Ancient Curses: Five Ways to Create Calamity in the Ancient World
Ever since the days when magic first arose, people have been looking to manipulate the world with supernatural means and divine intervention – often for positive ends, but also to punish or send misfortune to enemies. Archaeological evidence shows a plethora of ancient curses. The history of curses certainly varies between cultures, locations, religions or beliefs, and times; however, such beliefs and practices have continued to the present day.
A curse, sometimes called jinx, hex, or black magic, can be verbalized, written, or sometimes cast through elaborate rituals. The aim is to see harm befall the recipient - bad luck may dog them, death may take them, or any number of dire (or annoying) fates may plague them. In antiquity a curse was a powerful phenomenon, often viewed as the summoned wrath of gods or the presence of evil forces.
Curse tablets in the ancient world are like Facebook posts today—they were everywhere and created by almost everyone. They could be broadly vague or incredibly specific; they could be politically, economically, or emotionally driven. But they could also be simple requests for vengeance or complex strategies for pain and suffering. Curse tablets were the slam-books of ancient Greece and Rome.
These tablets were one way the people of ancient Greco-Roman societies attempted to harness malevolent spirits and the wrath of powerful gods to damn their foes. The oldest tablets found so far date back to the 5th century BC, though there are likely undiscovered finds going back even further.
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Binding spells would normally be scratched into the surface of thin metal, usually lead, tablets; although parchment, wood, or slim wax tablets were also used. The tablets would be rolled up, nails were driven into them, and they were placed underground, at the bottom of wells, nailed to temple walls, inserted into the walls of houses, or buried with the dead.
A curse tablet wrapped around a chicken bone. (Martin Bahmann/ CC BY SA 3.0 )
Sometimes tablets appealed to underworld gods, Hades, Hekate, Hermes, or Persephone, however it was also common for gods of other cultures to be summoned in conjunction or in place of these gods and goddesses. As 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.
But the gods were not always mentioned on curse tablets, sometimes the text simply named the victim and the misfortune or death that was to befall them. One tablet found in London reads: “I curse Tretia Maria and her life and mind and memory and liver and lungs mixed up together, and her words, thoughts and memory; thus may she be unable to speak what things are concealed, nor be able.”
The purpose of curse tablets varied: some Olympic athletes relied on the dark arts to win, while others wrote curses meant to hinder someone’s sexuality, such as the Penis Curse from the kingdom of Amathus in Cyprus. There were curses meant to stop marriages, such as the Pella curse tablet , and others to punish thieves. Gods and demons were often called upon to unleash all sorts of bad luck, ill-health, punishment, and death upon enemies, unrequited lovers, bad neighbors, and even relatives.
Nothing instilled more fear in the tomb raiders of times past than the possibility of encountering a curse that warned of dire consequences for taking things from ancient places. In ancient Egypt, curses were sometimes placed on tomb entrances , inscribed in the tomb chapel and the more public part of the tomb complex, and written on walls, false doors, stelae, statues, and sometimes coffins – all this in an effort to protect the sacred monument from being disturbed or looted.
Inscriptions sometimes spoke of the deceased coming back to life to seek revenge, or called for judgement to be taken in the underworld. Anyone who ignored such warnings would do so at their own peril. A curse from the administrator of the 18th dynasty, Amenhotep, son of Hapu threatens anyone who would damage his tomb with a lengthy list of punishments. The perpetrator would “ lose their earthly positions and honors, be incinerated in a furnace in execration rites, capsize and drown at sea, have no successors, receive no tomb or funerary offerings of their own, and their bodies would decay because they will starve without sustenance and their bones will perish.”
The unbroken seal on Tutankhamun’s tomb, 1922. ( Public Domain )
Stories and rumors surrounding curses placed upon tombs and mummies have existed for centuries. They started around the 7th Century AD when the Arabs conquered Egypt and could not read the hieroglyphics. Writers warned people not to tamper with the mummies or their tombs because they knew Egyptian’s practiced magic during funeral ceremonies. It was believed that curses were placed around burial sites by priests in order to protect both the mummies and the deceased in death . These beliefs formed the idea behind the so-called ‘curse of the Pharaohs’ – the belief that anyone who entered or disturbed the tomb of a mummy, particularly that of a pharaoh, would be subject to bad luck and inevitable death.
This type of curse gained infamy in 1922 when the tomb of Pharaoh Tutankhamun was opened. The mysterious deaths of some of the archaeological team and prominent visitors to the tomb soon after it was opened, and the subsequent publicity, caused a firestorm of speculation as to the power of Pharaohs’ curses.
In reality, deadly curses in royal tombs in Egypt are rare, as the idea of invaders or raiders breeching the tomb and desecrating the contents was unthinkable and even dangerous. Warnings or guards were more frequently used to preserve the ritual purity of a tomb, or for generalized protection.
Ensuring the Safety of Prized Books
Curses, or the threat of cursed objects, was a clever method to protect valuables. During the medieval period, book curses were widely used and effective at keeping thieves away from precious tomes and important scrolls.
