Hex marks the spot: Curse tablets reveal ancient drama etched in lead

throw old school shade with curse tablets

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Ancient gripes etched in lead: The curious case of curse tablets

Imagine stumbling upon an accursed tablet (no, not the kind that freezes just as you’re about to win the game), but an ancient slab with a real curse inscribed on it. Here, we’re taking you back to the days when people etched their beef with others onto metal sheets, hoping gods or spirits would deal with their foes. We’re talking serious old-school grudges — no tech support required. Join us as we explore what these ancient tablets tell us about the not-so-sweet side of antiquity.

What is a curse tablet?

A curse tablet, also known as a defixio, is a small sheet of lead or pewter inscribed with messages that often wished misfortune upon others. These artifacts harken back to the Greco-Roman world, where they were surreptitiously deposited in places considered close to the underworld — like graves, sacred springs, and deep wells.

Dating from the 5th century BCE through to late antiquity, they offer us a window into the private lives and darker wishes of the ancients. Discovered across Europe and the Mediterranean, from Britain to North Africa, these tablets reveal a widespread practice among various cultures, each with their own nuances and deities tasked with carrying out these curses.

The distribution of curse tablets across various ancient societies tells a story of common human desires and fears — a wish for justice or revenge, love or power. They were the anonymous messages of the common people, often written in a mixture of languages and alphabets, as if to ensure the message got across to whichever deity was listening.

The majority of tablets that survived were written in Greek or Latin, but traces of other dialects suggest a diversity of voices and a literacy that wasn’t just limited to the upper echelons of society.

We’ll be setting out to trace the lines of history written on these ancient tablets. We’ll look at their discovery, the stories they tell about the people who wrote them, and the lasting cultural impact they have.

From the personal grievances etched into metal to the sophisticated science that now preserves them, curse tablets offer a fascinating insight into the not-so-different world of our ancestors. Join us as we uncover the tangible links to the past and the oh-so-human penchant for invoking the divine in the pursuit of personal justice.

curse tablet bath house 2200x2200

The history of curse tablets

The phenomenon of curse tablets spanned across diverse cultures, highlighting a shared human inclination toward invoking supernatural forces in times of strife. Their persistence well after the Western Roman Empire’s decline indicates that these practices were not only widespread but also deeply rooted in societal traditions.

The majority of these tablets were inscribed in Greek, reflecting the widespread influence of Hellenistic culture, but a substantial number were also in Latin. This shows not only the geographic spread but also the linguistic diversity of the times, with smaller numbers found in languages such as Etruscan, Oscan, Celtic, and possibly Iberian.

In daily life, curse tablets served various purposes: they were used in personal vendettas, legal disputes, business, and even love affairs. Many discovered in Athens, for instance, were related to court cases, aimed at undermining the opposition in legal battles.

They provide a unique perspective on the ancient judicial system and the lengths to which individuals would go to secure a favorable outcome. Other tablets contained erotic binding spells or were designed to thwart thieves and business or sporting rivals, giving us a glimpse into the competitive nature of ancient societies​​.

Curse tablets were deployed with ritualistic precision, their creation and placement as critical as the words inscribed upon them. These thin sheets of lead etched with tiny letters were often rolled, folded, or pierced with nails — physical actions believed to amplify the curse’s potency.

They were then carefully placed in locations tied to the supernatural or the sacred: beneath the earth in graves or sanctuaries, in wells, or attached to temple walls. This ensured the curse was in the domain of the gods or spirits being invoked, such as Pluto or Hecate, or even mediated through the deceased whose grave it occupied.

The locations and the rituals surrounding the deposition of these tablets underscore the deep-seated belief in the supernatural and its intersection with the everyday life of the ancients.

Unearthing the past

The intricate history of curse tablets is reflected in their archaeological discoveries, which unveil the cultural and religious practices across various ancient civilizations. These tablets, primarily composed of lead due to its pliability and durability, have been unearthed across a broad geographic spectrum, revealing their use in personal vendettas, legal disputes, and love affairs.

