Working Stiffs welcomes back the super-fabulous Kelli Stanley!
I thought I’d talk about a subject that most people don’t talk about often enough, mainly because, well, they’re afraid it’ll bring bad luck.
We’re talking superstition, here. You know, knock wood, jinxes, ladders, black cats, and the rest of it. It’s kind of thematic—my next “Roman noir”, THE CURSE-MAKER, releases on February 1st , and, as you might expect, it deals with curses (and ghosts and necromancy and other cool stuff).
I’ve always been interested in why we perform the rituals we do, and way back in yesteryear when I was still getting my Master’s in Classics, I loved diving into studies of ancient cults and magic and … cursing. No, not that kind, though I had plenty of practice as a student.
Curses are an ancient form of bribery/magic, and their basic purpose—just like our knocking wood—is to control the unknown. In this case, through bribing a god or goddess or spirit to arrange things for you—whether it’s the horse in the third race or the sexy handyman down the street (that’s a plug for Derek, Jennie’s handyman in her Avery series—very handy and very sexy!) —we’re calling on supernatural aid to give us what we most desire or avert what we most fear.
Curses were almost always illegal in most places … but not in Aquae Sulis (Bath) in Roman Britain. Here, these lead tablets—they were usually lead tablets folded up and/or stabbed through with a nail in order to “fix” the spell, hence the Latin name defixiones—were legal and apparently sanctioned by the temple of the leading goddess herself. Sulis was the reigning queen of the magic waters of Aquae Sulis (i.e. “Waters of Sulis”) which reputedly had magical powers of healing. See, Bath—before Jane Austen—was still a snooty spa town.
Sulis was the local Celtic goddess all right, but the Romans identified her with Minerva, so she’s usually referred to as “Sulis-Minerva” … though we don’t really know what she called herself. We don’t even know for sure if she was a she, because the only surviving relief sculpture from her temple clearly shows a bearded figure.
Anyway—she, he, or bearded lady—presided over a sacred spring of this healing water (which you can still experience today, by the way). The hopeful and the desperate would throw curses into the spring, and most had something to do with theft, i.e. “May the person who stole my bath slippers, be he man or woman, slave or free, be unable to use the bathroom and feel like his bowels are on fire until the slippers are returned.”
In other words, the curses, in a very unique and bizarre way, were a sort of social police network. They made victims of theft feel better, and—possibly—they may have worked. I mean, if you stole someone’s bath slippers, and you knew about this curse, wouldn’t you return them?
One of the curse-makers in THE CURSE-MAKER explains how and why it all works to Arcturus, my protagonist, but please don’t try it at home … these spells persisted in cultures for thousands of years, and, well ... color me superstitious.
Arcturus is there on a honeymoon of sorts, and immediately gets drafted into a murder investigation. One of the curse-makers is found floating in the Sacred Spring, and he’s not taking a bath. The thing is … this curse-maker’s curses had a reputation.
They came true.
I’ll leave you with that, and one quick question: what’s your own favorite superstition? Rabbit’s foot? Ladders? Or Knock wood?