“This was meant to be a powerful curse”
June 15, 2021 6:31 AM   Subscribe

"Today, chickens are perhaps most often associated with comfort foods like soup and roast dinners. In ancient Athens, however, the owners of a 2,300-year-old ceramic jar containing the remains of a dismembered chicken appear to have used the animal for something far more sinister: a ritual designed to paralyze and kill upward of 55 people." (Smithsonian Magazine)

The full text of the journal article "The Curious Case of the Cursed Chicken: A New Binding Ritual from the Athenian Agora" by Jessica L. Lamont (with maps, photos, drawings, inscription reconstructions, and many interesting details) is available at JSTOR.
posted by taz (54 comments total) 19 users marked this as a favorite
 
Lamont adds that nails “had an inhibiting force and symbolically immobilized or restrained the faculties of [the curse’s] victims.”

Symbolic? Neurological degeneration leading to paralysis are consequences of both tetanus and botulism, and that’s a bucket of bad chicken and rusty nails.
posted by mhoye at 6:42 AM on June 15 [13 favorites]


The chicken wasn’t meant to be eaten. Cursed objects were usually buried, tossed in a well, or otherwise placed underground as a way of delivering them to the underworld, since most of them were directly or indirectly addressed to underworld gods or goddesses. This particular jar was under the floor of the house.
posted by jedicus at 6:51 AM on June 15 [5 favorites]


the owners of a 2,300-year-old ceramic jar containing the remains of a dismembered chicken appear to have used the animal for something far more sinister: a ritual designed to paralyze and kill upward of 55 people.

LOOK if you don't like my cooking you can just say so, JERK
posted by EndsOfInvention at 6:53 AM on June 15 [32 favorites]


“The sheer number of names makes an impending lawsuit the most likely scenario,” Lamont argues in the study. “Curse composers might cite all imaginable opponents in their maledictions, including the witnesses, families and supporters of the opposition.”

So really not that different from modern law then
posted by Pyry at 6:53 AM on June 15 [10 favorites]


This particular jar was under the floor of the house.

I get it, but the germ theory of disease is about as old as the motorcar. This Athenian might not have the transmission vector right, but the ills they're trying to inflict aren't symbolic. They're very, very real.
posted by mhoye at 6:58 AM on June 15 [2 favorites]


See also Archaeologists Discover Ancient Curse Tablets in Athens Well (tablets were apparently the more common, "low rent" curse option), featuring a photo of one curse tablet with this caption: Love and Hate: This curse tablet was made against a newlywed woman named Glykera. The curse, which focuses on her vagina, was made by someone who envied the woman’s marriage. Daaang. I hope everything turned out okay, Glykera. :(
posted by taz at 7:03 AM on June 15 [5 favorites]


Arya Stark: I've got several people on my assassination list

Ancient Athenian: amateur
posted by Halloween Jack at 7:07 AM on June 15 [7 favorites]


[grabs sharpie, starts writing enemies list on plastic wrap of Swanson TV dinner]
posted by phooky at 7:09 AM on June 15 [16 favorites]


*looks up* it's like "Death Note", but chickens
posted by phooky at 7:10 AM on June 15 [9 favorites]


Who the hell ends up with 55 enemies they want to punish? I can't think of half that many names and that's including my family.
posted by tommasz at 7:14 AM on June 15 [3 favorites]


I don't have 55 enemies but I'm sure I could find some reddit threads or other comment sections out in the world I'd gladly seek a curse for.
posted by GoblinHoney at 7:34 AM on June 15 [6 favorites]



[grabs sharpie, starts writing enemies list on plastic wrap of Swanson TV dinner]


this is much more effective if you buy 55 dinners, put the name of each person on an individual dinner, followed by a current address and a weight-appropriate postage stamp.
posted by lalochezia at 7:39 AM on June 15 [3 favorites]


Given that archaeologists discovered the jar in an artisan building, the lawsuit could have been linked to a workplace dispute. As religion scholar John G. Gager wrote in the 1999 book Curse Tablets and Binding Spells From the Ancient World, tablets inscribed with ill wishes were frequently associated with jobs that had a high probability of mistakes and failure. Making ceramics—a task that involved high temperatures and dangerous materials—was one such hazardous occupation.

I feel like tablets inscribed with passive-aggressive notes would be a great Etsy business, targeted to the modern cubicle dweller.
posted by mandolin conspiracy at 7:51 AM on June 15 [4 favorites]


Who the hell ends up with 55 enemies they want to punish?

