BMCR 2021.07.35

Iaô sabaôth: pratiques magiques dans la cité des Tongres: une tablette de défixion mise en contexte

, , , , , , , Iaô sabaôth: pratiques magiques dans la cité des Tongres: une tablette de défixion mise en contexte. Papyrologica Bruxellensia ; 39. Bruxelles: Association Égyptologique Reine Élisabeth, 2019. Pp. 120; x p. of plates. ISBN 9782960083453. €30,00.

The excavation of the Regulierenplein, a square southwest of the city centre of Tongeren (French Tongres), revealed in November 2016 the first clear example of a lead curse tablet (defixio) from Belgium, now housed in the city’s Gallo-Roman Museum. The monograph reviewed here represents a more detailed elaboration of an article presenting this object published by the same authors in 2019.[1] Despite the brevity of the tablet’s text, its nature as one of the few examples to come from a well-documented excavation is fully exploited in this volume, with the result that an object which might easily have been overlooked becomes a key piece of evidence for the reconstruction of the development and diffusion of the Graeco-Egyptian magical tradition.

The monograph begins with an overview of the excavation of the site at Tongeren, discussing each of the major phases of its occupation (pp. 9-11), and setting the stage for a narrower presentation of the immediate archaeological context in which the tablet was found (pp. 13-15). The presence of luxury ceramics from Italy and Lyon in the immediate context of the tablet allows it to be dated to between 40 and 80 CE.

The next chapters present the tablet and its text (17-19), along with the palaeographic characteristics of the two scripts—Greek and Latin—and one pseudo-script—charaktēres—used in the tablet (pp. 21-23). The following, and longest, chapter provides a detailed discussion of the tablet, its nature, relationships to other artefacts, and dating (pp. 25-43). The authors carefully demonstrate that it is almost certainly a curse tablet, despite not having been folded, or deposited in one of the more typical sites for curse tablets (a grave, body of water, or sanctuary). Rather, it was likely left at the victim’s home – a fourth, though less discussed, location for such curses—perhaps nailed to a wall in a discreet spot.[2] Most interestingly, the tablet demonstrates clear textual and graphic connections – the latter in the form of a gabled “stela” depicted in the centre – with four other tablets, two from Hadrumetum, one from Carthage, and the fourth from the Isthmus of Corinth.

A more detailed discussion of the textual content itself (pp. 45-51) follows. Since the text is almost totally composed of indecipherable voces magicae, a traditional philological commentary is not possible, but several of the voces – among them the Iao Sabaoth of the title—are paralleled in other magical objects, including the four Mediterranean curse tablets. As the authors note in the next chapter (pp. 55-59), these parallels imply that the Tongeren tablet may derive from a written formulary, which would have allowed relatively stable transmission across large geographic distances.

The appendix to the textual commentary discusses the victim’s name—Gaius Iulius Viator, son of Ingenua, whose possession of the full Roman tria nomina marks him as a Roman citizen (pp. 52-53), and, in a provincial city, a member of the elite (the cognomen Viator perhaps implies that his family belonged to the military rather than the magistracy).[3] Although the authors link the use of his mother’s name to the principle of mater semper certa (i.e., the identity of the mother is certain while that of the father is not; p. 51), we should note that the use of matronymics is standard in Graeco-Roman magic from the first century CE, likely the result of Egyptian influence.[4]

The next chapter discusses the context of the city of Tongeren in the late first century, a relatively prosperous town linked administratively and economically to the larger Cologne; notably the authors also point out here the presence of individuals from the Mediterranean, who might have been able to draw upon the cursing techniques of that region (pp. 61-67). The last part presents the few other “magical” texts found in the region of Tongeren (pp. 69-75) – alongside three indecipherable lead tablets, the most interesting is a golden lamella of the late second century CE, discovered as part of a larger cache at Baudecet. Given that it contains a stela similar to that of the lead tablet, previous analyses have wavered between understanding it as an amulet or as a dedication; the authors here convincingly argue for the former possibility, recognising Latin forms of the common voces magicae Marmaroth, Sabaoth, and Iao.[5]

