Ancient Greek Curse Tablets

by Christopher A. Faraone

Question: How did you get interested in Greek incantations and spells?

Christopher Faraone: One of my advisors in graduate school suggested that I do a dissertation on a series of rather odd Latin poems that narrate scenes of witches digging up graves and casting spells. This was back in the early '80s, and these poems hadn't been very well researched. I was a graduate student at Stanford at the time and it just so happened that one of our professors, the late Jack Winkler, was offering a seminar on ancient Greek magic. I took that seminar to get some background for the poems, but there I was introduced to so much interesting and untapped material that I decided to do my doctoral research with Winkler on magic itself. It was in this course that I first learned about lead curse tablets.

Most of these curses, inscribed on small sheets of lead that range in size between a business card and a playing card, had been edited in the early twentieth century, but their value for social history, gender history, and the history of sexuality had been pretty much ignored. I think scholars were mainly interested in the earlier curse tablets because they wanted more information about the Greek language. They were even using certain kinds of slang or odd spellings on the curse tablets to help explain variant manuscript readings in Aristophanes, but they weren't really interested in getting above the level of language. So several generations of scholars, beginning in the 1880s and onward, carefully edited and published these texts, but didn't really take them seriously as documents of social history. They lay fallow for about a hundred years and now everybody's working on them.

What fascinates me most is the way that the earlier scholars dated these texts. Most of the lead curse tablets are from Athens because Athens is the most widely excavated city in the Greek world. Despite the fact that there were clear indications in the spelling, the handwriting and the names of the people being cursed that these texts should in fact be dated to at least the time of Plato and probably even earlier, they were usually dated to the post classical period (after 323 BCE). This misdating occurred, in part, because there was a tacit agreement of sorts among scholars in those days that during the classical period (the time of the so-called "Greek miracle") the Athenians were very rational and only "reverted" to more primitive modes of religion after the death of Alexander the Great in 323 BCE, when magical practices from the Near East began to "infect" Greek thinking and practices. As a result, scholars dated all the curse tablets found in Athens to the period after Alexander's death, even though they had no real grounds for doing so. This became self-fulfilling, of course: They were looking for rationalist Greeks in the evidence from the classical period, and when they found evidence of "irrational" magical ritual they conveniently dated it in such a way that it no longer was evidence for the period that they were looking at.

Question: What are we learning about Greek culture from the curse tablets?

Faraone: We can learn a lot about the whole realm of chthonic religion, the religion of the underworld gods. Because the nineteenth-century scholars were looking for corollaries between late nineteenth-century Europe and fifth-century BCE Greece, they focused on Zeus and the worship of the sky gods, the Olympian gods. These scholars created a triumphalist evolutionary model, whereby the Athenians were the first of the Greeks to get away from primitive underworld gods. It was completely fallacious but it fit in with nineteenth-century ideas about the evolution of religion. Now, a century or so later, modern scholars have a much more inclusive view of what constitutes Greek religion.

Question: What do we know about the typical Athenian citizen's attitude toward magic?

Faraone: I don't think that distinguishing between magic and religion the way we do in a modern culture would have made any sense in classical Athens. A lot of what we call magic was for the Athenians simply chthonic religion, religious rituals that were connected with Hermes, Hecate, Hades, Persephone, and gods that lived in the ground--gods that were very closely connected with ghosts and the dead.

Many people today have this idea that magic was socially and legally unacceptable. They have this image of magicians somehow playing on the fears of the ignorant and the superstitious and operating on the periphery. And none of that holds for ancient Athens. Magical rituals, incantations, curses, using the dead for divination--all the things that we tend to put under the heading "magical"--there's very little evidence that the Greeks of the classical period thought these things were illegal. When they did prosecute people for using magic, they were focused on the end. In other words, if the courts felt that you killed someone with a magical spell, they would prosecute you for murder, but the prosecution would be no different than if you used a dagger. In some senses magic is treated almost like a morally neutral technology--we could almost do a spin on that famous National Rifle Association argument: "Curses don't kill people, people kill people."