There have always been monsters among us.
posted by mhoye at 7:56 AM on June 15


I would have no trouble at all finding 55 people to curse. Just a handful that I know personally, though.
posted by hypnogogue at 8:00 AM on June 15 [1 favorite]


Later developments in transparent containers would lead to the glass action lawsuit.
posted by zamboni at 8:02 AM on June 15 [6 favorites]


Who the hell ends up with 55 enemies they want to punish?

There have always been monsters among us.


But what are the odds that you would meet 55 of them?
posted by From Bklyn at 8:06 AM on June 15 [3 favorites]


lalochezia, thank you, I am now in love with the idea that you could trick angry people into feeding strangers by convincing them it's actually a curse
posted by phooky at 8:08 AM on June 15 [3 favorites]


You can curse that many people today in like 3 minutes with an Insta-pot.
posted by jquinby at 8:08 AM on June 15 [25 favorites]


Was meant to be a powerful curse? Please, not a one of those 55 people is alive today, you can't get more effective than that! (Those in the curse business know you can't cut corners and rush things. Good curses take time.)
posted by gusottertrout at 8:09 AM on June 15 [4 favorites]


"Of course, trying to curse the poor by handing out individual curses is time-consuming, expensive, and involves a lot of hands-on interaction. That's why we've created highly effective curse kitchens that can distribute hundreds of hot, nourishing curses to the contemptible hungry. By utilizing the wisdom of the ancient Greeks, you can ensure that you never need to see a hungry person again!"
posted by phooky at 8:15 AM on June 15 [2 favorites]


If you can, give a listen to the CBC interview with Carol Off and Jessica Lamont that's linked in the Smithsonian piece. You can find the audio here, and it's only around six minutes long (there's a transcript as well). It's pretty delightful, as far as interviews about curses go.
posted by mandolin conspiracy at 8:23 AM on June 15 [3 favorites]


a bucket of bad chicken and rusty nails

Username up for grabs!
posted by Greg_Ace at 8:41 AM on June 15 [8 favorites]


Who the hell ends up with 55 enemies they want to punish?

Look, when all the guy at the magic shop had left in stock was the 55-person curse, you've gotta do some padding.
posted by Mr. Bad Example at 8:45 AM on June 15 [4 favorites]


And here I was thinking the failure of my deep freeze full of chicken and the subsequent flooding that rusted a few boxes of nails was a total loss. Time to find a make your own pottery place.
posted by interogative mood at 8:47 AM on June 15 [1 favorite]


Who the hell ends up with 55 enemies they want to punish?

I am very wary of people who describe themselves as having personal enemies. I get being angry with someone, or not liking them, or feeling threatened or ill-treated, but for me "enemy" carries an over-the-top sense of intensity, persecution, and personal connection that's unwarranted in most interpersonal situations.

That said, if you replace the word "enemies" with "politicians" it gets a whole lot easier to name 55 awful people who you think deserve consequences.
posted by evidenceofabsence at 9:29 AM on June 15 [12 favorites]




a bucket of bad chicken and rusty nails

Country music song.
posted by BWA at 9:41 AM on June 15 [4 favorites]


Steely Dan, surely?

"Baaad chicken and a bucket of rusty nais"
posted by eviemath at 10:06 AM on June 15 [8 favorites]


I'd like to think it was more like the fruit cake of the day - that gets passed from person to person as a gift but no one ever actually eats it / uses it. The names are just a reminder of who's already been gifted it.
posted by inflatablekiwi at 10:17 AM on June 15 [3 favorites]


Socrates' last words were reputed to be "I owe a chicken", supposedly demonstrating his commitment to paying back even the most trivial of debts. But what if... it was a sly insinuation that those who condemned him to death, THEY should have been the ones poisoned?
posted by Schmucko at 10:32 AM on June 15 [4 favorites]


LOOK if you don't like my cooking you can just say so, JERK
posted by EndsOfInvention
No, JERK is a completely different chicken seasoning.
posted by Schmucko at 10:32 AM on June 15 [7 favorites]


Socrates' last words were reputed to be "I owe a chicken"

I thought they were "Does this taste off to you?"
posted by thelonius at 10:44 AM on June 15 [1 favorite]


What if Socrates buried this jar right before his own trial?
posted by nickmark at 10:52 AM on June 15


I have heard that nails from crucifixions were sought after as powerful amulets, but that can't have been the case here, could it?
posted by thelonius at 10:56 AM on June 15


“This was meant to be a powerful curse,” Jessica Lamont, a classics scholar at Yale University, tells CBC Radio’s Carol Off.

Yeah, let's go ahead and open that jar right up. It's 2021, what could possibly go wrong?
posted by PlusDistance at 11:58 AM on June 15 [8 favorites]


I have heard that nails from crucifixions were sought after as powerful amulets, but that can't have been the case here, could it?

