7 Ancient Roman Curses You Can Work into Modern Life

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iStock

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.

After 110 Million Years, This Spider Fossil's Eyes Are All Aglow

© Changkun Park, Electron Probe Micro Analyzer, Korea Polar Research Institute
© Changkun Park, Electron Probe Micro Analyzer, Korea Polar Research Institute

A big, hairy spider is enough to give anyone a fright. So you can imagine what a set of eight glowing eyes attached to a body like that might do to an arachnophobe's psyche. One such spider was discovered recently by researchers, but don’t worry—the iridescent-eyed arachnid has been dead for 110 million years.

As Popular Science reports, this rare, fossilized specimen was found in South Korea’s Lower Cretaceous Jinju Formation. The find was unusual for a couple of reasons. For one, spiders are not usually preserved in rock because the soft-bodied creatures decay easily. It’s also not every day that you see a long-dead spider with glowing eyes. On top of that, researchers found two well-preserved examples of these spiders, which were described in a recent issue of the Journal of Systematic Palaeontology.

Both specimens belong to Lagonomegopidae, an extinct family that predated jumping spiders. The glow is caused by a layer of tissue called tapetum lucidum, which coats the spider’s eyes and reflects light, allowing the spider to hunt at night with ease. Many animals have it—including cats, dogs, horses, deer, raccoons, and some modern spiders—but this is the first paper to describe its existence in a fossilized spider. The tapetum is crescent-shaped and “looks a bit like a Canadian canoe,” according to Paul Selden, a geology professor at the University of Kansas and co-author of the paper.

“Because these spiders were preserved in strange silvery flecks on dark rock, what was immediately obvious was their rather large eyes brightly marked with crescentic features,” Selden said in a statement.

The fossilized spider
Paul Selden

Researchers now want to go back and take another look at similar spiders preserved in amber, which are far more common than spiders fossilized in rock. The challenge is determining whether those specimens also have a layer of tapetum lucidum coating their eyes.

“Amber fossils are beautiful, they look wonderful, but they preserve things in a different way,” Selden said. “Now, we want to go back and look at the amber fossils and see if we can find the tapetum, which stares out at you from rock fossils but isn’t so obvious in amber ones because the mode of preservation is so different.”

[h/t Popular Science]

A (Still-Sharp) Medieval Sword Was Pulled from a Sewer in Denmark

Pipe layer Jannick Vestergaard and engineer Henning Nøhr hold up the sword they found.
Pipe layer Jannick Vestergaard and engineer Henning Nøhr hold up the sword they found.
Nordjyllands Historiske Museum (Historical Museum of Northern Jutland)

If the legend of King Arthur and Excalibur is anything to go by, anyone who successfully extracts a sword in a stone will be treated like royalty. The fable doesn’t say anything about the reward one gets for removing a medieval weapon from feces, though.

As Smithsonian reports, a pipe layer and an engineer recently found a sword from the medieval era while doing construction work on a sewer in Aalborg, Denmark’s fourth-largest city. The relic was plucked from a layer of waste that had accumulated atop an old slab of pavement that once ran through the city.

Most remarkably, the sword was still intact—and the blade still sharp. It’s about 3.5 feet long and of extremely high quality, according to archaeologists. The sword may have been used between 1100 and 1400, but the likeliest explanation is that it got separated from its owner sometime in the 14th century. “Findings from here have always pointed to the 1300s, so the sword must have ended up in the earth in this century,” archaeologist Kenneth Nielsen said in a translated statement.

The sword next to a tape measure
Nordjyllands Historiske Museum (Historical Museum of Northern Jutland)

It’s rare for such an important historical artifact to turn up in such an unlikely—and unhygienic—place. Swords were valuable and highly prized possessions, and they were treated as such. They were typically buried with their owners, but no graves are situated above the sewer where the weapon was found.

The country’s history offers some clues about what may have transpired, though. In the 1300s, power struggles and internecine war were common throughout Denmark. “The best explanation we can come up with is that the owner of the sword was defeated in a battle,” Nielsen told The Local Denmark. “In the tumult, it was then trod down into the layer of mud that formed the street back then.”

Similarly, a 14th-century sword was found in a Polish peat bog in 2017, and archaeologists suspect the owner either sunk into the marsh and met a grisly end, or merely dropped his weapon and was unable to retrieve it.

While these questions will likely remain unanswered, members of the public will have the chance to admire the Danish "sewer sword" in all its glory at the Aalborg Historiske Museum (Aalborg Historical Museum), which is located near the site where the sword was found. Fortunately for future visitors, it will be cleaned and preserved first.

[h/t Smithsonian]

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