This technology of cursing could be used at both a personal level and a civic level. A Greek belonged to a series of different social groups: to his family, his clan, his neighborhood, and his city. There are many examples of an individual cursing a personal enemy, and I could also imagine a clan getting together to curse the enemies of their clan. Indeed, there is a famous lead tablet from Sicily that curses 15-20 people that are all clearly related to one another. And we know that a city could publicly curse its enemies. Athens cursed Alcibiades, the Benedict Arnold of his day, and there is a very interesting curse tablet from Athens that dates to the period of the Macedonian hegemony that seems to curse systematically important Macedonian generals, and the Macedonian governor of Athens and his staff.

Question: What kinds of curses do you find in the Athenian tablets?

We know from Greek tragedy and a couple of other sources that the Greeks had a very simple curse for people. They could just pray to a god to destroy someone completely: "Destroy so-and-so and his entire household." This is what I would call the nuclear bomb of curses, just a complete eradication of somebody. But none of all the classical curse tablets from Athens call for the complete destruction of the victim. This may be because in most ancient cultures, and the Athenian one in particular, there was a strong scruple against killing a member of one's own city.

Most of the curses are what we call binding spells: they aim at binding or inhibiting the performance of a rival. A lot of them have to do with legal cases. They say things like, "Bind the tongue and the thoughts of so-and-so, who is about to testify against me on Monday." We have some that are aimed at rival musicians or actors, and a couple that seem to be connected with athletics. We have some that run something like this, "Bind Helen, so that she is unsuccessful when she flirts or makes love with Demetrius." But the great majority of them seem to be connected with lawsuits. This actually corroborates evidence from other sources suggesting that the Greeks thought Athenians were abnormally enamored of lawsuits--much as many Americans today think that New Yorkers are especially litigious.

Question: Would individuals themselves perform the incantations or were there professionals?

Faraone: There were both. We clearly see an evolution from what I would call amateurs working in the early classical period, where the widely varying handwriting and spelling and the brevity of the texts suggest that there were lots of people doing very simple versions of the binding spell. Thus in the earliest curse tablets, we hardly find any evidence that suggests we have professional magicians working from handbooks. The first clue comes at the end of the fifth century, when Plato talks about it in The Republic. One of the characters, Adeimantus, mentions in passing that most people believe that if you've done something evil, you can assuage the gods' anger simply by performing the correct sacrifices. In other words, you can bribe the gods and buy them off. The result is, in this case, that someone who has done wrong goes unpunished. Then he says that people also believe that the gods can be persuaded to punish innocent people, and he cites as evidence the fact the people who hang around the doors of the rich and for a fee will cast curses against their enemies.

Some people pick up on this and say, "Aha! The Athenians disapproved of magic as something unjust or antisocial." This is, of course, a widespread modern view of magic, as something distinct from religion, but if you read the passage carefully, you find that Adeimantus' argument is two-pronged and criticizes both aversive sacrifices (that is sacrifice that averts the anger of the gods at an unjust act) and curses. Thus if you want to use the passage as evidence the Greeks thought that cursing rituals were antisocial and unjust, then you also have to make the same argument about sacrifice. Unfortunately, it is quite clear that using sacrifice to assuage divine anger was a standard and essential part of Greek religion. In short, I think that the passage accurately reflects what Athenians were doing in Plato's day (i.e. sacrificing to avert divine anger and paying professionals to curse their enemies), but that it misrepresents societal attitudes: Plato himself clearly disapproves, but most evidence points to the fact that your average Athenian had no problem with such curses or sacrifices.

But getting back to your question about practitioners: They recently discovered three voodoo dolls in a graveyard in Athens, in the potter's quarter, that are closely related to another that was found in the same area in the 1950s. We can date them archaeologically right around the end of the fifth century or beginning of the fourth century, roughly contemporary with Plato's passage in The Republic.

They clearly show the hand of a professional magician. In each case you have a little lead figurine with his hands tied behind his back and his feet tied together, imprisoned in a little lead casket. On each casket is a curse, and all of these curses seem to have to do with impending lawsuits: the people named are apparently being bound so that they will perform badly when they speak in court. As it turns out, we know from other sources that these same people were being attacked (at roughly the same time) in speeches written by a famous Athenian speechwriter named Lysias. In short, it looks as if some very wealthy Athenian is attacking his political enemies in two different ways: he is prosecuting them in the law courts using speeches written by Lysias, a man who at that time wrote the best speeches that money could buy, and he is also paying a professional sorcerer to bind these people, so that they can't respond to the charges. Here too, the elaborateness of the curse (the voodoo doll and the coffin) is much more sophisticated than the simple lead tablets used in Athens at the same time, and suggests that this wealthy Athenian hired an expensive professional magician, precisely the type of person that Adeimantus described in The Republic as hanging about the doors of the rich.

