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To any confused students:

With my Professor Morgan's recent retirement, there may be some slightly confusing references to her in the lesson. I solely serve as the temporary steward for this course as I am well versed in many of its topics. In the meantime, you may see some of the references disappear in order to diminish the amount of work the new professor will need to do. 

 

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Lesson 4) Curse Tablets, Duelling Arenas, and Magic in Greco-Roman Battles

Professor Morgan is uncharacteristically quiet as she opens the doors to the classroom. She sits down at her desk and waits patiently as students settle into their chairs. On her desk is a thin sheet of some sort of metallic material with Greek lettering inscribed on it. Beside the sheet are a pair of dragonhide gloves.

Welcome back, students! I am pleased to see so many of you back in my classroom. I know many of you struggled with the essay from our second class, but we will discuss that further after today’s lecture.

Today marks our last class on the topic of Greco-Roman magic and its practitioners. We are going to cover some specific examples of how magic was used in Greco-Roman times, and I have to warn you - none of them are particularly pleasant, or exclusively for the greater good! Make sure you are taking excellent notes: your midterms will be part of the next lesson’s assignments!

Shall we get started?

Curse Tablets

Let’s have a look at what I have here on my desk:

Pella Curse Tablet - Macedonia. Approx. 375-350 BCE

This is a curse tablet from ancient Greco-Roman times. I will show it to each of you more closely, but let me put my gloves on first. Do not touch the tablet and its translation, of sorts, as I bring them around - I will not be responsible for poisoning my students!

As you can see, the tablet is very thin and is inscribed with mostly Greek letters, plus a few symbols. It’s also quite fragile considering it’s age. The gloves are a precautionary measure - not because there is any magical residue in it - there isn’t, but because of the material from which it is made - lead. As you may or may not know, continued exposure to lead can cause severe symptoms, including death. It’s best to exercise caution at all times students, you never know what can happen if you are not careful.

Now that you have all had a chance to look at the tablet, let’s talk about curse tablets in general and their association with Greco-Roman magical practice.

Curse tablets were very common across the Roman Empire. They have been found all the way from the British Isles to Jerusalem, and pretty much everywhere in between.  As I have noted, they are composed of thin sheets of lead inscribed with both written word and symbols. Less expensive curse tablets were also written on papyrus. To use a curse tablet, a resident of Rome simply paid a witch or wizard (who most likely was a charlatan) to write one for them. Once purchased, the curse tablet would be rolled or folded five or six times, and then either nailed to a specific place at a temple, shrine, or to a tree or post, or alternately buried in a tomb, in the shrine itself, or tossed down a well.

It would have been considered bad form to open someone else’s curse tablet after it had been placed, as they were considered a type of communication with the gods. And what was this communication, you ask? Curse tablets were basically a sort of prayer asking - and sometimes even begging - a god or gods to perform specific actions through an enchantment. The most common types of requests ranged from recovering lost or stolen property, affecting the outcome of chariot races (gambling), bringing back departed lovers (either from death or from the arms of another), or to quite literally curse someone who had offended or injured the person requesting divine intervention.

Now one question still remains - did they work? The simple answer is, not exactly. Most curse tablets were not infused with any sort of real magic. They were simply prayers written to the gods by those desperate to change their situation but who did not know how to make that change happen. The non-alphabetic “magical” characters that appear on this scroll and others (stars, windmills, arrows, etc.) were for show - they did not represent any true magic. While not magical, at least these scrolls served a cathartic purpose to purchaser as in their own minds at least they had tried to do something - the gods had simply decided not to intervene on their behalf.

This is not to say that all curse tablets were fake - they were not. Real witches and wizards were quite capable of putting spells and enchantments - and sometimes even potions - on curse tablets that transferred something to the purchaser, whether increased luck or a hex of some sort. While not as common, they certainly packed a powerful punch!

More commonly, as has been mentioned in your History of Magic classes, the curses and desires written on these tablets were acted upon after the fact by witches and wizards who snuck into the temple areas, read the newest tablets (as they were full of tidbits of gossip and secrets), and sometimes decided to act upon what they had read. It was a bit of vigilantism, I will admit.

These witches and wizards quite often thought it might be fun to grant a request to someone - a sort of teenage prank if you will, but just as often they might stumble upon a serious crime or devastating situation - such as a very ill child - and decide to intervene in a much more serious manner. Many Muggles found that their child who had been close to death the night before seemed miraculously recovered in the morning. All the child could tell them was a kindly woman had made him drink something. Unsurprisingly, the Muggles would then credit a goddess with the miracle, when it really was a healer with a magical remedy who saved their child.

And so curse tablets remain one of those pieces of history where magic was employed - but not exactly in the way that Muggles believed the magic of their gods worked.

Duelling Arenas

Let’s move on to a topic where magic use was the entire point of the task - duelling arenas.

Now, before we can talk about the arenas themselves, we need to be reminded of a few important pieces of history. First, the wand was invented in approximately 600 BCE. Secondly, the Romans were quite fond of their gladiatorial contests, plays, and other spectacles in venues such as the Colosseum. Other than the plays (although sometimes even those qualified), these events were rather bloody, involved a lot of death, and were attended by the public in the tens of thousands at a time.

I wish I could tell you that witches and wizards didn’t partake in similar activities, but that would be a lie - and that, my dear students, I would not do to you.

