When you think of curses you might think of grand legends, dashing heroes, clever heroines, and evil villains. However, many curses were much more specific and much more mundane than you’d expect. A fantastic cache of curse tablets was discovered in Bath, England that date back to the 2nd-4th centuries CE. There were discovered in the Roman Baths and written, most likely, by the Roman occupants.
There are two basic kinds of curse tablets. First, there are defixiones (binding curses) used to restrain competitors in love, sport, law, and more. The second is ‘prayers for justice’ which is the category many of the Bath curse tablets fall into. Theft (and cursing thieves) is a hugely common theme in these kinds of curse tablets. It makes sense that many of the curse tablets left around Bath and its hot springs would be about theft since hot springs and spas were a great place to filch everything from money to clothes.
The curse tablets were typically made of pewter or lead. Once inscribed, the curser would throw them into the hot springs at Bath. They were also sometimes hidden under the floor or shoved into wall cavities around the baths. Many of the curse tablets found around the baths were to Sulis Minerva, Romano-Celtic goddess, and asked for revenge or for wrongs to be made right.
It was believed Sulis Minerva’s spirit dwelt in the hot springs and that is why so many of the curses asked her directly for help and were thrown into the springs or secreted away in her temple. Minvera was the Roman goddess of wisdom, medicine, commerce, handicraft, poetry, and the arts at large. Sulis Minerva was frequently requested to harm people and her relation to the hot springs brings some connection to the underworld and darkness.
Some of the curses include:
“I have given to the goddess Sulis the six silver coins which I have lost. “It is for the goddess to exact them from the names written below: Senicianus and Saturninus and Anniola.”
Solinus to the goddess Sulis Minerva. I give to your divinity and majesty my bathing tunic and cloak. Do not allow sleep or health to him …who has done me wrong, whether man or woman, whether slave or free, unless he reveals himself and brings those goods to your temple.”
“Docimedis has lost two gloves. (He asks) that (the person) who stole them lose his mind and his eyes in the temple where (she) appoints.”
“I curse (him) who has stolen, who has robbed Deomiorix from his house. Whoever (stole his) property, the god is to find him. Let him buy it back with his own life.”
Atlas Obscura makes the interesting point that these tablets may have been read aloud as a way of lowering crime, “The Bath tablets may have been displayed publicly and read aloud to the public before being dropped in the sacred pool. Faraone compared the Bath texts to those of the Sanctuary of Demeter at Cnidus, Asia Minor; those texts were set up publicly so that worshippers, who would hear them being read aloud, “might provide missing information about unsolved crimes and … might also bring social pressure to bear upon the alleged criminals … and thereby resolve the conflict.”
One of the most valuable aspects of the curse tablets is their ordinariness. For the most part a lot of what we have from this time are from great people. However, these tablets are basically the daily prayers and wishes of those who lived in the community. According to the United Nations Educational, Scientific, and Cultural Organization, “The Roman curse tablets from Bath are the earliest known surviving prayers to a deity in Britain.” Additionally, they note “The Roman curse tablets offer also an insight into the extent of bilingualism in the British population under Rome.”
The 130 Roman curse tablets recovered from Bath are on the UNESCO UK register.
The above image is the "The Roman curse tablets from Bath Britain's earliest prayers. These tablets are inscribed on the UNESCO Memory of the World register of significant documentary heritage. They are the only documents from Roman Britain on that list. Complaint about theft of Vilbia - probably a woman. This curse includes a list of names of possible culprits. Perhaps Vilbia was a slave." From the Temple Courtyard. Roman baths, Bath, UK. CC-BY-SA-4.0. Photograph by Mike Peel.