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Religious Experience, Ritual Knowledge, and Gender in the Athenian Curse Tablets

Irene Salvo

University of Goettingen (Germany)

Can fragmentary and sometimes obscure documents be interpreted in the light of contemporary theories of religion? This paper has the ambition to read curse tablets from classical Athens within the framework of three analytical categories: religious experience, magical knowledge, and gender.

Athenian curses have been recently studied as evidence of social history (Riess 2012; Papakonstatinou forthcoming). Particularly relevant to the present inquiry is the scholarly work on how the gender factor influenced the practice of casting curses against an enemy or a designated victim, especially in the case of erotic curses (Faraone 1999; Dickie 2000; Pachoumi 2013; Frankfurter 2014; Salvo 2016). The cursing ritual was exploited in order to aid heterosexual as well as homosexual relationships. Furthermore, the social status and the economic condition of the spell-casters have been analysed, sometimes limiting the identification of women casting spells to prostitutes and courtesans.

While gender and social agency have received adequate study, less attention has been devoted to the links between experience of communication with the divine, knowledge, gender, and social representation. Although the tablets were often written by professional scribes and magicians, to a certain extent they reveal information about the individuals who commissioned them. Therefore, it is possible to try to reconstruct the lived experience behind a tablet. Experience is here intended both as the sensory and emotional complex of activities in the mind of the participants to the cursing ritual, as well as in the sense of religious expertise and procedural knowledge. On a first level of analysis, being the results of strong feelings, from wish for revenge and envy to love and fear, curse tablets allow us to have a glimpse on how rituals could mould affects. On second level of analysis, these documents can offer insights on the degree of ritual expertise that was disseminated in Athens. From the point of view of the ritual agents themselves, it is worth exploring to what extent men and women demonstrated their knowledge through the text of binding curses. From the point of view of the observers external to the ritual, but within the society under study, it will be examined the social representation and image of men and women from various social strata. This paper, then, will try to show how men and women resorting to magic in classical Athens perceived themselves and how they were socially perceived.

Illustrating visions of social and self-perception as well as of magico-religious experience and expertise, this paper will contribute to the understanding of how magic shaped the image of men and women in classical Athens. On a broader perspective, it will demonstrate how in antiquity inscriptions influenced the creation of social identities, and how cognitive theories of religion and transmission of knowledge can help in decoding elusive pieces of evidence.

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Epigraphy and Religion Revisited

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