The infamous Devil’s Bible , a massive manuscript that legend says was written in a single night by a monk in a pact with the devil, is one famous example of a medieval manuscript said to be cursed and to bring misfortune to any who possess it.
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Detail of the Devil portrait in the Codex Gigas. ( National Library of Sweden )
The medieval Catholic Church possessed many prized books and the penalty for defacing or stealing books was high. Curses written in the tomes warned would-be thieves of dire repercussions, such as excommunication or damnation. However, this practice dates back to pre-Christian times, and was used in the earliest libraries .
The books in a collection at the library at Nineveh in Mesopotamia, for example, were marked with various curses. In what reads as a severe threat against copyright infringement, one text has the warning, “Whosoever shall carry off this tablet, or shall inscribe his name on it, side by side with mine own, may Ashur and Belit overthrow him in wrath and anger, and may they destroy his name and posterity in the land.”
Ancient Egyptian beliefs about the afterlife shaped every aspect of their culture and society, so when experts found a limestone carving of a couple that had been deliberately defaced, they knew there was something more than simple vandalism at play – it was an act of deliberate revenge which sought to curse the couple and deny them a happy afterlife.
The discovery was made at Tell Edfu and comes from a 3,500-year-old limestone carving on a villa’s household shrine, which would have been used in the worship of the owner’s ancestors. The carving was badly damaged and it showed a couple standing next to each other, though it is impossible to make out their faces. The hieroglyphs that once identified the couple’ names, status, and roles in society had been deliberately scratched from the carving. Whoever had damaged the shrine sought to obliterate the memory of the dead couple.
Limestone stela showing a man and woman standing next to each other, which shows signs of having been defaced. ( Tell Edfu Project )
The disfiguring of the stone work was not a mindless act of vandalism but a premediated act of revenge. By damaging the representations of the deceased, they were destroying not only their memory but also their descendants’ ability to help them in the afterlife, eventually resulting in their souls or ‘Ka’ disappearing. In ancient Egyptian belief, the memory of the dead had to be kept alive by the living or else the deceased would suffer in the afterlife. This is a belief that is still common in many traditional cultures to this day.
Some curses were used to keep greedy rivals from stealing or vandalizing important monuments. For example, an unknown author inscribed a curse onto an Assyrian stele in 800 BC. The stele was eventually broken in two – one half ended up in the hands of the British Museum and the other in Bonhams auction house. The fragment of the stele in the British Museum’s collection was found in 1879 in Dur-Katlimmu (modern Sheikh Hamad) in Syria. It was formed in basalt to commemorate a military achievement of King Adad-Nirari III.
There is cuneiform script on the sides and across the front of the king’s body. The renovation of Salmanu’s temple at Dur-Katlimmu is mentioned in the inscriptions as well as both a call to future rulers to care for the sacred site and a curse against anyone who dared to move the stele. It states:
“Whoever discards this image from the presence of Salmanu puts it into another place, whether he throws it into water or covers it with earth or brings and places it into a taboo house where it is inaccessible, may the god Salmanu, the great lord, overthrow his sovereignty; may his name and his seed disappear in the land; may he live in a contingent together with the slave women of his land.”
It was common practice at the time for inscriptions to be addressed to future rulers with an appeal for a statue’s care and respect. It’s not surprising to consider that the monuments were also desired by rival kings; who would attempt to steal them and have their own name inscribed on the “trophy.” Curses were written on the statues to prevent this.
The Björketorp Runestone and the Stentoften Runestone, both located in Blekinge in Sweden, hold a similar warning. The runic inscriptions were carved in the 6th or the 7th century in Proto Norse language and tell anyone thinking of desecrating the stones that they will be “ Incessantly (plagued by) maleficence, (doomed to) insidious death (is) he who this breaks” (on the Stentoften Runestone ) or will be “Incessantly (plagued by) maleficence, (doomed to) insidious death (is) he who breaks this (monument). I prophesy destruction / prophecy of destruction” (on the Björketorp Runestone ).
After many centuries, there are still people who believe in the power of runic curses. It is also possible to meet people who say that they have experienced the power of these old symbols .
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Stentoftastenen, exhibited in Sankt Nicolai church, Sölvesborg. ( Henrik Sendelbach /CC BY SA 3.0 )
The Power of Curses Continues
People who were cursed believed they could seek help from magic practitioners, shamans, religious leaders, healers, or witchdoctors and have the curse reversed through counter rituals or prayer. A way to avoid being cursed in the first place was to possess certain items, such as amulets, of protection or warding.
While curses and magic might seem to be simply superstition left over from the ancient world, there are many today who still arm themselves with amulets of protection against curses. Our rational, scientific world now scoffs at the idea of curses being a danger to anyone, yet medical science shows that the Nocebo Effect – an adverse psychogenic reaction to a perception or expectation - remains a powerful psychological and physiological phenomenon. If you truly believe you’re cursed, and that belief is powerful enough, you may succumb to the curse whether it exists in reality or not.
In this way, perhaps curses from ancient times remain powerful to this very day.