Ancient Curses Uncovered In Two Countries

ancient curses, curses, curse, Carlisle
It’s been a good week for ancient curses.

A “cursing stone” has been discovered on the Isle of Canna, Scotland. More precisely called a bullaun stone, they’re natural or artificial depressions in a stone that catch rainwater and give it magical properties, usually to heal or to help women conceive a child. A shaped stone is placed in the hole that’s turned to make a prayer or curse.

The bullaun stone on the Isle of Canna is at the base of an early Christian cross dating to about 800 A.D. Now a round stone carved with a cross has been found that fits exactly into this depression. While bullaun stones are found in several European countries, it’s uncommon for both the stone and the base to be preserved.

Over in Italy, two ancient curses have been translated. A Spanish researcher working at the Archaeological Museum of Bologna has revealed the text of two curses inscribed on lead tablets in Roman times. Called a defixio, such curses were common in Greek and Roman times and often came mass produced with only the name of the target needing to be filled in. The ones in Bologna target an animal doctor and a senator, making it the first such curse found against a Roman senator.

One reads in part, “Crush, kill Fistus the senator. . .May Fistus dilute, languish, sink and may all his limbs dissolve …” The one against the animal doctor is no less nasty: “Destroy, crush, kill, strangle Porcello and wife Maurilla. Their soul, heart, buttocks, liver. . .”

Many museums have examples of these ancient nastygrams. One at the British Museum was found in London and curses a woman’s memory. Since it’s the only record of her to survive, it appears the curse worked.

Curses can be found all over the place. In Carlisle I came across a cursing stone made in 1525 by the Archbishop of Glasgow against the Border Reivers, Scottish raiders who stole English livestock. There’s a photo of it above. You can read the text of the curse in my article about Carlisle.

Animal mummies discovered in Egypt

animal mummiesA cache of animal mummies is among the finds from a recent excavation in Egypt.

The discovery was made by a University of Toronto team last summer at Abydos and was announced at a recent meeting. Abydos was the first burial ground for the pharaohs and remained a holy place throughout the history of ancient Egypt. The tomb of Osiris, king of underworld, was believed to be there.

Because of this, Egyptians wanted to be buried there too and numerous tombs have been found at the site. The Canadian team found a mysterious building that contained a pile of animal mummies. These animals could have served various purposes. Usually they were offerings to the gods, but they could also act as food for the afterlife or even post-mortem pets.

Many of the deities of Egypt had animal heads and aspects, and animals that were mummified as offerings were of the same species as the associated god. Hawks were dedicated to Horus, ibises to Thoth, cats to Sekhmet, etc.

Most of the 83 animal mummies found in Abydos in the latest field season were dogs, and may have been offerings to Wepwawet, a wolf-headed god associated with Osiris. Wepwawet was a war god and an “opener of the ways” who protected the dead on their journey into the underworld. The team also uncovered mummified sheep, goats, and two cats.

The function of the building where these mummies were found is unclear, although it may have been a temple. It’s not known exactly when it was built either. A few inscriptions at the site refer to Seti I, who ruled from 1290–1279 BC. The team also found a wooden statue that may represent Hatshepsut, a female pharaoh who ruled from 1479–1458 BC, and two tombs. One of them tombs has yet to be opened.

Animal mummies are common finds throughout Egypt. Everything from shrews to catfish to bulls were dipped in preservatives and wrapped in linen. Some were given elaborate sarcophagi, like the gilded one shown in the photo gallery. Others mummies were fakes. There was a big market for animal mummies as they were a popular sacrifice. Thus unscrupulous priests would often create mummies that contained only a few bones or feathers of the animal, or sometimes no animal parts at all.

Any museum with a good Egyptian collection will have at least some animal mummies. Museums that I’ve seen that have especially large collections include the British Museum (London), the National Museum (Cairo), the Louvre (Paris), the Royal Ontario Museum (Toronto), the Ashmolean (Oxford), and the Met (New York). Have you seen a good collection of these pickled pets? Tell us about it in the comments section!

Photo of cat mummy in the Louvre, Paris, courtesy Wikimedia Commons.

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Sexy goddess bares all in Boston

sexy
The ancient goddess of love, sex, and beauty is making an appearance at the Museum of Fine Arts in Boston.

Aphrodite and the Gods of Love is a new exhibition examining one of the most popular ancient goddesses and her place in the Classical world. More than 150 ancient works of art are on display, including famous pieces such as the Knidia, a life-size sculpture of Aphrodite made by the 4th-century BC Greek artist, Praxiteles. Another interesting piece is the Sleeping Hermaphrodite, a reclining figure who from one side looks like a voluptuous woman, and from the other like a man.

