The Perceptions of Pregnancy blog, like the Researchers’ Network, aims to reach beyond boundaries and borders, and to facilitate an international and interdisciplinary conversation on pregnancy and its associated bodily and emotional experiences from the earliest times to the present day. This week, Adam Parker discusses a roman phylactery created by a mother for her pregnant daughter as protection during childbirth.
Discovered by a metal detectorist in 2007 in South Oxfordshire, UK (PAS: BERK-0B6771) this small, inscribed gold sheet is a truly interesting insight into the material strategies of personal protection in Roman Britain. A translation of the text inscribed upon the sheet reveals that this is a phylactery (a protective, magical charm) created by a lady named Terentia to protect her daughter Fabia during childbirth (Tomlin 2008).
The rectangular sheet is tiny. It measures 63.1mm x 28.3mm and weighs 1.41g. The text is all written on one side and is organized in sixteen lines of Greek writing. Although this is the Roman period and we might expect it to be Latin, there are lots of Greek texts from Britain – it might suggest that Fabia had spent time elsewhere in the Roman Empire
The first three lines are charaktêres; nonsensical abstract shapes that appear on all kinds of magical objects in the ancient world which represent a connection with esoteric or arcane knowledge by the writer. Lines 3-6 are all ‘magical names’ (the so-called voces magicae), which may be names of gods or other supernatural creatures like demons (Wilburn 2012, 71-72). Whilst grammatically correct and legible these names are otherwise nonsensical. The remaining ten lines are a prayer, of sorts, outlining what the practitioner intends for the amulet by calling upon the powers in the preceding lines:
“Make with your holy names that Fabia whom Terentia her mother bore, being in full fitness and health, shall master the unborn child and bring it to birth; the name of the Lord and Great God being everlasting”.
The ‘Lord and Great God’ mentioned here appears in a number of other magical texts and doesn’t refer to the Judaeo-Christian God. In any case, the function of the amulet is very clear – it was designed to protect Fabia through the dangerous time of childbirth. The inclusion of the mother’s name might suggest that she has commissioned the amulet herself, but it could simply be a matronymic to better identify Fabia.
The wrinkles on the sheet show that it was rolled up, sealing the text on the inside, and may have been designed to be worn in an ‘amulet case’ (a hollow tube worn as a pendant, often of gold or other precious metals (See Kotanksy 1994). The presumption is that Fabia was the intended wearer of the inscription and that she should do so during or in the time leading up to giving birth. At the shortest end of the potential lifecycle of this object it could be worn during a birth lasting only a few hours; at the longest, it could be worn for days or months during pregnancy. The successful birth of the child would render the charm’s purpose fulfilled.
Dating from AD 250-350 (based on the handwriting), this is the only example of a charm designed for this specific function from the Roman period. Its creation must have been in advance of childbirth – the text is looking to the future – and so we might speculate that Fabia was considered to be particularly in danger from her pregnancy. Perhaps she had issues with a previous birth? Or this was a first child and the provided additional support? Or her mother had a difficult time? Perhaps the mother or a midwife noted a potential problem with the birth? Or Fabia was in some way unwell? The exact reason is lost to us, but the function of this object is clear – to provide supernatural protection to one person at an explicitly dangerous time of her life. It is an excellent window into the function of these objects in Roman Britain.
It is worthy of note that the end result of an inscribed sheet of gold may be simply the product of a much larger and more complicated magical ritual. As a case in point, the ‘Sword of Dardanos’ spell from the Greek Magical Papyri (PGM IV. 1716-1870, see Betz 1992) itemised the creation of a similar charm, but calls for a number of other ritual elements including: creating an inscribed gemstone and placing it under the tongue; a spoken prayer; a burnt offering; and several days of ritual work. It even required the gold amulet to be fed and then retrieved from the stomach of a Partridge (PGM IV.1825-30).
Taking this into account Fabia and/or Terentia may have had to organize a huge amount in advance of the childbirth to ensure the health of the mother and the child. Unfortunately, we will never know if it worked.
Adam Parker is a PhD candidate in Classical Studies at the Open University researching the archaeology of magic in Roman Britain. He is co-editor (with Stuart McKie) of Material Approaches to Roman Magic: Occult Objects and Supernatural Substances (TRAC Themes in Roman Archaeology 2).
Betz, H. D. (ed) 1992. The Greek Magical Papyri in Translation (Including the Demotic Spells). 2nd Edition. Chicago and London, University of Chicago Press.
Kotansky, R. 1994. Greek Magical Amulets: The Inscribed Gold, Silver, Copper and Bronze Lamellae. Part I: Published Texts of Known Provenance (Papyrologica Coloniensia XXII/1). Opladen, Westdeutsche Verlag
Tomlin, R. S. O. 2008. ‘Special Delivery: A Graeco-Roman Gold Amulet for Healthy Childbirth’, Zeitschrift fur Papyrologie und Epigraphik, 167. 219-224.
Wilburn, A. T. 2012. Materia Magica: The Archaeology of Magic in Roman Egypt, Cyprus and Spain. Ann Arbor, University of Michigan Press.