Friday, November 05, 2021


Identification by Mother's Name

John. G. Gager, Curse Tablets and Binding Spells from the Ancient World (New York: Oxford University Press, 1992; rpt. 1999), p. 14, with notes on p. 36:
Another unusual characteristic in the treatment of names was the practice, from the second century C.E. onward, of identifying personal names by matrilineal descent ("I curse X, whose mother is Y").70 Even in Jewish spells this was the custom, so much so that a noted rabbi, Abaye (ca. 325 C.E.), once reported the following: "Mother told me, 'All incantations which are repeated several times must contain the name of the patient's mother.'"71 Various explanations have been advanced for this unusual custom: because precise identification was necessary, only the mother could be known for certain; influence may have come from Babylonia or Egypt, where matrilineal lineage appears in early spells; the practice was taken over from the world of slaves, who were regularly identified by matrilineal descent; and in Egypt, Jewish and Christian funerary monuments sometimes identify the deceased by descent from the mother.72 Although several signs point in the direction of Egyptian influence, we must suppose that other forces were also at work, arising from social and psychological dynamics peculiar to the ancient Mediterranean. In the end, however, the practice must also be related to the countercultural and subversive character of the defixiones themselves.

70. For a full discussion see D.R. Jordan, "CIL VIII 19525 (B).2 QPVULVA = Q(UEM) P(EPERIT) VULVA," Philologus 120 (1976): 127-32.

71. Babylonian Talmud, Shabbat 66b.

72. On this issue, see the brief discussions in M. Guarducci, Epigrafia greca IV: Epigrafi sacre pagane e cristiane (Rome, 1978) p. 245, n.l, and Alan Cameron, Porphyrius The Charioteer (Oxford, 1973), pp. 157-58.
Alan Cameron, Porphyrius the Charioteer (Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1973; rpt. 1999), p. 157:
We may perhaps explain by analogy a puzzling feature of a series of curse tablets directed at charioteers from Rome in the late fourth or early fifth century. Each charioteer is identified, not merely by a sobriquet (p. 171), but by the addition of his mother's name.4 Why mother's rather than father's? Wuensch sees a trace here of the Egyptian origin of the rite.5 More relevant, probably (since it was the correct identification of the charioteer that mattered) was the principle mater certa, pater incertus.

4 See the index of 'Männer- und Frauennamen' to R. Wuensch's Sethianische Verfluchungstafeln (1891), 119.

5 Op. cit. 64.

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