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Ancient Athenian Curse Jar Contained Dismembered Chicken And List Of Intended Victims

The letters scratched on this pot are mostly names of curse victims, although some of the unreadable section could be the text of the curse itself. Photograph C. Mauzy; courtesy Agora Excavations
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Have you ever hated someone so much you sacrificed a chicken in the hope its slaughter would empower a curse, then carved the targets' names into the pot holding the chicken and buried it for more than 2,000 years? If not, perhaps you need to lift your vengeance magic game, because someone not only did that but also found 50 people they hated enough to score a place on the pot's exterior. We don't know whether the curse worked, but it must be conceded all the intended victims are dead.

The pot (or “chytra”) buried between 325 and 270 BCE in a corner of a building in the Athenian Agora provides insight into the uses of magic at the time. Almost a century after Socrates and Plato, the home of ancient reason and learning still had people practicing something mystical.

Having been dug up in 2006 from a corner of the Athenian Agora's Classical Commercial Building, the chytra has finally been described by Dr Jessica Lamont of Yale University.

Under the wonderful title “The Curious Case of the Cursed Chicken”, Lamont has described her findings in Hesperia. The pot contained the head and lower limbs of a chicken, but this was no remnant of a meal. A large iron nail has been stuck through the underside, its wide circular head sealing the entrance, and a small coin has since fused to the nail head. “This assemblage belongs to the broader realm of Athenian binding curses, which, ... aimed to 'bind' or inhibit the physical and cognitive abilities of its human targets,” Lamont writes. These were usually written on lead tablets, but the nail and animal sacrifices were common features.

More than 30 of the names are still legible, some of them familiar while others were previously unknown from Athens. The handwriting suggests at least two people carved the names, something Lamont says is “largely unprecedented in Greek curse tablets”. Other writing could include the actual curse and up to 25 names, but only scattered letters can be read.

The pot the nail and the dismembered chicken bones. Photos C. Mauzy; courtesy Agora Excavations

We will probably never know what the cursed individuals did to draw such fury, but Lamont suspects they were supporters and witnesses in a forthcoming court case. Some of the individuals can be tentatively identified as prominent figures in Athens at the time. At least a third of the names were women. The location may have been chosen to be close to the intended victims' workplace to give the curse more power over them.

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The fact even supposedly enlightened Ancient Greeks believed in magic is not news to scholars. Lamont starts her paper with an account of how the orator Libanios temporarily lost his capacity to read, write or speak in public. Today we might attribute this to a medical issue, but Libanios found a dismembered chameleon hidden in his classroom and concluded the manner in which it had been mutilated matched, and had therefore caused, his symptoms. Numerous other animals are also known to have fallen victim to the Athenian belief that harm inflicted on a helpless animal could be transferred to a human.

Supernatural beliefs flourish in times of uncertainty. The late 4th century BCE was a period when Greece was still in turmoil after the death of Alexander the Great, with Athens suffering periods of tyranny and war.

 

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H/T Live Science

 

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