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Reviewed by:
  • Curse Tablets and Binding Spells from the Ancient World, and: Talismans and Trojan Horses: Guardian Statues in Ancient Greek Myth and Ritual
  • Donald Lateiner
John G. Gager . Curse Tablets and Binding Spells from the Ancient World. New York: Oxford University Press, 1992. Pp. xv + 278. $45.00.
Christopher A. Faraone . Talismans and Trojan Horses: Guardian Statues in Ancient Greek Myth and Ritual. New York: Oxford University Press, 1992. Pp. xii + 193. $35.00.

Gager serves all students of ancient religion and history with this selection in English translation from one of antiquity's epigraphical underclasses, the curse tablets. These were usually thin lead strips, averaging 9 X 12 cm., inscribed with ordinary people's spell-binding wishes, fears, curses, and nasty fantasies. More than 1,500 texts dating from 500 B.C.E to 500 C.E. have already been salvaged by archaeologists.

Enemies, beloveds, and rivals, powerful or beyond reach, invite aggressive magic to satisfy yearnings. Antiquity has yielded this direct testimony, once in the hands of the obsessed, from special points of contact: wells, cemeteries, temple grounds, below doorsills, crossroads, and junk-heaps. Gager includes translations of spells written in Greek, Aramaic, Hebrew, Coptic, demotic Egyptian, and Latin. He generously acknowledges Wuensch and Audollent's earlier contributions, as well as recent work of David Jordan, R. S. Tomlin, and Christopher Faraone. These scholars have contributed much to Gager's explanation of the formulaic tablets. A glossary of selected common "Uncommon Words," directs readers to fuller discussions, especially in the acknowledged model for this sourcebook, H. D. Betz's The Greek Magical Papyri (1986). Add at least: David Aune, "Magic in Early Christianity," ANRW 2.23.2 (1980) 1507-57, R. Gordon, "Aelian's Peony: The Location of Magic in the Greco-Roman Tradition," Comparative Criticism 9 (1987) 59-95; and especially Faraone and Dirk Obbink's collection of papers, Magika Hiera (Oxford 1991).

The tablets, once in "the hands of freely negotiating individuals" (24), attest to long flourishing belief in powers unregulated by the guardians of corporate society. How successful pagan and Christian police were in suppressing such acts is unclear, but lead tablets eventually cease from the archaeological record (29-30).

Orders are sometimes given with no gods involved, demonic spirits are elsewhere [End Page 340] commanded, and prayerful suppliants appeal to subterranean gods, especially to chthonic Hermes, Persephone, Ge, and Hades (cf. 179 n. 2). Men and women send them letters, some addressed on the outside, through the infernal postal services of the untimely dead (aoroi) or murdered (biaiothanatoi). These unquiet, still earthly spirits were transmitters rather than enactors of many spells. They supplied the express services; therefore, the best depositories for the tablets were coffins and wells, locations difficult of access and on the way to the Underworld (88). The traffic was heavy. Flat lead blanks have been recovered, and curses also appear on dolls of lead, mud, or wax, on bowls, and other enduring writing materials. The stalled spirits who teem about the cosmos are offered payment: promises of release from eternal circling on earth, dedications to the gods of stolen property (partly handed over to the god invoked), or future services.

Egyptian Sarapammon wants Ptolemais drawn to him by untimely dead Antinoos (#28, fig. 13, the case to examine, if you have time for only one). Meanwhile let the woman enjoy no sex, including anal, no pleasure, food, drink, excursions, or sleep. Nine named gods and a cast of thousands should aid Antinoos in lovespell torment. The quid pro quo was the release of dead Antinoos' still vital spirit. An accompanying clay figurine of an attractive back-bound, hog-tied woman is pierced by 13 needles "inserted at symbolically appropriate spots," places specified by the client according to PGM formula (iv. 320ff.). Gager (15, 81) charitably suggests the needles are a kind of therapeutic, psychological acupuncture, intended, at worst, to constrain, not to harm, the target. After all, the man wanted to enjoy the woman, not destroy her, yet the pictured object is hardly reassuring. The pre-emptive strike expresses the operator's sexual jealousy.

Mental intensity and special language is required: voces mysticae such as "Aski kataski" with its rhythmic...