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Circular by Design: Graphic Clues in Magical and Cultic Graffiti

Irene Polinskaya

King's College, London

The issue of graphic display has particular relevance to the category of ancient magical inscriptions, although it is typically not seriously studied or theorized.  For some categories of magical inscriptions, graphic display is not significant: in binding curses inscribed on rectangular strips of lead, linear arrangement of text bears little connection to the purpose of the spell, rather mundanely mirroring rectangular confines of the epigraphic field.  At the same time, effectiveness of other spells is intrinsically linked to graphic display: spells designed to stop the bleeding are inscribed in the shape of inverted triangle, with each line of text losing one letter at the start and end of the line, making each line shorter than the one above until the bottom of the triangle is formed by a single letter. In this case, graphic display reinforces the intent of the spell - gradually to reduce and stop the bleeding.

For this paper, I focus on circular form of graphic display as used in graffiti on pottery. I present a brief survey of categories of ancient Greek inscriptions attested in circular form on pottery, including votive dedications, owners’ inscriptions, and magical texts, but quickly zero in on magical graffiti and some disputed cases, in which circular graphic display serves as a diagnostic feature informing the identification of texts as magical.

Ostraka, made from bases of open ceramic shapes, kylikes and skyphoi, are particularly common as the writing medium, on which circular display of graffiti is attested. It can be argued that the shape of the ostrakon itself suggests circular display as the most convenient for the inscriber; conversely, it can be argued, that the bases of pots were chosen for specific types of inscriptions because circular display was sought after, and the shape facilitated it. It is often clear from the way such ostraka are shaped that they were prepared deliberately, with jagged edges of broken walls of the pot chipped off or filed away. The purposeful choice of shape is also supported by the fashioning of circular ostraka from walls rather than bases of ceramic vessels, however, such ostraka sometimes, contrary to expectation, carry linear texts.

The main part of the paper explores the relationship of graphic display to the function of text (and object as a whole) in the famous Pharnabazos graffito from Olbia Pontike, dated to the early 5th century BC (SEG 30.976, 46.954, 51: 979). The text, in the edition of Vinogradov and Rusyaeva 1998, reads Φαρνάβαζος φιλόκαλος· πρόοιδα τέθνηκας· ἠρεμέω θεοπρόπος Ἑρμοῦ. Δα(σκυλείου) (τῆς) Μυ(σίης) ἐπί(τροπος).  Inscribed on the underside of an Attic kylix base, the graffito consists of writing and images, with a head in profile surrounded by a circle of writing, and additional shapes and lines.

The graffito has been mainly interpreted as a magical inscription: editio princeps (Rusyaeva 1979), and more specifically as a curse (Lebedev 1996; Vinogradov and Rusyaeva 1998), defixio (Bravo 2000/01, Belousov 2016). Only Dubois (1996, no. 98) has so far denied the magical function of the graffito and proposed instead that it relates to a cult association of Ἑρμαϊσταί. While agreeing with the view of graffito as a curse, Belousov has recently taken the discussion forward by addressing its circular graphic display and drawing comparisons with other graffiti from the Northern Black Sea region.  In this paper, I propose a new reading of Pharnabazos graffito on the basis of my recent autopsy; dispute its identification as a curse; and challenge the interpretation of its circular graphic display as indicative of magical function. In conclusion, I suggest that writing in circle would have signified a variety of potential meanings to both writers and readers of graffiti, and we lack and therefore need a comprehensive functional analysis of the corpus of graffiti so displayed.

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Graphic Display: Form and Meaning in Greek and Latin Writing

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