The exhibition traces Aphrodite’s sexy origins in the Near East and the place of her cult in Greek and Roman society. Aphrodite was a Greek goddess who was adopted into the Roman pantheon as Venus. She was the symbol of romantic love and ideal beauty. She also oversaw marriage, an odd choice since many of the myths surrounding her involve her cheating on her husband, the blacksmith god Hephaistos (Vulcan). Men worshiped her because she aroused male virility.

Being in charge of such important aspects of life made Aphrodite extremely popular. She was the patron goddess of Pompeii. Interestingly, Ramsay MacMullen in his Paganism in the Roman Empire points out that altars in private homes in Pompeii were more often dedicated to Foruna, Vesta, and Bacchus than Aphrodite. Perhaps because love received so much public worship, people felt they needed to give good luck, the home, and drinking some attention. They can be related, after all!

McMullen’s book (which I highly recommend) also touches on various ways the Romans worshipped Venus, including picnicking in the orchards around her sanctuary in Cnidus, and wild processions where a woman playing Venus led a string of dancing children playing Cupid. She and the other deities were very much part of daily life.

The exhibition also looks at related figures of Classical mythology, such as Aphrodite’s sons Eros (Cupid), the well-endowed Priapus, and Hermaphrodite.

If you want to meet this lovely lady and her interesting offspring, you better hurry. Aphrodite and the Gods of Love is only on until February 20, 2012.

Top photo: Fresco of The Judgment of Paris, Roman, Imperial Period, 45–79 A.D. Soprintendenza Speciale per i Beni Archeologici di Napoli e Pompei. Museo Archeologico Nazionale di Napoli. © www.pedicinimages.com. Courtesy, Museum of Fine Arts, Boston

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Archaeologists blog as they excavate Nea Paphos World Heritage site

archaeologists, Nea Paphos
Archaeologists excavating at the ancient city of Nea Paphos in Cyprus have written about their work and discoveries in a blog.

A University of Sydney team has been working to uncover medieval walls built atop a Classical theater and investigating a public fountain dating to the first century AD, the Cyprus Mail reports.

Nea Paphos is a UNESCO World Heritage Site. It was founded around 300 BC, and the theater was built around the same time. It served as the capital of Cyprus during the Hellenistic and Roman periods and was an important spot in Byzantine times, when a castle was built nearby. Legend has it that Aphrodite emerged from the sea at the nearby beach. I’ve been to that beach and it’s so beautiful I’m not surprised the legend arose there. Aphrodite probably started as a Phoenician fertility goddess long before the Greeks and Romans arrived, and continued as the cult of Aphrodite until 391 AD when the Roman Emperor Theodosius banned all pagan religions.

The team has wrapped up its work for the season but they and their blog will return in 2012. I’m glad to see archaeologists reaching out to the public this way and I hope more follow the University of Sydney’s example. There’s a lot of popular misconception about how archaeologists do their work and blogs like theirs help remedy that.

Photo of the Odeon of Nea Paphos from second century AD courtesy user einalem via flickr.

London’s Temple of Mithras is moving back to its original location

Mithras, London
London got its start as the Roman city of Londinium in the first century AD. Back then the so-called “mystery religions” were very popular in the Roman Empire. These cults, with their personal connections to the divine and secret rites, gave believers a more personal experience than the giant temples to Jupiter, Mars, and the rest of the standard pantheon. One of the most popular mystery religions was that of Mithras, an eastern deity whose worship appears to have been open only to men, mainly soldiers.

Since Mithraic rites were secret, not much is known about their beliefs, but there are many similarities between Mithraism and Christianity, such as Mithras being born on December 25 to a virgin, and having died and been resurrected for the salvation of mankind. Both faiths practiced baptism and communal meals. The similarities were so numerous that early Christian writers claimed the older religion was invented by the Devil as a cheap imitation of Christianity before Jesus was even born!

Temples to Mithras, called mithraea, have been found all over the Roman Empire, including one in the heart of London. The mithraeum in Roman London was discovered in 1952 and moved 90 meters away and set up on Queen Victoria St. The restoration wasn’t a completely accurate one. One major problem was that it was put on a podium when mithraea were generally underground.

Now the site has been bought by Bloomberg LP, which plans to build its European headquarters there. Bloomberg LP is going to dismantle the temple and put it back in its original location, according to a press release from the Museum of London Archaeology. The temple will be dismantled starting on November 21 and the corporation says the new reconstruction will be much more accurate. There’s no word yet on when this whole project will be completed. Such a large and delicate process will probably take several years.