Sample History Paper on Ancient Mediterranean Religions

Dr. Brian Sowers

Reading Worksheet 20: Magic II. Gager pdf

1. According to Gager, what are the defining features of Greek/Roman curse tablets and binding spells? Use the below categories to help organize your answer.


The curse tablets and binding spells were inscribed on different types of materials although lead was the favorite medium used in the Greek/Roman culture. Ostraca or broken shreds of pottery were the alternative materials used. Lead was commonly used because of its low and availability. Lead could also be stolen from the public infrastructure such as the water pipes. It was also easy to make a tablet from the hot lead which could be rolled, hammered, and scrapped to make a smooth surface. Lead was also easy to be used for writing anything. The metal was also suitable for the task of conveying curses and spells to the underworld because it is cold and bulky in nature.

Inscribed messages

The letters on the various materials were either lightly scratched on the surface or deeply incised and had a metal visible at the end of the stroke. The letters were inscribed by professional scribes and individuals who were seeking to enact a spell to others. The early tablets only contained the names of the targeted individual without necessarily including the mention of a deity. Greek tablets do not contain mystical words or formulas, but there are few exceptions while the Roman period has a richly variegated language. With the growth of written language, the Greek culture incorporated oral accompaniments alongside the traditional elements. The oral accompaniments were in the form of unintelligent speech. Drawings of human beings, creatures and animals were also famous and used to express the reality of the targeted actors.

Gods, Daemones, Spirits of the dead

The gods were associated with the domain of death, the underworld world or were attributed with magic. Occasionally, the names of gods would be written down or recited when uttering spells. Such gods include Hermes, Hekate, Kore, and Persephone. The local beliefs and customs governed the choice of gods. The language used in addressing the gods was formulaic and the styles used include the direct binding formula, prayer formula for supernatural assistance and persuasive analogies. Some of the recurrent features in the language are repetition, metaphor, simile, and formal appeals. Tablets would be prepared in advance, and the names that would be written on them were not necessarily the personal names of the targeted individuals.

Dolls, hair, nails

The binding process incorporated the use of dolls. The Greek cities in ceremonies used similar dolls as those used in Egypt which prescribed a wax image of a personal enemy. The dolls were characterized by their hands tied behind their backs while others were tortured or mutilated. The names of the targeted individual could be inscribed on the back of the dolls. Curses would then follow the targeted client. Hair was used in love related spells, and therefore all love spells contained hair. The nails were symbolic to add death and pain to a spell, and this was a key character in binding spells to bind other people or for protection.

Depositing the tablets

Once the tablets were inscribed, they would be deposited in unique locations which were believed to effective and for the powers to manifest. Examples of such places are rivers, land, sea, coffin or in a well. Burial sites for those who died prematurely were also a preferred place for the depositing of the tablets and gods would always be involved in the process. Often, the scribes would carry out the task of depositing tablets on behalf of their clients. The process would require invocation, rituals, and prayers among others.

2. According to Gager, what were the desired effects of binding spells? Did they work?

The desired efforts of binding spells were to bring other persons under an individual’s power. The common wish was to inflict pain or harm to a targeted person, such as illness, death, mental suffering, and loss of family among others. According to Gager, the binding spells never worked, and he states that charms, spells, and amulets were irrelevant and did not affect the targeted individuals. The process of binding spells can be thought to have relieved the injured party feelings and not necessarily worked. To be precise, there was a transfer of emotions in the process of inscribing tablets or binding spells.

3. According to Gager, what was the relationship between binding spells and the law?

Binding spells were treated as an illegal activity. In Greek, Plato had initiated a law against binding spells, and it would be treated as a capital offense. The Roman laws also clearly defined binding spells as illegal. However, the activity of binding spells still flourished. The Mediterranean culture flourished because many people believed that it worked. As the operation worked in a way that could not be controlled by the legal, social and political spheres, it was difficult to perceive and control it. The power to control was in the hands of individuals who were freely negotiating and standing outside the corporate structure of society.

4. According to Gager, what was the relationship between binding spells (magic) and religion?

According to Gager, the binding spells are an expression of the ancient “magic,” and there is a contrast with “religion.” Primarily, Gager believes that “magic” does not exist. However, he states that the beliefs of conflicting parties would always be termed as “magic.” Gager clarifies that both magic and religion are distinct entities and rejects the implications of the classical theory which gives a relationship between magic and religion. Gager also emphasizes that the use of the term “magic” gives no information about the substance being described. Nevertheless, he acknowledges that there has been a lot of inherited traits between binding spells and religion.