Mucking up Antonius

I’ve been thinking and writing about Roman curses a lot lately and this is a quick thought about a recently published curse tablet from the fons Annae Perennae in Rome. In Gordon and Simón (eds.) Magical Practice in the Roman West (Leiden, 2010), J.Blänsdorf publishes 8 curse tablets from the fountain of Anna Perenna on the Campus Martius (p.215-244).

To give some background: the reservoir associated with the fountain was uncovered during the construction of an underground car-park in 1999 and produced some fascinating finds that attest to late antique cult practice.In particular, 22 lead curse tablets (defixiones) were recovered, dating from the late 4th century, 8 of which are the subject of Blänsdorf’s chapter. The chance discovery allows a glimpse into the continuities and transformation of a very old cult, previously best attested in Ovid’s Fasti 3.523-696 (see more from Piranomonte and Simón on this here).

I’m interested here in one of these lead texts – Blänsdorf’s Text 1 (inv. 475561). It is, he writes, “the simplest form of defixio” – only containing a name, without any of the more elaborate curse formulae or magic letters. On the obverse, the name “Antonius” appears in majuscule script, written above a drawing of a figure, with the letters ANTO written between the legs.

On the reverse, there are four lines of letters:

ANTION

TOENT

USUNU

O

This reverse caught my eye. Blänsdorf’s explanation seems unsatisfactory. He suggests (p. 217) that the writer of the defixio was barely literate and needed to practice the name on the back of the tablet, before his ‘real’ curse on the front. These letters, then, would spell out the name as “a transcript of a kind of syllabic dictation: An-ti-o-n-to-en-i-us.” (p. 231). Perhaps I am being too literal, but these letters do not strike me as a likely outcome of a dictation of the name Antonius, nor am I happy with the idea that this is a first effort at the name.

Instead, I think, there is another possible (better?) interpretation of the reverse of this tablet, not as a mistake, but as part of the curse itself. The defigens (curser) deliberately jumbled the name of Antonius in order to do harm. We know of several curse tablets that work by this sympathetic logic (the so-called similia-similibus type). As Chris Faraone pointed out some time ago, we have several Greek texts where the writing of the text backwards is supposed to result in a similar effect on the victim (“The Agonistic Context of Greek binding spells” in Magika Hiera, p. 6-8). For example, he quotes DTAtt 67, written in retrograde: “Just as the words are cold and reversed, so too may the words of Krates be cold and reversed”. By the late Classical period, he writes, when other texts had abandoned boustrophedon script, writing curses in retrograde remained popular, perhaps precisely for this sympathetic effect.

In the same Gordon and Simón volume that the texts from the fons Annae Perennae appear, Faraone and Amina Kropp (p. 381-398) discuss several Latin texts that show similar logics – one from Mautern in Austria (AE 1950, 112) asks a wife to see how her husband is “upside down just as his name is written” (quom{m}odi nomen il<l>ius scribtum est); on the other side of the tablet, a request to the gods for the death of the target (presumably the husband) is completed by the writing of the name upside down. The written manipulation of the name apparently indicating the desired effect. They also point out one of the new Mainz curse tablets (Blänsdorf #18), which says in the first line “I put Quintus on this tablet upside-down” and then in line 7, the phrase “the name of Quintus” (nomen Quinti) is written upside down to the rest of the text.

This is not any kind of full collection of the evidence and I have not found a precise parallel, but I think these examples, Greek and Latin, are suggestive for what might be going on in the Antonius tablet. The deformation of the constituent elements (Latin elementa = letters) of Antonius is an analogy. The jumble of letters is intended to have the same effect on the holder of the name – our curser did not muck up “Antonius”, he wants to muck up Antonius.

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