One of the most significant finds is from the Roman Baths in Bath, England, a site once known as Aquae Sulis. Here, over 130 curse tablets have been discovered, constituting the largest single assemblage of curse tablets in the Roman Empire​​. These tablets offer us a glimpse into the society’s attempt to appeal to the deity Sulis for justice or retribution, particularly for thefts.

The site itself has a long history, being a place of worship even before the Romans, going back more than 10,000 years, with the Celts having built the first shrine there around 700 BC​​. The hot springs that feed the baths have a geothermal origin, with water from the Mendip Hills percolating deep underground before rising heated to the surface​​. Not merely remnants of ancient practices, these baths and their temple have been focal points of worship and community, with each civilization leaving its imprint.

The Great Bath curse tablets
The Great Bath in the city of Bath, England. Photo by Diego Delso, delso.photo License CC-BY-SA

Archaeologists date and authenticate curse tablets through careful analysis of the script, language, and the context in which they were found. The earliest known curse tablets date back to the late sixth century BCE, written in Greek, which was the lingua franca of the time in the Mediterranean world​​. Latin curse tablets appeared later, around the second century BCE, with most examples hailing from the first two centuries CE, and a small number written in Celtic languages have also been found​​.

The significance of these tablets is more than just their age — but also the diversity in how they were used and the cultural insights that they provide us. Some were preventative, targeting speakers in court, while others were retaliatory, aimed at thieves or enemies. The variety of curses and the differences in their applications across regions and time periods reflect the local customs and the fluid nature of ancient religious and magical practices​​.

Curse tablet british museum
Located at the British Museum in London, this tablet says: “I curse Tretia Maria and her life and mind and memory and liver and lungs mixed up together, and her words, thoughts and memory; thus may she be unable to speak what things are concealed, nor be able.. “

A personal touch: stories on metal and stone

The language on these tablets often invokes infernal or liminal gods like Pluto, the ruler of the underworld, or Hecate, associated with witchcraft and boundaries, and sometimes through a spectral intermediary​. The ritualistic aspect of curse tablets is evident — they were often folded, pierced, or accompanied by figurines resembling the target, and even including the target’s hair or clothing to strengthen the curse with their essence​.

The deities invoked were typically chosen for their ability to influence the more shadowy aspects of existence. The deceased intermediary, perhaps the spirit of someone interred where the tablet was placed, was thought to carry the message to the divine, acting as a messenger between worlds.

The physical manipulation of the tablets was part of the ritual, designed to activate the curse’s power. Including personal items like hair or clothing was a way to connect the curse directly to the essence of the person targeted, making it more potent. These practices reflect a time where it was commonly believed that the spiritual realm was a tangible part of everyday life. It was a popular belief that specific (and often elaborate) actions could influence outcomes in the human world.

Pella leaded tablet (katadesmos) 4th Century retouched curse tablets
A unrolled curse tablet found in the hand of a dead man in Pella, Cemetery of Agora, now located at the Museum of Pella.

Love magic in ancient times also often intertwined with curse tablets, revealing a dimension of desire that sought control over the uncontrollable — the will of another. These tablets could be used to separate individuals, sometimes with incredibly specific commands to prevent one from engaging in relationships or sexual activity with others​​.

The language used in these spells was potent, drawing upon sacred words and magical names believed to harness the power of gods or demons to fulfill the caster’s wishes. The incantations might include a mixture of arcane ingredients and were often repeated several times to enhance their effectiveness​.

Some spells were dual-purposed, aiming to both separate and attract; for instance, a spell might be cast to break an existing engagement while ensuring the affection of the desired party was directed solely towards the spell caster​.

The content found on curse tablets is personal and varied. For instance, one from the Roman Empire is a scorned lover’s lament, invoking a curse to destroy the body parts of a man named Plotius, who was allegedly a slave — including his “sacred organ”, so he “cannot urinate” — perhaps the result of a bitter breakup​​.

