Are curse tablets votives?

Stuart McKie is Lecturer in Classics and Ancient History at The University of Manchester. He recently completed his PhD at The Open University, with a thesis entitled ‘The Social Significance of Curse Tablets in the North-Western Roman Provinces’.

At last year’s combined Roman and Theoretical Roman Archaeology Conference (RAC/TRAC) held at the Sapienza University in Rome (March 2016), papers in one session sought to tackle issues of categorisation in relation to Roman religion. Amongst the speakers was fellow Votives Project (TVP) founder Jessica Hughes, whose paper explored the complexities of the simultaneously all-encompassing and yet highly specific terminology used to refer to ‘votive offerings’ in both ancient and modern contexts. Another speaker was (now recently completed) Open University PhD student Stuart McKie, who drew upon his work with curse tablets from the north western Roman provinces to emphasise the ways in which ancient people might use cursing rituals more creatively than existing (modern) scholarly categories have allowed for. The juxtaposition of these two papers raised a couple of key questions: (1) can curse tablets be categorised as ‘votive offerings’? (2) can the performative act of cursing be categorised as votive or votive-like behaviour? Since the conference, Stuart has continued to mull over these questions in conversation with TVP’s Emma-Jayne Graham. This post reflects their first attempt at exploring some possible ways of answering them.

Roman_baths_2014_57 Photograph by Mike Peel

Lead curse tablet from Bath, UK. Photo: Mike Peel (

What are curse tablets?

Stuart: Before we leap into attempting to answer the questions, it’s worth outlining what curse tablets actually are, as it’s likely not all TVP readers will have encountered them before. The standard scholarly definition comes from Jordan (1985, p.151), who said that they are “inscribed pieces of lead, usually in the form of small, thin sheets, intended to influence, by supernatural means, the actions or the welfare of persons or animals against their will.” Around 2000 have been found from across the Greco-Roman world, and the ritual seems to have been practiced, in a variety of forms, from at least the 6th century BC until the 6th century AD. They are fascinating objects, and you can find out more about them here and here.

E-J: So, the big question is, could they be categorised as votives? Or as this website might put it more broadly, are they ‘gifts to the gods’?

Stuart: The tablets themselves are rarely, if ever, conceptualised as gifts to the gods in the texts written on them. They seem to have been thought of as means of enabling or formalising communication, or occasionally as objects with magical potential (qualities of lead as cold and heavy, for example).

Where there might possibly be similarities with votive rituals is in the curses that give stolen objects or the victims to the gods. These almost all fall into the ‘prayers for justice’ category of texts, a specific type of curse that seeks to right a perceived wrong that has already been committed. There is a variety of ways in which giving objects or victims to the gods could be expressed, as in these examples:

I have given to the goddess Sulis the six silver coins which I have lost. It is for the goddess to exact (them) from the names written below: Senicianus and Saturninus and Anniola. The written page (has) been copied out. Anniola, Senicianus, Saturninus. (Tab Sulis 8)

(The person) who has lifted my bronze vessel is utterly accursed. I give (him/her) to the temple of Sulis, whether woman or man, whether slave or free, whether boy or girl, and let him who has done this spill his own blood into the vessel itself. I give, whether woman or man, whether slave or free, whether boy or girl, that thief who has stolen the property itself (that) the god may find (him/her.). (Tab Sulis 44)

To the god Nodens: Silvanus has lost his ring and given half (its value) to Nodens. Among those who are called Senicianus do not allow health until he brings it to the temple of Nodens. (RIB 306)

These names have been given to the infernals.(dfx 5.1.4/11)

 E-J: I guess, in this sense, then, the possibility existed for a sort of ‘gifting’ process to be involved but that wasn’t their primary function in the same way that it might be for some ex-votos. Perhaps this is why, even though curses turn up in introductory texts on Roman religious practice all the time, I don’t seem to recall anyone directly bracketing them with votives?

Stuart: Yes, scholars have rarely addressed this question directly, despite regularly noting the existence of many similarities between curses and votives. To my knowledge there are only two who do (Kiernan 2004 and Versnel 2010), and they take completely different positions. On one hand, Kiernan is extremely positive about the comparison, and even goes so far as to suggest that curses could fill the gaps in our understanding of standard Roman votive rituals. On the other hand, Versnel offers a comprehensive deconstruction of the comparison between curses and votives, primarily focussing on the language of curse texts. The central plank of his argument is that curses cede things to the gods, rather than vowing them, because there is no sense of gifts being given on condition that the deities in question perform some desired service.

While the linguistic argument of Versnel is comprehensive and hard to argue against, I think that there are other angles that might broaden the ways in which the similarities between curses and votives might be addressed.


