Ancient 'Mad Libs' Papyri Contain Evil Spells
One spell invokes the gods to burn the heart of a woman until she loves the spell caster.
Ancient, magical spells of love, subjugation and sex: It may sound like a "Game of Thrones" episode, but these evildoings are also found on two recently deciphered papyri from Egypt dating to around 1,700 years ago.
One spell invokes the gods to "burn the heart" of a woman until she loves the spell caster, said Franco Maltomini of the University of Udine in Italy, who translated the two spells. Another spell, targeted at a male, uses a series of magical words to "subject" him, forcing him to do whatever the caster wants.
The two spells were not targeted at a specific person. Rather, they were written in such a way that the person who cast the spell would only need to insert the name of the person being targeted - sort of like an ancient "Mad Libs." [In Photos: Two Ancient Curses Discovered in Italy]
Researchers date the two spells to the third century A.D., but the names of the ancient spell writers are unknown. The spells are written in Greek, a language widely used in Egypt at the time.
Archaeologists Bernard Grenfell and Arthur Hunt discovered the spells in Oxyrhynchus, Egypt, more than 100 years ago, among a haul of hundreds of thousands of papyri. Over the past century, scientists have gradually studied and translated the papyri. Many of them are now owned by the Egypt Exploration Society and are housed and studied at the University of Oxford in England.
Maltomini is part of a larger group of editors and contributors from multiple institutions who analyzed and translated the most recent batch of these magical texts, which will be published in an upcoming volume of "The Oxyrhynchus Papyri," a series a books devoted to publishing the papyri from Oxyrhynchus.
A love spell
The deciphered love spell invokes several gnostic gods. (Gnosticism was an ancient religion that incorporated elements of Christianity.) It says that the spell caster should burn a series of offerings in the bathhouse (the names of the offerings didn't survive degradation) and write a spell on the bathhouse's walls, which Maltomini translated as follows:
"I adjure you, earth and waters, by the demon who dwells on you and (I adjure) the fortune of this bath so that, as you blaze and burn and flame, so burn her (the woman targeted)whom (the mother of the woman targeted) bore, until she comes to me..."
Then, the spell names several gods and magical words. It goes on to say, "Holy names, inflame in this way and burn the heart of her..." until she falls in love with the person casting the spell.
Animal droppings and magic
The text of the other deciphered spell calls for the person casting it to engrave onto a small copper plaque a series of magical words, including the phrase translated as "subject to me the (name of the) man, whom (the name of the man's mother) bore..." and then to stitch the plaque onto something the man wears, such as a sandal.
The spell, if successful, was supposed to force the man to do whatever the spell caster wanted,the ancient text says.
On the back of that papyrus is a list of recipes that use droppings from animals to treat a wide range of conditions, including headaches and leprosy. Some of the recipes simply say that they help "promote pleasure." One recipe says that a combination of honey and droppings from a bittern bird, used in a way that isn't specified, will "promote pleasure," according tothe ancient text.
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This papyrus holds a spell that aims to force a man to do whatever the person who cast the spell wants.
Using a powerful X-ray procedure, researchers led by Vito Mocella, a physicist from the National Research Council's Institute for Microelectronics and Microsystems (CNR-IMM) in Naples, have for the first time been able to read letters hidden inside two carbonized papyri without unrolling them. Until now it has appeared impossible to distinguish ink from papyrus inside a scroll using conventional X-ray techniques.
The papyrus scroll was reduced to lumps of coal by the 750-degree Fahrenheit cloud that wrapped the ancient Roman city of Herculaneum during the eruption of Mount Vesuvius in 79 A.D. It was excavated 260 years ago from the Villa of the Papyri in Herculaneum, a magnificent seafront estate thought to be owned by Lucius Calpurnius Piso, Julius Caesar's father-in-law.
The Villa of the Papyri was the largest Roman villa ever found. It was recreated in the 1970s in California by Paul Getty, whose art museum in Malibu is a replica of how the villa is thought to have looked. It stretched down toward the sea on four terraces. The villa housed one of the finest libraries of antiquity. The scrolls consisted mainly of Epicurean philosophical texts and were carefully stored in shelves covering the walls.
During the devastating eruption of Mount Vesuvius in 79 A.D., the scrolls, as well as the Herculaneum citizens, were burned by a furnace-like blast of hot gas. The tremendous pressure of the pyroclastic material compressed the scrolls and even deformed some of the villa's walls.
Paradoxically preserved forever (Herculaneum's seaside air would have destroyed them) the scrolls now consist of the only library items known to have survived the ancient world. Out of the 1,785 scrolls discovered during the 18th century excavation, only 585 had been completely unrolled using a 18th century mechanical method while 209 have been partly unrolled. About 400 have never been unrolled and 450 are so difficult to read that their text remains unknown.
Until now, it has appeared impossible to distinguish ink from papyrus inside a scroll using conventional X-ray techniques. To overcome the problem, Mocella and colleagues turned to X-ray phase contrast tomography (XPCT). The technology takes advantage of subtle differences in the way X-rays pass through different substances, in this case papyrus and ink. The team examined two scrolls (one unrolled and the other still rolled-up) which were handed to Napoleon Bonaparte as a gift in 1802 and now belong to the collection of the Institut de France. On the unrolled scroll the researchers identified two words written in several superposed layers of papyrus. On one of the hidden layers, the sequence of Greek capital letters PIPTOIE, possibly meaning "would fall," could be read, while another sequence, EIPOI, meaning "would say," was spotted in the following line.
But the main object in the investigation was a carbonized, sausage-shaped, rolled-up papyrus. During the eruption, the scroll suffered a devastating shock, which deformed its internal spiral structure, as this rendition of the reconstructed papyrus shows. The letters were distorted, making data analysis a real challenge.
Nevertheless, the scanner was able to pick out all 24 letters of the Greek alphabet. The researchers not only identified some words such as "deny," "for," "the," "to move," but also pinpointed a specific handwriting style, which led to the likely author, the Greek philosopher and poet Philodemus.
"While our ﬁrst experiments have revealed only small segments of writing and are in need of further reﬁnement, we note that once the XPCT technique has been tuned, the imaging of an entire papyrus scroll should not require more than a few hours of synchrotron beam time," the researchers said. New experiments are scheduled for the spring. The researchers also hope to determine the chemical composition of the ink, which, according to ancient sources, was made of water, smoke residues and gum acacia.