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12.09.2019. Art & Culture
Pompeii never ceases to amaze. You would think there was little left to unearth in one of the world’s most famous and most visited archaeological sites. But much of the town that was buried by Vesuvius in 79AD remains underground, and excavations continue to bring rich material to light.
The latest find is a revelation. In the area known as Regio V, in a dwelling called the House of the Garden, archaeologists came across a room where ten victims of the deadly pyroclastic gas cloud that hit Pompeii after the eruption lay huddled together. In an adjacent room, they discovered a fragile wooden box with bronze hinges. Inside was a treasure trove of objects that were interesting as much for what they said about their owner as for their intrinsic value.
Among the contents were two small mirrors, beads from a necklace, decorations in bone, faience, amethyst, amber and bronze, gems carved into human shapes, a head of Dionysus and a dancing satyr in glass paste, phallic amulets, and a glass unguentary which once contained precious ointment. The intricate workmanship of many of these pieces betrayed the female owner’s comfortable social and economic status, but the real interest lay in the magical, apotropaic nature of this collection.
As in the Italy of today, so in ancient Pompeii, many inhabitants trusted to amulets, ritual formulas and lucky charms to ward off the evil eye, defeat rivals in love, keep loved ones safe, restore fertility to the barren, and invoke success in business and affairs of the heart. The owner of the box was either a deeply superstitious private citizen with her own personal, DIY charm kit, or what some experts have dubbed a ‘sorceress’.
That term is probably a little strong. If she did work magic for others, this mysterious lady is more likely to have been the first century AD equivalent of the self-styled clairvoyants and fortune tellers who still ply a busy trade in this part of the world. You don’t have to go far from the gates of Pompeii to see cheesy posters by the side of the road in which various maghi (that’s the plural of mago, ‘magician’ – the female equivalent is maga) advertise their powers and promise to resolve all your problems.
The box also included pendants and carvings in the shape of a tiny skull, an ear, a closed fist, and a small figure of Harpocrates, child of Isis and Osiris, who was always portrayed with his finger to his lips, enjoining silence, discouraging gossip. If the owner was indeed an Ancient Roman maga, she would have used these items – including the mirrors, which deflected the malocchio, the evil eye – in one-to-one sessions with her clients, just like the Neapolitan ‘magicians’ of today. Could those huddled victims next door have been clients waiting to see la maga? And if so, was she among them – or did she somehow, magically, spirit herself to safety?
Massimo Ossanna, General Director of the Pompeii Archaeological Park, calls such finds “extraordinary – because they tell micro-stories, biographies of the inhabitants of the city who tried to escape the eruption”. More than a micro-story, this one has the makings of a whole feature film.
Photos © Cesare Abbate/ANSA, reproduced with kind permission of the Parco Archeologico di Pompei