Three appendices complete the French-language section of the volume. The first presents the results of an isotopic analysis of the composition of the lead, confirming that it was produced locally (pp. 77-79). The second provides the text of the four parallel tablets (pp. 81-83), reproducing the printed text of the editiones principes; while we might have wished for updated editions, the impracticality of re-reading lead tablets (unlike papyri) from photographs likely prevented this. The final appendix presents a list of 62 individuals from the Mediterranean known from the prosopography of first-century CE Cologne and Germania Inferior (pp. 85-87). Even if we might find the suggestion that the creator of the curse was necessarily Mediterranean somewhat speculative, the list clearly demonstrates that Tongeren was well integrated into the larger world of the Roman Empire by the first century, providing a material context for the transmission of Graeco-Egyptian magical “technology”.

After the bibliography and indices, a summary of the volume in Dutch follows, resuming all the major points (pp. 109-117; Tongeren is part of Flemish Belgium). The volume ends with ten colour plates, providing views of the site, the tablet, other magical objects to which it is compared, and the Baudecet amulet.

As the volume makes clear, one of the most important contributions of the Tongeren tablet to the historiography of the ancient magic is the fact that it can be precisely dated to the first century. Despite the range of definitions which have been proposed, scholars working on the Graeco-Roman world generally use the term “magic” to refer to a range of objects distinguished by particular material and functional characteristics; in the Tongeren tablet, the most striking of these are the voces magicae and charaktēres. As several authors have pointed out, these are generally absent from published lead defixiones until about the second century CE. The earlier examples belong instead to a “vernacular” tradition, consisting of simple lists of names, or else dedications or petitions to local deities, which apparently grew out of and existed alongside an oral practice.[6] This tradition appears in the Greek-speaking world of the late sixth century BCE, and spreads to north-west Europe by the first centuries CE; the earliest large group from this region is the collection of late-first-century tablets from the Isis-Magna Mater sanctuary in Mainz.[7] About two hundred published tablets (primarily in Latin) come from later Gaul, Germany, and southern Britain[8], but these belong predominantly to the “vernacular” curse tradition to which the Tongeren tablet offers a striking exception.[9]

The Graeco-Egyptian magical tradition to which the characteristic voces magicae and charaktēres belong seems to have developed in Egypt, though its use of lead defixiones was likely an adoption and elaboration of the older Greek vernacular practice.[10] Yet our knowledge of the development and diffusion of this ritual tradition is hampered by the fact that so many of the key documents were excavated informally, often simply appearing unprovenanced in public or private collections. The best known of these artefacts, the papyri of the Theban Library,[11] date to between the second and fourth centuries, often creating the misleading impression that Graeco-Egyptian magic is fundamentally a Late Antique phenomenon, although the fact that there are published Greek papyri, amulets, and defixiones from this tradition in the first centuries BCE and CE[12] demonstrates that this impression is incorrect. Yet these objects are relatively little known, and dated palaeographically, so that even generally careful authors have often argued that the key developments and diffusion of the Graeco-Egyptian tradition took place in second century CE.[13]

The Tongeren tablet thus presents an important piece of this larger puzzle, providing clear evidence that, by the first century CE, the Graeco-Egyptian tradition was already sufficiently established that a defixio drawing upon its techniques could be found in modern Belgium, almost as far as this tradition could travel from Egypt without leaving the borders of the Roman Empire.

This volume is a rich testament to the value of a collaborative approach, with the volume’s seven authors each contributing their expertise. The work they are able to carry out based on a single short text demonstrates the degree to which many published texts—and certainly magical texts—remain underexploited as historical sources.


[1] Roxanne Sarrazin Bélanger, Alain Delattre, Daniel Demaiffe, Natasja De Winter, Alain Martin, Georges Raepsaet, Marie-Thérèse Raepsaet-Charlier, “Une tablette de défixion récemment découverte à Tongres”, Latomus 78 (2019): 471-481. Cf. the earlier announcement in Alain Delattre, Alain Martin, Roxanne Bélanger, Georges Raepsaet, and Marie-Therese Charlier, “La tabula defixionis de Tongres: interpretation”, Signa 7 (2018): 67.

