The ‘Pella Curse Tablet’ and the ‘Nationalistic Greek Archaeology’

AncientsThe 'Pella Curse Tablet' and the 'Nationalistic Greek Archaeology'

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Ever since it was foreseeable that Yugoslavia would collapse and Macedonia would gain independence, Greek scholars have focused on proving that the Macedonians are nothing but Greeks. Sometimes these “academics” fabricated obscure theories with alleged evidence that even finds approval. However, this should be treated with caution. One of these “evidences” is the so called ‘Pella Curse Tablet’.

In his work Before Alexander: Constructing Early Macedonia, shortly after Macedonia’s independence in 1999, the “Macedonian specialist” and professor emeritus of ancient history at Pennsylvania State University Eugene Borza stated directly that arguments that emerge from the Greek academic world cannot necessarily be trusted, and that these were mostly created for nationalistic reasons.

“The Greek Macedonia Archaeology is Close to Nationalistic”

Borza writes on page 34:

One needs read only a representative sampling of modern Greek archaeological literature about Macedonia to see that some claims of hellenic origin are dangerously close to what has been described as “nationalistic” archaeology, which can be defined as an archaeology that promotes national unity in a modern state by emphasizing its famous past. Whatever the values ​​of nationalistic archaeology as good, sufficient, and necessary politics, or as an honest expression of a deeply.felt and proud cultural ideology, it is not science. There is a growing literature on what has been described as the “political anthropology” of nationalistic archaeology (and “imperialist” and “colonial” archaeology, as well), and one notes that some Greek archaeologists dealing with the quality of Macedonian life in both Bronze Age and the historical periods down to the Hellenistic era occasionally seem as much interested in proving the Hellenism of the ancient Macedonians as in providing an unbiased analysis of material culture.

A concrete example of this type of nationalistic interpretation of Macedonian history, which Borza specifically emphasizes and which we definitely want to address at this point: Greek scholar Anna Panayotou.

The Greek academic Panayotou is responsible for several theories about the language of the ancient Macedonians. She published a study about a curse tablet from the 4th century BC, which is said to have been found in Aegean Macedonia. She examined and described the text as “Macedonian of West-Dorian-Greek origin”.

In short, Greek science wanted to use this find and the work of Panayotou’s to prove that the ancient Macedonians spoke Greek – that is, not only the royal house, but also common peoples. Accordingly, the tablet as well as the “research results” of the Greek academic received a worldwide doctorate. She claimed that “the proof is found”. But Borza doubts Panayotou’s thesis.

So we read:

… As for the uncertainty of things, Panayotou concludes that the “Macedonian” dialect was rarely written down, but was related to north-western Greek dialects until the adoption of the Attic Koine in the early fourth century as the official written language used to serve diplomatic contacts with the Greeks. (One may reasonably wonder by what means it can be determined that the Macedonian language/dialect was related to northwest Greek if it was rarely written down). Thus it would seem that no progress has been made on the issue of the native language of the Macedonians.

Borza has undermined Greek nationalistic archaeology and one of its “mayor discoveries” …

Now let’s look at what kind of table it is that was pushed by the Greek and philhellenic academics, or rather, is still being pushed since then.

The Pella curse tablet

They claim that the lead tablet was discovered in 1986 during excavations in the old capital of the Kingdom of Macedonia, Pella. A curse or spell is recorded on the table. According to D.R. Jordan (Duke University) the tablet was dated “mid-4th century BC or slightly earlier”.

The “sensational” find and the thesis promoted by the Greeks was published in the Hellenic Dialectology Journal in 1993, two years after Macedonia’s independence and amid the debate about the “Greekness of the ancient Macedonians”. The thesis received a worldwide doctorate from Claude Brixhe and Panayotou (1994) in “Le Macédonien” (in Françoise Bader “Langues Indo-Européennes”).

Since then, this table and its content has been is regarded as one of four known texts “which could represent a local dialectal form of ancient Greek in Macedonia, all of which can be identified as Doric”.

This should indicate that a Doric-Greek dialect was spoken in Macedonia, “as it was previously proposed on the basis of the Western Greek name forms found in Macedonia”. As a result, the Pella tablet was passed on as a weighty argument that “the Old Macedonian language was a dialect of northwestern Greek and one of the Doric dialects”.

