These Greco-Roman Curses Were the Best Form of Ancient Revenge

A Curse Upon Your House...and Your Body Parts!

A lead curse tablet from modern Trier. DEA/G. DAGLI ORTI/Getty Images

Imagine you've just discovered the one you love has been cheating on you with the laundry girl from down the block. Furious, you want to get your vengeance. But you're not going to sink so low as to kill that young tart, are you? No, you're going to ask the gods to do your work for you!

Instead, head to the marketplace and have a scribe write down a curse on a tiny scrap of lead. He asks the powers above - or, as we'll see, below - to jinx her bowels.

Bury that scrap of lead - pierced with a nail to "fix" its power - on which the scribe wrote somewhere sacred, and you've achieved your revenge!

These mysteriously magical leaden texts were called defixiones, or curse tablets. On a defixio, one would invoke a god or psychopomp (spirits who carried the message to the underworld) in order to influence an individual, group, or animal against their wills; thus, they’re called "binding spells."

As noted in The Oxford Handbook of Ancient Greek Religion, "the focus is not on torment or destruction ... but on laming and putting out of action." In fact, the way the text in defixiones is set up is legal in nature, a contractual agreement between the gods invoked and the supplicant. Such formulae and phrasings were used in most of the defixiones, regardless of place of origin.

These tablets appeared across the Greco-Roman world—and the places it conquered and influenced, from Syria to Britain--from the Iron Age to the first few centuries A.D.

More than 1500 of them have been discovered to date. Many of them have been at religious locations where temples stood during Greek and Roman times.

For example, at Bath in Roman Britain, defixiones ​ were deposited in the watery domains of Sulis Minerva, the protectress of that sanctuary; they were put there because the tablets requested for that goddess to answer that request.

The ones in Britain, especially Bath, mostly dealt with theft and were Romano-British cultural hybridization at its finest; read more about that here.

Other tablets would be placed in graves or pits, presumably because the supplicants were requesting help from infernal spirits or powers residing in the underworld, like Persephone or Hecate; one would imagine that, if a curse tablet requested physical harm or death on a person, a grave would be an ideal spot to put that defixio.

Perhaps most significantly, the defixiones proved to be some of the few examples we have of writing produced by non-elites in the Greco-Roman world. They presented a contrast to the writings of many Roman historians that, rather than day-to-day concerns of love and life, concentrated on affairs of conquest and monumental inscriptions that only the rich could afford to set up. Just check out this insane tomb that Rome's richest banker built for himself.

Cursing Everyone and Everything

When wishing for the gods to affect someone negatively in a defixio, the supplicant might want any number of things, positive or negative, to happen. They could request that a rival be killed or fall sick, or that someone not fall in love with another person.

As curse tablet expert Chris Faraone noted in Ancient Greek Love Magic, these aren't technically love spells, since they don't request that somebody fall head over heels for them; instead, "it is designed to reduce the competition, by inhibiting the words, the actions, and even the sexual performance of a rival." Or, if a woman isn't into a guy, the supplicant requests that the beloved's movements be restricted so that she'd love only him.

Here's one example:

"Seize Euphemia and lead her to me, Theon, loving me with mad desire, and bind her with unloosable shackles, strong ones of adamantine, for the love of me, Theon, and do not allow her to eat, drink, obtain sleep, jest or laugh...Burn her limbs, live, female body, until she comes to me, and not disobeying me. If she holds another man in her embrace, let her cast him off, forget him, and hate him; but let her feel affection for me..."

Another prime instance of creepy binding/erotic magic:

"Spirits of the underworld, I consecrate and hand over to you, if you have any power, Ticene of Carisius. Whatever she does, may it all turn out wrong. Spirits of the netherworld, I consecrate to you her limbs, her complexion, her figure, her head, her hair, her shadow, her brain, her forehead, her eyebrows, her mouth, her nose, her chin, her cheeks, her lips, her speech, her breath, her neck, her liver, her shoulders, her heart, her lungs, her intestines, her stomach, her arms, her fingers, her hands, her navel, her entrails, her thighs, her knees, her calves, her heels, her soles, her toes. Spirits of the netherworld, if I see her wasting away, I swear that I will be delighted to offer a sacrifice to you every year."

People also utilized curse tablets to influence pretty much anything they wanted. In order to secure a win, a charioteer paid for inscribed tablets hat requested the gods ensure victory for their team and to destroy their enemies.

Check out one that read:

"Bind the horses whose names and images/likeness on this implement I entrust to you: of the Red (team)... of the Blues. .. Bind their running, their power, their soul, their onrush, their speed. Take away their victory, entangle their feet, hinder them, hobble them, so that tomorrow morning in the hippodrome they are not able to run or walk about, or win or go out of the starting gates, or advance on the racecourse or track, but may they fall down with their drivers..."

The evidence for curse tablets isn't just archaeological. Literary sources suggest that Emperor Augustus's stepson, Germanicus, one of the most famous generals of his time, died because of poison and a curse; rumor had it that defixiones bearing his name, along evidence of other negative magics, were buried underneath his floorboards.