Another example is a curse directed at someone named Tacita, who the inscriber calls “old like putrid gore”. The text on this particular tablet was written backwards, as this was thought to amplify its potency​​.

A tablet found at Bath curses an unknown thief who stole a pair of gloves to lose their mind and sight​​. In another case, after having his cloak and bathrobe stolen, a man cursed the thief with loss of mind and memory, as well as a grotesque fate involving maggots and cancer​.

The world of sports even found its way onto these tablets, with one curse beseeching the spirits to kill the horses and charioteers of rival teams, revealing the fervent passion of sports fans even in antiquity​​.

Through these inscriptions, we glean not just the individual’s personal vendettas but also a broader social context — the importance of justice, the pain of romantic betrayal, and the violation felt from theft. While the curses themselves range from grave to comical in modern eyes, they all share an underlying intensity of emotion, highlighting the timeless desire for control and retribution when faced with life’s injustices.

Defixio Rhodine Faustus Terme n2 curse tablet
Latin inscription: “Just as the dead man who is buried here can neither speak nor talk, so may Rhodine die as far as Marcus Licinius Faustus is concerned and not be able to speak nor talk. As the dead man is received neither by gods nor humans, so may Rhodine be received by Marcus Licinius and have as much strength as the dead man who is buried here. Dis Pater, I entrust Rhodine to you, that she be always hateful to Marcus Licinius Faustus. Also Marcus Hedius Amphio. Also Gaius Popillius Apollonius. Also Vennonia Hermiona. Also Sergia Glycinna.” Baths of Diocletian, CC BY 2.5, via Wikimedia Commons

The science of curses

Linguistically, curse tablets provide snapshots of literacy rates and language usage. The fact that they were written in various languages like Greek, Latin, Oscan, and even Etruscan, points to a culturally diverse and multilingual society.

Literacy wasn’t widespread like it is now, but the presence of written curses indicates that writing was accessible enough for personal use in magical practices. This diversity of languages on tablets also underscores the translation practices of the time, which were not common, suggesting that when translations occurred, they were deliberate and meaningful.

The materials and craftsmanship of the tablets tell us about ancient metallurgy. Lead, being malleable and durable, was the material of choice, suggesting that people of the time had a grasp of which materials would best serve their purposes — in this case, ensuring the longevity of their curses.

Forensic anthropology comes into play when we consider the human elements — sometimes actual physical remnants like hair or clothing — that were included with the tablets. These artifacts give us a glimpse into the rituals and perhaps even the identities of the people involved.

Modern technology plays a critical role in deciphering and preserving these texts. Techniques like infrared imaging and 3D scanning allow us to read inscriptions that are invisible to the naked eye and understand the tablets’ composition without causing damage. This non-invasive technology not only helps in reading the often-corroded texts but also aids in their preservation for future study.

VIUscan handheld 3D scanner in use curse tablets
Making a 3D-model of an Viking belt buckle using a hand held VIUscan 3D laser scanner. As the device uses a laser scanner to create a 3D model it also uses a camera to accurately texture map the object. Photo by Creative Tools from Halmdstad, Sweden, CC BY 2.0, via Wikimedia Commons

Curse tablets in popular culture

In the eclectic world of modern media, the concept of curse tablets has been a subtle presence. While they may not take center stage like a coveted ark or a cursed mummy’s tomb, their essence still appears in the narratives we’ve come to enjoy.

One example is the Indiana Jones franchise, where the pursuit of mystical and powerful artifacts often comes with the risk of ancient curses. Although curse tablets per se aren’t directly featured, the notion that an object can carry a potent spell is a common thread — a nod to the real historical practice of inscribing curses on tablets meant to bring misfortune to others or sway the gods to one’s favor.

The portrayal of cursed objects and inscriptions in such media, however, is often far more dramatic than what history shows us. Real curse tablets were typically personal, sometimes mundane, and lacked the cataclysmic consequences depicted in movies. They were used by ordinary people trying to navigate the complexities of daily life — whether it was a love triangle, a stolen item, or a business rivalry. These weren’t the grand spells of Hollywood, but rather intimate appeals to the divine.