Crucifixion, according to this, was not a thing in Greece until Alexander (356-323 BC) brought back from his travels east (thanks, Alex), so it's theoretically possible.
posted by BWA at 12:58 PM on June 15


Who the hell ends up with 55 enemies they want to punish? I can't think of half that many names and that's including my family.
There are words that do things to people; words that make people’s faces flush with joy, excitement, or passion. Environmental can be one; occult is another. Wholesale was Peter’s.
-- WE CAN GET THEM FOR YOU WHOLESALE, by Neil Gaiman: text; audio
posted by ricochet biscuit at 1:14 PM on June 15 [2 favorites]


[grabs sharpie, starts writing enemies list on plastic wrap of Swanson TV dinner]

it has to be the old pre-plastic tv dinners

curses, foiled again
posted by pyramid termite at 1:24 PM on June 15 [11 favorites]


Sounds like a pretty routine office prank to me.
posted by srboisvert at 1:36 PM on June 15


Socrates' last words were reputed to be "I owe a chicken"

I thought they were "Does this taste off to you?"


Relevant ask: "I left a chicken under a friend's house for a few eons. Is it safe to eat?"

Best answer: "That is the most pure form of chicken"
posted by Plato at 4:56AM [3 favorites +] [!]
posted by srboisvert at 1:41 PM on June 15 [8 favorites]


Country music song.

Reached down 'neath the floorboards
Oh won't you pray for me
Old salmonella and tetanus
Will be the death of me...
posted by mandolin conspiracy at 1:47 PM on June 15 [4 favorites]


Given that archaeologists discovered the jar in an artisan building, the lawsuit could have been linked to a workplace dispute.

It might just be that chicken cacciatore your co-worker brought in on Monday, stuck in the communal fridge and then completely forgot about for six months.
posted by chavenet at 2:39 PM on June 15 [1 favorite]


Socrates said he owed a cock to Aesculapius, god of medicine, implying confirmation, from the threshold of death, of his earlier speculation that to die is not a bad thing, but being healed of the long illness of life.
posted by Phanx at 2:49 PM on June 15 [5 favorites]


Who the hell ends up with 55 enemies they want to punish?

Curses are more effective in bulk. If you curse enough people at least some of them will die or suffer other misfortunes before the year is out.
posted by Joe in Australia at 3:08 PM on June 15


Who the hell ends up with 55 enemies they want to punish?
But what are the odds that you would meet 55 of them?


Easy: work in a service industry.
posted by jenfullmoon at 5:48 PM on June 15 [8 favorites]


So, did it work? Asking for a friend.
posted by jenfullmoon at 5:51 PM on June 15 [1 favorite]


"The bird was no older than 7 months when it died—probably because the curse’s creators wanted to convey the animal’s “helplessness and inability to protect itself” to their intended victims, according to the study"
I see the study authors haven't actually met chickens, who at 7 months old absolutely have the beak and claws and difficult temperament to protect itself!
posted by applesauce at 6:29 PM on June 15 [5 favorites]


This curse tablet was made against a newlywed woman named Glykera. The curse, which focuses on her vagina, was made by someone who envied the woman’s marriage.

Greek and Roman erotic curses is my special research topic, welcome to my world.

I have a Latin curse tablet rolling pin.
posted by wellifyouinsist at 7:42 PM on June 15 [14 favorites]


omg! <3 !! wellifyouinsist , you've just won top spot forever on my coolest job description list! (I have a coolest job description list rolling pin, btw.)

(okay, not really.)
posted by taz at 10:49 PM on June 15


I see the study authors haven't actually met chickens, who at 7 months old absolutely have the beak and claws and difficult temperament to protect itself!

Maybe classical Greek chickens matured more slowly than the Cobb 500 and other modern industrial breeds.
posted by acb at 1:40 AM on June 16 [1 favorite]


This jar is a curse... and part of a system of curses... pay attention to it!

Sending this curse was important to us. We considered these 55 people to be our enemies.

This jar is not a place of honor... no highly esteemed deed is commemorated here... nothing valued is here.

This curse was dangerous and repulsive to us. This message is a warning about the curse.

The danger is still present, in your time, as it was in ours.

The danger is to the body, and it can kill.

The form of the danger is a jar of chicken and rusty nails.

The danger is unleashed only if you substantially disturb this place physically. This place is best shunned and left uninhabited.
posted by Mr.Encyclopedia at 9:02 AM on June 16 [3 favorites]


I have a Latin curse tablet rolling pin.

Mmm. Cursed galettes.
posted by mandolin conspiracy at 9:55 AM on June 16


Ooh, that's bad!
posted by Greg_Ace at 10:45 AM on June 16 [1 favorite]


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