorum quoque praesagia ac monitus experiri. publice aluntur isdem nemoribus ac lucis, candidi et nullo mortali opere contacti; quos pressos sacro curru sacerdos ac rex vel princeps civitatis comitantur hinnitusque ac fremitus observant. nec ulli auspicio maior fides, non solum apud plebem, sed apud proceres, apud sacerdotes; se enim ministros deorum, illos conscios putant.

– Tacitus, de Origine et Situ Germanorum, 10

Peculiar to this race is that prophecies and warnings are learned from horses. These horses are raised in sacred groves and forests by public expense. The horses are white and have been in contact with no mortal deed; when the horses have been burdened with the sacred chariot, the priest or king or chief of the city follows the horses and they observe their neighing and snorts. There is no truth greater than this sort of divination, not only for the general population, but also for the noble men and the priests. For they believe that they are ministers of the gods and the horses are the god’s witnesses.

– Tacitus, de Origine et Situ Germanorum, 10 (translation mine)

Tacitus seems to view divination by horse (a.k.a. hippomancy) as a practice that is a bit out of the ordinary—at least for Romans. Moreover, he attaches a significant importance to the ritual and prophecy of the horses, noting that the neighs of the horses hold supreme authority not just for the German people in general, but it is also important to those who would be seen by Tacitus as most able to judge the validity of a particular religious ritual: the noblemen and priests.

The discussion of hippomancy occurs during a discussion of Germanic divination practices in which Tacitus escalates the peculiarity of Germanic divination. First, he discusses the casting of lots, then the horses, and finally he describes a ritual used to divine the outcomes of wars which, like hippomancy, is portrayed as strange. By couching hippomancy among other strange and foreign practices, Tacitus highlights the peculiar nature of German divination. Nevertheless, he can’t fully dismiss divination with horses. It’s a practice that it has widespread support, and is taken as veridical by the Germanic priestly and upper-classes.

Although Roman historiographic/ethnographic writing often is laced with the views of their authors, records such as Tacitus’ can give us insight into the religious customs and practices of peoples outside of Rome. Like the Romans, the Germans had a complex body of divinatory ritual, and like the Romans, these methods were used to gauge the intents of the gods and goddesses on mortal affairs. Divination by horse, while just another of the many forms of divination which existed in the ancient world, is one that appears to be particular to the Germans, both in its composition and importance.

Cornelius Tacitus, de Origine et Situ Germanorum

Photo by Stanza.