Introduction: How to Make a Curse Tablet
In this instructable I will show you how to make a simple curse tablet in the same manner as most tablets found from Roman Britain. The Latin word for these was "defixio". I will also mention some other types of curse table and how to make them, but this will be in less detail than how to make a defixio. A defixio is a type of curse found throughout the Greco-Roman world, in which someone would ask the gods, spirits, or the dead to do something to a person or object, or in some other way make the curse happen.
If you want to skip the following steps, which just explain what curse tablets are, you can skip to step 4 which is when I start detailing how to make a curse tablet.
Disclaimer of Liability
Accuracy of information
I make every effort to ensure the information contained in this instructable is correct and up to date. However, I accept no liability or responsibility for any problems due to any errors or omissions in the content of the instructable. If you are unsure of anything please research it further.
Risk of harm
I make every effort to ensure the safety advice and precautions contained in this instructable are correct and that you will not be hurt if you follow my safety precautions and any other sensible precautions. However, I accept no liability or responsibility for any problems due to any errors or omissions in the content of the instructable. If you are unsure of anything please research it further and do not do anything unless you are sure it is safe.
Although if you are sensible you should not hurt yourself.
Step 1: Form and Placement
The majority of the tablets are think rectangular sheets which were generally 6-12cm long and 4-8cm wide when unrolled. Although they are normally called "lead" tablets they were not often very pure lead and thus it would probably be more accurate to describe the metal as either pewter or some other white metal. This makes sense as both tin, the major component of pewter, and lead were known as "plumbum". They were distinguished as lead was called "plumbum nigrum" (literally, "black lead") and tin "plumbum candidium" (literally, "bright lead"). This does mean that for this instructable I can make a tablet out of lead free pewter and still be authentic. This is good as it is not nice to handle lead due to its toxicity.
The sheets were either cast or hammered into shape and then sometimes trimmed to provide a rectangular surface area to make writing on them easier. The text was inscribed with a sharp point such as a stylus. Once written on the tablets were normally folded or rolled to place the writing surface inside. Occasionally the tablets were found pierced by nails, a few of which survive, which provides an explanation for the name "defixio" which comes from the verb "defigere" which can both mean "to fasten" and "to curse", and the meaning of "to curse" could come latter from the name for the tablets which were used to curse.
In Britain most of the tablets seem to have been placed at the sites of temples, famously at Bath, where they were placed in the hot spring, and at Uley. Other tablets have been found in wet places, such as the banks of rivers, which suggest that wet places were preferred for the placement of tablets. However, as many tablets were found by amateur archaeologist and metal detectors there is not always enough reliable evidence as to where the tablets were deposited and if the place had any Roman religious context.
Step 2: How They Were Written.
They would sometimes have words that seem to mean nothing, which could have been magical words, as some ancients believed that Gods and spirits should be addressing in a language which is incomprehensible to humans and so it was just the act of making the tablet that held meaning. A more cynical interpretation is that they would have been written by professional curse writers and so would have made up words to make them seem more mystic and powerful. However, most of the tablets found at Bath seem to have been written by different people and would thus suggest that they were each written by the person placing the curse, this is interesting as it implies that a large proportion of the populace could write. They would also sometimes be written in mirror writing to add to the mysticism.
Most of the texts were written in the same style of cursive (as the picture shows) which was used to write on wooden tablets, but some were written in capitals. Many were written in what most English speakers would consider to be the normal layout of text, so left to right, but some were written differently. Sometimes it was just the syntax which was reversed, other times the words themselves were written backwards. (This might seem very odd but some early Latin texts were written right to left) Others were written in boustrophedon (In which the lines were written in alternating directions and gets its name from the Greek term for the movement of a plough across a field).
While most of the tablets found in Britain are in Latin a few are in other languages which are probably the Celtic languages spoken by the people before and during Roman occupation.
