Bryn Mawr Classical Review 04.02.03

John G. Gager, Curse Tablets and Binding Spells from the Ancient World. New York, Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1992. Pp. xv + 278. ISBN 0-19-506226-4.

Reviewed by Brent Vine, Princeton University.

John Gager and his "primary contributors" (Catherine F. Cooper, David Frankfurter, Derek Krueger, Richard Lim) have rendered an important service: we now have a convenient collection of some 168 translated and extensively-annotated texts related to curse tablets (134 actual curse texts, plus assorted ancient testimonia). (By contrast: Georg Luck's popular collection Arcana Mundi: Magic and the Occult in the Greek and Roman Worlds [Baltimore/London, 1985; 395 pp.] contains but a single brief curse tablet [p. 91].) The hoary original-language curse tablet collections (e.g. A. Audollent's Defixionum Tabellae [Paris, 1904]) remain useful to specialists, but have conspired to limit access to this material among a broad range of students and scholars of ancient religion and culture. Indeed, owing to subsequent finds, these collections are no longer fully representative of the material, which must now be sought in widely-scattered publications of a still more specialized nature. There is ample reason, then, to be extremely grateful to Gager and his associates for having provided such a rich and accessible collection of these fascinating and culturally important documents.

The book is organized as follows. After a "Preface" and a list of bibliographical/notational "Abbreviations and Conventions", there is a general "Introduction" to the nature and study of curse tablets (pp. 3-41), followed by seven chapters in which the curse tablet texts themselves are grouped according to subject matter: "Competition in Theater and Circus", "Sex, Love, and Marriage", "Tongue-Tied in Court: Legal and Political Disputes", "Businesses, Shops, and Taverns", "Pleas for Justice and Revenge", "Miscellaneous Tablets", and "Antidotes and Counterspells". A final chapter of "Testimonies" collects references to curse tablets in ancient literature. Each chapter is provided with a brief introductory essay outlining some of the specific features found in the texts and commenting on the issues they raise. The book concludes with a "Glossary of Uncommon Words" (in fact, only theonyms and the more common voces mysticae or "magic words"), and a general "Index".

The editorial stance, however, is far from neutral. Perhaps it is the emotional power of the texts themselves that seems somehow to have imbued the editors with an almost evangelical fervor: they are eager not only to disseminate the material and to argue for its importance (no problem here), but also, one might say, to "bind" the book's readers, so that they will interpret the material in a particular way. Drawing heavily on some recent work (especially several of the studies in Magika Hiera: Ancient Greek Magic and Religion, ed. C. A. Faraone and D. Obbink [New York, 1990]), the editors aim to promote nothing less than a complete blurring of the distinction between "magic" and "religion": "We have avoided the use of the term 'magic' in this volume.... it is our conviction that magic, as a definable and consistent category of human experience, simply does not exist" (p. 24). Less space, in my view, could have been devoted to the recurrent and repetitive proselytizing for this particular tenet; it can now, in any case, be more carefully evaluated, thanks to Gager et al.'s more important contribution of having made this body of material so much more accessible to scholars of ancient "religion" and/or "magic" -- or whatever one chooses to call it (or them).

