Comfortably Numb

Sheila Kumar's Storehouse

Published on: 11/25/07 12:40 PM

Travel: Bath, England

The cursing stones

The ancient curse tablets of Bath continue to cast a potent spell on the modern tourist.

It’s a day of weak sunshine in September and I’m at the Roman Baths in Bath.

I am hypnotised. The water is a celadon green, the steam that rises from the hot springs, a wispy, ethereal white.

Statues gaze down upon me in that aloof British way. But I don’t care. All my attention is concentrated on that water.

I’m about to put a curse, a lethal one, I hope. Four days ago, somebody had picked my purse clean at Chartres in France. Now, they were going to get theirs.

Bath is a gorgeous city, set smack in the middle of typically English countryside but retaining a strong Roman flavour. The Crescent building, 30 town houses set side-by-side, is a pale gleam of gold, the waters flow dark and deep near Pulteney Bridge with its weir holding back white crested spume, and Jacob’s Ladder, wherein the angels climbed to heaven, is an arresting sight at the Bath Abbey.

I’d eaten the famous Sally Lunn cakes, more bread than pastry. I’d gazed long and hard at the octagonal Assembly Rooms with all the fervour of a Georgette Heyer fan; I’d paid due homage to another favourite, Jane Austen, at her home on the delightfully named Gay Street.

However, the Roman Baths are the jewel in Bath’s crown. And the moment I came upon the cursing stones was the high point of my visit. I wasn’t going to go till I’d cast a potent curse on the thief who’d given me much heartburn.

The Romans took over this town sometime in 43 A.D. Archaeological evidence shows that the site of the Roman Baths was originally a shrine dedicated to the goddess Sulis by the Celts; the conquerors named it Aquae Sulis (the waters of Sul), identifying the goddess with Minerva.

They built the baths about two metres below the present level of the city and soon transformed the Celtic druids’ shrine into one of the major therapeutic centres of the West.

Architectural feat

And my god, what a feat the baths are.

Five healing hot baths, an elaborate, if complex, heating system servicing a series of hot sweat rooms (yes, we are talking saunas), swimming pools and cold rooms.

At the centre, in its own hall and lined with 14 massive sheets of lead, the Great Bath. Surrounded by the gods, whose statues emerged mysteriously from the swirling steam, the Great Bath was a wonder of the ancient world, is a wonder of the modern world.

The worship of Sulis-Minerva continued in Roman times, and so did the quaint ritual of casting messages to her, scratched out in metal, into the waters.

These are the curse tablets (the ones at Bath are the most important in all of Britain); written in Latin, they laid curses on people the aggrieved party felt had done them wrong.

Written dedications, vows and curses are inscribed on thin pewter/lead sheets which are then rolled up and placed in the water.

The curse tablets usually appealed to Sulis-Minerva for health, wealth, the return of lost loves or stolen property; what was common was the fervent appeal that the guilty should meet with some dire retribution.

And oh yes, these curses were all written backwards, since that was thought to imbue them with extra potency. Irresistible, what?

Interesting fates

Most of the curses, though, named the suspect; this was a daunting impossibility for me, since I didn’t know who had robbed my wallet. Some of the more memorable curses, the text of which is on display in the corridor overlooking the sacred spring, ran like this:

May he who has stolen Vilbia from me become as  liquid as water…

Docilianus…to the most holy goddess Sulis. I curse him who has stolen my hooded cloak, whether man or woman, whether slave or free, that…the goddess  Sulis inflict death upon him…and not allow him sleep  or to have children now and in the future, until he has  brought my hooded cloak to the temple of Her divinity.

To the goddess Sulis Minerva. I ask your most sacred majesty that you take vengeance on those who have done me wrong, that they buy back this curse with their own blood.

Obviously, there was some simple psychology at work here.

The thief would suspect that his victim might curse him at the spring, and if he fell ill after he’d committed his crime, he could well believe that this was the curse at work.

And so, his illness would take on a psychosomatic angle and not clear up, even though its origin was purely physical.

In this way, the cursing procedure would have worked, and did work, for at least two centuries.

Making it potent

All this was heady stuff. And so I did what I had to, and no, I am not about to disclose the contents
of my curse. I also declined the offer to drink some of the water at the adjoining Pump Room. I felt that would, er, dilute my curse.

You see, I well recall that when Harry Potter tried to use a strong Unforgivable Curse, he was jeered at by the heinous Bellatrix Lestrange: “You have to mean it for it to work, Potter!”

Floods eventually conquered the Great Bath complex, vulnerable as it was to the rising water level of the Avon river. When the Romans withdrew from Britain, the Baths soon fell to ruin, the hot spring returned to its former avataar, the marsh, and the site of Minerva’s great temple became a dumping place for town refuse and, in later times, a Saxon graveyard.

Sic transit gloria mundi, I suppose.

Okay, I’ll cut to the chase, my chase. I got my wallet back. Empty of money and travellers cheques but with my passport intact. Now where can I go to offer thanksgiving?

This ran in THE HINDU of 25 Nov 2007.

Related Links:

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Travel: Waterford, Ireland

Travel: Mysterious Ireland

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Aquae SulisAssembly RoomsBathBath Abbeycurse tabletsCursing stones of BathEnglandgoddess SulisJacob`s ladderPulteney bridgeRoman bath

Sheila Kumar • November 25, 2007

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