Monday, 15 December 2014

A Question of Faith and Ancient Curse Tablets

We live in a world with a large array of attitudes towards faith.  From a complete absence of faith to strong devoutness to religious fundamentalism:  faith is taking a prominent role in today's society.  The role of religion and faith in contemporary society is sometimes very confusing.  The association between religious faith and political aims is extremely apparent, not just in the Middle East, but also in western countries.  In the case of Australia, we need look no further than the current federal parliament. 

I find the issue of faith and politics interesting owing to the manner in which studies into Roman religion and politics are most often approached currently.  It annoys me how our studies often create a false hiatus between the religion of the Roman republic/Augustan principate and the imperial period, especially in relation to the religious elements of Roman festivals.  There seems to be this prevailing idea that because of the political nature of Roman public entertainment there cannot be a religious element to it based on faith.  Surely our current political environment should open our eyes to how this is not such an alien concept.

But the range of human faith was made more apparent to me recently as I was preparing a workshop on ancient curse tablets (defixiones).  As a part of the workshop I had participants make their own curse tablet to get a first-hand feel for this act of faith from the ancient world.  I couldn't allow participants to inscribe lead owing to occupational health and safety regulations, but I did use lead personally at home in order to show participants what these tablets might have looked like new, and how easy it was to prepare them. 

Inscribed Lead Curse Tablet


As an agnostic with pagan religious tendencies, the thought struck me as I engraved my lead tablet "What if I were to succeed in cursing someone by doing this?"  I had no real faith or belief, but the question was still there in the back of my mind.  In the end, I did not actually fold and nail an inscribed lead tablet; and neither did I deposit it.  I had made it for illustrative purposes, not religious purposes.  I also did not perform any ritual while inscribing the lead as suggested by the Greek Magical Papyri.

At my first workshop, a participant refused to write a curse because he did not think it was a good thing to do.  Instead he wrote a blessing.  This person identifies himself as an atheist.  In my second workshop, another participant who identifies as an atheist stopped and said "I know this is silly, but what if I were to actually curse someone by doing this?"  I reassured him that I did not think this was a silly question. 

Despite the fact that these participants were using an aluminium foil laminate instead of lead, and despite not ritually depositing the tablet, and despite not self-identifying as religious, two people in separate groups questioned whether or not this ritual act might influence our world.  The question, that I too had pondered. 

We live in a world where we question the appropriate role of faith in society as a whole, but like the Roman world (and other historical societies), faith continues to influence us.  While I am sure that there are atheists who would scoff at questioning whether the act of inscribing metal might as affect the world, faith can still wriggle its way into the minds of some.  Is it any surprise then that it will influence those who are open about their religiosity and faith?  And why on earth do scholars secularise the religious ritual elements of public entertainment during the Roman imperial period?

Despite what we might wish, human beings as a whole are not rational, and as a direct result our societies aren't rational either.  I'd like to say that I have faith that this might change - but that would be a little too facetious.

If you would like to know more about ancient curse tablets, you can find a summation of my research on academia.org.  As for how easy it is to work with lead so long as you don't mind risking exposure to a potentially dangerous heavy metal, please view these two clips:

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