Incantations, Amulets, and Spitting

I beg you, womb of Ipsa, whom Ipsa bore, never to leave your place, in the name of the Lord God, the living, invincible god. Stay in the place of Ipsa, whom Ipsa bore (Papyrologica Coloniensia 22.1). [The recipient and her mother are both referred to as Ipsa. The inscription is in Greek but that is not a Greek name, and it is spelled in two different ways (“of Ipsa” is Ipsas and Ipses). It seems fairly certain that the engraver was copying from a template that used the Latin word ipsa, meaning “the woman herself”, which is presumed to indicate where the customer’s actual name was to be inserted, i.e., “So-and-So, the daughter of So-and-So.” This was no cheap charm. It was written on gold and enclosed in a gold cylinder, so the anonymous recipient might reasonably have expected a more personalized protection against the wandering of her womb, but she was apparently unable to spot the error.]

I curse first of all their surgery, that they should not have work, but be without work and have bad luck in their fine affairs. I also curse all the doctors there who are named on this tablet, that they should not have work, but be without work (Tituli Asiae Minoris 2.369). [Seventeen names follow. As is typical of such imprecations, this third-century BC Greek curse tablet is made of lead. As is also typical, it combines an urgent desire for detail with a degree of rather inarticulate repetition.]

motas vaeta daries dardares astataries dissunapiter huat hauat huat ista pista sista dannabo dannaustra and huat haut haut istasis tarsis ardannabou dannaustra are incantations approved by the elder Cato for use in treating dislocations and fractures (On Farming 160). The text of these apparently quite meaningless charms is inevitably in doubt. They may be distortions of phrases in a now unidentifiable language, not Latin at all, or they may have been invented in much their present form, imposing for their sound, not their sense. sicy cuma cucuma ucuma cuma uma maa, a charm to staunch bleeding in any part of the body, would seem to be a charm of the latter type (Marcellus Empiricus, Medical Book 10.35). The spell immediately following, specifically to stop a woman’s period, is different again, being in good Latin but with little obvious meaning: “A stupid man was going along on a mountain; the stupid man was stupified; I beg you, womb, do not take this up angrily” (stupidus in monte ibat; stupidus stupuit; adiuro te, matrix, ne hoc iracunda suscipias).

It was not just the poor and simple who resorted to magic. Here is the gruesome death of the uncle of Julian, the hated pagan emperor:  His genitals rotted and produced worms, an affliction that was clearly sent from God. The doctors sacrificed plump and exotic birds, which they laid beside the corrupted parts of his body, and then they adjured the worms to come out. But the worms did not come out; they held on tightly to the rotten flesh and feasted on it for many days, and thus they killed him horribly (John Chrysostom Homily on Saint Babylas 92).

A young man was seen in the baths touching the fingers of each hand alternately to the marble and then to his chest, while listing the seven vowels of the Greek alphabet, in the belief that this would cure a stomach complaint. He was dragged off to court, tortured, and executed with a sword (Ammianus Marcellinus, History of Rome 29.2.28).

In the old days, people soothed or even stopped headaches by writing “Athena” on an olive leaf and tying the leaf with a thread to the sufferer’s forehead (Farm Work 9.1). Olive trees were sacred to Athena.

If you catch two lizards copulating and cut off the male’s penis and dry it and give it to a woman to drink, she will be strongly attracted to you. … Wearing the lizard’s tail as an amulet ensures an erection (Cyranides 2.14).

Iron has other medical applications apart from its use in making surgical incisions. Both adults and children are kept safe from harmful drugs if a circle is traced round them with an iron implement or if an iron spearhead is carried round them three times. Driving into the threshold nails that have pulled out from a tomb wards off night-time frenzy. Being pricked lightly with the point of a weapon with which someone has been wounded helps counter sudden stabbing pains in the side or chest. Cautery with iron cures some afflictions, most notably the bite of a mad dog; even if the disease has already taken hold and the victim is afraid to drink, cauterizing the wound cures him immediately. Drinking water heated up by white-hot iron helps against many diseases, especially dysentery (Pliny, Natural History 34.151).

Putting saliva behind your ear using your finger soothes anxieties (Pliny, Natural History 28.25).

A dry gray moss grows on ordinary stones near rivers. Two such stones are rubbed together, with human saliva added to the moss. Then one stone is pressed against a patch of skin affected by impetigo, and the person who applies it says “Flee, beetles, for a wild wolf is hunting for blood” (Pliny, Natural History 27.100).

The saliva of a woman who is fasting is considered a powerful remedy for bloodshot eyes and various discharges, if the inflamed corners of the eyes are moistened with it regularly (Pliny, Natural History 28.76).

Smearing them with saliva while fasting cures papules and leprous spots, bleary eyes, and cancerous growths. Neck pains are relieved if saliva is applied to the back of the right knee by the right hand, to the back of the left knee by the left hand. Spitting on a creature that gets into a person’s ear makes it come out. Spitting on one’s urine during micturation acts as a protective charm, as does spitting into one’s right shoe before putting it on, and likewise spitting when going past any place where one has ever been in danger (Pliny, Natural History 28.37).

If you spit on a scorpion while you are fasting, you will kill it (Galen, The Uneven Bad-Mixture 7.745K).