POSTCARD FROM BATH
The cursing stones
|The ancient curse tablets of Bath continue to|
cast a potent spell on the modern tourist.
The Romans turned the Celtic druids’ shrine into
one of the major therapeutic centres of the West.
A wonder still: The baths.
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 Room 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.
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?
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 tha
t 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?