A bumper crop of curse tablets was retrieved from a bathhouse well in the Athenian Kerameikos in 2016, where they had sat undiscovered since the late-4th to early-3rd-century BCE. Curse tablets discovered in the region have typically been from the 5th and 4th century BCE and were mostly found in tombs – so why were these items found in a well?
Researchers involved in the discovery believe that a change in law may be to blame, as guards blocked people’s access to tombs in Athens where they probably would have preferred to commit their curses. Don’t you just hate it when that happens?
People seeking vengeance, therefore, had to get creative as to where they could dispel their curse tablets, and a public well may have presented the perfect opportunity. Furthermore, the fact that wells plunge into the ground may have led those in need of a good curse to think that this was an alternative route to the underworld while the tombs were out of action.
“The findspot in a bathhouse well can be related to the fact that curse tablets, which were in earlier times preferably deposited in certain kinds of tombs, were now dropped into wells that were seen as another possibility of access to the underworld,” said Dr Jutta Stroszeck from the German Archaeological Institute, Athens (DAI), to IFLScience.
“The change occurs after the reorganisation of the Athenian necropolis by Demetrius of Phaleron in 317/307 BCE, widely impeding the performance of magic at tombs.”
Tombs were a favorite for curses as certain groups of dead people were believed to be the best curse bearers. In her paper, Stroszeck references another group of curse tablets dating to the 3rd century CE from Kourion, an ancient site on the south coast of Cyprus, which came with detailed instructions as to where to put a curse tablet within a necropolis. They included:
- children and others who “died before their time” (ἄωροι)
- poor people who were “without proper burial” (ἄποροι ταφῆς)
- people who were “violently killed” (βιαιοθάνατοι), such as murder victims
- criminals who had been “axed” to death (πεπελεκισμένοι)
- people who were “in a mass grave” (πολυάνδριοι), such as war casualties
It seems when these preferred curse bearers were in short supply, the plunging depths of a well had to make do for people to plop their curses into. The 30 curse tablets they found there were interesting in their diversity, as they included new forms such as one that looked like a liver, and another made to look like a knife.
“The new pieces teach us that there was a variety of forms created for this purpose,” said Stroszeck. “Apart from the more common tablet or stripe form that both go back to ancient writing utensils.”
Curse tablets from Athens were often used against opponents in law to stop the cursed from being able to talk, move or even think, giving the curse-caster the advantage. They were also used by love rivals, says Stroszeck, and Haaretz reports that a curse from someone jealous of a newlywed's marriage made special mention of the cursed bride's vulva.
Even charioteers would resort to curses ahead of athletic contests as a way of besting their competitors. Underworld? More like unsporting.