SUPERSTITIONS AND FORTUNETELLERS IN ANCIENT ROME

SUPERSTITIONS AND FORTUNETELLERS IN ANCIENT ROME

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Etruscan liver divining
Like the Greeks, the Romans were very superstitious. Headaches they believed could be cured by taking a herb found growing near the heads statues and wrapping them around one's neck. Inscribed tablets of lead and clay were buried to bring gamblers good luck at the hippodrome and lovers success in their pursuits. Caesar feared dreams. Oyster culture was practiced in Italy as far back as 100 B.C.

Haruspicy, the study of a the liver of a sacrificed animal, was widely practiced in Rome. The liver was mapped out and read like a palm. Parents hung penis-shaped amulets around the neck of their child's to ward off the evil eye. Grit left in wine goblets are read for fortunes. The word "fortune” comes from the Latin word fortuna . Fortuna was the goddess of wisdom, prophecy and the dead. She was also known as Lady Luck.

The expression “getting up the wrong side of the bed” supposedly evolved from getting up on the "right side" which in turn grew out the Roman belief that the left side was evil. The word "sinister" is derived from the Latin word for "left side" and the first "footmen" were hired by Roman nobles to makes sure guests entered their house right foot first. [People's Almanac]

Breaking a mirror as bad luck according to some sources dates back to A.D. first century Rome, where Romans believed that mirrors could be used to tell fortunes and breaking them brought the bad luck, which lasted for seven years because that was how long it took for the body to rejuvenate. [Ibid]

Hawkers sold amulets on ths streets. There were specials amulets that invoked specific gods for almost every need. Among the bestsellers were amulets of the baby gods: Wailer, Breastefeeder, Eater and Stander.

The Romans believed that each of the 12 Zodiac sign controlled a different part of the body. The planets Mars and Venus were given the character of the gods they were named after. On fortunetellers, Pliny the Elder wrote: "this most fraudulent of arts has held complete sway throughout the world for many years. Nobody should be surprised at the greatness of its influence...There is no one who did not fear the spellbound by curse tablets.

Witches and Sorcery in Ancient Rome

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magic Consultation with a witch
The impression one gets from ancient Roman literary texts is that were professional witches working in Rome. In his novel Metamorphoses the A.D. 2nd century author Apuleius wrote: “First she arranged the deadly laboratory with its customary apparatus, setting out spices of all sorts, unintelligibly lettered metal plaques, the surviving remains of ill-omened birds, and numerous pieces of mourned and even buried corpses: here noses and fingers, there flesh-covered spikes from crucified bodies , elsewhere they preserved gore or murder victims and mutilated skulls wrenched from the teeth of wild beasts. The she recited a charm ever some pulsating entrails and made offerings with various liquids...next she bound and knotted those hairs together in interlocking braids and put them to burn on live coals along with several kinds of incense.”

Romans believed in the evil eye, sex-changes, the power of iron and menstrual blood and the evil nature of odd numbers. Sorcerers used quiji board-like bronze table with symbols that were pointed to a ring hanging from a thread. Apuleius, author of the Golden Ass , a book about magic, was tried in court for bewitching his wife, a wealthy widow. ["World Religions" edited by Geoffrey Parrinder, Facts on File Publications, New York]

Archaeologists have found Roman voodoo dolls in lead canisters. Most magic it seems was be oriented towards cursing people or compelling them to fall in love.

Curses in Ancient Rome

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magic spell
Worried that his sex life might be cursed, the 1st century poet Ovid wrote: “was I a wretched victim of charms and herbs, or did a witch curse my name upon a red wax image and stick the pins in the middle of the liver?”

Cicero described one lawyer who forgot what he was supposed to say during an argument and blamed "spells and curses" for his troubles. Personal problems and government failures were also blamed on curses.

Recording what was found after the death of Germanicus, grandson of Augustus and heir of the Emperor Tiberus, in A.D. 19, the historian Tacitus wrote: “explorations of the floor and walls [of his house] brought to light the remains of human bodies, spells, curses,, leaden tablets engraved with the name Germanicus, charred and blood-smeared vases, and others of the implements by which the living soul can be devoted to the powers of the grave.” A woman named Martin was executed for murdering Germanicus and the Senator Caplpurninus Piso and his wife Plancina, thought to have been behind the crime, were forced to commit suicide.

