Unleashing The Power of the Gods: Hexes and Black Magic in the Ancient Greek Olympics
When the ancient Olympics began, the greatest athletes in Greece gathered before a statue of Zeus Horkios, the god of oaths. Laid before its feet would be the freshly cut meat of a boar sacrificed by priests in a mystical ritual that brought down the power of the gods.
Beneath the vengeful stone gaze of the god of lightning, the athletes would have to swear an oath. They would use no foul play to win these games. They would not bribe their judges, they would not sabotage their opponents – and above all, they would not use black magic.
Ancient Olympia, Greece. ( CC BY-SA 2.0 )
It was an oath bound by a dark sorcery of its own. A stone tablet stood before them warning that any man who broke his oath would be cursed. It called upon Zeus to wreak his horrible vengeance upon them. If a man was caught using curses and hexes to win, Zeus, the athletes were promised, would smite them into ashes .
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A Roman Seated Zeus, marble and bronze (restored), following the type established by Phidias and what he should have looked like at the Temple at Olympia. (Hermitage Museum, Saint Petersburg). ( Public Domain )
The Gods Decide the Victors
Even with the threat of Zeus’s wrath above them, some Olympic athletes relied on the dark arts to win. They would engrave curse tablets and call upon the gods to bind and cripple their competitors - and they believed that they worked.
Defixio tabella with an opisthographic curse in Greek against Kardelos. Lead, 4th century AD. ( Public Domain )
Stories have survived about athletes that were too sick to make it out to the starting blocks or that struggled to run. Likely, these men were just ill – but to the Greeks who saw them suffering, these were clear cases of men living under the curse of an evil hex.
Some spells would be performed by athletes, others by gamblers with money riding on an underdog. In Greece, most accepted that calling on a dark god for victory would work. If an athlete won, they believed, his training and dedication played a small role – but above all, winners and losers were chosen by the gods.
Crowning of Victors of the Olympic Games. Depicted at Olympia - Hiero of Syracuse and victors. ( Public Domain )
Spells of Binding
To perform black magic, a man would have to enact what was often a long and complex ritual. Ingredients imbued with mystical powers would have to be gathered and prepared, and the man would have to recite words calling upon the gods to curse their enemies.
These words would be etched down, often onto sheets of thin lead. Then they would be placed under the floor where their competitors would fight, or else they would be buried in a grave. Either way, they were placed under the ground, where the dead could carry it to Hades.
A curse tablet from Pella, Cemetery of Agora, now at the Museum of Pella. The language is classified as being a NW Greek dialect used in Macedonia before the half of the 4th century BC, under the influence of Attic dialect syntax. ( Public Domain )
Some simply called upon the gods to bind the legs and arms of another athlete. One tablet, found in Athens, called upon dark demons to keep a runner named Alkidamos from making it to the starting line. “If he does get past,” Alkidamos’ rival etched into the tablet, “make him veer off course and disgrace himself.”
Others tried to bind every part of their opponents’ bodies. “ Bind Eutychian in the unilluminated eternity of oblivion,” one ancient Greek curse says, begging the gods to leave the wrestler Eutychian, “dumb, mindless, harmless, and not fighting against anyone.” Eutychian’s opponent, it seems, was worried about his chances against him. He begged the gods, “destroy also the wrestling that he is going to do this coming Friday.”
A drawing of an example of an ancient Greek curse tablet. ( Jessica Lamont )
Spells of Death
Dark magic in the ancient Olympics, though, could be far more vicious. Some spells didn’t simply call for the debilitation of their opponents – they called for their deaths.
One Greek spell graphically called on the gods to curse the charioteers on the Red Team. “Torture their thoughts, their minds, and their senses,” the angry charioteer who rode against them wrote. “ Pluck out their eyes .”
Pelops and Hippodamia racing. ( Public Domain )
Others were even more explicit. Another, cursing the Blue Team, has been found, which calls on a whole pantheon of gods ranging from the Egyptian god Horus to Jewish angels to “smite the horses of the Blues.” The men themselves, the curse-maker writes, should be fall from their chariots. Their fate, after plummeting behind a speeding horse, has faded and been all but lost to time – except for a few telling words that can still be seen.
“Drag,” it says. “Make them fall.” Then, a little below, the last legible word can be read: “Smite”.
The Fates of the Damned
It’s a strange reality of the ancient world that we often overlook. The athletes who competed in the first Olympics lived in a different time and a different world. To them, nature was still, in many ways, a strange and uncontrollable force. Plagues and illnesses were often inexplicable, except as the divine wrath of an angry god.
Even in the Olympics, these kinds of superstitions still reared their heads. The first athletes didn’t always believe in their ability to succeed by their own virtues, and they found ways to get ahead. This was not unlike modern athletes taking steroids or illegal supplements – but the Greeks, with only a few ways to use medicine to get ahead, would have to rely on the help of the divine.
Ancient Greek boxers. ( CC BY 2.5 )
There’s little information on what happened to the cursed and the men who cursed them. Did Alkidimos veer from the track? Did the Blue Team fall from the chariots and get dragged to death before a cheering crowd? Were the men who cursed them killed by thunderbolts? And if they didn’t, how did the hexers react?
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We don’t have many answers. These were usually the lives of common men, whose triumphs and failures have been erased by the passage of thousands of years of time.
We know, though, that these kinds of dark spells really were a big part of the original games, and of life in ancient Greece altogether. Nearly 2,000 curse tablets have been found already, and there were surely thousands about thousands that we’ve never seen.
Whether the curses ever had any effect, they were, to the ancient Greeks, a real threat. For an Olympian competing for glory, there was a greater problem than just the man competing against you. They were fighting against the powers of the gods themselves.
Raphael’s ‘The Council of Gods’. ( Public Domain )
By Mark Oliver
Christesen, Paul and Donald G. Kyle. A Companion to Sport and Spectacle in Greek and Roman Antiquity. John Wiley & Sons, 2014.
“Papyri Graecae Magicae”. Hermetic Library . 19 March 2017. Web. https://hermetic.com/pgm/index
Lovgren, Stefan and Ted Chamberlain. “Ancient Olympics had ‘Spectacular’ Opening Ceremony, Pagan Partying.” National Geographic News . 27 July 2012. Web. http://news.nationalgeographic.com/news/2012/07/120727-2012-olympics-opening-ceremony-ancient-london-world-summer-games/
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