Interpretation of the Pella curse tablet

The text on the board is a magic or love spell that was supposedly written by a woman – or written on her behalf. Greek propaganda favors the first thesis: An ordinary Macedonian woman wrote this curse herself, thus proving that not only the Macedonian court spoke Greek but als ‘ordinary Macedonians’, and that the Macedonians were Greeks.

This woman could possibly have been called Dagina (ancient Greek: Δαγίνα), whose lover was called Dionysophōn (Διονυσοφῶν, Gen .; the Attic Greek form is Theotimē – Θεοτίμη). She calls on “Macron and the Demons” to get Dionysophon to marry her instead of a Thetima. Dagina also wants him to never marry another woman, unless she fetches the rolled-up lead sheet and rolls it up again (that way, her curse would be nullified by herself). Dagina really wants one more wish, she wants to grow old at the side of Dionysophon.

Such spells were written on non-perishable material such as lead, stone, or baked clay, and were secretly buried to ensure their integrity, which would then guarantee the permanence of their intended effects.

The inscription:

The following is the inscription or the reconstruction of the content according to Panayotou. Because some parts of the board are no longer visible, these parts cannot be read or are difficult to read. These places are marked with brackets in the transcript below.

Example: Empty brackets […] have no suggestion for a word, [words], or parts of the words in the brackets were added or reconstructed by the Greek ‘scholar’.

  9. [-]ΤΟ[.].[-].[..]..Ε.Ε.Ω[?]Α.[.]Ε..ΜΕΓΕ [-]
Pella Curse Tablet

English translation:

  1. Of [Theti]ma and Dionysophon the ritual wedding and the marriage I bind by a written spell, and of all other
  2. wo[men], both widows and maidens, but of Thetima in particular, and I entrust to Makron* and
  3. [the] daimones, and (only) when I should dig up again and unroll and read this,
  4. [?] that she might wed Dionysophon, but not before, for I wish him to take no other woman than me,
  5. and that [I] grow old with Dionysophon, and no one else. I [am] your supplicant:
  6. Have pity on [Phil?]a*, dear daimones, for I am (a) dagina* of all my dear ones and I am abandoned.
  7. But guard [this] for my sake so that these things do not happen, and wretched Thetima perishes miserably.
  8. … but that I become happy and blessed.

Interpretation points

1. “Macron” (line 2) is most likely the name of the deceased in whose grave the tablet was placed. This was generally done in the belief that the deceased would “convey” the message to the chthonic spirits of the underworld (the “daimones” in lines 3 and 6).

2. The missing word in line 6 between “I am your supplicant” and “Have pity” (here reconstructed as [Phil?] A) is engraved on the edge of the board, and we can only read that it is a short word, that ends with -AN. “PHILAN” is a likely reconstruction, but by no means the only possible one.

If so, the word “PHILAN” could just as easily be either the personal name “Phila” or the feminine adjective “Phila” for “friend” or “dear”. In the latter case, an alternative reading of line 6 would be: “Have pity on your dear daimones”. In the former case, a personal name would be perfectly placed, but since the name of the person who wrote the curse is not mentioned elsewhere, it is impossible to know for sure what the missing word is.

3. The word “DAGINA” (line 6) is so far inexplicable for academics and linguists and is considered to be “not confirmed”, not even as a personal name. The alternative was suggested by Dubois that it was a typo and that the author intended to write “Dapina” (the difference between Γ and Π is a single stroke).

If so, it may mean that Dapina is a (also unconfirmed) Macedonian representation of what would be written in standard Attic as “ταπεινή”, tapeinē (humble, humble, humiliated). In this case the inscription reads: “for I am humbled by all my loved ones and forsaken” etc.

Another possibility is that Dagina may be related to δαγύς, a puppet or marionette, especially as used in magic. Similarly, ΙΜΕ is also unexplained, but seems to be understood as a misspelling of ΕΜΙ (εμι) (Attic εἰμι) “I am”.

The importance of the Pella curse tablet for other academics and scholars

As we have seen, Borza was not necessarily convinced of the thesis of Greek science. However, there are quite a few academics who pay tribute to the “sensational discovery of Panayotou” and hold it as important testimony.

A little digression on the views of various academics on the blackboard.

