Unique Roman prayer tablet goes on display

RSS Feed
 by Antony Lee  | Category: Archaeology 
  • West Deeping 'uterine phylactery'

    West Deeping 'uterine phylactery'

The 1994 excavations at the Roman villa site at West Deeping produced a wealth of information about life in late Roman Lincolnshire.  Two of the most intriguing finds were two small pieces of rolled lead.  When unrolled in the laboratory, one turned out to be blank but the other contained something unique and fascinating.

Excavations at Roman temple sites have produced many similar tablets.  They often contain handwritten prayers to the gods, or curses against those who have wronged the author.  Curse tablets are known as 'defixio', prayer tablets as 'phylacteries'.  As this one specifically relates to pregnancy, it is a 'uterine phylactery'.

Although found at a villa site rather than a temple, the thirteen lines of handwritten Latin scratched onto the surface of the West Deeping tablet contain a prayer intended to protect a pregnant loved one.  The inscription is fragmentary, but Roman writing expert Roger Tomlin has been able to translate it as:

‘Womb, I say to you, stay in your place [. . .] has given to you. I adjure you by Iao, and by Sabao and by
Adonai, not to hold onto the side; but stay in your place, and not to hurt Cleuomedes daughter of A[. . .].’

The prayer was therefore written to protect a woman called Cleuomedes, who presumably resided at West Deeping.  The pleading with the womb to 'stay in its place' and 'not hold on to the side' offer a fascinating glimpse into ancient Greek and Roman medical beliefs.  They thought that the womb was effectively a living creature which had the ability to move around the woman's body at will, potentially causing her harm.  The desire for it to not hold on to the side seems to be to prevent what we would call a uterine prolapse.  The Gods being invoked - Iao, Sabao and Adonai - were the standard deities invoked for such reasons. 

What makes this tablet unique is that it is written in Latin.  All other known examples of such prayer tablets have been written in Greek.  The type of Latin used suggests that the tablet dates to the fourth century AD.

The tablet is now on display in the Roman section of the museum's archaeology gallery, which of course is free to enter!


I wonder why pleading to the womb ‘stay in its place and not hold to the side ‘has to be interpreted as “they thought that the womb was effectively a living creature etc.”  isn’t a prolapsed uterus, or many other possible medical complications, a good-enough reason to evoke such a request ??


Iao, Sabao and Adonai were all names referring to the God of Israel so only one God is invoked.

Mark Rudningen

Aren’t all those theophoric references actually Hebrew ones? Why is that the case?

Joe in Australia

Interesting indeed. The name Cleuomedes also sounds rather Greek than Latin - maybe whoever wrote this for her on purpose used a Greek tradition, transposed into Latin. Iao, Sabao(th) and Adonai are of course originally Jewish names for god, but by the time this phylactery was written, they had been fully incorporated within the magic tradition of the Greek-speaking world already for some centuries.

Alexandra von Lieven

‘not holding to the side’ doesn’t sound like prolapse to me - that would be ‘not to go down/out’ - so I think this is a general reference to the womb’s ability to shift position rather than to that. I assume you take the ‘living creature’ reference from Aretaeus but movement can be mechanical (too hot/dry) rather than because the womb is sentient, I think

Helen King

Why the assumption that Cleuomedes was *pregnant*? This is a fairly standard charm against uterine movement, a condition thought more commonly to afflict virgins and widows.

Monica Green

We /know/ about the “wandering womb” belief. It lasted for centuries, and is, in fact, the origin of the word “hysteria”. (When a woman goes nuts, it’s obvious that her womb needs adjustment, right?) So it is reasonable to believe that this tablet is connected.

John W. Kennedy

Actually, John, it’s more complicated than that. The belief that the womb wandered round the body was not a continuously-held belief - it was explicitly denied by some ancient writers - plus the term ‘hysteria’ is not an ancient one. Many ancient Greek and Roman medical writers referred to ‘hysterical suffocation’ (more literally, ‘suffocation from/caused by the womb’), not to a single condition of ‘hysteria’, and distinguished different groupings of symptoms according to where in the body was most affected. They also linked this to beliefs in the heat of the womb as an organ. But one problem with interpreting the tablet is that there wasn’t a single ‘Greek and Roman medical belief’ which everyone would have agreed with over the centuries:there was debate, and development. Also, Monica Green is absolutely correct to say that womb movement was more likely to happen in virgins and widows, rather than in pregnant women.

Helen King

Thank you all for your thoughts and comments on this fascinating artefact!

Monica and Helen’s observations on Cleuomedes not necessarily being pregnant are interesting - it has always been an assumption made, but you are right - just because the womb is the focus of the prayer, pregnancy shouldn’t just be assumed and we will take that into account in our interpretation of the phylactery in the museum gallery!

Antony Lee

It is interesting that you refer to this inscription as a prayer. It is not. It is a Greco-Roman copy of a formulaic incantation for the exorcism or “threatening” of a womb. By the time it was written Soranus and Galen had modified the ancient view of the womb as an autonomous being which could roam about a woman’s body causing harm, to an organ that was anchored in place but could still cause problems by “moving” or “flexing” from side to side. What lingers here is the concept that the womb was sentient enough to understand the words of the magician and be bound by the magical names of God.
The scribe who wrote it seems to have treated the three Jewish attributes of Jehovah as separate deities – in each case retaining the Greek letter omega instead of using the Latin letter o – and using all three to increase the power of the spell.
You also comment that Cleuomedes presumably lived at West Deeping but this is a far from justified assumption. The phylactery would probably have been worn as an amulet or charm, and she could have been travelling through West Deeping when it was lost.

Dave Rawlins

Add your own comment

Please Note: All fields are required and your email will not be displayed.