E-J: Let’s explore some of those then. Versnel argues that curses cannot be true ex-votos, because in all likelihood they were deposited at the moment of the petition, rather than subsequent to its fulfilment. However, ex-voto is only one way in which we categorise the sort of ‘gifts to the gods’ that we talk and write about when referring to ancient votive cult, and indeed on this website as well, where we hope to be as broad and inclusive as possible when thinking about what might constitute an ‘offering’. So we’ve seen how offerings might be connected to memory, the commemoration of a significant moment, or might extend beyond their form to have significance as part of an assemblage or participate as active agents in the ongoing production of religious knowledge. And Andreas Murgan has already drawn our attention to the difficulties of the terminology and categories that we use. So if we think about some of the other ways that we might approach votive offerings, beyond just terminology, then do you think that curse tablets could be grouped under a broader umbrella?

Stuart: Prayers for justice certainly seem to align more specifically with the ideals associated with votives in several ways. There is often a sense of supplication of the divine, the language is framed in terms or submission and deference, and there is often a clear motive. Although they seek to impact upon a third party and not the petitioner, it could be argued that they are still about serving or protecting the positive interests of the petitioner by directly appealing to the divine in much the same way as a votive might.

E-J: And that makes me think about how many curses are about righting a perceived wrong and therefore having a positive impact upon the life of the curser. And of course vows and subsequent votive offerings might also be made on behalf of another person (swaddled babies, safe return of a loved one) or even a group (imperial family) or on behalf of the whole community.

Curse_tablet_BM_1934_11-5_1 Marie-Lan Nguyen Wikimedia Commons CC-BY 2.5

Curse tablet in the British Museum: “I curse Tretia Maria and her life and mind and memory and liver and lungs mixed up together, and her words, thoughts and memory; thus may she be unable to speak what things are concealed, nor be able…” © Marie-Lan Nguyen / Wikimedia Commons / CC-BY 2.5

Lived experience

Stuart: Another way to think about curses and votives is to consider the experience of performing the different rituals, and the relationships that these rituals create between human and divine participants. Both involved spoken prayers that request something from the gods, and often a written or material record was associated with the request. Making both curses and votive offerings often involved a visit to a specific location, especially a temple or other sacred location. Once an object was left on one of these sites, whether a curse or a votive, it became the inalienable property of the divine and couldn’t leave the place, nor could it be used for anything else.

E-J: I think it safe to say, then, that ideas of enchainment could be at play for both curse tablets and ex-votos – whatever is given (votive object, curse tablet, stolen item, victim), and regardless of when it is given, cannot be taken back, it cannot be used outside of that relationship, it cannot do anything but tie together the participants. That doesn’t necessarily make them the same thing, it just suggests that they belong to the same cultural context, to a shared way of doing things.

The answer?

E-J: So, you are the curse tablet expert, am I trying too hard to suggest that curse tablets should be talked about in the same breath as votive offerings?!

Stuart: There’s clearly a lot more to be said on this topic, and thinking about these objects and rituals together has the potential, I think, to open new insights into ancient religious practices. Although I would also say that ‘votive’ is probably not the right term to describe curse tablets if we use it strictly with reference to its original meaning (i.e. ex-voto) rather than in its more anglicised generic sense as ‘offering to the divine’. But certainly cursing rituals were not unrelated to votives, and there was definitely an aspect of exchange involved, which enchained curser and divine in a similar way to that in which a vow/votive enchained petitioner and divine. Not to mention a certain embeddedness in religion as a lived experience involving humans, the divine and material objects.

By E-J Graham and Stuart McKie


dfx = Kropp, A. (2008a). Defixiones: Ein aktualles Corpus lateinischer Fluchtafeln: dfx. Speyer, Germany: Kartoffeldruck-Verlag Kai Brodersen.

Kiernan, P. (2004a). Britische Fluchtafeln und ‘Gebete um Gerechtigkeit’ als öffentliche Magie und Votivritual. In K. Brodersen and A. Kropp (eds.), Fluchtafeln: Neue Funde und neue Deutungen zum antiken Schadenzauber (pp. 99-114). Frankfurt: Antike Verlag.

Jordan, D. (1985). A Survey of Greek Defixiones not included in the Special Corpora. G.R.B.S. 26: 151-197.

RIB = Collingwood, R., and Wright, R. (1965). The Roman Inscriptions of Britain. Oxford: The Clarendon Press.

Tab Sulis = Tomlin, R. S. O. (1988b). The Curse Tablets. In B. Cunliffe (ed.), The Temple of Sulis Minerva and Bath: Volume 2 The Finds from the Sacred Spring (Vol. 2, pp. 59-278). Oxford: Oxford University Committee for Archaeology.

Versnel, H. S. (2010). Prayers for Justice, East and West. In R. Gordon and F. Marco Simón (eds.), Magical practice in the Latin West: papers from the international conference held at the University of Zaragoza, 30 Sept.-1 Oct. 2005 (pp. 275-354). Leiden: Brill.


One thought on “Are curse tablets votives?

  1. Reblogged this on Curses! and commented:
    I have realised how totally deserted this blog has been over the last year. I’ve been super busy (as usual), so forgive the long absence – I’m hoping to get back to blogging soon!

    In the meantime, have a look at this post, written by myself and E-J Graham – one of my excellent PhD supervisors – about whether curse tablets can be considered votives. Let us know what you think in the comments section!

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