The discovery of the Pella escape table, according to Olivier Masson (in his work “Macedonian Language”, 1996) justifies the view that the ancient Macedonian language was a form of Northwest Greek:

“Yet in contrast with earlier views which made of it {i.e. Macedonian} an Aeolic dialect (O. Hoffmann compared Thessalian) we must by now think of a link with North-West Greek (Locrian, Aetolian, Phocidian, Epirote). This view is supported by the recent discovery at Pella of a curse tablet (4th cent. BC), which may well be the first ‘Macedonian’ text attested (provisional publication by E. Voutyras; cf. the Bulletin Epigraphique in Rev. Et. Grec. 1994, no. 413); the text includes an adverb “opoka” which is not Thessalian.”

The same opinion is shared by James L. O’Neil’s presentation (University of Sydney) at the Australian Society for Classical Studies 2005 conference entitled “Doric Forms in Macedonian Inscriptions” (abstract from Scientific Analysis of the Pella Curse Tablet):

“A fourth‐century BC curse tablet from Pella shows word forms which are clearly Doric, but a different form of Doric from any of the west Greek dialects of areas adjoining Macedon. Three other, very brief, fourth century inscriptions are also indubitably Doric. These show that a Doric dialect was spoken in Macedon, as we would expect from the West Greek forms of Greek names found in Macedon. And yet later Macedonian inscriptions are in Koine avoiding both Doric forms and the Macedonian voicing of consonants. The native Macedonian dialect had become unsuitable for written documents.”

Professor Johannes Engels from the University of Cologne argues that the Pella escape table provides evidence that Macedonian was a north-west Greek dialect (Roisman & Worthington 2010, Chapter 5: Johannes Engels, “Macedonians and Greeks”, page 95):

“Another very important testimony comes from the so-called Pella curse tablet. This is a text written in Doric Greek and found in 1986 […] This has been judged to be the most important ancient testimony to substantiate that Macedonian was a north-western Greek and mainly a Doric dialect.”

Ivo Hajnal (Austrian Indo-Europeanist, classical philologist, mycenaeologist and politician) shares the same view in his “preliminary methodological remarks on palaeolinguistics of the Balkans” (Methodische Vorbemerkungen zu einer Palaeolinguistik des Balkanraums), in: Alfred Bammesberger and Theo Vennemann (eds.), Languages in Prehistoric Europe, Heidelberg 2003:

“Overall, the newly found inscription from Pella supports the statements of ancient authors, according to which Macedonian is an idiom closely related to Northwest Greek Doric (e.g. Epirotic, Aetolian, etc.).”

But Borza is not alone among scientists with his critical voice. So does Václav Blažek (Czech historical linguist). In his work “Paleo-Balkanian Languages I: Hellenic Languages” Blažek writes:

The recent discovery of a “Macedonian” curse inscription on a tablet from the 4th century BC does not constitute evidence, it is simply written in Greek with dorizisms.

It is worth to note, that neither Borza’s view nor the opinion of Blažek are mentioned in the Wikipedia article about this Pella curse tablet…It seems, someone liked to push this nationalistic argument as a proof!

Maybe the best summary about this topic “Pella curse tablet” is given by polish academic Wojciech Sowa, who wrote:

Unfortunately, after the publication of defixio on plaque of lead from Pella in 1993 and after an edition and commentary of the document in REG in 1995 (Dubois) our knowledge of Macedonian has not been much extended. The literary evidence can of course hardly be used as a proof of the Greekness of Macedonian speech (or against it)…

Read also: Pro-Greek forgery in most common translations of the Bible

Sources used:

  • Eugene Borza, Before Alexander: Constructing Early Macedonia
  • Václav Blažek, Paleo-Balkanian Languages I: Hellenic Languages
  • Wojciech Sowa, Old Persian YAUNA TAKABARA and Macedonian ΚΑΥΣΙΑ
  • Claude Brixhe and Panayotou, Le Macédonien, 1994 (in Françoise Bader’s “Langues Indo-Européennes”)
  • Olivier Masson, Macedonian Language, 1996
  • James L. O’Neil, Doric Forms in Macedonian Incriptions
  • Ivo Hajnal, Methodische Vorbemerkungen zu einer Palaeolinguistik des Balkanraums, 2003
  • Wikipedia, English, Pella curse tablet

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