Visit theallusionist.org/curse-soup to hear this episode, read more about it, and see photos of the Roman Baths and curse tablets.
This is the Allusionist, in which I, Helen Zaltzman, try to forgive language for the word ‘webinar’.
Coming up in today’s show: something like a wishing well, but for insults.
This episode contains one category A and one category B swear.
This episode of the Allusionist is sponsored by Oxford Games. It’s a family business, founded by Leslie Scott, who invented Jenga - you heard her a couple of years ago in the Word Play episode. She’s very charming and entertaining, and so are the games: they sell word games, spy games, camel games, werewolf and vampire games, building games... My favourites are the games that involve bullshitting, for example, Flummoxed, where you have to come up with a definition for a foreign word that is so plausible, your competitors think it's legit; or Ex Libris, where you make up the first or last lines of famous books. These are very family friendly games; a lot of fun to play them at impending festive gatherings; they make great gifts; and you Allusionist listeners can get 20% off your purchases from oxfordgames.co.uk with the offer code ALL20. US customers, there’s a special shipping option for you at checkout.
On with the show.
Somebody has really ticked you off. You're all steamed up inside and you want to vent that rage using words, but you don't want to confront them directly because you're either too polite or too cowardly. So do you:
A. Subtweet them.
B. With your finger, scrawl an insulting message into the dirt on their car.
C. Get a small sheet of lead, scratch into it a message cursing your enemies, roll it up and throw it into your nearest sacred spring?
Oh, I forgot to mention that it's 1700-2000 years ago and you're living in the Ancient Roman Empire, so the answer is C. A lead curse tablet.
STEPHEN CLEWS: If we look in this case to the right, we can see half a dozen curse tablets here. And above the case there's a reference to something called UNESCO memory of the world. Which is one of UNESCO's schemes for recognizing intangible cultural heritage. So it's not a monument. Actually it's all to do with ideas and concepts, things like music and poetry. And the things that go on in our heads. And the curses were added to the UNESCO register in 2014.
HZ: It's good to have a record of human bitterness and anger.
STEPHEN CLEWS: Yes. Indeed.
HZ: Stephen Clews is the manager of the Roman Baths at Bath in southwest England, from which 130 ancient curse tablets have so far been fished out, dating from a 200-300 period from around 2000 to 1700 years ago. Curse tablets, defixiones in Latin, are quite common artefacts - around 2,000 lead curse tablets have been found in sites across the former Roman Empire, 300 in Britain alone. At Bath, there's a lot of sludge at the bottom of the sacred spring that hasn’t been dredged through yet - so the waters could well still contain further curses. Also possibly more curses were written on materials that were not as durable as lead, so have disintegrated into the once sacred hot spring waters that swirl away like a big vat of curse soup.
STEPHEN CLEWS: Well, standing here on a balcony overlooking the spring, we can see it bubbling below us.
HZ: A rather beautiful green colour.
STEPHEN CLEWS: It is, yes. They're actually found about probably I'd say about six metres from the end of my arm, going straight down, because we're looking down on this from really quite a great height.
HZ: The Baths are a warren of pools and structures, built above and below the present day ground level. It’s a many-layered place: there has been human activity at the site of the baths for thousands of years. There’s evidence of Iron Age tribes there. The Celts built a shrine to the goddess Sulis a couple of thousand years ago. Then the Romans invaded, and built a grand temple and a bathing complex. And then on top of those, there have been many modifications and additions since - 12th century and 16th century bathing facilities; 18th century pump room, 19th century museum and concert hall. Layers of construction piling up above the spring, previous incarnations obscured and forgotten; and beneath all of it, under the water, the curse tablets. They lurked in the bottom of the Bath baths for about one and a half thousand years. Then, in the 1880s, one Major Charles Davis was doing some maintenance.
STEPHEN CLEWS: He was the city architect and engineer, and there was a problem with people in nearby houses complaining that water penetrated their basements - hot water. So logically enough, he assumed it came from the spring. And so amongst all the various operations he did, he broke down through the floor of the medieval bath to see what was going on. And he found beneath it the Roman chamber that had been built to encase the spring.
HZ: While trying to patch up the leaks in the chamber, Major Davis trawled through some of the deposits at the bottom of the waters.
