Casting Hate: Greek Curse Tablets found in 2,400-Year-Old Grave
A recent study of the writing on four lead tablets shows the importance of staying on your neighbors’ good side in ancient Greece. The artifacts are “curse tablets”, and were created to send bad luck or negative energy the way of four, or perhaps five, sets of tavern keepers who may have upset their rivals.
The lead tablets were found in 2003 in a grave along with the cremated remains of a young woman who lived in Athens, Greece 2,400 years ago. Live Science reports that “details of the burial have not yet been published.” However, the dead woman may not have been the writer of the curses anyway.
Jessica Lamont, an instructor at John Hopkins University in Baltimore and author of the article “A New Commercial Curse Tablet from Classical Athens”, which was published in the journal Zeitschrift für Papyrologie und Epigraphik, told Live Science: "The way that curse tablets work is that they're meant to be deposited in an underground location such as a grave or well. It's thought that these subterranean places provided a conduit through which the curses could have reached the underworld.”
Thus, the woman’s death may have simply provided the one who was angered by the tavern keepers with easy access to send his/her bad wishes to the chthonic gods, who would then do the curse's biddings. Lamont believes that the style of the curses and the nature of the recipients suggests that “commercial rivalry” was the motive.
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Chtonic gods are deities that were related to the underworld, where the souls of the dead went. They were often associated with sacrificial rituals in the ancient world. Hekates, Artemis, and Hermes were the gods that were invoked on the tablet which Lamont focused on in her analysis.
Specifically, the lead tablet she studied in Piraeus Museum requested the deities to:
“Cast your hate upon Phanagora and Demetrios, and their tavern and their property and their possessions. I will bind my enemy Demetrios, and Phanagora, in blood and in ashes, with all the dead. Nor will the next four-year cycle release you. I will bind you in such a bind, Demetrios, as strong as is possible, and I will smite down a kynotos on [your] tongue."
The word kynotos is literally translated as “dog’s ear” and is an ancient gambling term that was used for the lowest possible throw of the dice. This choice of wording hinted at another aspect of taverns from the time Lamont wrote in her article: “By striking Demetrios' tongue with this condemningly unlucky roll, the curse reveals that local taverns were not just sociable watering holes, but venues ripe for gambling and other unsavory activities in Classical Athens.”
The lead tablet engraved with a curse against husband-and-wife tavern keepers, Demetrios and Phanagora. (Jessica Lamont)
Lamont writes that Hekate and Hermes were frequently appealed to on curse tablets from the time period. However, the appearance of Artemis, who was normally associated with the protection of women and girls, stands out. Nonetheless, Lamont explains in the article that the goddess was included here for her “destructive side […], one tied to the realm of the sinister and the threatening.”
Altogether there were five lead tablets that were found in the grave. Each of them was pierced with an iron nail, which had its significance as well. The "physical act of hammering a nail into the lead tablet would have ritually echoed this wished-for sentiment," Lamont wrote.
Of the five tablets, four contained writing that targeted four different husband-wife tavern keeper couples and they shared a similar narrative to the aforementioned tablet. The fifth tablet was left blank, but still struck with a nail, therefore it may have been the recipient of an oral curse instead.
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Lamont’s analysis shows that the author of the curses was accustomed to writing and used sophisticated vocabulary. She thinks that the curse writer, who probably provided other forms of supernatural services as well, was commissioned for the job.
A drawing showing the text on the curse tablet. (Jessica Lamont)
As for the targets, Lamont points out that “tavern keepers were sometimes known for their scheming or cheating tendencies.” However, they were not the only ones to be on the receiving end of bad wishes in the form of curse tablets. Nor was it only the ancient Greeks who sought this type of supernatural revenge.
For example, the Romans had a penchant for creating curse tablets in various materials and with differing recipients. Thieves in particular were the objects of especially intense curses for their misdeeds. At times, the gods were beseeched by the victims of theft to attack every aspect of the thief’s body from eyes, to limbs, to inner organs.
A curse tablet found in London. The inscription 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." (Public Domain)
Featured Image: Close-up of a curse tablet targeting Demetrios and Phanagora - husband-and-wife tavern keepers who lived in Athens around 2,400 years ago. Source: Jessica Lamont