By the time you get to the end of the Hellenistic period, which roughly begins with the death of Alexander in 323 BCE, we begin to find evidence of magical handbooks. By the time of the Roman Empire, we find the same kind of Greek magical texts turning up in places as widespread as Carthage, Rome, Palestine, and Turkey. They seem to be copied out of handbooks and they're international and polyglot. A hundred years earlier, a curse tablet found in Athens would address Hades, Persephone, or Hermes, but suddenly they're addressing Yahweh, the Jewish god; Seth and the Egyptian gods; and gods that we don't even know, although some seem to be Persian. Thus by the middle of the first century BCE there's been an astonishing change. The texts are much more of a cultural polyglot and there is a lot of evidence that most magical practices are being done by professionals, which is not what we see happening in the classical period.

Question: What were the most common rituals then?

Faraone: The problem is that we have what survives, and lead tablets are just a lot more likely to survive. The hundreds of curse tablets we have from classical and Hellenistic Athens were all written on lead, and in order to empower them you had to physically place them in the ground. Usually they were put in graves, wells, cisterns, or occasionally in temples of chthonic gods like Demeter. And just the act of putting a lead tablet in the ground preserves it archaeologically. If you look at the surviving evidence in a naove way, you might say, "We have found hundreds of lead curses in Athens but only a few amulets, therefore we can conclude that the Athenians were very fond of cursing but they didn't wear amulets." Such an argument is, of course, highly problematic, because it does not take into account the media on which these texts were inscribed. Because the curses are written on lead tablets and immediately hidden in graves or wells, they survive archaeologically, whereas amulets were inscribed on more valuable metals--gold and silver--and were carried around by the person who used them. They're so valuable that sometimes they were handed down from parent to child, and it's not as likely that they'd be left somewhere undisturbed.

The upshot is that certain kinds of evidence from magical practices don't survive. We have this huge corpus of so-called magical papyri. We have four or five very lengthy papyrus rolls that have translations of how to get a girl, how to raise a ghost to learn about the future, and how to cure rheumatism. You name it, and they have rubrics, ingredients, and incantations. But all of these come from Egypt. Is this because there were only professional magicians working in Egypt? No. It's because papyrus very rarely survives anywhere outside of deserts, so in Qumran and other places you have papyri that survive. I can think of only one or two examples of papyrus surviving in the Greek-speaking world outside of Egypt.

The reason why we have so many lead tablets in Athens is not because the Athenians were particularly inclined toward magic, but because lead is a byproduct of the refining of silver. In the classical period, one of the things that made Athens so wealthy were the silver mines that were discovered very near to the city. They worked those mines to death and by the end of the fifth century they had mined out all the silver, but in the process of doing this they created a lot of lead--so much that they used small lead tablets as a very cheap (and reusable) medium to write business letters and various other things. That's why we have such a large number of curse tablets during the late classical (during and just after the mines were in operation) and much fewer in the later periods--it seems that eventually this stockpile of lead ran out and the Athenians began to write their curses on more available materials, such as wax and papyrus, that do not survive when they are buried in the ground.

ABOUT THE AUTHOR | Christopher A. Faraone

Christopher FaraoneChristopher A. Faraone is professor of classical languages and literature at the University of Chicago. He received his Ph.D. from Stanford University in 1988. A member of the faculty at the University of Chicago since 1991, his teaching focuses on archaic and Hellenistic Greek poetry, magic and religion, and Near Eastern influences on early Greek culture. He is the author of Ancient Greek Love Magic (Harvard University Press, 1999) and Talismans and Trojan Horses: Guardian Statues in Ancient Greek Myth and Ritual (Oxford University Press, 1992) and co-editor of Masks of Dionysus (Cornell University Press, 1993) and Magika Hiera: Ancient Greek Magic and Religion (Oxford University Press, 1991).

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