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.

Endeavour, Captain Cook's Lost Ship, Might Have Been Found—Solving a Centuries-Old Mystery

Wellcome Images, Wikimedia Commons // CC BY-SA 4.0
Wellcome Images, Wikimedia Commons // CC BY-SA 4.0

The exact location of the final resting place of Captain James Cook’s HMS Endeavour, which was sunk off the coast of Rhode Island 200 years ago, is considered one of maritime history’s greatest mysteries. Now, after a 25-year effort to pinpoint its remains among 13 sunken vessels, The Age reports that the Endeavour might have finally been identified.

British explorer James Cook left England on the Endeavour in 1768 headed for the South Pacific. He and his crew became the first European expedition to map the entire coast of New Zealand, and later, the first to reach Australia’s east coast. Along the way, they collected hundreds of previously unknown plant species, became the first Europeans to record a kangaroo sighting, and gathered evidence that would help disprove the existence of the long-speculated southern continent, Terra Australis, that hypothetically extended all the way up to the equator.

A replica of the 18th-century 'Endeavour' in the ocean
A replica of the Endeavour in 2004
Dennis4trigger, Wikimedia Commons // CC BY-SA 3.0

After that three-year journey, Cook and his crew returned to England. Though Cook became a legend, the Endeavour didn’t receive the star treatment. The British Royal Navy used it to ferry supplies to and from the Falkland Islands for several years before selling it to a private buyer. The ship was renamed the Lord Sandwich, and was eventually put into service transporting German mercenaries to fight on Britain's side in the American Revolution.

That’s how the ship ended up in Rhode Island, where it was stationed as part of the Royal Navy’s fleet in Newport Harbor and used as a prison ship for captured American soldiers. When French reinforcements came to assist American revolutionaries in Rhode Island, the British decided to sink their ships rather than allow them to be captured, creating a blockade out of scuttled vessels to block the French from getting into the harbor. They sank 12 transport vessels and set another on fire. Over the ensuing years, locals and French forces took equipment from the wrecks, but it’s never been entirely clear what happened to the remains.

The Rhode Island Marine Archaeology Project began to try to map and identify those remains starting in the early 1990s, and eventually figured out that the Lord Sandwich was the same ship as the HMS Endeavour. As the ship played a vital role in Australian history, the Australian National Maritime Museum then got involved with the project.

The two organizations have announced that they have lowered the number of potential wrecks that could be the Endeavour from 14 to five—and perhaps down to just one—by inspecting the area and measuring the wrecks against historic information about Cook's vessel. The researchers think the final resting place of the ship is located off the coast of Goat Island in Narragansett Bay, but to be absolutely certain, they’ll have to excavate the remains of the ship and examine its timbers. The researchers hope to have that work done by the 250th anniversary of Cook’s arrival in Australia’s Botany Bay—and his claiming of Australia as British territory—in 2020.

And there may be a battle over the remains. While the ship is considered a vital artifact of Australian history, the state of Rhode Island claimed ownership of all of the sunken ships in 1999, and they are overseen by the Rhode Island Historical Preservation and Heritage Commission.

[h/t The Age]

There Could Be Hundreds of Frozen Corpses Buried Beneath Antarctica's Snow and Ice

Prpix.com.au/Getty Images
Prpix.com.au/Getty Images

Scientists and explorers take a number of risks when they travel to Antarctica. One of the more macabre gambles is that they'll perish during their mission, and their bodies will never be recovered. According to the BBC, hundreds of frozen corpses may be trapped beneath layers and layers of Antarctic snow and ice.

“Some are discovered decades or more than a century later,” Martha Henriques writes for the BBC series Frozen Continent. “But many that were lost will never be found, buried so deep in ice sheets or crevasses that they will never emerge—or they are headed out towards the sea within creeping glaciers and calving ice.”

In the world’s most extreme regions, this is not uncommon. For comparison, some estimates suggest that more than 200 bodies remain on Mt. Everest. Antarctica's icy terrain is rugged and dangerous. Massive crevasses—some concealed by snow—measure hundreds of feet deep and pose a particularly serious threat for anyone crossing them on foot or by dogsled. There’s also the extreme weather: Antarctica is the coldest, driest, and windiest place on Earth, yet scientists recently discovered hundreds of mummified penguins that they believe died centuries ago from unusually heavy snow and rain.

One of the most famous cases of a left-behind body on Antarctica dates back to the British Antarctic Expedition (also known as the Terra Nova Expedition) of 1910 to 1913. British explorer Robert Falcon Scott and his four-man team hoped to be the first ones to reach the South Pole in 1912, but were bitterly disappointed when they arrived and learned that the Norwegian explorer Roald Amundsen had beaten them to it.

On the return trip, Scott and his companions died of exposure and starvation while trapped by a blizzard in their tent, just 11 miles from a food depot. Two of those bodies were never found, but the others (including Scott’s) were located a few months after their deaths. Members of the search party covered their bodies in the tent with snow and left them there. The bodies have since travelled miles from their original location, as the ice grows and shifts around them.

Other evidence suggests people landed on Antarctica decades before Scott’s team did. A 175-year-old human skull and femur found on Antarctica’s Livingston Island were identified as the remains of a young indigenous Chilean woman. No one yet knows how she got there.

Accidents still happen: After coming close to completing the first solo, unaided traverse of Antarctica, British adventurer Henry Worsley died of organ failure following an airlift from the continent in 2016. Most modern-day polar visitors, however, have learned from past missteps.

[h/t BBC]

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