7 Ancient Roman Curses You Can Work into Modern Life

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Curse tablets, known to researchers as defixiones, were a popular form of expression in the Roman Empire from the 5th century BCE to the 5th century CE. More than 1500 tablets—inscribed in Latin or Greek, and scribbled on bits of recycled metal, pottery, and rock—have been found from Britain to north Africa, sealed with nails and hidden away in graves, wells, and natural springs. Many are so formulaic that it’s thought they were written by professional scribes who sidelined as curse-writers, and whose words, it was believed, would imbue the tablets with magic.

Used by commoners and the elite alike, the little notes revealed what many Romans really wanted the gods to do to their enemies: The garden-variety curse would ask the gods to “bind” someone else’s body to strip them of their power. Others addressed retribution, theft, love, and even sports. Some of the more inventive could be used in our 21st-century lives—just swap out the Roman names and use your imagination to get dark magic to do your bidding.

1. "OLD, LIKE PUTRID GORE"

Curse: Vetus quomodo sanies signeficatur Tacita deficta.

Translation: "Tacita, hereby accursed, is labelled old like putrid gore."

No one knows what Tacita did, but it must have been quite heinous to warrant a curse this serious. Discovered in a grave in Roman Britain dating to the early 2nd century CE, this curse was written backwards on a lead tablet, perhaps to make it more potent.

2. "LOSE THEIR MINDS AND EYES"

Curse: Docimedis perdidit manicilia dua qui illas involavit ut mentes suas perdat et oculos suos in fano ubi destinat.

Translation: "Docimedis has lost two gloves and asks that the thief responsible should lose their minds and eyes in the goddess’s temple."

Poor Docimedis was just trying to enjoy a nice soak at Aquae Sulis, now known as Roman Bath in Somerset, UK, when someone made off with his gloves. This tablet dates to the 2nd-4th centuries CE and comes from a large cache of curses relating to bathhouse thefts, which were apparently rampant.

3. "MAY THE WORMS, CANCER, AND MAGGOTS PENETRATE"

Curse: Humanum quis sustulit Verionis palliolum sive res illius, qui illius minus fecit, ut illius mentes, memorias deiectas sive mulierem sive eas, cuius Verionis res minus fecit, ut illius manus, caput, pedes vermes, cancer, vermitudo interet, membra medullas illius interet.

Translation: "The human who stole Verio’s cloak or his things, who deprived him of his property, may he be bereft of his mind and memory, be it a woman or those who deprived Verio of his property, may the worms, cancer, and maggots penetrate his hands, head, feet, as well as his limbs and marrows."

This is an especially nasty curse on the culprit who stole Verio’s clothes, because being devoured by worms was seen as a particularly gruesome, undignified death. The tablet was found near Frankfurt, Germany and dated to the 1st century CE.

4. "BE STRUCK DUMB"

Curse: Qui mihi Vilbiam involavit sic liquat comodo aqua. Ell[…] muta qui eam involavit.

Translation: "May the person who carried off Vilbia from me become liquid as the water. May she who has so obscenely devoured her be struck dumb."

This partially broken lead tablet refers to the "theft" of a woman named Vilbia by an unknown person; whether Vilbia was the curse-giver’s girlfriend, concubine, or slave is unclear. It was also found at Roman Bath.

5. "BE UNABLE TO CHAIN BEARS"

Curse: Inplicate lacinia Vincentzo Tzaritzoni, ut urssos ligare non possit, omni urssum perdat, non occidere possit in die Merccuri in omni ora iam iam, cito cito, facite!

Translation: "Entangle the nets of Vincenzus Zarizo, may he be unable to chain bears, may he lose with every bear, may he be unable to kill a bear on Wednesday, in any hour, now, now, quickly, quickly, make it happen!"

This curse is aimed at gladiator Vincenzus Zarizo, who fought in Carthage, North Africa, in the 2nd century CE. The author of the curse presumably had some money riding on Zarizo’s bear fight.

6. "KILL THE HORSES"

Curse: Adiuro te demon, quicunque es, et demando tibi ex hanc hora, ex hanc die, ex hoc momento, ut equos prasini et albi crucies, occidas et agitatores Clarum et Felicem et Primulum et Romanum occidas.

