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Only a historical novelist would use the word “delightful” to describe a curse inscribed on a rolled thin sheet of lead. Well, maybe an archaeologist or historian might know what I mean.

In research for my short story “Betrothed to the Red Dragon,” I came across this tidbit. Followers of the Celtic deity Sulis would write their requests to her on a lead scroll or tablet and toss it in a sacred hot spring at Bath. When the Roman ruled over Britain, that spring did some double duty as a space for devotion to Sulis and the Roman goddess Minerva. In fact, she is often called Sulis Minerva.

Roman baths

Roman baths at Bath Spa in England (Photo by David Iliff, license CC-BY-SA 3.0, via Wikimedia Commons)

To polytheistic Celts, it was not a big deal. They could still worship Sulis and let her know their wishes, a lot of them calls for justice. If the Romans wanted to call her Minerva and ask for her assistance, fine. The Romans cared little about the religion of the people they conquered except for one thing: acknowledge their emperor as a god. A lot of polytheistic religions likely greeted this with a shrug. What was one more god after all? They could even distance themselves and say that the Romans have their gods and we have ours.

The Jews were having none of it, but they were not proselytizing. So their belief was confined. Christians posed another problem. Like the Jews, they refused to accept any other deity, and they were trying to convert other people to see the world as they did. That was one reason Christians were persecuted, especially when a natural disaster like a drought hit. Pagans and Christians believed the cause was an angry deity, but they disagreed on who offended what supernatural being.

Christians got a break in 313, when Constantine the Great proclaimed they would be tolerated. Their faith became mainstream in 337, when the Roman emperor accepted baptism shortly before his death.

Sulis Minerva

Public domain, via Wikimedia Commons

Yet religion among Britons in the fourth and fifth centuries was fluid. Seemingly disparate sets of beliefs could coexist not only in society, but within the same person. No one would fault a midwife who whispered a spell to an expectant mother to ease her labor. Nor did wearing an amulet alongside a cross draw much attention.

Some habits are just too hard to break. When your harvest or victory in battle depended on pleasing deities (or at least not angering them), it didn’t hurt to hedge your bets.

A request to Sulis Minerva on a small scroll of lead is more tangible evidence of Christianity and paganism existing side by side. About 130 such requests, or curse tablets, were excavated from Bath, and many more remain buried. Throughout Britain, there are about 500.

These tablets are thin pieces of lead or pewter inscribed in a somewhat formulaic way. In the case of theft, it’s a complaint, name of the thief or catch-all phraseology if the perpetrator is unknown, name of the victim, and the appeal to the goddess. The piece is then rolled and folded to be legible only to the goddess and pierced with a nail.

Folded curse

Folded curse from the Temple Courtyard in Bath (photo by Mike Peel (www.mikepeel.net), CC BY-SA 4.0, via Wikimedia Commons)

The reason I find delight in one from a guy named Annianus is that I am hearing the beliefs of an ordinary Christian in his own words (in translation).

Annianus, son of Matutina, signed his name, so it’s not like he’s hiding anything. Annianus is believed to be Christian because he used the word “pagan,” a term only an early medieval Christian would use to distinguish other religions. Apparently Annianus doesn’t know the thief, but on the back of his request, he provides Sulis Minerva with 18 names, probably people he suspects.

What Annianus asks for is anything but Christian: “Whether pagan or Christian, whosoever man or woman, boy or girl, slave or free has stolen from me, Annianus, six silver coins from my purse, you lady goddess are to extract … the blood of him who has invoked this upon me.”

Apparently, Annianus set aside that part of no other gods for the moment, and that part about forgiving your enemies hadn’t gotten through to Annianus.

In Annianus’s defense, those lost coins might have been six days of wages. One of those coins would have bought enough wheat for 20 loaves of bread. If he were a soldier, six silver coins could buy him a pair of boots and a good cloak.

The fellow likely just wanted his coins back. Appealing to Sulis Minerva might have been his best chance at justice.

Sources

Daily Life in Arthurian Britain by Deborah J. Shepherd

Curse Tablets and Binding Spells from the Ancient World, edited by John G. Gager

Brigid: Goddess, Druidess and Saint by Brian Wright

Curse Tablets of Roman Britain

What Were They Worth? The Purchasing Power of Ancient Coins,” CoinWeek

Originally published Aug. 23, 2017, on English Historical Fiction Authors.

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