Thursday, January 18, 2007

Ancient Curses

A 1700 year old tablet with a curse on it was recently unearthed in Leicester (UK). This one immortalizes some guy who stole a coat. It's amazing the things we leave behind us for posterity.
One of the most interesting finds from a site on Vine Street was a 'curse' tablet – a sheet of lead inscribed in the second or third century AD and intended to invoke the assistance of a chosen god. It has been translated by a specialist at Oxford University, and reads: 'To the god Maglus, I give the wrongdoer who stole the cloak of Servandus. Silvester, Riomandus (etc.) ... that he destroy him before the ninth day, the person who stole the cloak of Servandus…' Then follows a list of the names of 18 or 19 suspects. What happened to them is not recorded.
There's another famous curse in Carlisle from the 1500's, recently carved on a stone art object that has supposedly caused all sorts of problems for the town since its installation in 2001: see Curse of the Cursing Stone. The curse itself is in old Scottish dialect, about 500 words, "one of the longest on record"-- it's addressed to the raiders on the Scottish borders, and was read out by priests to advertise their great displeasure with the illegal activities.
I curse their heid and all the haris of thair heid; I curse thair face, thair ene, thair mouth, thair neise, thairg toung, thair teith, thair crag, thair schulderis, thair breist, thair hert, thair stomok, thair bak, thair wame, their armes, thair leggis, thair handis, thair feit, and everilk part of thair body, frae the top of their heid to the soill of thair feit, befoir and behind, within and without. I curse thaim gangand and I curse thaim rydand; I curse thaim standand, and I curse thaim sittand; I curse thaim etand, I curse thaim drinkand; I curse thaim walkand, I curse thaim sleepand ; I curse thaim rysand, I curse thaim lyand; I curse thaim at hame, I curse thaim fra hame; I curse thaim within the house, I curse thaim without the house; I curse thair wiffis, thair barnis, and thair servandis participand with thaim in their deides.
Curses are like legal documents, at least the good ones: they are comprehensive and leave out no body part or aspect of life, and usually they extend into eternity. My favorite curse is literary, Manfred's curse by Byron (it starts at line 200), gorgeous and bitter:
Though thy slumber may be deep,
Yet thy spirit shall not sleep;
There are shades which will not vanish,
There are thoughts thou canst not banish;
By a power to thee unknown,
Thou canst never be alone;
Thou art wrapt as with a shroud,
Thou art gather’d in a cloud;
And for ever shalt thou dwell
In the spirit of this spell.
... And a magic voice and verse
Hath baptized thee with a curse;
And a spirit of the air
Hath begirt thee with a snare;
In the wind there is a voice
Shall forbid thee to rejoice;
And to thee shall Night deny
All the quiet of her sky;
And the day shall have a sun,
Which shall make thee wish it done.
From thy false tears I did distil
An essence which hath strength to kill;
From thy own heart I then did wring
The black blood in its blackest spring;
From thy own smile I snatch’d the snake,
For there it coil’d as in a brake;
From thy own lip I drew the charm
Which gave all these their chiefest harm;
In proving every poison known,
I found the strongest was thine own.
If you know of other good literary or historical curses, I'd be interested in pointers.

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