Translation: "I implore you, spirit, whoever you are, and I command you to torment and kill the horses of the green and white teams from this hour on, from this day on, and to kill Clarus, Felix, Primulus, and Romanus, the charioteers."

The most frequently cursed animals on these tablets were horses, given their importance in chariot races. This particular curse comes from Hadrumetum (in modern day Tunisia) from the 3rd century CE, and the side opposite the curse included a crude depiction of an anatomically correct deity, presumably to aid in ensuring the rival teams failed.

7. "NEVER DO BETTER THAN THE MIME"

Curse: Sosio de Eumolpo mimo ne enituisse poteat. Ebria vi monam agere nequeati in eqoleo.

Translation: "Sosio must never do better than the mime Eumolpos. He must not be able to play the role of a married woman in a fit of drunkenness on a young horse."

This tablet wishes ill on an actor named Sosio. In Roman comedic theater, apparently the "drunk woman on a horse" was a common joke, so the person making the curse hopes that Sosio’s stand-up routine will fall flat. It was found at the site of Rauranum in western France and dates to the late 3rd century CE.

Secret Doorway Discovered in London’s House of Commons

Historian Liz Hallam Smith shows off the a-door-able opening in the wall of Westminster Hall.
Historian Liz Hallam Smith shows off the a-door-able opening in the wall of Westminster Hall.
ITV News, YouTube

Earlier this week, England’s Parliament announced that a secret door had been discovered in the walls of Westminster Hall.

BBC News reports that the 360-year-old passageway, located in the cloister on Westminster Hall’s west side, opens into a small chamber that would have led right to Westminster Hall if the other entry hadn’t been sealed. There are still traces of that entryway inside the passage, though, which include the original hinges for two wooden doors that would’ve been just under 11.5 feet tall.

Liz Hallam Smith, a University of York historical consultant for Parliament, explained that she and her team had been sifting through 10,000 uncatalogued documents about the Palace of Westminster when they uncovered old plans for the doorway, which they then located in person.

“As we looked at the paneling closely, we realized there was a tiny brass keyhole that no one had really noticed before, believing it might just be an electricity cupboard,” Smith said in a statement.

After several attempts, the Parliamentary locksmith managed to design a key that unlocked the door, revealing the long-forgotten passageway. Dendrochronologists analyzed wood from the ceiling and determined that the trees had been cut down in 1659, which tracked with historical accounts of the construction having occurred between 1660 and 1661 for the coronation banquet of Charles II.

According to Parliament’s statement, the passageway was used for coronations, Speaker’s processions—in which the Sergeant at Arms escorts the Speaker of the House of Commons from his apartments in the palace to the Commons chamber—and shortcuts by members of Parliament.

It hasn’t been used for decades, but it’s not completely empty: There’s a light switch and a working light bulb that historians believe was installed during renovations after World War II, and there’s also some cheeky “graffiti” from about 100 years before then. Bricklayers who restored the room in the years after the fire of 1834 scrawled “This room was enclosed by Tom Porter who was very fond of Ould Ale” and “These masons were employed refacing the groines [sic] August 11th 1851 Real Democrats” on its walls.

“The mystery of the secret doorway is one we have enjoyed discovering,” Mark Collins, a Parliament estates historian who helped find the passage, said in the statement. “But the palace no doubt still has many more secrets to give up.”

[h/t BBC News]

More Than 350 Franklin Expedition Artifacts Retrieved from Shipwreck of HMS Erebus

Drone image above the HMS Erebus shipwreck.
Drone image above the HMS Erebus shipwreck.
Parks Canada's Underwater Archaeology Team

From a shallow Arctic gulf, a treasure trove of objects from the HMS Erebus shipwreck has been brought to the surface for the first time in more than 170 years. The items could offer new clues about the doomed Franklin expedition, which left England in 1845 to search for the Northwest Passage. All 129 people perished from still-uncertain causes—a mystery that was fictionalized in the AMC series The Terror in 2018.

Marc-André Bernier, head of underwater archaeology at Parks Canada, said in a teleconference from Ottawa that this year’s research season was the most successful since the discovery of the HMS Erebus shipwreck in 2014. Parks Canada divers and Inuit located the HMS Terror, the second ship of the Franklin expedition, in 2016.