Step 3: What They Said
They would typically ask the gods or spirits to make something happen, most normally to inflict punishment on unknown perpetrators of crimes. If gods were invoked they tended to be gods associated with hell such as Pluto, Persephone, or local gods associated with the place the curse tablet was left, such as Sulis who was associated with the hot springs at Bath or Mercury at Uley. They would often ask the gods to do horrific things to people. and to impair the mental and physical health of the perpetrator. Some of the tablets are only inscribed with the names of the perpetrators, which implies that as well as the physical tablet there was also an oral spell recited.
The most common subject matter for tablets found in Britain tends to be theft, at Bath many of the tablets found are about the theft of small amounts of money or other small items. The tablets tend to be written in rather legalistic language, which is probably because for people of low social standing there was very little chance of successfully prosecuting someone for a crime and so people may have turned to the gods as their only way to get justice, although the violent punishments seem more akin to revenge than justice. They tended to ask the gods to inflict this punishment until the stolen goods were returned or other reimbursement was made.
An example of a curse tablet is this tablet dedicated to Neptune and Niskus, who was possibly another water deity related to the river Hamble, was found on the shore of the Hamble Estuary. It is asking for punishment for the theft a gold coin (solidus) and some silver coins (argentioli).
Reconstructed Latin Text:
domine Neptune, / tibi dono hominem qui / (solidum) involavit Mu- / coni et argentiolos / sex. ideo dono nomina / qui decepit, si mascel si / femina, si puuer si puue- / lla. ideo dono tibi, Niske, / et Neptuno vitam, vali- / tudinem, sanguem eius / qui conscius fueris eius / deceptionis. animus / qui hoc involavit et / qui conscius fuerit ut / eum decipias. furem / qui hoc involavit sanguem / eiius consumas et de- / cipias, domine Nep- / tune.
Lord Neptune, I give to you the man who has stolen the solidus and six argentioli of Muconius. So I give the names who took them away, whether male or female, whether boy or girl. So I give you, Niskus, and to Neptune the life, health, blood of him who has been privy to that taking-away. The mind which stole this and which has been privy to it, may you take it away. The thief who stole this, may you consume his blood and take it away, Lord Neptune
I decided not to be quite so vindictive, and so came up with this inscription. It addresses much more modern punishments and so there are a few words that would not really make sense to a Roman but are as close as I can get with Latin. I also thought that as I live in London I should replace the god Niskus, with a more relevant one. However, I could find no written evidence for a local god. Due to the prevalence of water in Celtic religious offerings it is most probable that there would have been many local water deities. The river Thames was know by the Romans as the Tamesis. This name probably stemmed from a Celtic name for the associated river goddess. So I shall use this goddess instead of Niskus.
Domine Neptune, tibi dono illud quo involavit meus argentum. Ideo dono nomina qui deccepit, si mascel si femina, Ideo dono tibi Tamesis et Neptuno nexum sine filis et velocitatem qui hoc fecit. Furem qui hoc involavit machinam, quem recondit coruscantem vim, consumas, domine Neptune.
C'mon you can translate this one yourself.
Step 4: Sourcing Materials.
The easiest way to do this would be to get some lead sheet, which is quite common as it is used as a roofing material. However, I decided to use pewter instead, as this does not often come in sheet form, and all I had was scrap, I had to form it into a sheet myself. I did this by first casting it into the rough shape and then hammering it to thin it into a sheet. You could also buy some tin sheet.
As well as the sheet all you will need is something sharp and pointed. This needs to be made from a hard metal as it must be able to easily gouge into the metal sheet.
Step 5: Writing the Tablet.
To write the tablet decide on the inscription you want. Then measure the area of the metal sheet available to you and try writing out the inscription to find out how small each letter needs to be. Then I would recommended testing your writing implement and trying to write a few words on the back of the tablet.
Once you are happy you can start writing. Make sure each stroke is clear and also ensure your letters do not change in size else you may end up running out of space. Once written you can decide what to do with the tablet. If you wish to place it somewhere please ensure you have the appropriate permission to place the tablet there. Most placed tablets were made to be unreadable to human eyes. This was normally done by folding or piercing.