Naturally, such compilations open themselves to quibbles regarding editorial strategies and choices. Organization: the entire topical arrangement lends itself well to assessing some issues, but obscures geography and chronology (and the use of endnotes for the introductory essays, as opposed to footnotes, is annoyingly cumbersome). Bibliography: much important secondary material, even several items repeatedly referred to, is not deemed worthy of inclusion in the "Abbreviations and Conventions", and therefore remains difficult of access -- a problem that could have been solved by an end-bibliography. Indexing: incredibly, there is no index of texts (nor is there a concordance of texts found in major published collections), and the "Index" itself is pitifully inadequate with respect to the many annotations of words and phrases in the texts themselves. Annotation: even if one agrees (as I do not) with the editor's contention (pp. v-vi) that it was neither necessary nor feasible to provide texts in the original languages (as opposed to annotated translations), the heavy textual commentary this choice nonetheless entailed ("The text reads ...", "The Greek word is ...", etc.) is often helpful, but sometimes frustrating. This is particularly the case when the commentary indulges in unsubstantiated exegetical pontification. To cite one example: text no. 80 (p. 172), a lead tablet from Nomentum written in Latin, has one spell on each side, both texts consisting largely of the familiar enumeration of body parts; the word (acc. pl.) merilas, however, is left untranslated in both of its occurrences (Side A: "... sinews, bones, merilas, ..."; Side B: "... chest, bones, merilas, ..."), with only the following annotation (fn. 83): "Not translatable: Audollent (DT 135) suggests an emendation to meritas." But this is entirely unsatisfactory. Surely the reader is entitled to know that this word has always been thought to mean "marrow" (which would make excellent sense in context, cf. text no. 98 [p. 196] "... in his heart, in his marrow, in his veins, ...", among many other such parallels that could be adduced), why the word is now judged to be "[n]ot translatable", and why Audollent's otherwise extremely unattractive suggestion is worthy of mention, much less worthy of consideration. Finally, in terms of execution: one of the editorial justifications (in my view rationalizations) for not providing original-language texts rests on an attempt (p. vi) "to provide exhaustive bibliographical references for each of the texts included in this collection", an attempt which has unfortunately failed in practice. Thus, such a well-known text as the first-century B.C.E. Roman or Campanian "Plotius' Curse" (no. 134, pp. 240ff.) is not even provided with its CIL number (12.2520), which would eventually lead interested readers (see esp. CIL 12 [fasc. 4, 1986] p. 967) to several bibliographical items beyond the few listed by Gager et al., where Ernout's important edition of the text, with linguistic commentary (Recueil de textes latins archaïques4 [Paris, 1957 and later reprintings], no. 140) likewise goes unmentioned.1 To conclude this catalogue of relatively minor cavilling: the book was evidently put through the press in some haste. Typographical errors are remarkably rare for such a complex production (although "Sylloge Inscriptionum Graecorum" [sic], p. 126n16, presages an ominous trend in Oxford Press editing);2 but indications like "see pp. 000-000" (at least five occurrences) are most unhelpful, as are inconsistent bibliographical references (e.g. P. Brown's Religion and Society in the Age of Saint Augustine cited twice as "London, 1972" [pp. 124, 233], once as "New York, 1988" [p. 49]), among other glitches. (Further: FIGURE 26 [p. 215] confusingly places the facsimile of Side B over that of Side A for the inscription in question [no. 116], and the failure to caption the otherwise helpful and interesting photographs and other illustrations with indications as to which texts they represent is a constant source of annoyance.)

A more substantive criticism, to my mind, concerns what appears to be a Helleno-centric conception of the documentation, despite the inclusion of some material originally composed in Latin, Hebrew, Aramaic, Coptic, and Demotic. This could be justified, to be sure, as a way of providing a realistic picture of the overwhelmingly greater numbers of Greek texts among the surviving documents. But for a collection of texts "from the Ancient World", and which will no doubt find its primary use among Classicists, the Italic material is strikingly under-represented. Of the 134 curse texts offered, fewer than twenty are Latin.3 Still more astonishing -- but symptomatic -- is the complete absence of even a single one of the interesting and well-studied Oscan and Oscan-Latin texts, for which reliable editions could easily have been consulted. I find, moreover, not even the slightest mention of this important Italic material, which is far older than many of the texts selected for inclusion, and which would have provided interesting points of contact for many of the texts ultimately chosen. But even this reservation must not be taken to diminish the extraordinary benefit this anthology confers. As the editor notes (pp. v-vi), "The work of reexamining and reediting tablets ... promises to reach far into the next century"; this interim collection will serve us well until that time.


  • [1] For the name Salvia, note also J. Winkler, Auctor & Actor: A Narratological Reading of Apuleius's The Golden Ass (Berkeley/Los Angeles, 1985), p. 318n75.
  • [2] Cf. "Corpus Inscriptionum Latinorum" [sic], in E. Courtney, The Fragmentary Latin Poets (Oxford, 1993), p. xvi.
  • [3] Chapters 2 and 6 have no Latin texts at all, Chapters 3 and 4 have only two each.