Parks Canada diver at HMS Erebus shipwreck
A Parks Canada diver retrieves a glass decanter at the HMS Erebus shipwreck.
Parks Canada's Underwater Archaeology Team

From mid-August to mid-September, 2019, the Parks Canada and Inuit research team began systematically excavating the large and complex shipwreck. “We focused on areas that had not been disturbed since the ship had sunk,” Bernier said. “Right now, our focus is the cabins of the officers, and we’re working our way toward the higher officers. That’s where we think we have a better chance of finding more clues to what happened to the expedition, which is one of the major objectives.”

Over a total of 93 dives this year, archaeologists concentrated on three crew members’ cabins on the port side amidships: one belonging to the third lieutenant, one for the steward, and one likely for the ice master. In drawers underneath the third lieutenant’s bed, they discovered a tin box with a pair of the officer’s epaulets in “pristine condition,” Bernier said. They may have belonged to James Walter Fairholme, one of the three lieutenants on the Erebus.

HMS Erebus shipwreck epaulets
A pair of epaulets, which may have belonged to third lieutenant James Walter Fairholme, was found at the HMS Erebus shipwreck.
Parks Canada's Underwater Archaeology Team

In the steward’s pantry, where items used to serve the captain were stored, divers carefully brushed away sediment to reveal dozens of plates, bowls, dish warmers, strainers, and more— about 50 serving pieces total. Bernier said some of the most exciting finds were personal objects that could be linked to individuals, such as a lead stamp with the inscription “Ed. Hoar,” for Edmund Hoar, the 23-year-old captain’s steward. They also found a piece of red sealing wax with a fingerprint of its last user.

Dishes at HMS Erebus shipwreck
Divers found dishes in the steward's pantry at the HMS Erebus shipwreck.
Parks Canada's Underwater Archaeology Team

Other intriguing items brought to the surface include a glass decanter, found in the officers’ mess area on the lower deck, which may have held brandy or port; a high-quality hairbrush with a few human hairs still in the bristles; and a cedar-wood pencil case. All of the artifacts are jointly owned by the Government of Canada and Inuit.

Hairbrush from HMS Erebus shipwreck
A hairbrush discovered at the HMS Erebus shipwreck still had a few human hairs in the bristles.
Parks Canada's Underwater Archaeology Team

The extensive recovery was made possible by a new research barge, which was moored over the shipwreck and provided hyperbaric chambers and hot-water suits. While wearing the suits, divers were able to stay in the frigid waters for about 90 minutes at a time; they spent over 100 hours examining the wreck this year.

The HMS Erebus’s size and excellent state of preservation mean there’s much more to discover, Bernier said. The Erebus is 108 feet long, and though the upper deck has collapsed, there are 20 cabins on the main deck. They’ve examined only three so far. “There are tens of thousands of artifacts still there,” Bernier tells Mental Floss. “We’re going to be very focused and save what needs to be saved, and go to places [in the wreck] where there are good chances of finding the most information that is valuable for the site.”

Parks Canada and Inuit archaeologists
Parks Canada and Inuit archaeologists set up instruments near the HMS Erebus shipwreck.
Parks Canada's Underwater Archaeology Team

As with the findings from previous research seasons, many questions about the shocking demise of the Franklin expedition remain unanswered. How and when did the HMS Erebus sink after both ships were abandoned in spring 1848, having been trapped in ice since September 1846? Which officers and crew were among the 24 men who had died by that time, and why so many?

Bernier tells Mental Floss there’s even a new mystery to solve. Near Edmund Hoar’s items, divers found another artifact that also bore the name of a crew member—mate Frederick Hornby. “Originally, when the ships set sail, he was not on Erebus, he was on Terror,” Bernier says. “So this object jumped ship at one point. How did that happen? Was Hornby transferred to Erebus; did they abandon one ship and put everybody on the other one? Was it something somebody recovered after he died? Was it given to somebody? With one object, we can start to see [new] questions. Hopefully, by piecing all of this together, we can actually start pushing the narrative of the story in some interesting direction.”

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