Time Has Not Been Kind To Curses
April 12, 2008 12:47 AM   Subscribe

"Curse Tablets are small sheets of lead, inscribed with messages from individuals seeking to make gods and spirits act on their behalf and influence the behaviour of others against their will. The motives are usually malign and their expression violent, for example to wreck an opponent’s chariot in the circus, to compel a person to submit to sex or to take revenge on a thief. Letters and lines written back to front, magical ‘gibberish’ and arcane words and symbols often lend the texts additional power to persuade. In places where supernatural agents could be contacted, thrown into sacred pools at temples, interred with the dead or hidden by the turning post at the circus, these tablets have survived to be found by archaeologists."
posted by amyms (20 comments total) 27 users marked this as a favorite
This is awesome. Another great post from amyms!
posted by Locative at 1:12 AM on April 12, 2008

My favorite: Ancient obsessive love!
'...Rouse yourselves, you daimones who lie here and seek out Euphêmia, to whom Dôrothea gave birth, for Thêon, to whom Proechia gave birth. Let her not be able to sleep for the entire night, but lead her until she comes to his feet, loving him with a frenzied love, with affection and with sexual intercourse. For I have bound her brain and hands and viscera and genitals and heart for the love of me, Thêon...'
posted by Locative at 1:16 AM on April 12, 2008 [1 favorite]

CurseFilter: Someone (I know not whether he is man or woman, whether boy or girl, whether slave or free) has stolen two wheels and four cows and many small belongings from my house. As always, there's much, much [more inside]

I'm at my wit's end here. My first impulse, of course, is to avail to the genius of Mercury's divinity in order to keep the creep from sitting, eating, drinking or sleeping until my wheels and drought animals are returned. But what if, even with my renewed prayers, my petition isn't immediately vindicated by the God's divine majesty? Do I enlist my neighbors and kin in a small scale battle? Do I hire a lawyer? Or do I just find a harder working god to pray to? (And if I have to go there, how do I make the big switch-a-roo tactfully?)

Additional information: I'm 26, love my chosen career, I've just moved to a new hut in a great part of town, and I'm totally not looking for a new relationship (the last one started off frenzied with sexual intercourse, but got gross fast {leave my viscera out of it next time, Theon}.)
I miss my cows and my wheels! Hope me, hivemind!
posted by maryh at 2:19 AM on April 12, 2008 [19 favorites]

Curse Tablets are small sheets of lead, inscribed with messages from individuals seeking to make gods and spirits act on their behalf and influence the behaviour of others against their will.

Today we call these inscribed messages "pre-nuptial agreements."
posted by three blind mice at 3:42 AM on April 12, 2008 [2 favorites]

Hey! Ancient Western-world voodoo!

This is most interesting, amyms. Thanks for the post.

And this seems a good enough time to link to I Put a Spell On You.
posted by flapjax at midnite at 5:09 AM on April 12, 2008

Great post! I took a tour of the Roman ruins in Bath, but I missed the curse tablets. Really interesting stuff, thanks!
posted by Marie Mon Dieu at 5:31 AM on April 12, 2008

Heh. I used some of these sites while putting together my curses-and-insults book. If I may quote my introduction to the Ancient Languages section: "These Near Eastern traditions were continued by the ancient Greeks, who, besides larding their treaties with curses, developed a tradition of "cursing and binding tablets" called katadesmoi, with the victim's name scratched on lead and tossed into a grave or well; the Romans borrowed this along with other aspects of Greek culture, calling the tablets defixiones."

Nice post!
posted by languagehat at 5:50 AM on April 12, 2008


Philtrum Daemonicus!
posted by blacklite at 6:00 AM on April 12, 2008

Whenever I see something like this -- a glimpse into the emotional lives of dwellers in ancient civilizations -- there is something at once both saddening and reassuring that humankind had the same basic, petty fixations thousands of years ago as we still do today.

Great post, amyms!
posted by darkstar at 6:14 AM on April 12, 2008 [2 favorites]

I remember these being one of my favorite aspects of my tour of Bath. I love how very mundane and petty most of them are. Before encountering them I'd mostly just thought of things like aqueducts and chariots and coliseums and the Aeneid (and, of course, Life of Brian) when I thought of the Romans; to see in their own writing that they got jealous or angry or vengeful over the same petty, ridiculous little things we do today, to see them entreating their gods to go thump whomever had wronged them, did more to humanize them for me than just about anything else I've seen. And while it may be a glimpse into their uglier inclinations, it makes me suspect that their more positive qualities would be just as recognizable and relatable.

Our modern technologies might have been unknowable to them, but our emotions and basic human behavior surely wouldn't ...
posted by zeph at 6:23 AM on April 12, 2008


(hey languagehat - the only greek curse i know is "kataperdomai" which I'm told means something like "I fart at you!" True or just a funny lie?)
posted by LobsterMitten at 7:56 AM on April 12, 2008

Diamanda Galás has a work about this called Defixiones.
posted by bink at 8:21 AM on April 12, 2008

while i'll grant that I'm a sucker for the show, Servilia's curse in ROME have me shivers as she wrote it. polly logies for the lack of you tube link.
posted by Busithoth at 8:31 AM on April 12, 2008

My girlfriend and I also saw the tablets when we toured Bath. Here is a picture of one, albeit not the greatest (you can't see the writing on the tablet too well). We also took pictures of the signs with the Latin and the translations (although we managed to snap a picture of one tablet and a translation of a completely different one...).
posted by m0nm0n at 9:38 AM on April 12, 2008

In today's enlightened age we recognize the toxicity of heavy metals, and so utilize the lead-free tablet of the YouTube comment field.
posted by Tube at 10:35 AM on April 12, 2008 [2 favorites]

hey languagehat - the only greek curse i know is "kataperdomai" which I'm told means something like "I fart at you!

Yeah, that's correct, though it's found only in the aorist, katepardon 'I farted at' (and only, as you might guess, in Aristophanes, that treasure-trove of Ancient Greek ribaldry).
posted by languagehat at 10:57 AM on April 12, 2008 [2 favorites]

Great post, amyms. And thanks for that Diamanda Galás link, bink.
posted by homunculus at 10:58 AM on April 12, 2008

Sorry, I should have explained that the aorist is the basic past tense in Greek. (And in this verb it has active endings, whereas the present—which we know from the unprefixed form perdomai 'I fart'—has mediopassive endings.)
posted by languagehat at 10:59 AM on April 12, 2008

perdomai, pardon me.
posted by kuujjuarapik at 1:14 PM on April 12, 2008

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