Curse Tablets in Ancient Rome

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magic book
The ancient Egyptians, Greeks, Romans, Persians, Jews, Christians, Gauls and Britons all dispensed curse tablets used placate "unquiet" graves and call up the spirits of the underworld to make trouble. [Source: Christopher A. Faraone, Archaeology, March/April 2003]

In the Roman empire fortunetellers placed elaborate curses on lead tablets called defixiones . The practice was so common that scribes were hired to copy form-letter curses from "magical" papyruses and many fortunetellers who dispensed curses made money from breaking them. Curse tablets endured until they were prohibited by the Christian Church.

Archaeologists have found hundreds of tablets with strange letters of the victim’s name. The Greeks called them “curses that bind tight” and they appear to have invented them with a great number focused on sporting competitions or legal contests. The Latin term means “curses that fix or fasten someone. “To make such a “binding spell,” Christopher A. Faraone wrote in Archaeology magazine, “one would inscribe the victim’s name and a formula on a lead tablet, fold it up, often pierce it with a nail, and then deposit it in a grave or a well or a fountain, placing it in the realm of ghosts or underworld divinities who might be asked to enhance the spell.”

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magic inscription
One A.D. 4th century curse tablet found in Palestine read: "Lord angels, muzzle and subject and render subservient and bind and enslave and restrain and tie up Sarmation, to whom Oursa gave birth, and Val, to whom Eva gave birth, and Saramanas, to who, Eusebis gave birth...choking them, tying up their thoughts, their mind, their hearts, their intentions, lest they inquire further after an account for a calculation or anything else."

Curse tablets aimed at bringing misfortune to chariot racing teams have been found. One 1,700-year-old tablet from Carthage read: "Bind the horses whose names and images on its implement I entrust you...Bind their running, their powers, their soul, their cornish, their speed. Take away their victory, entangle their feet, hinder them, hobble them, so that tomorrow morning in the hippodrome they are not able to run or walk about, or win, or go out of the starting gates, or advance either on the racecourses or track but they fall with their drivers.” One aimed at a particular chariot team and driver that was buried with a rooter sacrifice went, “Just as this rooster has been bound by its feet, hands, and head, so being the legs and hands and head and heart of Victoricus the charioteer of the Blue team, for tomorrow.”

Curses were not always bad. Many were love spells. One from the A.D. fifth century read: "Grab Euphema and lead her to me, here on, loving me with frenzied love, and bind her with binds that are unbreakable, strong and adamantine, so that she loves me, Theon, and do not allow her to eat, drink sleep or joke or laugh but make [her] rush out of every place and dwelling, abandon father, mother, brothers and sisters, until she comes to me, Theon, loving me, wanting me” with “unceasing and wild love. And if she holds someone else to her bosom, let her put him out, forget him, and hate him, but love, desire, and want me...Now, now. Quickly, quickly."

Book: Curse Tablets and Binding Spells from the Ancient World by John Gager, professor or religion at Princeton (Oxford University Press, 1998)

Roman Funerals

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Fresco of a ritual in Pompeii
The word for funeral is derived from funus , the Latin word for "torch." The Romans believed a flaming torch guided the deceased to the afterlife and scared away evil spirits.

The Roman custom of displaying the body of the dead, ritual lamentations and hired mourners appears to have originated with the Etruscans. Roman funerary art and architecture and concepts of the afterlife also seem to have also been shaped by the Etruscans.

The Romans practiced cremation and inhumation. In the early Roman era burials took place mostly in night. Later they were conducted during the day but were sometimes performed under torchlight as a reminder of the night time burials. In most cases the dead were buried or burned outside the city walls for both sanitary reasons and religious reasons This is why tombs, catacombs and cemeteries are often found outside the Roman city ruins.

The Romans put a lot of care into funerals both as a way of helping the deceased in the next life and displaying their social position. The type of funeral an individual had depended on their status and wealth. The rites and services depended on whether the deceased was a soldier, shopkeeper or aristocrat, with the most elaborate services reserved for the emperor and their families. The person in charge of arranging the funeral was often outlined in the will.

Because funerals were so expensive, soldiers and citizens from less than noble families joined burial clubs that paid for services with deductions taken out a person's pay. Children that died were often placed in a pot and buried in the family garden. For the rich, there was sometimes so much pomp that laws were passed to prevent wasteful spending.

Roman Funeral Rituals and Feasts

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Apollo libation
The family often gathered around a seriously ill person as they were dying so that one person could deliver a "last kiss," an effort to capture the final breath and free the soul of the dying person. They eyes were then shut, lamentations with the dead’s name were chanted and the body was washed, anointed and dressed. A wreath was placed on the head and a coin was placed in the mouth of the dead so they could pay the ferryman to get across the river of Charon in the Underworld.