[2] Cf. the evidence of later Coptic curses, e.g. Marvin W. Meyer and Richard Smith, Ancient Christian Magic: Coptic Texts of Ritual Power, Princeton: Princeton University Press, 1999, nos. 74, 77, 84, in which defixiones are deposited at the victim’s door.

[3] Cf. Rada Varga, Mhai Săsărman, “Nomina Germanorum ex provincia Dacia”, Sciva 63.1-2 (2012): 83-97 at 91.

[4] Jaime B. Curbera, “Maternal Lineage in Greek Magical Texts,” The World of Ancient Magic, ed. David R. Jordan, Hugo Montgomery, and Einar Thomassen, Bergen: Norwegian Institute at Athens, 1999, 195-203.

[5] In the absence of a full study of voces magicae, see William M. Brashear, “The Greek Magical Papyri: An Introduction and Survey; Annotated Bibliography 1994),” Aufstieg und Niedergang der römischen Welt II.18.5, ed. Wolfgang Haase, Berlin: de Gruyter 1995, 3380–3684., at 3676-3603; Joachim Friedrich Quack, “Griechische und andere Dämonen in den spätdemotischen magischen Texten”, Das Ägyptische und die Sprachen Vorderasiens, Nordafrikas und der Ägäis, ed. Thomas Schneider, Münster: Ugarit Verlag, 2004, 427-507 at 472-502.

[6] Christopher A. Faraone and Richard L. Gordon, “Curse-Practices in the Late-Antique Roman Levant and North Africa”, Religion in the Roman Empire 7 (2021), [3–18]; Jessica Lamont, “Crafting Curses in Classical Athens: A New Cache of Hexametric Katadesmoi”, Classical Antiquity, 40.1, pp. 76–117; Christopher A. Faraone, “Aeschylus’ ὕμνοςδέσμιος (Eum. 306) and Attic Judicial Curse Tablets,” Journal of Hellenic Studies 105 (1985): 150-154.

[7] Jürgen Blänsdorf, Die defixionum tabellae des Mainzer Isis- und Mater Magna-Heiligtums. Defixionum tabellae Mogontiacenses, Mainz: Generaldirektion Kulturelles Erbe Rheinland-Pfalz, Direktion Landesarchäologie, 2012.

[8] Celia Sánchez Natalias, “Mapping Katadesmoi in the Western Roman Empire”, From Document to History: Epigraphic Insights into the Greco-Roman World, ed. Carlos F. Noreña and Nikolaos Papazarkadas, Brill, Leiden 2019, 151-164.

[9] Daniela Urbanová, “Latin Curse Texts: Mediterranean Tradition and Local Diversity”, Acta Antiqua Academiae Scientiarum Hungaricae 57 (2017): 57-82; Richard Gordon and Francisco Marco Simón, “Introduction,” Magical Practice in the Latin West, ed. Richard L. Gordon and Francisco Marco Simón, Leiden: Brill, 2010, 1-49, at 16-17.

[10] Cf. Christopher A. Faraone, “The Ethnic Origins of a Roman-Era Philtrokatadesmos (PGM IV 296–434),” Magic and Ritual in the Ancient World, ed. Paul Mirecki and Marvin Meyer, Leiden: Brill, 2001, 319-343.

[11] Cf. Korshi Dosoo, “A History of the Theban Magical Library”, Bulletin of the American Society of Papyrologists 53 (2016): 251-274.

[12] The earliest Graeco-Egyptian formularies include PGM XX, PGM CXI, PGM CXVII, PGM CXXII; for early amulets see Roy D. Kotansky, Greek Magical Amulets, vol. 1, Papyrologica Coloniensia 22.1 (Opladen 1994) nos. 39, 48.

[13] Richard Gordon, “Charaktêres Between Antiquity and Renaissance: Transmission and Reinvention,” Les savoirs magiques et leur transmission de l’Antiquité à la Renaissance, ed. Véronique Dasen and Jean-Michel Spieser, Florence: Sismel, 2014, p. 253-300, esp. 257-263 ; Richard Gordon, “Fixing the Race: Managing Risks in the North African Circus,” in Contesti magici/Contextos mágicos, ed. Marina Piranomonte and Francisco Marco Simón, Rome: De Luca Editori d’Arte, 2012, 47-74, at 36-39.