Photo: the ancient city streets of Pompeii two thousand years after the eruption of Mt. Vesuvius. Credit: Christopher Ott
Haunted by the Past: Pompeii’s “Curse” and the Supernatural
By Vikram Balasubramanian
In 79 AD, ash rained on Pompeii, burying the city. Pliny the Younger describes the catastrophe as white ash billowing miles into the air, hoards of country people unsure whether to leave their homes and run for the seas, and smoke casting a black shade over the sky. During the tragedy, Pliny recalled the existential despair that the people of Pompeii felt:
“[S]ome [were] lifting their hands to the gods; but the greater part convinced that there were now no gods at all, and that the final endless night of which we have heard had come upon the world.”
Here, the eruption of Mt. Vesuvius is a supernatural event, belonging to the gods’ control, and devoid of scientific explanation. Though we can “explain away” the supernatural effects of volcanoes, Pompeii nonetheless appears mystic in the eyes of many tourists.
In 2020, a Candian tourist, only named as Nicole, wrote an apologetic confession to the city of Pompeii: When she was in her 20s, she stole two mosaic tiles, two pieces of amphora vase, and a piece of ceramic wall. Since then, she’d experienced numerous unexplained tragedies, including having breast cancer twice and undergoing financial hardship. She believed she was suffering at the hands of a “curse.”
In her letter, she wrote: “I took a piece of history captured in a time with so much negative energy attached to it… People died in such a horrible way and I took tiles related to that kind of destruction.”
Nicole’s story, although tragic, invokes a conception of karma within the reader. We know the act of stealing, scientifically, could not bankrupt us or cause medical maladies. Yet, part of us thinks there’s some supernatural cause to the coincidence. We stop to entertain whether this is possible.
This exercise in defining the supernatural (a curse) from the natural is not new. The Greeks and the Romans demarcate the supernatural as beyond any possible explanation. If a physician couldn’t take a wild stab at an explanation, it was supernatural.
“Supernatural” is a concept that we think to be static throughout society—acts of god(s) and ghosts exist outside the realm of natural sciences. To us, the concept of nature seems intrinsic; given a concept, like physics, or biology, one can easily classify them as “natural sciences” dealing with concepts that have clear causes and effects. However, this concept of “natural” was invented.
G.E.R. Lloyd, in The Invention of Nature, argues that Hippocratic writers started to create a domain of nature (as opposed to identifying a single thing as natural, like a plant) by dismissing the idea that diseases are indications of a god’s wrath. In On the Sacred Disease, Hippocraties claimed that epilepsy is a completely natural disease, free of the god’s intervention.
For the unqualified doctor, a god’s wrath proves a handy diagnosis to have. Though the Roman empire did have a legal framework for sanctions against bad doctors, there was not a standardized credential system. (Interestingly, the most prominent Roman physician, Galen, believed epilepsy to be caused by the moon.) In this medical environment, every physician is for themselves, and they can only distinguish themselves by their explanatory power.
Most of the explanations of diseases were “bluffs” according to Lloyd. They relied on a definition of nature that justified their explanations and inquiries, while demonizing their rivals’ claims.
In Book II of Republic, Plato describes how curses became the currency of injustice in Greece:
Consider further, Socrates, another kind of language about justice and injustice employed by both laymen and poets… if a man wishes to harm an enemy, at slight cost he will be enabled to injure just and unjust alike, since they [priests and soothsayers] are masters of spells and enchantments that constrain the gods to serve their end. And for all these sayings they cite the poets as witnesses, with regard to the ease and plentifulness of vice, quoting: ‘Evil-doing in plenty a man shall find for the seeking.’
Plato himself broke from his contemporaries to express that curses were harmful to society. After Plato’s death, his writings on the matter in Laws were used to justify the persecution of “witches.” More generally, Plato used words relating to curses and magic to refer to all negative things. For example, as historian Elizabeth Belfiore noted, “the sophist” is referred to as a “deceitful magician.”
In the case of Pompeii’s robbers, their desperate act of returning the stolen mosaics was when their explanatory power was depleted. In her letter, as a last resort, Nicole begs: “We are good people and I don’t want to pass this curse on to my family, my children or myself anymore… Please forgive my careless act that I did years ago.”
Vikram Balasubramanian (College ’24) is a student at the University of Pennsylvania studying Cognitive Science and Economics.