The body was then placed on display for one to seven days. After this time was up the body was carried in a procession to the final resting place. Those without money were carried on a cheap bier. The wealthy were taken in elaborate palanquins carried by four to eight male relatives. Sometimes it was followed by musicians and professional mourners. Sometimes people wore masks with the deceased’s likeness. Funerals for Roman nobles consisted of a procession to the forum, followed by a eulogy and burial rites. Elaborate funerals featured dirges and panegyrics (speeches praising the dead).

Funerals were often accompanied by lavish feasts that featured things like doves, chickens, figs, dates, and white almonds. People ate while incense burners filled with sweet-smelling pine cones burned. The feasts were often conducted as the deceased was laid to rest or on the ninth day after the funeral.

At the feasts it was considered very important to set aside some food for the dead (this was often later stolen and eaten by the hungry). Even after the official mourning period was over people often ate meals at the resting place of the dead. There was a special holiday in February in which food offerings were made to the dead. Sometimes large sums of money were set aside and people were paid long after the deceased had died to provide food at their graves. The dead were often buried with eating utensils. Sometimes graves had pipes running to the surface for the delivery of libations.

Funerals for the Roman Emperor

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Augustus mausoleum
Describing the deification of Emperor Septimius Severus in A.D. 211, the Greek historian Herodian wrote: "It is a Roman custom to give divine status to those emperors who die with heirs to succeed them. This ceremony is called deification. Public mourning, with a mixture of festive and religious ritual, is proclaimed throughout the city, and the body of the dead is buried in the normal way with a costly funeral.

"Then they make an exact wax replica of the man, which they put on a huge ivory bed strewn with gold-threaded coverings, raised high up in the entrance to the palace. This image, in the deathly palace, rests there like a sick man...the whole Senate sitting on the left, dressed in black, while on the right are all women who can claim special honors...This continues for seven days, during each of which doctors came and approach the bed, take a look at the supposed invalid and announce a daily deterioration in his condition.”

“When at last the news is given that he is dead, the end of the bier is raised on the shoulders of the noblest members of Equestrian Order and chosen young Senators, carried along the Sacred Way, and placed in the Forum Romanum...a chorus of children from the noblest and most respected families stands facing a body of women selected on merit. Each group sings hymns and songs.”

“After this the bier is raised and carried outside the city walls to a square structure filled with firewood and "covered with golden garments, ivory decorations and rich pictures." On top of the structure are five more structures that are progressively smaller. “The whole thing was often five or six stories tall.”

"When the bier has been taken to the second story and put inside, aromatic herbs and incense of every kind produced on earth, together with flowers, grasses and juices collected for their smell, and brought and poured in heaps...When the pile of aromatic material is very high and the whole space filled...The whole equestrian Order rides round...Chariots also circle in the same formation, the charioteers dressed in purple and carrying images with the masks of famous Roman generals and emperors."

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Caesar's deification
"The heir to the throne takes a brand and sets it to every building . All the spectators crowd in and add to the flame. Everything is very easily and readily consumed...From the highest and smallest story...an eagle is released and carried up into the sky with the flames. The Romans believe the bird bears the soul of the emperor from earth to heaven. Thereafter the dead emperor is worshipped with the rest of the gods."

Roman Cremations and Burials

Cremations were favored over burials. They usually took place at special location outside the city walls. The funeral pyre was made of wood mixed with papyrus to help it burn. The body was placed on it with eyes opens. The cremations were usually carried out by professionals called ustores .

Offerings and possessions, and sometimes even pets of the dead, were burned along with the body presumably to accompany the deceased on the journey to the afterlife. The ashes were drenched in wine placed in a special receptacle: an urn, jar, pot, or chest. These were placed in a niche in their final rest place: a columbaria (repository for ashes), house, chamber tomb or under a tumuli or gravestone

Graves for people who were buried were dug by professional grave diggers. The poor were often unceremoniously thrown into shallow trench graves or common graves without coffins. Sometimes a half amphorae was placed over the grave so that libations could be poured in it. Wealthy Christians were buried in elaborate sarcophagi that were placed in catacombs. If the right arm of the deceased was folded across his chest it may have meant the dead was a Christian. Sometimes the dead were buried with leaves. A pig was often sacrificed as required by Roman law to make the grave official

Most people were buried without tombs or under simple gravestones or receptacles used for collecting libations. Only the wealthy could afford tombs and these were generally set up on roads leading into the cities. Exedra were niche tombs. They were two to four meters tall and usually had an altar placed above the ashes. There was often some inscriptions praising the dead and a bench for people to sit down on. Some people were buried in “cinerary urns”---emi-transparent glass spheres larger than a basketball and filled with a heap of shattered bones.

