Dusty Digital Tomes Series: Curse Tablets
Article By: Michelle Belanger
The following article is excerpted from the American Philological Association’s “Transactions and Proceedings” publication, Vol. XXV, published by Ginn & Co. in Boston, MA, 1894. It introduces readers to a form of magick widely practiced in the ancient world: that of the defixiones, or “curse tablets.” These curse tablets appeared extensively in ancient Greece and Rome and there is evidence that the practice of scribing spells for binding, affliction, and other harm upon small tablets or figures of lead persisted down through the Middle Ages in Europe.
This article, written by Professor W.J. Battle of the University of Texas is one of the first articles written on the topic of the curse tablets, at a time when such items were only coming to the attention of researchers. As such, it is of particular interest to both students of occult history and students of applied magick.
Magical Curses written on Lead Tablets. By Professor W. J. Battle, of the University of Texas
pp. LIV – LV of vol. XXV:
In recent years a number of lead tablets bearing curses of a magical character have been unearthed in various places. To collect and treat them together has been my aim.
In order fully to understand the force of these magical imprecations and prove them but a variety of the ordinary curse, it seems not unfitting to consider the history of curses in general. A curse is essentially a religious formula, a prayer express or implied to certain gods to send harm on persons whom one hates, but is unable otherwise to reach. The mere words of the formula were indeed held to have a compelling force.
Among the Greeks the curse first appears as employed by fathers against contumacious sons; and history and tragedy alike are full of its use by individuals helpless to defend themselves against their personal enemies. From this the step was easy for the state to curse criminals unknown or beyond the reach of its power, and especially as a preventive of a crime forbidden. Lastly curses operative in case of failure to keep an oath were thought materially to strengthen its validity, and were in every one’s mouth.
At Rome the curse is seen first as a public, religious ceremony directed against certain classes of great criminals. There were, of course, the Greek usages; but, besides these, special forms were in vogue in the siege of towns after the evocation of their gods, and in the ceremony of devotion by the commanding general in order to appease the gods and bring victory to his forces.
Curses on gravestones against violators of the tomb are common to both Greeks and Romans and extremely numerous. A few cases also are found where the curse is directed against the person who caused the untimely death of the deceased.
To the magical curses proper of our subject we have several, albeit not very detailed, allusions in both Greek and Latin writers. The most important is Tacitus’ remark about the death of Germanicus that spells and devotions scratched on lead plates were found buried under the floor and hid in the walls to the house where he lay. This was but an instance of what had been brought about by the mass of superstitious practices arising on the downfall of the old religions. Magical rites came into universal use, and of these perhaps most prominent were the katedesmoi of the Greeks, the devinctiones or devotiones or defixiones of the Romans. Our knowledge of them from literature is scant — hardly more than that magical formulae under whatever name when properly uttered, or carved on walls, or scratched on lead or copper tablets and concealed under the floor or in the walls of a house, were all but universally believed to have the power of bringing death, insanity, sickness or other misfortune to an enemy.
Several Egyptian magical papyri which have only recently attracted attention give us much more light. Of varying length, one containing 3277 lines, they exhibit a conglomeration of magical directions, spells, devotions, and the like — in short, handbooks or compends of magic. In several places the formula of the curse is given and its management prescribed. For example, in one case it is ordered that the spell be written on a lead plate, tied with a string to certain clay images and buried at sunset at the grave of somebody untimely dead, to the accompaniment of a magical song and the offering of flowers. The analogy with curses actually preserved on lead tablets, rolled up and tied with a string, and buried in graves, is apparent. Moreover, the language of the papyri and the tablets is at times almost identical.
These tablets have been found in the East, in Attica 14, Corcyra I, Alexandria I, Cnidus in Asia Minor 16, Cyprus 17; in the West, in Italy 17, Africa II, Spain I, Britain 2, Dalmatia 2, Germany 9, Raetia I. In age they extend from the fourth century B.C. to the sixth A.D. They are all written on thin lead plates of varying size, except rive, one of which is on bronze, one on pewter, one on marble, and two on household utensils. Lead seems to have been chosen for its cheapness, durability, ease of handling, and because the writing on it was hard to make out. I do not think there is any difference of conception in the case of the tablets not of lead. The papyri as a rule prescribe lead, but not always; for sacred paper and pewter or tin are twice distinctly named for the same purpose.
The tablets may be divided into two classes, according as they were put in a public or secret place. Of the first (the public or conditional) class all have been found on the sites of temples or shrines; and from the holes in the corners, as well as from their language, it is clear that, being nailed to the walls of the sanctuary, they were meant to be generally seen. Most of them were found by Sir Charles Newton at Cnidus. None except one of the Newtonian curses gives the name of the victim. Most often the writer does not know it, but enraged by some loss or violence or theft, he wishes compensation by the return of the stolen goods, or the cessation of the injury, and to effect this exposes in a public place, where the criminal is likely to see it, an awful curse, to be inoperative, however, if compensation be made. The idea was that the guilty man would be frightened into doing this without delay. Such a notion is current now in Greece, and not unknown among our negroes.
But not always is the criminal unknown. Sometimes the writer, from fear or other cause, is unwilling to post the name, and writes the curse in general terms, but clear enough for the criminal to recognize it. In one tablet the curse is actually repeated on the back with the names given in full. Two name the enemy outright. Perhaps the writer was too angry to be prudent.
In a few tablets there is no condition about compensation being made, and the curse is therefore absolute. The writer wished either to allow no room for repentance or, in cases where the harm is irreparable, merely to prevent a repetition of the offence.