Now, witches and wizards would attend these spectacles at the Colosseum, however at some point around 100 CE, the wizarding population decided to have gladiatorial contests their own way - and wand dueling began in earnest. This is not to say that duelling had not occurred before 100 CE. It certainly had, in fact, it emerged quite quickly after the invention of the wand - if you give someone a new weapon, odds are they will find an excuse to use it.

It was the prevalence of the events in the Colosseum, however, that lead to what we now know as modern day duelling. Back to 100 CE, various witches and wizards decided that they could have their own Colosseum - in secret of course - where wand use was the one and only line of defense for the contestants. And so they met in secret for these events, their locations hidden from muggle view, but the intentions of the events remained the same - battles to the death.

Sometimes these battles were for judicial reasons - the contestants were magical criminals with a death sentence; only by killing their opponent day after day were they granted a stay of execution. Other contestants were simply there for the glory of battle and victory. The rules were vague, and quite often the spectators were also killed or injured from stray spells - especially if they were not so adept at shield charms!

Over time, the population grew weary of the violence. Rules had been put in place in terms of conduct of the contestants, and executions became an unpopular choice of punishment. Dueling arenas remained a form of entertainment for some time, but around 300 CE it ceased to be deadly. A clear winner or loser was proclaimed, but the injuries to the contestants - and the spectators - was significantly reduced! A list of acceptable and non-acceptable spells was created and, although it has changed a bit over time, dueling remains relatively true to - if not as deadly as - the way it began.

And so, my dear students, if you are involved in a dueling club today, may you thank your lucky stars that we live almost 2000 years after these events and you will not be expected to die!

Magic Use in Greco-Roman Battles

If I said to you that the Greeks and Romans, both before and after they became one society, used magic in battles, what would you assume I meant? Most likely, you would think that they had witches and wizards on the front lines casting spells to obscure their forces from the opposite side, or even directly attack them. In actuality, magic was used in battles, but from a much more subtle and behind-the-scenes perspective.

We have had great discussions on the various types of divination that were practiced in Greco-Roman times, and this is where much of the “battle magic” occurred. Using the various means available to them, the different branches of diviners sought both divine approval for battles, as well as guidance on when and where the battle should take place, who should champion the army, etc.

You may now be asking yourselves - was this actual magic being practiced? In most cases, yes. While divine permission may or may not have been granted, certainly the diviners could see enough - through visions and even by observing the flight patterns of birds away from an oncoming storm - that their magical abilities did have an effect on the outcome of a battle.

Another interesting yet subtle way that magic was used in battles was in the practice of arithmancy. Indeed - numbers have a place in battle for more than just counting the number of survivors. Arithmancy was used to supplement divinatory intelligence in terms of battle strategy. The numbers helped determine which were the correct days to march or begin a battle. That is, the days that were most likely to grant the army the best chance of success were favoured if they army had a choice on which day to begin a conquest or a battle.

Arithmancy was also used to “number” the soldiers in an army. Not how many soldiers - that hardly requires the use of magic - but essentially to give each soldier their own number - like a modern day Muggle “dog tag”. When these numbers were created it quite often would help the captains and generals find soldiers of incredible value and skill among their armies, and allow them to place these individuals in strategic positions, greatly affecting the outcome of the battle.

And that concludes our lesson for today. Life certainly was a bit different during Greco-Roman times, wouldn’t you say?

Before you go, let’s have a quick chat about assignments. I know that many of you struggled to get the grades you wanted on your essay from last class. Here is my advice to you on the matter:

You are in Year Four now and as such essays, expectations, and grading will be a bit more difficult than you are used to. Difficult, but not impossible - I did give away bonus marks on the last essay, and some people even received 15 house points for their efforts - you can do this!

When I am asking you for an informational essay, as in the style you wrote for the last lesson, make sure you include everything - and I mean everything - that we have covered in class. That is the best way to guarantee a good grade. That said, do not copy lines from the lesson. The PAs and I recognize them and our response will be quite severe. Use your own words - you can do it or you wouldn’t have made it to year four!

If I’m asking for an opinion essay - something that starts with “why do you think” or “what could be the reasons for”, for example - you have a bit more freedom from the lesson. This is the time for you to put on your thinking cap (no, there aren’t magical ones you can use - they’ve been banned from the school grounds) and tell me what you think. Just remember that you need to back up your opinion with information from the lesson. Use the facts provided to make your argument and you will do just fine! More than one fact will often get you a much better grade as well.

As always, please contact myself or a PA if you have any questions about your essays or other assignments. We are here to help you succeed, and we believe you can do it! Don’t sell yourself short!

Okay, your pep talk is over. Your assignments for today include a quiz on today’s material, and time for you to study for your midterms. Yes, you heard me correctly! Your midterms are next week. Midterms will cover all of the material from the beginning of this year up until the end of today’s lesson (Lessons One to Four inclusive). They will consist of a long quiz with multiple choice, short answer, and true/false questions, as well as an essay. Both parts of the midterm are mandatory, and no retakes will be allowed. You will also be required to write a short quiz on the material we will cover in Lesson Five, wherein we will begin discussing the Celts.

Good luck to all of you!

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Sources:

Adkins,  Lesley, Roy Adkins. Handbook to Life in Ancient Rome. 1994. Facts On File, Inc. New York.

Curse Tablets. Retrieved from:  https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Curse_tablet

Our studies of magic use in ancient civilizations continues this year with our examination of several European groups, including the ancient Romans, Greeks, Celts, Norse, and more! It will be a year filled with curious enigmas and amusing occurrences.
Course Prerequisites:
  • ANST-401

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