Catacombs are subterranean rock-cut burial chambers, often with many people buried inside. They were often used in Roman times for the burial of Christians. Many catacombs are on the Via Appia Antica three miles south of Rome. After Christianity was embraced by the Roman Empire some of these catacombs became quite elaborate. Some had long passageways with chambers off of which the tombs were placed. Some had banqueting tables symbolizing the last supper. Some of the earliest known Christian art comes from these.

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Altar

After a Roman Funeral

When family members returned home after the funeral they underwent a purification ritual with fire and water. They placed wax death mask of the deceased on a bust which in turn was placed in the most prominent place in the house. Later on the bust was placed on a shelf in the atrium with likenesses of other deceased relatives, all of whom were connected by colored lines that assembled them into a genealogical chart. During some festivals a crown of bay leaves was placed on the busts.

There was a nine day morning period. On the ninth day after the funeral special libations were poured over the grave. February was the last month of the year. The entire month was often devoted to purification and placation rituals oriented towards the dead. These were done to make the dead happy in the afterlife which in turn was supposed to bring about a good agricultural season. Rituals were performed at graves like those on the Day of the Dead today. Animals were sacrificed to ensure a good planting season.

Roman Infant Burials

Unlike Christians, Romans did not consider children as beings with a developed soul. As a consequence they often discarded dead infants or buried them in the garden like a dead pet. Laws were passed in the 5th century outlawing the sale of children to families who might give a child a better chance of survival.

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a sacrifice

An infant graveyard, dated to around 400 B.C., the largest every discovered, was found near the town of Lugano, 70 miles north of Rome. The bodies of the infants were buried there in earthen jars, with, in some cases, decapitated puppies and raven claws. By this period in history Rome had been Christianized and archaeologists interpret these gruesome pagan offerings as a superstitious act brought on by "extreme stress."

The epitaph composed for infant tombs also disclose a great deal about the intense grief parents felt towards lost infants. One inscription read that the baby’s life consisted of just “nine breaths.” In another a father wrote: “My baby Aceva was snatched away to live in Hades before she had her fill of the sweet light of life. She was beautiful and charming, a little darling as if from heaven, her father weeps for her and, because he is her father, asks that the earth may rest lightly on her forever.”

Excavations of an ancient sewer under a Roman bathhouse in Ashkleon in present-day Israel revealed the remains of more than 100 infants thought be unwanted children from the brothel. They infants had been thrown into a gutter along with animal bones, pottery shards and a few coins and are thought to have been unwanted because of the way they were disposed. DNA tests revealed that 74 percent of the victims were male. Usually unwanted children were girls.

Infant mortality may have been the result of one third of live births.

Romanized Mummies

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Fayum Mummy Portrait
Egyptians continued to be embalmed, mummified and laid to rest in Egyptian-style tombs during the periods when Ptolemic Greeks and Romans occupied Egypt. The mummies and their tombs showed Egyptian, Greek and Roman influences. The practice of mummification began to disappear around the A.D. 4th century when Christianity began to flourish.

Romanized Egyptians often but more work into the exterior decorations of the mummy coverings than on the mummification process. The dead were embalmed and wrapped as mummies. Painted portraits of the deceased were made on shrouds wrapped around the mummy wrappings. The portraits were sometimes quite beautiful and realistic. They were painted on linen and plaster. Sometimes they were covered with gold.

Mummification was performed on ordinary people but the work was shoddy compared to what was done for pharaohs and noblemen in Pharonic times. The mummification process was done in 40 days instead of 70, there were no canopic jars for organs, and many mummies were buried with coffins or sarcophagi.

The mummies had Roman hairstyles and held Greek or Roman coins used to bribe the ferryman in the other world the but the iconography on the masks and painted deities that showed the way to the afterlife were clearly Egyptian.

Ancient Roman Mummy Paintings

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Fayum Mummy Portrait
The greatest Roman paintings were produced by Romanized Egyptians, who embalmed their dead, wrapped them as mummies, and painted portraits of the deceased on small wooden panels attached at the head of the shroud wrapped around the mummy wrappings. Sometimes these mummies were put on display before they were buried.