STEPHEN CLEWS: In doing this, he recovered two lead curses; and he wasn't sure what to make of them.
HZ: So he sent them off to Germany, where the finest philologists set to translating the two curse tablets. One they managed to crack, partially: it was complaining of a theft of something called ‘vilbia’, a Latin word they didn't know, so it might be a woman's name.
The other, they couldn't understand at all. That curse tablet perplexed translators for a hundred years. Then, in the 1980s, a further 128 tablets were excavated from the baths, and at Oxford University, paleographer Roger Tomlin worked on translating them, including that pesky curse tablet from the first haul.
STEPHEN CLEWS: At which point he realized that people had been trying to read it upside down. Having turned it the right way round, it then read rather like a conventional curse. But that of course is telling you how difficult it is to discern the lettering and so on.
HZ: Yes, to be fair, it’s really difficult to read a curse tablet. First of all, the handwriting’s not winning the tidiness prize at any calligraphy contests. And it’s scratched into dark lead, so you need to shine a strong light across it to see it at all. Many of the curse tablets were rolled up, and after so long being buffeted around in the spring, some are too fragile for archaeologists to unroll to see what’s written on them. And not many of the ones they have unrolled are complete.
HZ: This little curse tablet we're looking at looks like a black cabbage leaf.
STEPHEN CLEWS: Yes it does. It illustrates well the fact that they're fragmentary. There are very few of the curses that are whole and complete. Many of them are quite damaged.
HZ: Some of the tablets are mere fragments, with just a few words or letters, and philologists have had to make educated guesses at the full curses.
STEPHEN CLEWS: So to understand it you have to take all the curses, which all have bits of fragmentary text, and then you realize that some of these phrases repeat and so you can, by playing a kind of complex join the dots, you can get a sense of what many of the curses are about.
HZ: There is a bit of a format for the curses. It addresses the curse victim, name unknown; it outlines the complaint; then suggests a divine punishment for their crime. For example, that upside down tablet that took a century to translate:
STEPHEN CLEWS: The translation is: "Whether boy or girl, whether man or woman, whoever has stolen it is not to be permitted," possibly, then some broken text, "unless any innocence. You are not to grant him nor sleep, unless that a bushel of cloud, a bushel of smoke may come.”
HZ: It's a very eloquent sort of cursing.
STEPHEN CLEWS: It is, yes; it's very sort of poetic in style. And this is clearly the way in which one should address a deity.
HZ: I suppose I hadn't thought of that - I had thought of people writing curses in anger, but not the fact they had to be respectful to a deity whilst doing so.
STEPHEN CLEWS: Yes, I think that was the case.
HZ: And the reason for most of these curses found at Bath? Theft. Most commonly theft of money, blankets, tools, clothes - lots of clothes.
STEPHEN CLEWS: Bathing tunics were particularly popular items for theft. We've got references to three bathing tunics having been stolen. Also a number of other cloaks. Docimedis had his gloves stolen. he asked that the person who had stolen them should - apart from returning the said gloves - should also lose both his mind and his eyes.
HZ: That is, I think, disproportionate.
STEPHEN CLEWS: Well, it is in terms of modern thinking, but of course you have to put your mind into a different mindset. So one lady who had a bronze bowl stolen seeks its restoration, and asks that it be filled with the blood of the person who has stolen it. So that's the way life was.
HZ: A hard life, but one that was at least enlivened by the opportunity to come up with inventive and lurid punishments for your enemies. There was one tablet found in Cyprus in 2008 that was inscribed: “May your penis hurt when you have sex.” Don’t know what crime that was in response to, but it’s a compelling punishment for all sorts of offences. And at the time there wasn’t a police force, so I get why people channeled their desires for justice into these furious pleas to the gods. But why would you throw your curse tablet into a bath?
STEPHEN CLEWS: Well of course this wasn't a bath. It was a spring. And it was - well it still is - a hot spring. So it's an unusual place. And the phenomenon of hot water coming out of the ground was something that in Roman or indeed pre-Roman times was something for which no one had any natural explanation. So if you have something happening for which there is no natural explanation, then the explanation is obvious: it must be the work of the gods. So therefore if this is the work of the gods, it's a place where you might find the gods; and so it might be a place where you could communicate with them far better here than in the middle of a ploughed field or perhaps at home in your backyard. So people came to these special places as pilgrims, to worship the presumed deities of these locations.
