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On the amulets from Viminacium

March 12, 2017

Last year a spectacular discovery entered in the Western and Central-East European press: two mysterious tablets (one in gold and one in silver) were found in the world famous cemetery of Viminacium, Serbia. As one of the most well researched cemeteries of the Roman Empire, Viminacium offers indeed a striking example to analyse religious experiences and the dynamics of funerary rites and changes. The two small tablets were 10-Srebrna-plocica-s-tajansdiscovered in a tomb dated on the 4 th century A.D. in a part of the cemetery used by mixed, Pagan and Christian communities. This “syncretism” and cohabitation of the two groups is well known from others parts of Pannonia and the Empire too.

Despite of the “sensational” news, it is not surprising at all to find pagan burials within Christian communities. The two objects – often presented wrongly in the Western and Serbian press as defixiones, or curse tablets – has nothing to do with cursing. It is certainly gives an interesting glimpse in the magical practices and popular religious culture of the ancient people in the late antique period, when Jewish, Egyptian and Syrian influences were well established in the Roman magical practices.

The two tablets (one in silver, one in gold) are certainly amulets, protecting the soul of the 10-zlatni-svitak-s-tekstom-_620x0dead. While the silver one is full with charakteres, the golden lamella has an Aramaic text written in Greek. Similar golden lamella was found also in Dierna, Romania and recently in Aquincum. The Serbian golden lamella – after the text presented in the international press – contains 3 mysterious demon names, or voces magicae:Thobarabau, Semeseilam, Sesengenfaranges. The first one, Thobarabau is well known from several magical sources (Supplementum Magicum 1990, 41, 42, 43.1, PGM 7, 977, Kotansky 1994, p. 80, Vannier et al. 2000). Semeseilam appears less frequent, but is is also a well known magical word (Janelli 1831, 220) and it probably derives from the Hebrew word of eternal sun or from a Syrian divinity or demon (Németh 2010, 185). Sesengenfaranges (or more probably, Sesengebarpharanges) is also an Aramaic or Hebrew word, with uncertain origins (probably related to a Hebrew mythical narrative hard to reconstruct today: Németh 2010, 186).

Although, the vox magicae certainly leads to the Jewish magical traditions, would be hard to affirm, that the dead person’s family, who want to protect the soul of their beloved person were Jewish or from the Eastern part of the Empire. These magical words and practices were extremely well spread all over the Empire and rarely can be interpreted as ethnic-cultural agents.

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