The dramatized versions we see in films and TV shows tend to amplify the supernatural aspects, suggesting a world where curses have immediate and devastating effects. This is a stark contrast to the historical artifacts, which show no evidence of causing supernatural events but rather reflect the hopes or frustrations of those who created them.

Such depictions, while entertaining, can influence how we view ancient practices. The sensationalized curse might overshadow the fact that these tablets are valuable historical documents, providing insights into the languages, beliefs, and daily concerns of ancient civilizations.

Vervloekingstablet in lood gericht tegen Caius Iulius Viator curse tablet
A lead curse tablet directed against Caius Lulius Viator

Reflections on human nature

These small, leaden artifacts remind us that, regardless of era or empire, individuals have always sought ways to tip the scales of fortune in their favor, especially when confronted with situations beyond their control.

The emotions etched into these tablets — jealousy, rage, desperation — are as familiar today as they were in ancient times, proving that the core of human emotion and desire changes little, even as societies evolve.

The practice of inscribing curses also sheds light on the belief systems of the past, where the spiritual realm was an integral part of daily life. For the ancients, gods and spirits weren’t merely passive observers, they were entities who could be petitioned directly for intervention.

This demonstrates a world view where the divine was a tangible force, one that could be accessed through specific rituals and words, and underscores a universal tendency to reach out to something greater than ourselves when in need.

The practice of cursing, though ancient, has not been entirely left in the dust of history. In our modern era, the intent behind a curse — a wish for misfortune to befall someone — can still be found, albeit often in a less formalized manner than the inscribed tablets of yore.

Today, it’s not uncommon to hear stories of individuals resorting to what they believe are curses or hexes, sometimes as part of neo-pagan traditions or other occult practices. Websites and online forums dedicated to witchcraft and the esoteric often share stories of modern-day cursing rituals, and occasionally these make headlines when they intersect with popular culture or public events.

For example, in recent years, there have been reports of groups gathering to cast “binding spells” on political figures, aiming to thwart their actions or prevent them from causing harm. These events can even take on a communal aspect, with participants around the globe joining at a prescribed time to focus their intentions. While these modern curses lack the permanence of a lead tablet buried in ancient ruins, they share the same desire to invoke a higher power in pursuit of personal justice or societal change.

Social media, too, has become a platform for what some might consider a form of cursing. Viral hashtags that wish ill upon public figures or ex-lovers can be seen as a digital echo of the sentiments once hammered into lead. The anonymity and reach of the internet allow these modern curses to spread far and wide.

The ethical implications of these practices are often debated, particularly in communities that take these actions seriously. While for some it’s a form of cathartic expression or even performance art, for others it’s a genuine attempt to affect change through supernatural means.

This duality reflects the complex role that cursing has played throughout history — as a means of exerting agency in a world where individuals often feel powerless. As society continues to grapple with the concept of justice and the right ways to seek it, the curse remains a controversial part of human behavior. 👻

curse tablet etching 2200x2200

Additional resources

If you’re looking to get up close and personal with history, you might want to check out some curse tablets from the comfort of your own browser or by visiting museums that feature these fascinating artifacts. Here’s a rundown of where you can find them:

Online Archives and Museums:

  • The Roman Baths Museum in Bath, England, not only showcases the city’s ancient Roman spa but also displays one of the most famous collections of curse tablets. The Bath curse tablets are particularly notable for their pleas to the goddess Sulis to curse thieves and invoke justice.
  • The Penn Museum offers insights into the world of curses with its collection of Roman lead curse tablets from Beth Shean and Babylonian anti-witchcraft clay tablets.
  • The British Museum has an online database where you can find detailed descriptions and images of curse tablets in their collection, including those inscribed in the Old Roman Cursive script from the mid-second to the third century AD​.

VIDEO: How to make an ancient curse tablet

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