Mummy paintings were rendered from life using colored beeswax on wood panels bounded by linen strips on the outside of the mummy. Pigments mixed with hot wax were used by the Greeks to paint their warships. The Romans used this technique to make portraits on mummy cases in the Fayum region. It is nor clear whether it is the Egyptian influence or the Roman influence that makes the works so exquisite.

About 1,000 Romanized Egyptian mummy portraits have been unearthed at Harawa and Fayum, a fertile basin in the Nile basin. Dating between A.D. 25 and 259 and wonderfully preserved by the dry desert condition, the portraits are often beautiful works of art with shadowing and perspective more advanced than that found in the Middle Ages.

Book: The Mysterious Fayum Portraits: Faces From Ancient Egypt (published by Harry N. Abrams Inc.) contains 180 portraits.

Ancient Roman Mummy Painting Masterpieces

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Some of the Roman-era mummy portraits recall Modigliani and Rembrandt. Describing a portrait of woman painted around A.D. 55-70, Souren Melikian wrote in the International Herald Tribune: "The wistful aloofness tempered by the faintest suggestion of contentment as if inspired by happy recollections that cannot be shared makes it timeless masterpiece as great as anything the Italian Renaissance ever produced."

Describing a portrait made between A.D. 190 and 220, Melikian wrote: It "shows a long oval face with huge eyes quizzically laughing as she looked the artist straight in the eye...Her dark eyes stare intensely at the viewer as if desperate for an answer to some haunting question.”

A splendid painting of a small boy was preserved after it was wrapped in a mummy with a body. This particular portrait was painted with pigments suspended in hot wax which helped preserve it as well as give it a "creamy" texture.

Roman Golden Mummies

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At the Valley of the Golden Mummies at Bahariya Oasis in the Western Deserts of Egypt, there are believed to be around 10,000 mummies scattered over a six square kilometer area. Some have been fitted with elaborate masks and have waistcoats covered with gold. The mummy of a five-foot-tall woman was adorned with a crown with four decorative rows of curls and a gilded mask that extended over her chest to disks representing breasts. Decorations had images of cobras and children. [Source: Donovan Webster, National Geographic, October 1999]

Archaeologists discovered the mummy cemetery at Bahariya Oasis (200 miles southwest of Cairo) in 1996. The tombs date between the 4th century B.C. and forth century A.D. and were discovered after the leg of a donkey "fell through the sand" into a tomb. In Roman times, Bahariya was a wealthy a wine producing area.

By 2001, 234 mummies at Bahariya Oasis had been excavated. They mostly dated back to Greco-Roman times---from the 6th century B.C. to the A.D. 2nd century---and included people from a range of social statuses. Many were sheathed in gold. Some had beautifully painted masks. Hundreds of golden coins, jewelry, medallions and beads were found. There was talk of it being one of the richest sources of artifacts in Egypt. Little had been touched by looters.

The most spectacular tombs belonged to the governors who ruled the oasis and their families. Some of them were so rich and powerful they believed they were as powerful as the rulers in Alexandria. They were buried in lavish limestone sarcophagi with hundreds of golden objects and shawabti statues. Inside the mummy of a wife of one governor was a heavy solid gold heart, placed were her real heart once was.

The dead were mummified and buried in shafts about 15 feet deep. Some of the mummies were gilded and buried in groups of up to 43 in a single tomb. The mummies and their sarcophagi contained Egyptian-style hieroglyphics and Egyptian gods such as Osiris mixed with people with Greco-Roman hairstyles and clothes and god like Aphrodite. Some contained objects linked to Christianity.

Gilded masks were found with landowners, administrators and military officers. Mummies of children have been found that are completely covered in gold. Other have gilded gypsum masks that extend to their midriffs. Some headless mummies were found.

Image Sources: Wikimedia Commons, The Louvre, The British Museum

Text Sources: New York Times, Washington Post, Los Angeles Times, Times of London, Yomiuri Shimbun, The Guardian, National Geographic, The New Yorker, Time, Newsweek, Reuters, AP, Lonely Planet Guides, Compton’s Encyclopedia and various books and other publications. Most of the information about Greco-Roman science, geography, medicine, time, sculpture and drama was taken from "The Discoverers" [∞] and "The Creators" [μ]" by Daniel Boorstin. Most of the information about Greek everyday life was taken from a book entitled "Greek and Roman Life" by Ian Jenkins from the British Museum [||].

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© 2008 Jeffrey Hays

Last updated January 2012

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