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Using Reflectance Transformation Imaging (RTI), this picture of the Antioch tablet was compiled. Source: Paula Artal-Isbrand, conservator at the Princeton Art Museums, with permission of Alexander Hollman

First Jewish Curse Found: Chariot Racer Hexed by Calling on Balaam’s Angel

Experts have made the remarkable discovery of a curse on a lead amulet from the Eastern Roman Empire. According to the Jerusalem Times, experts were shocked when they finally deciphered the message of the scroll after several decades.  The amulet contained a curse that was used to place a hex on an opposition chariot racer. The most remarkable thing about the amulet is that it is the first to be found written in Aramaic and almost certainly by a Jew. The identity of the curse writer questions our knowledge of Jewish society and beliefs in the fifth century AD.

The Magic Amulet

The 3.5-inch (9cm) x 0.8-inch (2cm) lead scroll, which had been rolled up and a nail driven through it, was originally deposited under the Hippodrome in the historic city of Antioch, approximately 1600 years ago. It was first discovered some 70 years ago by researchers from Princeton University. The message on the amulet was not deciphered at the time of its discovery and it was simply put away as it was supposed to be just another one of the countless Greek or Latin magical amulets from the time. The amulet’s contents were not deciphered until two years ago when researchers from Cologne University electronically scanned the item. And they were stunned by what they saw.

The lead curse scroll/tablet from Antioch. Source: Paula Artal-Isbrand used with permission of Alexander Hollmann

The lead curse scroll/tablet from Antioch. Source: Paula Artal-Isbrand used with permission of Alexander Hollmann

Curse Language

The amulet was not written in Greek or Latin but in a dialect of Aramaic, that was used by many Jewish communities at the time and this was certainly not expected. The amulet was handed over to Rivka Elitzur-Leiman of Tel Aviv University, a researcher, and expert on Jewish magical amulets from the period. She employed Reflectance Transformation Imaging (RTI), a technology to allowed her to decipher the inscriptions on the scroll, despite it being damaged by a nail.

Balaam and the angel, painting from Gustav Jaeger, 1836. (Public Domain)

Balaam and the angel , painting from Gustav Jaeger , 1836. (Public Domain)

Gambler Enlists the Help of Balaam’s Angel

Elitzur-Leiman discovered that the scroll’s contents related to the biblical story of Balaam, from the Book of Numbers and that it was undoubtedly Jewish. Balaam’s story concerns an angel stopping Balaam’s donkey and the author of the curse wanted this angel to stand before a rival chariot racer. The curse also urged God, who is referred to by the Hebrew name Yahweh to drown the ‘blue team’, a popular chariot team from the period, in the mud. According to Breaking Israel News , ‘this is the only example found of such a hex scroll that can be attributed to Jews.’

The chariot race in the Circus Maximus by Alfredo Tominz, 1890. (Public Domain)

The chariot race in the Circus Maximus by Alfredo Tominz, 1890. ( Public Domain )

Use of Curses

The use of magical curse amulets was very common at the time. It was also popular among Jews despite it being prohibited by Rabbis. Indeed, some Jews continue the practice to this day. These amulets and scrolls were employed for many reasons including as love-charms and to ward off the ‘evil-eye’. Many of them, as was the case with this lead scroll, made references to the Bible and the psalms. The scroll demonstrates that Jews like Greeks and Romans engaged in cursing and hexing despite biblical prohibitions.

The fact that the curse concerned a Jew cursing a chariot racer is perhaps the most important discovery. The unknown author had the object buried under the Hippodrome in Antioch to be activated by the chariot passing over it. The most important find was that the Jewish person was clearly very emotionally involved in chariot racing despite it being specifically prohibited by Rabbis. According to the Jerusalem Times , the scroll is “proof that even Jewish fans used curses.”

14th century Bible miniature of Ballam and his donkey. (Public Domain)

14th century Bible miniature of Ballam and his donkey. ( Public Domain )

Jews Cursed Too

The 1600-year-old lead scroll allows us a unique insight into Jewish life at a time when Byzantine society was emerging in the Eastern Roman Empire. It offers compelling evidence that magical amulets and curses were used by Jews as was the case with other groups. The find also shows that at least some members of the Jewish community followed the chariot races and were as much fans as Greeks and Romans. This would indicate that the Jews of the time had many interactions with their Christian and pagan neighbours and at least some were very much influenced by Graeco-Roman culture in the fifth century AD.

Top image: Using Reflectance Transformation Imaging (RTI), this picture of the Antioch tablet was compiled. Source: Paula Artal-Isbrand, conservator at the Princeton Art Museums, with permission of Alexander Hollman

By Ed Whelan

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