Defixiones

The things that draw me to archaeology are not the battles nor the Roman legions, nor any of the political aspects, although of course they are all important to understanding the events of the times. What interests me are the little, daily things. How did people live? Why did they live here and not down there? How did the wave of that new cutting-edge thing called “farming” reach them, and what did they do about it?

So, while the arrowheads and swords and grave artifacts in our local museum are interesting in their own way, there are other things I find fascinating — like the tiny little curse tablet found at the excavations of Veldidena (Wilten, an Innsbruck neighborhood and a former Roman settlement).

These are little messages to the Gods about some personal matter. Before the internet, before I Love You I Hate You, before sticking notes in the wailing wall, there were curse tablets. These were popular enough to have been manufactured in advance in some cases, just fill in the details as needed.

The text scratched onto the metal reads, in translation (mine, from the German translation displayed in the Museum):

Secundina curses the unknown thief and consigns his persecution to the Gods Mercury and Moltinus.

The mention of this tablet in the book “Curse Tablets and Binding Spells from the Ancient World” (John G. Gager, Oxford University Press) offers up a longer text version, with some discussion about earlier translations — such as the word draucus which could be connected with the Greek word for necklace; another argument suggests it is an old Celtic “loanword” for cow. That Moltinus is the name of a Celtic God might lend authority to that idea.

Secundina! Number-two daughter, pissed off at the theft of a piece of jewelry, or devastated by the theft of her livelihood? In any event, in her demand for retribution she invokes both a Roman and a Celtic God, just to be on the safe side (maybe Moltinus has more power up here in his home turf than Mercury, far away from Rome). What was life like for a Roman woman in such a place as this? Did she hate the Föhn? Were the natives threatening? Had the early Christians arrived? (Probably not yet.) The God Moltinus (or Moldinus) is known by only one other inscription, and that is from Gaul. Did she have a Raetian or Gallic heritage? There’s probably a novel waiting to be written just about this one woman, and all because she got ripped off one day, and did what people did when that happened.

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3 Responses to Defixiones

  1. ellroon says:

    It’s these kinds of items that humanize the past and makes us realize how much like us the people of ‘antiquity’ were. I love the backgrounds in Medieval paintings where you can see daily life depicted, or the graffiti carved into a Roman brothel calling someone a bad name. We haven’t changed much, have we?

  2. Marcellina says:

    I recently stumbled onto an archaeology blog called “Ancient Bodies, Ancient Minds” http://ancientbodies.wordpress.com/ which deals with this aspect a lot, and with what the research can tell us of women’s lives — the everyday life going on behind the battles and the politics.

  3. ellroon says:

    Fun! Thanks for the link.

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