You are here

Curses, Class, and Gender: Psychological and Demographic Aspects of Roman “Magic”

Andreas Bendlin

The umbrella term “Graeco-Roman magic” encompasses a range of heterogeneous ritual practices, malign and otherwise, which even today are often portrayed as the opposite of proper religious practice.  Recently, however, scholars have begun to reject this dichotomy, realizing that the etic category “magic” cannot do justice to the variety of ancient practices, contexts, and motives thus labeled.  One alternative approach has been to explore the function(s) so-called “magical” practices, curses and spells in particular, had in minimizing everyday life’s risks (e.g. Graf 1997: 113–114; Eidinow 2007: 225–237; Gordon 2012).  My paper, which is in two parts, focuses on two underexplored aspects of Roman-period curses: I argue that, once we dissociate the practice of cursing from the category “magic,” curse texts may provide an insight into both psychological and demographic aspects of (Graeco-)Roman religious practice more generally.

I draw on the ensemble of curse tablets recently discovered in the sanctuary of Mater Magna and Isis in Roman Mogontiacum/Mainz (Blänsdorf 2012) to illustrate how local non-specialist practitioners employed defixiones to resolve quotidian issues ranging from theft, fraud, and interpersonal disputes to envy and anger.  Curse texts focusing on these concerns—parallels exist in pre-Roman and Roman Italy and throughout the Graeco-Roman world—have been categorized as “prayers for justice,” “judicial prayers” (Versnel 1991; Faraone 1991: 4–10), or “request formulae” (Kropp 2010: 365–372).  While such taxonomies have significant value, the first part of my paper provides a complementary focus: I suggest that social psychology (e.g. Case & al. 2004; cf. Kiernan 2004 and Gordon 2013 for two earlier, significantly different approaches) helps to elucidate the psychological and religious “coping” strategies users employ in the curse tablets from Mainz to deal with a range of emotional, social, economic, and moral stressors; the motives, functions, and effects of such coping strategies went beyond the appeal to “justice” or the management of risks.

Second, identifying social background in curse tablets remains notoriously difficult (Kropp 2008: 255). Graeco-Roman literature locates the practitioners of “magic” in the world of the “superstitious” Other—usually foreigners, women, the poor, and slaves.  Such literary representations are often social and gendered constructs (cf. Pollard 2001; Stratton 2007), rather than historical representations of ritual practitioners.  This may be one reason why—with a few notable exceptions (e.g. the case of one type of gendered “magic,” erotic spells: Faraone 1999: 132–175; Pollard 2001: 161–214; Foxhall 2013: 154-157)—scholarship on curses addresses gender and status distinctions only summarily.  Another reason may be the assumption that the practice of defixiones was indiscriminately shared across all strata of society.  To be sure, the belief in the efficacy of ritual cursing flourished in very different milieus.  However, the second part of my paper notes that the (all too few) individuals in the sub-group of curses found in Mainz whose background we can ascertain or guess belong to the very groups the literary sources caricature: women, sub-elite Roman males, slaves, and the indigenous population.  In this respect, I argue, the demographic data from Mainz, however fragmented, are consistent with curse tablets from the Roman West and elsewhere that focus on similar quotidian issues.

Session/Panel Title

Religion, Ritual, and Identity

Session/Paper Number


© 2020, Society for Classical Studies Privacy Policy