An inscription on an ancient Greek tablet has finally been translated nearly 70 years after it was unearthed — revealing a curse against a famous dancer.
The curse’s writer called for various gods and demons to ‘bind down’ and ‘bend’ their opponent, an athlete named Manna, who likely belonged to a rival faction.
The 1,500-year-old lead tablet was unearthed in the fifties in the ruins of the theatre in Caesarea Maritima, Israel, built by King Herod the Great around the year 22 BC.
However, the inscription had been impossible to read until now, when a historian used an advanced imaging technique to better reveal the tablet’s surface features.
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An inscription on an ancient Greek tablet has finally been translated nearly 70 years after it was unearthed — revealing a curse against a famous dancer
WHAT DO WE KNOW ABOUT CAESAREA MARITIMA?
Caesarea Maritima was an ancient city on the Mediterranean coast.
The city — in Roman-ruled Judea — was built by King Herod the Great between 22–6 BC.
Among its features were markets, baths, temples, a deep-sea harbour, Herod’s palace and a theatre.
The theatre hosted regular sports competitions, gladiatorial games and theatrical productions.
During the Byzantine period, Caesarea became the capital of the province of Palaestina Prima.
The ruins of Caesarea Maritima
The writing on the tablet was translated by historian Attilio Mastrocinque, of the University of Verona in northern Italy, using Reflectance Transformation Imaging.
This is a technique in which numerous photographs of an individual object — each taken under different lighting conditions — are combined to create an enhanced image which can better reveal surface phenomena like inscriptions.
This allowed the ancient writing to be read for the first time since it was unearthed by Italian archaeologists in the early fifties — revealing that the text was an extensive curse, totalling 110 lines in length.
‘Tie the feet together, hinder the dance of Manna,’ it read in Greek.
‘Bind down the eyes, the hands, the feet, which should be slack for Manna when he will dance in the theatre.’
The architect of the curse beseeches the aid of a number of deities, including the Ibis-headed Egyptian god of writing, wisdom and judgement, Thoth.
Also invoked are the ‘demons of the sky, demons of the air, demons of the earth, underworld demons, demons of the sea, of the rivers [and] demons of the springs.’
‘Twist, darken, bind down, bind down together the eyes [of Manna]’, the inscription continues — imploring that ‘he should move slowly and lose his equilibrium’ and ‘should be bent and unseemly.’
According to Professor Mastrocinque, the tablet’s discovery in the ruins of such a prestigious theatre indicates that Manna ‘must have been a famous artist.’
Therefore in the dance competition, he continued, ‘the prize would have been considerable, not to mention the fame and reputation that were at stake.’
The curse’s writer called for various gods and demons — including Thoth, the Egyptian god of wisdom, writing and judgement — to ‘bind down’ and ‘bend’ their opponent, an athlete named Manna, who likely belonged to a rival faction
At the time the tablet was inscribed, the city of Caesarea Maritima was controlled by the Byzantine Empire.
Given this, Professor Mastrocinque believes that the curse writer and his intended victim, Manna, belonged to warring factions.
These groups — dominated by the ‘blues’ and the ‘greens’ — fostered intense rivalries, he explained, which could on occasion lead to public riots.
According to Professor Mastrocinque, the tablet’s discovery in the ruins of such a prestigious theatre indicates that Manna ‘must have been a famous artist.’ Pictured, the ruins of Caesarea Maritima’s theatre
The 1,500-year-old lead tablet was unearthed in the fifties in the ruins of Caesarea Maritima, Israel, a city built by King Herod the Great around the year 22 BC
‘This [curse tablet], along with many others issued in the late imperial period and in the early Middle Ages, confirms that the Christianisation of the Roman Empire did not stop the maleficent magical arts,’ wrote Professor Mastrocinque.
‘On the contrary, these increasingly spread and became more sophisticated.’
The tablet, which was gifted to the team that discovered it by the Israeli government, presently resides in the collections of the Archaeological Museum of Milan.
Professor Mastrocinque presents his work in the book ‘Studies in Honour of Roger S.O. Tomlin’, which is published by Libros Pórtico.
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