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The Myth of the Silent Under-Classes in Ancient Greek and Roman Religion

Most of us are exposed to ancient Greek and Roman religion through monumental architecture such as the Parthenon and through raucous myths featuring gods behaving questionably. Individuals in the ancient world had a very different experience of their religion to ours. The texts of Homer and the paeans to the gods were recited at religious festivals. However, only a small proportion of the population could attend these. The Panathenia was one of the largest festivals in Athens, yet, many of the population of Attica were unable to attend. With literary levels being very low, those exposed to these texts were confined to the elite minority. Similarly, the large temples which we can still visit today illustrate a religion dominated by the wealthy elite. Often these temples were not only built to glorify the gods but also the individuals and families who built them. They provide more evidence for the experience of ‘state sanctioned’ religion amongst the elite, than for individual religious experience in the general population.

Here, I would like to argue that our traditional views of classical religion are not representative of the general populations’ experience. The near-total silence of our literary sources on lower-class individual’s experiences has led to a perception amongst modern scholars and students that these people primarily experienced the divine through state festivals or at large state managed sanctuaries. However, individuals could directly contact the gods outside of official sanctuaries. This could be through direct prayer, or using oracles or curse tablets.

Lead was often used in the ancient world to write letters and one could see the development of curse tablets evolving out of this tradition.[ii] Curse tablets are traditionally defined as small pieces of inscribed lead; they could, however, be inscribed on bronze, gold, stone, wax, or papyrus.

These tablets were used in a wide variety of circumstances and acted in a similar way to prayer. For example, individuals could ask the gods to bind the tongue of an orator who was going to speak against you in an Athenian court of law. They could also ask for the help of the gods and the restless dead to bring an individual ‘melting for passion and love and intercourse’ to your home.[iii] These tablets were a useful way of undertaking direct contact with the gods and the restless dead.

A separate tradition of using lead tablets to contact the gods for help developed at an oak tree grove in Dodona where individuals wrote their questions on pieces of lead and tied them to the branches of the trees which were sacred to Zeus, in the hope of an answer.[iv] On these oracle tablets we have evidence of slaves directly contacting the gods, as we do in curse tablets. These are voices which are otherwise lost to us now. One tablet dating to 350 B.C.E. asks Zeus directly: ‘Will Kittos get the freedom from Dionysios that Dionysios promised him?’.[v]

These oracle tablets present us with the same difficulties as curse tablets. A great number of the population were illiterate in the ancient world which leads to the question of how many individuals would have been capable of inscribing a curse tablet or oracle tablet. In the Republic Plato tells us of travelling magicians who sold curse tablets. He describes the formulaic nature of some of these curse tablets as well as the existence of the Greek Magical Papyri which acted as magical recipe books. This evidence suggests that there were professionals from whom it was possible to commission a tablet. This proves a double-edged sword when using these tablets to recover the voice of the silent under-classes of ancient Greece and Rome. On the one hand these tablets are not always directly written by the individuals. The formulaic nature can cause us to question whether we are getting an intimate and accurate portrayal of individual thoughts. However, these professionals would have been providing a method of written expression to those unable to express themselves through writing. Furthermore, we have evidence that illiterate individuals did engage in the curse tablet tradition in the form of tablets which have been inscribed with writing-like scribbles. This suggests that individuals believed that by following the correct ritual the gods or the restless dead would still come to their aid.

If we turn to look at curse tablets, we find many more examples of the supposedly silent under-classes using their voices to be heard by the gods. Tablets written by slaves may at first be surprising, but some slaves had a great amount of freedom to go about the city conducting business for their master. We have one tablet which directly asks the gods to help ‘bind the master of Artemis’.[vi] Another tablet from fourth century B.C.E. Macedonia describes a woman’s pain at the thought of Dionysophon being with another woman.[vii] She writes a tablet to a member of the restless dead so that they might help her gain control over a situation which she would have otherwise been powerless in. The emotive language she used – ‘May he take no woman other than me, and let me grow old beside Dionysophon, and no other woman [...] I have no friends or family and I am all alone’ – provide an intimate window into the life of an individuals who lived 2500 years ago. Lastly, another tablet dating from the third or fourth century B.C.E. Athens is used to bind women and slaves who have been working as informers.[viii]

These tablets provide evidence that individuals silenced by the modern classical tradition played a loud and significant part of everyday ancient life. This brief introduction to curse tablets and oracle tablets has illustrated individual participation in classical religious practice. Furthermore, the examples of personal religious practice have shed light on how marginalised groups played active roles in ancient society.

[i] Abbreviations: DTA = R. Wünsch, Defixionum Tabellae Atticae (IG III.3) (Berlin, 1897); PGM = Papyri Graecae Magicae(Leipzig, 1931-); SEG = Supplementum Epigraphicum Graecum (Leiden, 1923-).

[ii] Michael B. Trapp, Greek and Roman Letters: An Anthology with Translation (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press: 2003), p. 34.

[iii] This quotation comes from an elaborate curse written on papyrus dating to the fourth or fifth century C.E.; PGM XIXa.1-54.

[iv] See E. Eidinow, Oracles, Curses, and Risk Among the Ancient Greeks (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2007).

[v] SEG 57.536. (Supplementum Epigraphicum Graecum)

[vi] DTA 75. Athens fourth century B.C.E. (defixionum tabellae Atticae)

[vii] E. Voutiras, Dionusofontos Gamoi. Marital Life and Magic in Fourth Century Pella (Leiden: Brill, 1998), p. 8.

[viii] DTA 67. A speech by Lysias (7.16 and 13) who was an Athenian orator in the late fifth early fourth centuries B.C.E. tells us that slaves who acted as informers could be rewarded with their freedom.

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