Lucky users

Utere felix – “Good luck to the user”, alternatively translated as “Use, happily” is a simple phrase included on numerous forms of portable object in Roman Britain. It is innocuous, but standardised in its form throughout the material culture on which it appears. It may be abbreviated to UF, but it always stands for the same, single invocation. Variations on this in Greek may be found elsewhere in the Roman Empire.

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Base silver finger ring inscribed with Utere Felix. Gussage St. Michael, Dorset.
PAS: DOR-8F5E8E. Image (C)Portable Antiquities Scheme [CC By attribution].

The phrase is close to the modern, Anglophone idea of wishing ‘good luck’ – in modern Britain this is a social nicety, a spoken method of conveying the hope for a positive outcome to oneself or another but one which, if deconstructed, still intends to deliver some sort of beneficial outcome to the recipient. Culturally, in modern Britain, there is a material iconography of luck – horseshoes, four-leafed clovers, and leprechauns feature strongly in this shared understanding of ‘luckiness’. These images are born out of folkloric customs in the preceding centuries and have probably taken on new meaning in this time, but are prevalent today nonetheless. It is probably true also to suggest that there was a material iconography of luck in the Roman world too, though it is much more difficult to access.

It is useful to discuss what ‘luck’ actually is. ‘Luck’ is a concept closely allied with chance, probability, and accident. Darke and Freedman (1997, 488) suggested that there are two main viewpoints on luck (in modern populations): that it is a random and uncontrollable force from which future events cannot be predicted and from which once holds a rational belief about the causal properties of luck, or that it is something which can be embodied in people or objects and remain somewhat stable over time. In attempting to construct a measurable scale of belief in luck they were required to define what they meant by ‘belief in luck’: “Belief in good luck was defined as the view that luck is a somewhat stable characteristic that consistently favours some people but not others and is especially likely to favour oneself (ibid 490).

Van den Hoek, Feissel, and Herrmann (2015) suggest that luck is closely linked to magic in the ancient world because an immaterial power is invoked: “The immaterial force can seem to enter the object [via the text], and thereby becomes a vehicle that acts upon the user. The object becomes personified as an ally who pronounces more-or-less hidden messages of encouragement”. The same sort of functionality may also be true of the icons we describe as ‘apotropaic’ or as serving an amuletic function. The difference is that with messages of good luck, there is no clearly direct reason for needing or using the object – they offer a very generalised sort of benefit to the user.

With Utere felix it is ambiguous whether it is the object itself, the creator of the text upon it, the physical presence of the text itself, or some other exterior force which benevolently bestows good fortune on its user. Interestingly the phrase does not denote ownership – it was not just only the owner that necessarily benefits, but any given user of the object. In this sense the text has an explicitly generalised efficacy. Perhaps the only barrier to using such an object was the ability to read or, at least, to understand the lettering in a meaningful way.

1STY0009 (1)

Copper alloy, enamelled pan with enamelled Utere Felix on the handle. Eastrington, East Riding of Yorkshire. PAS: YORYM-20B68C
Image (C)Portable Antiquities Scheme [CC By attribution].

 

To date I have catalogued thirty-three such Utere felix objects from Roman Britain: Finger rings (8, including one intaglio), brooches (6), tanks (5), handles (2), spoons (2), strap fitting (1), ceramic vessel (1), bone plaque (1), wooden stake (1). It is evident that at least twenty of these objects are designed for personal adornment. The belt and strap fittings, and the brooches are also clearly designed to fulfil a weight bearing function; they are devices used to hold or affix. It is perhaps an issue of translation and modern semantics whether one can ‘use’ a finger ring simply by wearing it. If its use was amuletic by virtue of the UF text included on them this may be a somewhat circular argument.

It is certainly interesting that many of the object types listed here require physical manipulation to fulfil their utilitarian purpose: brooches must be clasped, patera and spoon handles held, belts clasped etc. and by doing so there was a very physical connection with the text. Not only was it worn, overtly, in these places but it was interacted with by the user to get it into that position in the first place. Perhaps this link between the text and the real world ‘user’ was important?

A differing logic may apply to the lead tanks, the so-called ‘baptismal fonts’ of the fourth century, as the ‘user’ in this sense was someone immersing themselves within its liquid contents; they are also strongly connected with Christian iconography on the exterior of the vessels. The UF phrase predates the rise of the Christian faith in Britain by at least two centuries and, if the semantic argument present above is valid it was a functionally Pagan literary device, so its amalgamation for this purpose is of interest.

The varied nature of the material objects that held the phrase is a point of interest in itself as it shows that the phrase was not necessarily dependent upon specific material conditions to be installed onto something. UF may be a sort of magical panacea in the ancient world; an off-the-shelf, one size fits all sort of apotropaic device capable of being moulded to the needs or desires of the individual.

Perhaps the relatively small numbers of UF devices is somewhat mitigate by the much larger numbers of depictions of Fortuna and Bonus Eventus in Roman Britain – the faces of luck. Of the 2,012 intaglios researched by Ian Marshman in his recently published PhD he found that Bonus Eventus was the most commonly depicted motif in Roman Britain (122 examples, 6%) and Fortuna also featured prominently (75 examples, 3.7%) (Marshman 2015, 140-141, nos. 17.00-17.122, 32.00-32.75).

 
Bibliography

Darke, P. R. and Freedman, J. L. 1997. ‘The Belief in Good Luck Scale’, Journal of Research in Personality 31. 486-511.

Marshman, I. 2015. ‘Making Your Mark in Britannia: An investigation into the use of signet Rings and Intaglios in Roman Britain’. PhD thesis, University of Leicester. [Available http://hdl.handle.net/2381/37527]

Van den Hoek, A., Feissel, D. and Hermann Jr., J. J. 2015. ‘More Lucky Wearers: The Magic of Portable Inscriptions’, in Boschung, D. and Bremmer, J. N. (eds) 2015. The Materiality of Magic (Morphomata 20). Paderborn, Wilhelm Fink. 309-356.

 

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