Spell Tablets

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What is a Spell Tablet?

Vilbia Tablet
You can make a spell tablet from a sheet of pliable metal, or flattened clay. Becks/Flickr/Creative Commons (CC BY 2.0)

Archaeologists have unearthed, in recent years, a number of items which are referred to as spell tablets or curse tablets. They’ve been excavated in several places, and although there are several different methods of creation, some of the best known finds were used for malevolent magic. The curse tablet or spell tablet appears to have been most popular in the Greek and Roman classical worlds, although there are examples from other societies as well.

Archaeological Treasures

A typical curse tablet was created on a thin sheet of lead or other pliable metal. The individual casting the spell scratched a prayer to the gods into the lead, usually asking the deities for their assistance in smiting someone who had wronged them. Targets were often rivals in love or war. One such tablet, on display at Johns Hopkins Museum, calls upon the goddess Proserpina (the Roman version of Persephone) for the unpleasant death of a slave called Plotius. There's no indication as to what Plotius might have done to torque someone off, but it's clear they want him to die painfully – and the conditions of the curse are outlined in very specific, painful detail.

In 2008, a seventh-century tablet was unearthed in Cyprus by archaeologists excavating the ruins of the kingdom of Amathus. The tablet, inscribed in Greek, reads, "May your penis hurt when you make love.”

N.S. Gill, our About.com Guide to Ancient History, says that curse tablets were often used as theft deterrents in Roman bath houses: “A victim of theft might seek the god's vengeance or double the likelihood of divine help by transferring ownership of his stolen garment (or other article of value) to the god who would then want to retrieve the garment in his own interest … Inscribing on his piece of lead the victim would call on the god to right the wrong, by bringing the criminal to justice and retrieving the lost article.” Over a hundred curse tablets have been excavated from the springs at Aquae Sulis, which is now known as the city of Bath.

One of the Bath tablets has been referred to as the Vilbia tablet, and is shown in the photo above. It reads, "May he who carried off Vilbia from me become liquid as the water. May she who so obscenely devoured her become dumb." No one is sure who or what Vilbia was, but clearly someone was upset at her loss.

In addition to thieves and romantic rivals, curse tablets were often used in court cases. If you were going up against someone in a legal matter, a curse asking the gods to tie your opponent’s tongue could come in very handy.

Christopher Faraone's book Magika Hiera: Ancient Greek Magic and Religion reminds us that it’s important to note that not all spell tablets were specifically designed with curses in mind. Many were used for love and lust spells, and some were placed at gravesites to help the dead travel peacefully through the underworld. A spell tablet can, theoretically, be used for any purpose at all, including healing magic.

Spell tablets were typically disposed of in several different fashions. They could be buried or hidden underground, tossed into a river or spring, or nailed to a wall – particularly the wall of the home of a spell’s victim.

Make Your Own Spell Tablet

Use a sheet of pliable metal. You can often find thin rolls of copper in craft supply stores. Flatten the sheet out, and place it over a piece of wood. This will give you some flexibility when you’re marking on it.

Use a nail or a knife to mark your spell upon the metal. Be sure you don’t press too hard – you don’t want to puncture the metal, only scratch the surface.

If you are calling upon the gods of your tradition for assistance in the working, it’s considered respectful to address them first, and then outline what you would like them to do first. You may even wish to detail how you will thank them if your request is honored.

Once you are done writing your spell upon the tablet, roll it up into a tight tube. Dispose of it by burial or one of the other methods described.

In some areas, curses and spells were inscribed upon thin sheets of clay, rather than metal. They were rolled up and disposed of just like their metal counterparts. Use a block of soft clay, available in craft supply stores. Flatten the block out with a rolling pin, as thin as you can.

Use a nail or a knife to mark your spell upon the clay. Be sure you don’t press too hard – you don’t want to go all the way through. Once you are done writing your spell upon the tablet, roll it up into a tight tube. Dispose of it by burial or one of the other methods described.

 

Photo Credit: Becks/Flickr/Creative Commons (CC BY 2.0)