Foiled Again

Few things travel as well as curses. Or so it seems in a news report from Serbia. Archaeologists in Kostolac, according to The Guardian, have excavated skeletons nearly two millennia old. That’s not news, since people have been dying as long as there have been people. What makes the find extraordinary are the gold and silver metal foils that have been found at the gravesite. Inscribed in Aramaic with Greek letters, these tiny missives were rolled and placed in lead tubes to be buried with the dead. Although translations of the inscriptions aren’t given, the fact that they contain the names of demons would suggest these might be curses against anyone seeking to disturb the tombs. Such devices go all the way back to the Pharaohs, and perhaps earlier. Nobody likes to have their sleep disturbed.

Serbia, for those unfamiliar with geography, isn’t exactly next door to ancient Aram. The burials and inscriptions seem to fall into the Roman Period, however, a time of cultural diversity. When cultures come into contact—in the case of Rome and prior empires, through conquest—new ideas spread rapidly. And sometimes old ideas. The Romans, in general, didn’t like competing religions. Then again, their idea of religion was somewhat different than ours. Ancient belief systems were more or less run by the state. They served to support political ends—at least they were upfront about it. Your offerings and prayers were to be given in support of the king, or emperor, and beyond that nobody really cared. Unless, of course, you were making curses.

Curses, it was believed, really worked. Even today in cultures where belief in curses persists people tend to be physically susceptible to them. We don’t want others to wish us ill. Perhaps that’s the most surprising thing about politics today. Our society has taken a decided turn towards the more secular. Candidates for political office, even if they personally believe nothing, can still cast curses on those who are different. They can claim support of their “faith” to do so as well. Words, in ancient times, were performative. They meant something. Curses were taken seriously because if someone were serious enough to say it, they probably meant it. They could be written down and preserved beyond death. Today, however, words are a cheap commodity. You can use them to attain your personal ends and discard them once they’ve outlasted their usefulness. Perhaps we do have something to learn from the past after all.

Copper scroll from Qumran, replica. Not a curse, just an illustration.

Copper scroll from Qumran, replica. Not a curse, just an illustration.

One response to “Foiled Again

  1. “Words, in ancient times, were performative. They meant something.”

    That is an important point. This related to many things. For example: To speak a god’s name was to invoke the god. To know someone’s true name was to have power over them. And, in some societies, to gain a new name was to become a new person. Likewise, a curse isn’t just to wish ill of someone for it is a threat with perceived effective influence on the world.

    But of course it wasn’t just about curses and names. All of language in the ancient world held this power. Language still operates this way in some societies. Also, in these kinds of societies, there is a link between speaking and thinking along with between hearing and acting. Language in that context is much closer to identity and behavior, not detached.

    This relates to the differences between orality and literacy, poetry and philosophy, bicameralism and the axial age. Greek philosophers like Socrates and Plato feared poetry because the power such language had over people’s minds. Likewise, many in the ancient world feared the power of rhetoric wielded by a new generation of philosophers and politicians that could be used to manipulate people.

    There is an idea related to bicameralism and its ending. During the bicameral era, language was associated with supernatural power, with the voices of kings, ancestors, spirits, and gods. The reason rhetoric was so fearful is because it was like stealing power from the divine. With rhetoric came a new ability to understand how people think and how words influence how they think.

    The struggle for power between the old mindset and the new was violent at times. It involved conflict between societies but also conflict within societies. There required a purging to enforce changes. Here is what they did to
    children with vestigial bicameralism in the ancient Kingdom of Judah, according to the prophet Zechariah (6th century BCE):

    “And it shall come to pass, that when any shall yet prophesy, then his father and his mother that begat him shall say unto him, Thou shalt not live; for thou speakest lies in the name of the LORD: and his father and his mother that begat him shall thrust him through when he prophesieth.”

    Killing off the last remnants of the bicameral mind was a bloody activity, but it had to be done for the good of society. The spokesmen for the new God of the book demanded it. Only official prophets and priests were allowed to speak on God’s behalf, so said the official prophets and priests.

    That is also why poets had to be banished from Plato’s utopia. He too thought that they speakest lies. What is interesting about this is that the notion of speaking falsely only makes sense within the worldview of rhetoric, not poetry. The old mindset involved no disconnection between word and meaning (or between speaking and effect in the world), no space for the kind of deception that rhetoric makes possible.

    All these millennia later, words have become cheap. It is a rare person who can resurrect the old power of language. It might be no coincidence that a great visionary leader like Martin Luther King jr gave speeches in the preaching style with a sing-song rhythm. His speeches had a poetic power about them.

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