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A curse tablet wrapped around a chicken bone.

Ancient Sex Curse Revealed: May Your Penis Hurt When You Make Love!

Curse tablets in the ancient world are like Facebook posts today—they were everywhere, created by almost everyone, and can still be found in the strangest of places. They could be broadly vague or incredibly specific; they could be politically, economically, or emotionally driven. They could be simple requests for vengeance or complex strategies for pain and suffering. Curse tablets were the slam-books of ancient Greece and Rome.

The ‘Simple’ Penis Curse

One such instance of a narrowly specific curse is what has simply been called the Penis Curse from the kingdom of Amathus in Cyprus: "May your penis hurt when you make love." In conjunction with this inscription that leaves little to the imagination is an image of a man holding what scholars have claimed is an hourglass in his right hand.

Though the reason for the curse and the choice of imagery have yet to be ascertained due to a lack of further comprehensible evidence, the location of the find seems oddly fitting. Cyprus, where "archeologists found a curse…on a lead tablet", loosely dated back to the 7th century AD in 2008, has long been associated with lusty endeavors. One of the primary cults of Aphrodite/Venus was on this island, and the wife of the ecstatically charged Dionysus/Bacchus shared one particular cult with Aphrodite at Amathus itself. Taking these factors into consideration, a penis curse at Cyprus seems almost anticlimactic.

4th century Corinthian terracotta statue of Aphrodite. (MatthiasKabel/CC BY SA 3.0)

4th century Corinthian terracotta statue of Aphrodite. (MatthiasKabel/ CC BY SA 3.0 )

What appears unusual and most interesting about this curse tablet may not be its existence, but the date that has been ascribed to it. The century in question, 7th century AD, is a period which would have coincided with the rise of Christianity in the east. The aforementioned common supernatural curses would not have been nearly as common as they were during the height of Classical Greece and subsequent periods of the Roman Republic and pre-Christian Empire. In fact, in relation to the lifetime of the city, founded in 1500 BC by the Phoenicians, the 7th century is nearing the end of its reign. The discovery of the penis curse tablet is one of the more interesting finds of Amathus' later existence.

Curses in Pre-Christian Greece and Rome

The French scholar Pierre Aubert, who heads the Archaeological School at Athens, theorizes that the artifact indicates a cult of witchcraft at Amathus or a surviving group of pagans. Amathus was definitively, unquestionably Christian in the 7th century, so the professor's assumption is not unlikely. Particularly as many ancient sites retained their pre-Christian roots in some form (surviving architecture, sculpture, oral legends, etc.), one can easily imagine a scorned lover attempting to call on the old gods to take care of a problem of which the Christian god might not approve.

Ruins of the ancient city of Amathus, Cyprus. (Bayreuth2009/CC BY 3.0)

Ruins of the ancient city of Amathus, Cyprus. (Bayreuth2009/ CC BY 3.0 )

The curse itself fits quite neatly into the pre-Christian religious culture of ancient Greece and Rome. The oldest tablets found so far date back to the 5th century BC, though there are likely undiscovered finds going back even further. Greece was particularly known for the tradition, passing it into Roman culture as they were absorbed by the Republic and Empire; evidence further abounds from the Roman provinces, most notably in Britain.

Opisthographic defixio tabella (curse tablet) with magic signs on one side and a Latin / Greek inscription of doubtful meaning on the other side. Origin unknown. (Public Domain)

Opisthographic defixio tabella (curse tablet) with magic signs on one side and a Latin / Greek inscription of doubtful meaning on the other side. Origin unknown. ( Public Domain )

Curse tablets were, with little to no doubt, quite common. They could be as specific or vague as the curser chose, and were as often inscribed with simple requests for death or unnamed vengeance as for specific instructions (as seen with the aforementioned Penis Curse):

"Gaia, Hermes, Gods of the Underworld, receive Venusta, slave of Rufus."

                                                                                                            -Sofroniew, Getty

 

"To the god Maglus, I give the wrongdoer who stole the cloak of Servandus. Silvester, Roimandus … that he destroy him before the ninth day, the person who stole the cloak of Servandus …"

                                                                                                -Ravilious, National Geographic

A Roman curse tablet from the Temple Courtyard. Roman baths, Bath, UK. This curse tablet complains about theft of a cloak and bathing tunic. (Mike Peel/ CC BY SA 4.0 )

The Gods Invoked

Most ancient Greek/Roman curse tablets invoked a chthonic deity, such as Persephone, Hades, or Hermes, however it was also highly common for gods of other cultures to be summoned in conjunction or in place of these gods and goddesses.

As the ancient civilizations interacted with one another, gods became somewhat fluid, and deities such as Osiris could be as easily summoned by the Egyptians as the Greeks or Romans. As the second example above shows, there are likely even a plethora of gods now unknown (Maglus) who were thought to respond to such summons.

