Ancient Greek Curse Tablet

Filos96 via Wikipedia // Public Domain
Filos96 via Wikipedia // Public Domain / Filos96 via Wikipedia // Public Domain

Show & Tell is a mental_floss feature spotlighting notable and revealing items from museums and archives around the world. 

This curse tablet, or katadesmos, was written on a thin sheet of lead, then rolled like a scroll. It was discovered in the ruins at Pella (an ancient city in Macedonia) in 1986, and has been dated to the 4th century BCE; it’s now held at the Archaeological Museum at Pella. In its text, a lovelorn admirer (or possibly consort) of a man named Dionysophon tries to forestall his marriage to a woman named Thetima by petitioning the daimones, or spirits of the underworld, for their help. 

Of Thetima and Dionysophon the ritual wedding and the marriage I bind by a written spell, as well as (the marriage) of all other women (to him), both widows and maidens, but above all of Thetima; and I entrust this spell to Macron and to the daimones. And were I ever to unfold and read these words again after digging (the tablet) up, only then should Dionysophon marry, not before; may he indeed not take another woman than myself, but let me alone grow old by the side of Dionysophon and no one else. I implore you: have pity for [Phila?], dear daimones, [for I am bereft] of all my dear ones and abandoned. But please keep this (piece of writing) for my sake so that these events do not happen and wretched Thetima perishes miserably ... but let me become happy and blessed.

Both the ancient Greeks and the Romans used curse tablets, with examples having been found and dated to as early as the 5th century BCE. Curses were often inscribed on lead sheets like this one, taking advantage of a common byproduct of silver mining. The durability of the lead, as well as the practice of hiding such tablets in the ground (in graves, pits, or wells), has preserved many examples of this kind of everyday practical magic for our examination.

Because killing somebody who lived in the same community was frowned upon, the curse tablets didn’t often ask for the object of the curse to die outright, asking instead for their failure at some endeavor. “Most of the curses are what we call binding spells: they aim at binding or inhibiting the performance of a rival,” says scholar Christopher A. Faraone. “A lot of them have to do with legal cases. They say things like, ‘Bind the tongue and the thoughts of so-and-so, who is about to testify against me on Monday.’ We have some that are aimed at rival musicians or actors, and a couple that seem to be connected with athletics.” Given this context, it seems that the author of the Pella curse may have been asking for Thetima should “perish miserably”—alone and sad—when she does die, rather than asking for her immediate death. Or, perhaps, the author was desperate enough to make an unconventional request.

The Pella curse tablet was buried in the ground with a corpse—the idea being that the dead person would carry the curser’s desires down into the underworld with them, delivering a message to the underground gods. Faraone notes that 19th-century scholars of Greek religion misdated the curse tablets, preferring to believe that Greeks living in the fifth and fourth centuries BCE had turned away from chthonic (or underworld) religion, and toward a vision of gods who lived in the sky. “It was completely fallacious, but it fit in with 19th-century ideas about the evolution of religion,” Faraone says. “Now, a century or so later, modern scholars have a much more inclusive view of what constitutes Greek religion.”