HZ: And it was common to many cultures across the ancient world, that notion of water being sacred, and therefore a fast track to contact your deities. People threw lots of different objects into sacred waters - buttons and clothing, weapons, models of body parts that they wanted cured of ailments, or gifts like money or gold hair ornaments or engraved plates, to thank the deities for curing the aforementioned ailments or performing other such favours. The idea still has a hold on people in the present day, judging by how many coins are thrown into water features at shopping malls.
So I thought I’d test our modern day capacity for cursing our enemies. At the Allusionist live show at the London Podcast Festival a few weeks ago, I asked the audience to write their own curses, then roll them up and throw them into a bucket. (Sorry, that was what I could get on my allotted budget for water features.) Instead of deities to read the curses, the next best thing were my fellow Radiotopians Lauren Spohrer and Phoebe Judge of Criminal, and Benjamen Walker of Benjamen Walker’s Theory of Everything.
LAUREN SPOHRER: I have a very nice curse here from Dennis. No - it’s a curse upon Dennis, "for the offense of he knows what."
HZ: How can you be so coy? That is unfair on everyone in this room.
LAUREN SPOHRER: "May their mouth be burned by pizza and their content buffer forever."
BENJAMEN WALKER: "This is a curse upon David, for dumping me by text, and saying my writing is basic. May their tweed be eaten by moths, and their social skills become increasingly awkward."
PHOEBE JUDGE: "I wish to visit a curse upon the guy ahead of me on the plane for the offense of reclining too far. May their shoulders and neck be forever not able to rest on a supportive surface and their knees feel vaguely compressed."
BENJAMEN WALKER: Here’s one about Costco - do you have Costco in the UK? - "for treating me like a criminal for not having a membership. May your long lost son turn up in the shop for a reunion, and then, as he’s not a member, obviously, be turned away, never to be seen again, and their hearts be forever broken."
PHOEBE JUDGE: “I wish to visit a curse on Christian L for writing that letter. May their writing hand be unable to write anything but dirty limericks” - I think that would be a pretty good skill - “and their head be full of the overlapping choruses of 90s songs.”
BENJAMEN WALKER: Those could go together; you could have songs of dirty limericks to those tunes, and then the person becomes a millionaire.
HZ: What’s that one in highlighter?
BENJAMEN WALKER: That’s for Karen, who has the offence of being a bully. This person “wants Karen’s weird hair to catch fire and burn with the intensity of the sun each time she lies. And for her to die alone, unloved, riddled with nasty skin conditions.” Alright, highlighter, woo, you don’t fuck around.
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This episode was produced by me, Helen Zaltzman, with Martin Austwick who also makes the music for this show. Thanks to Stephen Clews and Hannah Tunstall from the Roman Baths and Pump Room in Bath - you should visit - and Julia Farley, Sian Toogood and Nick Harris from the British Museum. You heard Lauren Spohrer and Phoebe Judge from Criminal, and Benjamen Walker from Benjamen Walker’s Theory of Everything - we’re all proud members of Radiotopia from PRX, a collective of the best podcasts in audiotown. We are extremely grateful to all of you who donated to the Radiotopia fundraiser - 23,500 of you have chosen to support our shows and keeping us creating our work, which is truly amazing. Got to thank a few others for their part in the fundraiser: RadioPublic, the team at Commit Change, the Wythe hotel in Brooklyn, Steve Bercu, who was the first donor of this year's campaign and got us started with a very generous contribution, Tom Romer at Chop Shop for the merit badge stickers which all you donors will receive, the tireless team at PRX, and, again, you listeners, because without you, it’s all for nought.
Your randomly selected word from the dictionary today is…
trudgen, noun, a swimming stroke like the crawl with a scissor movement of the legs. 19th century: named after English swimmer John Trudgen.
Ding ding, we’ve got an eponym! Try using it in an email today.
You can find the show at twitter.com/allusionistshow and facebook.com/allusionistshow - don’t send me curses. And you can see pictures of the sacred spring at Bath, and some of the curse tablets found in it, at theallusionist.org.