In the tablets of the second or absolute class the writer wishes to injure his enemy safely but speedily, and he puts his curse where it will surely reach the gods of the lower world whom he addresses. This, of course, is a grave, which, being the home of a body whose soul is in the infernal regions, was held pre-eminently under the domain of the gods of those regions. The dead man seems to have served as a connecting link between the kingdoms of dead and living, and might therefore play postman to deliver the curse deposited with him to the gods invoked.
The tablets were variously treated, sometimes doubled or rolled and fastened with a thread or transfixed by a nail, by an actual piercing typifying the magical defixion of the curse. Oftener, however, the tablet was nailed to the inner tombwall, or the coffin itself. Occasionally it lay directly on the body or bones of the dead, but most often of all the curser got the tablet in the tomb as best he could without rolling or nailing of any kind. Where the tablets were rolled, it was probably for convenience or for added magical force or for secrecy’s sake. Certainly if detected, the writer stood in imminent danger both from the person devoted and from the law.
The great majority of the absolute curses have been found in graves, and though the exact locality of a few is doubtful, it is extremely probable that they were all originally in graves except two found in hot springs, so placed because invoking the spring deities. As to the kind of grave selected, the tablets themselves are silent, but two of them were found on skulls whose bodies were not to be seen, and the papyri regularly prescribe graves of persons untimely dead. A» to whether the tablets were inserted at the burial of the dead or afterwards, we cannot always be sure. The eleven Carthage tablets, however, were dropped down a ventilating pipe of the cemetery vault.
Of auxiliary aids to the working of the curse there is no proof. One mentions a cock bound as illustrating its desired action, and others show cocks’ heads with perhaps the same design. The papyri and poets, however, speak of wax or clay images, needles, etc., etc., and Tacitus mentions bones, herbs, bloody ashes and the like.
The causes assigned for the curses are various. Many cases are doubtful. Most common is theft. Three are due to a denial of a deposit, 5 to jealousy, 3 to marital infidelity, 6 to a desire for victory in the chariot race by the destruction of one’s rivals, 3 to a lost case in court, 3 to a charge of being a poisoner, I to the use of false weights by a shopkeeper, 1 to assault and battery, I to adversity, I to religious zeal.
In contents, the tablets present many peculiarities. Sometimes there are figures connected with the curse itself, such as a diagram of a circus, or a cock’s head, or a likeness of the demon invoked, but more often magical signs, unintelligible now, but then thought of great potency. Four tablets are written backwards, wholly or in part, doubtless for increased magical effect, and for the same reason the lines of another are queerly jumbled. So in three written in concentric squares beginning on the outside and continuing till the whole was filled, so involving the words that no exit was possible, the writer, perhaps, typified the entanglement of horses and drivers for which he prayed. In one of the papyri a ring is directed to be drawn round the devoted names to serve the same purpose. In the case of the cock already mentioned, such an analogy is expressly stated, and in others the cold and lifeless lead of the tablet, the dead habitant of the tomb, the water of the hot spring, are employed in the same way.
That the social position of the writer was low oftentimes, the extreme illiteracy of the curses shows plainly. Sometimes, however, names and language reveal people of education and rank. As to the writers’ sex, only thirty-eight cases are clear, —sixteen by women, twenty-two by men. Frequently the writer adds to the curse a deprecation of evil from himself; for a curse was thought capable of reflex action, and dangerous therefore. It was hazardous, too, to associate with a devoted person, and this was provided for by a special disclaimer: “May it be well with me, and may I be safe in associating with the accursed one, whether under the same roof, or in the same bath, or at the same table.”
As to the person devoted, almost the same may be said as about the writer. Any number of enemies, however, can be devoted in one curse, while there is no case of two writing one together. Still, the formula is usually repeated for each enemy, and, accurately to mark him out, all his names are given, and often those of his father and mother as well. He is, of course, always a living person.
The gods invoked are almost always infernal, — Pluto, Demeter, Persephone, Hecate, Hermes, being most in vogue. Many curses specify none; others address a whole host of Egyptian magical divinities. These are late.
Generally the curse begins with a word of binding or of dedicating. Some form of t(u is usual in Greek, — a magical term, used first, doubtless, in a literal sense of binding a name or image with a thread, typical of the magic binding of the enemy. The word of dedication carries the idea of formal consecration to the use of the god invoked, implying a speedy destruction of the person thus consecrated. In the I-atin curses more frequent than words of binding or dedicating are those of commending, intrusting, — such as mando, commendo. They are clearly euphemistic.
Sometimes the word of binding, dedicating, or commending constitutes the whole of the curse. More often other and particular punishments are added. Of great variety, these nearly all relate to the bodily harm of the enemy. From death there are all grades, down to the payment of a fine. Several times the writer wishes only that the devoted become hateful to a given third party. In the statement of the penalty, the most minute care is taken so as to allow no loophole of escape. There is much repetition. Sometimes the punishments asked are inconsistent, and often a light is put after a severe one. The writer wrote first that most desired; but, to provide for all contingencies, he added others. If the god would not grant one, he might another.
How general was the use of these tablets, the large number now extant plainly shows. We have also a votive tablet giving thanks for delivery from a man who dealt in magical defixions; and another, relating how a curse was duly answered and grave inscriptions mourning the success of magical spells are also known.
Whether the tablets produced these results or not, people thought they did, and so used them.
Such are the curses so far found. Those yet in hiding will doubtless give us more detailed knowledge, but I do not believe they will alter our general conceptions.
When the above was written, I had been unable to get a sight of certain of the tablets enumerated on page lv. An examination of these adds to the number of cases where the writer’s sex is plain, and shows one where several persons joined in writing the curse — quite contrary to the usual practice. The text of all the curses, with a detailed treatment of the subject, will be ready for publication at an early date.