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Abstract: Boundaries, Magic, and "Popular Religion" in two Mosaics from Ancient Thysdrus(El Jem in Tunisia)


Jerry Toner defines "popular culture" as "the culture of the non-elite" that was "the unofficial and subordinate culture of Roman society." (Toner 1) Magic, superstition, and religion were interchangeable in Roman antiquity.  Domestic religious practices have often been discussed in terms of “popular religion,” religious aspects of "popular culture," but Romans of all classes participated in the domestic cult.  Boundaries, both physical (the threshold/ limen, door/ ianua, or even the intersection of streets and property lines) and metaphysical, (the pomerium of the city of Rome) presented weakened points in the lines of defense that could be strengthened with "magic" or more "popular" religious practices.  Thus, shrines were erected at crossroads (compita), wind chimes in the form of a phallus (tintinnabula) were hung to avert the evil eye, and other forms of supernatural assistance, including “bird deposits” buried under villas in the Pyrenees region (Bowes 216), were used as magical protection. Romans, too, had a number of deities whom they could appeal to whose powers comprised boundaries including the Lares Compitales (gods of the crossroads) and Janus.


This paper focuses on mosaics from two buildings in Thysdrus (modern El Jem in Tunisia): the January panel (emblema) from The Mosaic of the Months from the House of the Months, (late second-early third century CE) in the Sousse Museum and the Owl Mosaic (late third century CE), a threshold mosaic from the Baths of the Owl in the El Jem Archaeological Museum, to consider the connections between boundaries, "popular religion," and “magic” in a North African town that became wealthy due to its olive oil industry and renowned for the games in its amphitheatre, now a UNESCO World Heritage site.


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Issue 2 - Laurie Porstner