So-called "Hermes Ingenui" after the inscription on the pedestal indicating the name of the sculptor or of the donator. Hermes wears his usual attributes: kerykeion (or herald's staff), kithara, petasus (round hat), traveler's cloak and winged temples. Marble, Roman copy of the 2nd century BC after a Greek original of the 5th century BC. (Public Domain) Along with Hades and Persephone, Hermes was one of the popular gods to invoke on a curse tablet.

So-called "Hermes Ingenui" after the inscription on the pedestal indicating the name of the sculptor or of the donator. Hermes wears his usual attributes: kerykeion (or herald's staff), kithara, petasus (round hat), traveler's cloak and winged temples. Marble, Roman copy of the 2nd century BC after a Greek original of the 5th century BC. ( Public Domain ) Along with Hades and Persephone, Hermes was one of the popular gods to invoke on a curse tablet.

In ancient Greece, these curses were written on sheets of lead, with the instructions and invocations scratched onto the surface. This continued in ancient Rome, however there is also evidence for curses inscribed on parchment or slim wax tablets shoved into the cracks in the exterior walls of the victim's house. Such close proximity to the victim was thought to ensure the curse's success.

Defixio tabella (curse tablet) with a curse against the circus factions, the charioteers and their horses. Lead, 4th century AD. From the via Appia, outside Porta San Sebastiano, Rome. (Public Domain)

Defixio tabella (curse tablet) with a curse against the circus factions, the charioteers and their horses. Lead, 4th century AD. From the via Appia, outside Porta San Sebastiano, Rome. ( Public Domain )

When it was a curse intended to affect a person's sexuality, it was not uncommon for those chthonic gods to be called upon alongside a sexual deity—Aphrodite and Eros were quite common, and Isis from the Egyptian pantheon gained popularity as well.

An example of a sexual curse comes from a man named Pausanias (not the same as the ancient historian) who wanted to bind "a woman called Sime" to himself, "asking that she may not be able to perform a religious rite to Athena or have Aphrodite well-disposed to her…until she embraces him." Esther Eidinow (2007) discusses one theory regarding the nature of this curse: that Sime was likely a sex-worker or prostitute who Pausanias wished to have only for himself. Thus, the denial of Aphrodite until Sime was with Pausanias might have been an attempt to "free" her from the prostitution business, so he alone could possess her.

A Valued Curse

The find of the Penis Curse at Amathus is an exciting addition to the current collection of curse tablets from the ancient world. A new layer to the line of inquiry is introduced due to the tablet’s Christian date, serving to enhance the possibilities of ancient curse-culture waiting to be explored.

A fine example of a highly specific curse, the Penis Curse tablet has yet to be further examined (or findings of further examinations are yet to be published to the public), however the tablet has quickly found its place among the curses valued by ancient scholars.

Defixio (curse tablet) against Rhodine. A translation of the Latin inscription reads: Just as the dead man who is buried here can neither speak nor talk, so may Rhodine die as far as Marcus Licinius Faustus is concerned and not be able to speak nor talk. As the dead man is received neither by gods nor humans, so may Rhodine be received by Marcus Licinius and have as much strength as the dead man who is buried here.”( Public Domain )

Top Image: A curse tablet wrapped around a chicken bone. Source: Martin Bahmann/ CC BY SA 3.0

By Riley Winters

References

Eidinow, Esther. 2007. Oracles, Curses and Risk Among the Ancient Greeks . OUP Oxford.

Faraone, Christopher A.1992.  Talismans and Trojan Horses: Guardian Statues in Ancient Greek Myth and Ritual . New York: Oxford University Press.

Gager, John G. 1992. Curse Tablets and Binding Spells from the Ancient World . New York: Oxford University Press.

Ravilious, Kate. 2006. "Roman 'Curse Tablet' Discovered in England." National Geographic News. Accessed February 18, 2018. https://news.nationalgeographic.com/news/2006/12/061205-roman-curse.html

"Sex curse found at ancient Cyprus site." 2008. Accessed February 16, 2018. http://www.abc.net.au/news/2008-07-12/sex-curse-found-at-ancient-cyprus-site/438076

"Sex curse found at ancient Cyprus site." 2008. ABC News (Australia): Science and Technology. https://www.sott.net/article/161859-Sex-curse-found-at-ancient-Cyprus-site

Society for the Promotion of Roman Studies. "Curse Tablets from Roman Britain." Accessed February 15, 2018. http://curses.csad.ox.ac.uk/beginners/

Sofroniew, Alexandra. 2012. "An Ancient Curse Revealed." The Iris: Behind the Scenes at the Getty. Accessed February 18, 208. http://blogs.getty.edu/iris/an-ancient-curse-revealed/

Tychon, Agios. "Ancient Sex Curse of Cyprus: Sex curse discovered on ancient tablet in Cyprus/" Accessed February 16, 2018. https://www.atlasobscura.com/places/ancient-sex-curse

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