Asides: ex-votos, curse tablets and voces mysticae

I was given a copy of the Complete Stories of Elizabeth Taylor for Christmas, and was hoping to post about them today. I’m about 3/4 through (it’s over 600 pp) and would prefer to wait until I’ve finished, so this will be an interim post.

Defoe, Tour of BritainI’ve been reading a lot of material for a course I’m teaching about literature and sense of place. My elderly copy of Daniel Defoe’s Tour through the whole island of Great Britain (1727), in its ‘Suggestions for further reading’, cites an essay on the text by Edmund Blunden in Votive Tablets (1931) – which I’ve not managed to find a copy of yet. It’s a collection of his unsigned pieces on English authors published in the TLS, where he was assistant editor in the late 40s.

I vaguely knew what ‘votive tablets’ were, but looked up the term to be sure. Wikipedia defines thus:

votive deposit or votive offering is one or more objects displayed or deposited, without the intention of recovery or use, in a sacred place for broadly religious purposes.

These ‘ex-votos’, as they’re also known, are made in the anticipation or hope of supernatural assistance, such as cure of an illness, or as an offering of thanks when such a wish has been fulfilled. In the Catholic church (and many Anglican ones) the practice of lighting votive candles serves a similar purpose. There are also votive paintings, statues, crowns and so on.

I remember seeing near Paphos in Cyprus a tree by a sacred site that was festooned with ribbons and handkerchiefs left as votive offerings. I used to live near Holywell in N. Wales, and the eponymous well was surrounded by votive offerings, often in the shape of body parts that afflicted the supplicant, or items symbolic of affliction, such as crutches. It was a mini Lourdes.

A related object is the defixio or curse tablet. These were common in the Graeco-Roman world. They were usually tin sheets on which an inscription was scratched wishing misfortune on someone. They could also be used in the hope of restoring stolen property or punishing a thief, as a means of facilitating litigation favourably, or as love spells to speed erotic ambitions. (It’s worth checking the related term ‘anathema’, if you’re interested.)

In pagan use they were addressed to infernal or liminal gods like Hecate, Charon or Pluto.

Voces Mysticae were often found on curse tablets. These were meaningless words from no known language, like Bazagra, Bescu, or Berebescu, seemingly in order to lend them a kind of supernatural efficacy. They came from no known language, and were thought to be the language that only demons could understand. Wikipedia again:

Scholars from antiquity, like Christian philosopher Clement of Alexandria (ca. 200 CE), believed that human language was not appropriate for addressing the gods. Therefore, some of the inscriptions of these curse tablets are not easily translatable, because they were “invocations and secret names” which would only be understood by the spirits themselves. Another possibility is that curse tablets were produced by professionals who wished to lend their art a degree of mystique through the use of an apparently secret language that only they could understand.

This was thought to be a way to control the natural world.

The very early Ephesia Grammata were similar magic formulae or mantras, possibly originally inscribed on cult images of Artemis at Ephesus.

Their power was believed to reside in their sound rather than meaning. If uttered by people possessed by demons, it was believed they would be exorcised.

Spells, invocations, prayers: the magic power of language. Who says ‘words will never hurt’ like sticks and stones?

Some time ago I posted on apotropaic magic – not verbal, but visual.

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4 thoughts on “Asides: ex-votos, curse tablets and voces mysticae

  1. Here in Southern California, they’re called milagros — because of the strong effect of Mexican culture. They are a very common motif in folk art and pretty universal.

    • Liz: glad you liked the post. I binged on ET over the last week or two, but have deviated briefly to read a longer fiction piece; started to feel satiated…Will return to her soon.

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