Saturday 28 November 2015

Greek Wizardry on the Londinium Underground

Yesterday the Museum of London opened WRITTEN IN BONE, exhibiting results of DNA and isotope research on remains of residents of Roman London. One blue-eyed teenaged girl, excavated in Southwark, had been born in Africa, but her mother’s ancestors came from southern-eastern Europe and west Eurasia.

Demetrios' medical spell, inscribed in Greek 
South-eastern Europe may mean Greece. Regular readers know that I collect evidence for Greeks and Greek culture in ‘Roman’ Britain. In a week when winter viruses felled me and my students, I rediscovered my favourite exhibit in the Museum. It is a pewter amulet with a magic spell designed to ward off plague, inscribed in ancient Greek by a man called Demetrios. He will have worn it suspended from his neck. It was found on the precise opposite side of the Thames from Southwark Girl, at the point where the ancient underground river Walbrook disgorged at Cannon Street station.[i]

Thirty precious lines of Greek begin with these magical words: ABRAI BARBASO BARBASOCH BARBASOTH EULIOR ATHEMORPHI! Demetrios continues to describe the plague in vivid adjectives:

Cacophonous..carried by the air, slashing from afar, man-slaying, agony-intruding, depressing, flesh-eating, liquefying, deep in the veins.

He invokes four deities: three mysterious figures who often appear in ancient spells and whose names ultimately derive from Hebrew—Iao, Sabaoth and Abrasax—and the Greek doctor god, ‘Phoebus [Apollo] of the unshorn hair, archer’. Apollo is prayed to about plagues everywhere in ancient Greek literature including the Iliad and Sophocles’ Oedipus.

Demetrios was probably trying to protect himself from the ‘Antonine’ smallpox-like plague. It began in 165 AD during the reign of Marcus Aurelius and devastated Roman legions across the empire. The forms of Demetrios' letters and some spellings suggest either that he was bilingual in Greek and Latin, or even that Latin was his first language and he was writing in exotic-sounding Greek because he believed it possessed magical powers.

Asclepius, medical god, in human form with snake appurtenance
In two final transnational twists, the hexameter verse line invoking Apollo is a variant of an anti-plague spell also recorded in an ancient Greek text by the Syrian Lucian. Lucian says the spell was actually manufactured at the time of the Antonine plague by a Black Sea charlatan called Alexander. He had invented a fraudulent new avatar, in snake form, of Apollo’s doctor son Asclepius. He named his new oracular serpent Glykon and attributed weird prophetic statements to him.

Asclepius as Glykon, Fraudulent seer
Back in Londinium, we sadly do not know whether Demetrios’ internationally known spell—fraudulent or not—proved effective. I personally survived last week on a diet of Lemsip and single malt whisky, but admit that when people sneezed in my face on the Bakerloo Line I found myself reciting those bizarre ancient words, just in case:  ABRAI BARBASO BARBASOCH BARBASOTH EULIOR ATHEMORPHI!

[i] I owe much of the information here to this excellent article by R.S.O. Tomlin.

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