Aquatic Contexts as a Place to Conduct "Magical" Rituals (15 min)


Alessandra Rocchetti, University of Oxford


Throughout the European continent from the Bronze Age onward, water bodies, including rivers, springs, and fountains, played a significant role in religious rituals as locations for the deposition of a diverse range of materials. This practice of throwing items such as weapons, valuables, coins, and even residues of human and animal sacrifices into the water was a form of ritual veneration. This wide range of material powerfully demonstrates the variety of religious customs in which aquatic contexts played a decisive role.

From the early Roman Imperial period, in addition to these acts of veneration, water bodies were also used for the deposition of curse tablets, or tabellae defixionum. Several recent studies have enriched our understanding of the significance aquatic contexts held for such an act specifically in the western provinces of the Roman Empire. A recurring theme from these investigations was the importance of the subterranean water bodies from which many curse tablets have been recovered, and how these tablets continually revealed close ties to specific deities and cultic practices.

This paper will analyze such find spots as more than simple discovery sites, and will instead develop and argument for recognizing them as real places of worship so as to account for their cultural and religious significance. By doing so, the intention is to push the element of sacredness further than what is traditionally granted in modern reconstructions by considering how aquatic contexts were assessed and identified by practitioners as suitable places for conducting magical rituals. For example, in certain rituals water represented the most important ingredient, necessary for activating spells, while elsewhere specific waters known to emit chemical vapors were believed to hold oracular powers that could aid in the identification of wrongdoings and perjuries. Similarly, a recurring formula found in several curses wishes for its victims to become “as liquid as water.” By examining these issues, this study hopes to contribute to a more nuanced understanding of the role of water in religious practices and its broader symbolic and cultural significance.