Curse tablet

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Curse tablet with Greek text, found in Rome

A curse tablet or binding spell (defixio in Latin, κατάδεσμος katadesmos in Greek) is a type of curse. It could be found in all of Ancient Greece and Ancient Rome. Curse tablets were used to influence other people, often the gods were asked to influence someone else, or to do harm to them. This would involve magic.

Usually, texts were scratched on very thin sheets of lead using a small writing. These sheets would then be rolled up, folded, or pierced with nails.They would then be moved under ground, placed in graves, or thrown into wells, pools or lakes. Sometimes they were put on temple walls. Like an analogy the treatment done to the material should also be done to the target of the spell.

Some of the tablets contained love spells. If they were used this way, they had to be placed in the home of the desired person, so that the spell could work.[1]

About 1600 tablets have been found,[2] distributed over all the known lands in Antiquity. About 600 of them were found in Greece.[3]

Spells with figures[change | change source]

A magic doll, where the piercings are well visible

Some of the spells were discovered together with small figures, which have falsely been described as voodoo dolls.[4] The dolls or figurines were sometimes also pierced with nails. The figurines looked like the target and often had both their feet and hands bound.[5] Not all curse tablets were made with lead. Curses were also written on papyrus, wax, wood or other perishable materials, but these are less likely to show up in the archaeological record.[6]

The texts on curse tablets are typically addressed to infernal or liminal gods such as Hermes, Charon, Hecate, and Persephone. Sometimes, a sometimes a dead person (probably the corpse in whose grave the tablet was placed) had to mediate. Some texts do not invoke the gods, but merely list the targets of the curse, the crimes or conditions when the curse is valid, and/or the intended ill to befall them. Some tablets are inscribed with nothing more than the names of the targets. Some people think that an oral spell may have accompanied the making of the curse.[7]

Spells to help the dead[change | change source]

The text on the tablets were not always curses, sometimes tablets were used to help the dead. Those whose grave sites these were placed at usually died at a very young age or in a violent manner, and the tablet was supposed to help lay their souls to rest in spite of their untimely deaths.[8] The language of those texts that do give context is often concerned with justice, either listing the target's crimes in great detail, handing over responsibility for their punishment to the gods, using indefinite grammar ("whoever committed this crime"), or conditional ("if he is guilty"), or even future conditional ("if he ever breaks his word").[source?]. Frequently, such curse tablets are also inscribed with additional, otherwise meaningless "curse" words such as Bazagra, Bescu, or Berebescu, seemingly in order to lend them a kind of supernatural efficacy.

Many of those discovered at Athens refer to court cases and curse the opposing litigant, asking ("May he...") that he botch his performance in court, forget his words, become dizzy and so forth. Others include erotic binding-spells, spells ranged against thieves, and business and sporting rivals. Those curse tablets targeted at thieves or other criminals may have been more public, more acceptable; some scholars even refuse to use the word "curse" of such "positive" texts, preferring expressions such as "judicial prayers".[9]

About 130 curse tablets have been found at Aquae Sulis (now Bath in England), where many of the curses related to thefts of clothes whilst the victim was bathing.[10] Over 80 more have similarly been discovered in and about the remains of a temple to Mercury nearby, at West Hill, Uley,[11] making south-western Britain one of the major centres for finds of Latin defixiones.

Ancient Egypt[change | change source]

In Ancient Egypt, so-called "Execration Texts" appear around the time of the 12th Dynasty, listing the names of enemies written on clay figurines or pottery which were then smashed and buried beneath a building under construction (so that they were symbolically "smothered"), or in a cemetery.[12]

References[change | change source]

  1. Gager (1992) p.18
  2. Eidinow, Oracles, Curses, and Risk among the Ancient Greeks, p 141
  3. Faraone, The Agonistic Context of Early Greek Binding Spells, in: Faraone, Obbink, Magika Hiera, p 3
  4. See e.g. Faraone in Magika Hiera (1991), p. 4 etc.
  5. Gager (1992) p. 15
  6. See Ogden (1999), p. 11.
  7. See e.g. Ogden (1999)
  8. see Gager p. 19
  9. E.g. Versnel 1991.
  10. See Tomlin (1988).
  11. See Curse Tablets of Roman Britain, (accessed 25-12-2006)
  12. Alan Winston, The Foundation Ceremony For Ancient Egyptian Religious Buildings,, accessed 2007-06-17.

Books[change | change source]

  • Faraone, Christopher A. and Obbink Dirk (edd.), Magika Hiera: ancient Greek magic and religion, Oxford University Press, 1991.
  • Faraone, Christopher A., 'The Agonistic Context of Early Greek Binding Spells', in Faraone & Obbink, Magika Hiera, (1991), pp. 3–32.
  • Faraone, C.A. Ancient Greek Love MagicCambridge, MA and London: Harvard University Press, 1999.
  • Gager, John G. (ed) 1992, Curse tablets and binding spells from the ancient world. New York : Oxford University Press.
  • Ogden, Daniel. "Binding Spells: Curse Tablets and Voodoo Dolls in the Greek and Roman Worlds" In Witchcraft and Magic in Europe: Ancient Greece and Rome, ed. Bengt Ankarloo and Stuart Clark, 3-90. Philadelphia: University of Pennsylvania Press, 1999.
  • Ogden, Daniel. "Gendering Magic" The Classical Review 50 (2000): 476-478.
  • Ogden, Daniel 1999, 'Binding spells: Curse tablets and voodoo dolls in the Greek and Roman worlds'. In: Witchcraft and Magic in Europe, ed. Bengt Ankarloo and Stuart Clarke, 1-90. Philadelphia: University of Pennsylvania Press.