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Curse Tablets From An Ancient Greek Grave Have Been Deciphered

author

Tom Hale

Senior Journalist

clockApr 7 2016, 16:09 UTC
859 Curse Tablets From An Ancient Greek Grave Have Been Deciphered
One of the five tablets. Jessica Lamont

If there’s one person you don’t want to annoy, it’s a tavern-owner from ancient Greece. Researchers have been looking into five tablets that contain curses discovered in the 2,400-year-old grave of an ancient Greek woman.

The tablets found in a cemetery near Piraeus, Greece are thought to date back to the early fourth century BCE. They were first excavated in 2003 but have more recently been part of a study in the journal Zeitschrift für Papyrologie und Epigraphik.

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Jessica Lamont, the study’s author, remarkably thinks the motive behind the heavy-handed curses was a commercial rivalry between tavern owners. The tablets are all very similar in both style and intended victims, though the study focuses on just one representative that contains a curse seemingly pointed towards a certain Athens tavern, a couple – Demetrios and Phanagora – and their money and possessions.

Translated from Greek, part of the tablet reads as follows:

“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…”

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Illustration of the tablet displaying the complete text. Image credit: Jessica Lamont

The tablet goes on to invoke the names of Hermes, Artemis, and Hecate, the Greek god of trade and the goddesses of the wild and witchcraft, respectively. The skill and poetic style of the writing on the tablet suggest that this was a professional who wrote the text, most likely commissioned by the begrudged tavern-owners.

Lamont also suggests in the study that the iron nail found piercing each tablet was because the "physical act of hammering a nail into the lead tablet would have ritually echoed this wished-for sentiment." Interestingly, one of the tablets remains blank, so it is thought to have had its spell orally recited over it.

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However, the young woman whose grave held the tablets is likely to be unrelated to the drama. Instead, it was just an opportunity to get the tablets underground. According to Lamont, burying the tablets was believed to provide some easy access to the smiting gods of the underworld.

“The deities that the curse commissioner chose are significant. Hecate, Hermes, and Artemis are described as 'chthonic,' which means that they are being channeled in the specific role of sub-earthly underworld deities,” Lamont told IFLScience.

“Curse tablets are not rare during this period – that's what's so fascinating about them! Around this time, there are curse tablets emerging across the Greek world – in Sicily, Athens, Macedonia. During later periods, they emerge from all across the Mediterranean.”

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[H/T: Live Science]


  • tag
  • archeology,

  • history,

  • ancient Greece,

  • curse,

  • magic

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