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The Common uses of magic in the Roman World

Hi everyone! As a treat for this month's blog, one of our gladiators and resident specialists on magic in the Roman world, Sarah, is this month's author. Enjoy!

In our modern world of science, technology and the protection of modern medicine; it is easy to look back on our ancestor's belief polytheism and magic with scorn. But how many of us touch wood for luck? How many of us believe that the number 13 is inherently bad luck? Most; if not all; modern superstitions find their roots in ancient magic and beliefs. The Celtic tribes of pre-roman Europe believed that trees were sacred and laying one's hand on certain trees could bring good luck if the kindly tree spirits were feeling favourable. While in Ancient India it was believed that 13 people sitting together was bad luck and in Norse mythology the god Loki was the 13th guest at a banquet that ended in violence.

It is simple to brush off these superstitions as habit and ignore the original meaning behind them, but for the Romans of the ancient world it was not so easy. They needed all the help they could get in their cruel world of wrathful gods and unforgiving monsters. Against disease, death and all the uncertainty that came with living in the Roman World, one of humanities only defenses was their belief that they could manipulate their world through the use of magic.

The magic found within the Roman Empire seems to have originated in Persia and Egypt, even the Latin ‘Magicus’ and the Greek ‘Magiikos’; meaning ‘magic’; come from the Persian word ‘Magoi’ meaning scholar priest. The Romans believed that the best spells and magicians came from outside the empire and viewed Egypt as the center of the magical world but this does not mean that there weren't many home-grown spells and practitioners of magic within the empire. In the ancient world, our modern-day superstitions could be classed as ‘everyday’ or ‘amature’ magic, the kind of magic that was prevalent in every part of roman society. The majority of this ‘everyday’ magic that we find evidence of today, were protective spells, usually in the form of amulets and talismans.

The most widely known example of protective amulets is the bulla, worn by free born roman boys around the neck until they put on the toga and became a man. The bulla could be made from anything from leather to gold and was filled with as many protective charms, symbols and spells as the family could afford, the most common being a phallus to represent the god Fascinus who was worshiped as a protector against witchcraft, envy and the evil eye. He was also seen as the protector of children and women in childbirth.

Free born roman girls did not wear a bulla, instead they wore a Lunula for protection. Again, this was worn around the neck and was only removed on the eve of a girl’s wedding, when she would leave the protection of her father and become a woman, under the protection of her husband. The Lunula was shaped like a crescent moon, the symbol of Diana, the goddess of the Moon, the hunt, childbirth and the protector of women and girls. The Lunulae represented to any spirit, daemon and the evil eye that the girl was under the protection of Diana.

The other widely known use of magic in the Roman period was curses, usually in the form of curse tablets. These tablets were often found in places that were watched over by Gods or on the alters and in tramples of Gods across the empire. One such place is the Roman Baths in Bath, the baths; fed by a sacred spring and warmed by hot springs; were watched over by the Goddess Sulis Minerva and hundreds of curse tablets have been found in the waters, asking the goddess to enact revenge on the behalf of the caster. The inscriptions on these tablets vary in severity and crime; one tablet asks the Goddess to curse a thief with insomnia until his possessions were returned to the Goddess’ temple; while another asks for a thief to lose their mind and eyes for stealing a pair of gloves. These tablets were often made of thin sheets of led which were then rolled up and had a nail hammered through them. The nail not only kept the tablets closed and helped secure some tables to the walls of temples, but they also had a magical significance; as it does in modern day witchcraft. Putting a nail through a curse tablet bound the curse to the victim; whether they named or not; to increase the ‘sticking power’ of the curse, the caster could also use some of the victim’s hair, a piece of their clothing or even their blood, but these additions were more common in love curses, rather than simple curses against thieves.

Whether or not you personally believe in magic and witchcraft is up to you, what matters is that Romans as an international society did. They believed that if they did things in a certain way, with particular words and materials they could change the forces of the world and gain some advantage against it. This is not to say that they thought their spells and charms would every time, there is no guarantee of success in magic and the romans knew this which is why we see such an abundance of protection charms and why some people went to such extreme measures to enact their revenge. In a world where the only certainties were War and Death, it is unsurprising that the romans turned to supernatural forces, desperate to protect their children and punish those who they thought had wronged them.

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