Dark Spells in Aquincum

I’m a big fan of accessible history. What do I mean by that?

Unfortunately for a lot of us, history is not taught well in schools and once we are grown up we get caught in the rush of our daily lives that we often only have time enough for random snippets of history presented to us over social media (mostly distorted to suit the views of the speaker). A lot of history is also in the form of books that only engage with a limited audience that is already well versed in history (for ex: academic textbooks) and they often intimidate the lay person such as me and you. Hence my support for efforts that bring history to you in a form that is more easily digestible.

The museum of Aquincum in Budapest (which I visited in late June last year) had an excellent exhibition on the influence of magic and the invisible on the lives of the people living in Roman times in Aquincum. It could have been a spectacularly boring exhibition displaying ancient artifacts with boring labels. But the organisers had gone ahead and developed an entire graphic short story inspired by an actual local archaeological find.

The fight at the marketplace
The sorceror’s workshop
Burying the curse tablet late night at the cemetery

In addition to engaging with visitors in an easily understandable and popular format, the exhibition made sure that you retained something about the subject- you’d certainly remember how people in Roman times believed in dark magic and used customised curse tablets to try and put down their opponents.

The story revolves around two factions who get into a fight and have to defend themselves in court. One of the parties engages a sorceror to prepare a curse tablet which will make sure that the opponent is cursed. The final verdict is favourable to the person who had the curse tablet made but of course the story is ambiguous on whether this was “due to the words of Oceanus’ advocate, the persuasive speech of the witnesses, or the curious coughing fits that Gaius Mutilius repeatedly suffered..”

As I said the story and the names of the characters were inspired by an actual lead tablet that was found in Aquincum which goes

“May Iulia Nissa and Gaius Mutilius be unable to do harm to Oceanus and Amoena. May Gaius be unable to do harm to Felicio…Just as I write this with a bent, twisted stylus, so, too, may their bent and twisted tongues be unable to do harm to these..”

Roman children and supposedly women used amulets and other charms to ward off evil influences. In fact the coming to manhood ceremony for boys in ancient Rome included removing the ‘bulla’ that the boys wore as children. Some of these charms also looked like amulets worn by children in India for evil eye. That was mind blowing for me.

Bulla Aquincum
Bulla worn for protection- archaeological finds at Aquincum

The gift shop of the museum also had a lovely tshirt and an exhibition book that I picked up. I wish more museums would create engaging exhibitions like these.



8 Comments Add yours

  1. Lav says:


    1. Sukanya Ramanujan says:

      It was a great exhibit

  2. Great idea!

    Although I am very interested in history, I am sometimes reluctant to go into museums because so many of them are just glass boxes full of stuff, with no explanations, which, particularly in combination with the absence of visitors and bored staff, I find extremely depressing.
    But then of course there are exceptions from time to time.

    1. Sukanya Ramanujan says:

      These days I’m a fan of the smaller specialised museums that make an attempt to connect with the visitor through interactive displays and stuff like that rather than the big ones where there’s tons of things and a million people trying to take selfies with their selfie sticks

      1. And the best thing about smaller museums is that the staff often have plenty of time to explain things and to answer questions. I still have to work on overcoming my natural shyness, but whenever I did, it was really worth it. After all, most people working in museums are quite knowledgeable.

      2. Sukanya Ramanujan says:

        I agree, staff are thrilled to see interested visitors

  3. Nirmala says:

    I am also amazed how similar these look like Indian ones worn even today!

    1. Sukanya Ramanujan says:

      I know right?

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