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A dancers curse has been revealed on a Byzantine tablet.                  Source: par /Adobe Stock

Mysterious 1500-year-old Tablet Deciphered as Dancer’s Curse

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An academic has finally deciphered the mysterious writings on a lead tablet after 70 years. They were shown to be a curse aimed at a dancer. The curse-tablet dates from the Byzantine era and is providing new insights into its society, culture, and religion. 

According to LiveScience “The curse tablet was discovered by an Italian archaeological team sometime between 1949 and 1954” in Israel. However, the artifact was badly corroded and had been impossible to decipher. The tablet was given to the Italian team and it has been held in the Archaeological Museum of Milan for many years. Since the 1950s the writings on the tablet have baffled the experts.

Ancient theatre

The tablet was unearthed in the ruins of a theatre in Caesarea Maritima , which was originally built by King Herod the Great between 26-20 BC.  The city flourished as part of the Roman Empire . During the Byzantine era, it became the capital of the province of Palaestina Prima. The ruined city is not far from the busy modern city of Caesarea.

The theatre at the Caesarea Maritima. ( CC BY-SA 4.0 )

Researchers had established that there was a rather lengthy inscription on the tablet, but they could not read the writing. The tablet was moved to the University of Verona where Attilio Mastrocinque, a Roman history professor used Reflectance Transformation Imaging (RTI) to understand the enigmatic inscription. RTI is a computer software package that “creates numerous photographs of an artifact — taken from different lighting angles — to create an enhanced image” according to LiveScience.

The curse tablet inscription was corroded and illegible. (Attilio Mastrocinque / University of Verona)

The curse tablet inscription was corroded and illegible. (Attilio Mastrocinque / University of Verona)

Mastrocinque using the imaging technology finally could read the tablet and found that the inscription was in Greek and from the 6 th century AD. Astonishingly it was a curse against a dancer by the name of Manna. The Daily Mail reports that the curse writer invoked gods and demons to “Tie the feet together, hinder the dance of Manna”, so would seem to be from one of the dancer’s rivals. Among the deities named in the inscription is Thoth, the Egyptian god of magic .

A Dancer’s Curse

This curse, which is an extraordinary 110 lines long, goes into great detail, and it was intended to harm the dancer and to make sure that he did not perform well, presumably in a dance competition. It was intended to make Manna “move slowly and lose his equilibrium”, reports The Daily Mail . Such curses on rivals and opponents were very common in the Greco-Roman world. Many similar inscribed tablets have been found buried all over the Mediterranean.

The fact that the table was found in a theatre in what was once a provincial capital, would indicate that Manna was once a famous dancer and even a local celebrity.  It is likely that the curse was not only an attempt to thwart a rival in a dance competition. The motivation for the writing of the curse may have been related to rival factions in the Byzantine era.

Blues and Greens Factions

The Daily Mail reports that “Professor Mastrocinque believes that the curse writer and his intended victim, Manna, belonged to warring factions”. In the Byzantine Empire , two factions known as the Blues and the Greens were often bitter rivals who often rioted and battled each other in the streets. They were originally factions who supported different teams of charioteers, in the hippodromes but they became powerful gangs. So powerful did they become that they almost deposed the Emperor Justinian , during the so-called Nika Riots. It seems likely that the curse writer and the dancer were members of the opposing factions.

The discovery of the curse tablet tells us a lot about the Byzantine period . Firstly, despite the Empire being officially Christian it seems that pagan magic was still practiced. In fact, the length and complexity of the inscription indicates that magical practices had become increasingly sophisticated.  The curse tablet may also suggest that pagan beliefs persisted long after they had been prohibited. Professor Mastrocinque’s research is published in a forthcoming book  Studies in Honour of Roger S.O. Tomlin .

Top image: A dancers curse has been revealed on a Byzantine tablet.                  Source: par /Adobe Stock

By Ed Whelan

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