2400-year old ancient Greek curse tablets ‘call upon’ the gods of the underworld

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Back in 2016, a team of archaeologists unearthed five ancient curse tablets from a grave in the Greek capital city of Athens. Found inside the grave of a young woman, the 2,400-year-old lead tablets bear curses aimed at tavern keepers. According to the researchers, they invoked the “chthonic” (meaning, ‘underworld’) gods of the time.

Of the five tablets, four are engraved with curses directed at four different husband-and-wife pairs, who worked as tavern keepers in Athens. The fifth tablet is completely blank, which indicates that it likely had a spell recited orally over it. Perforated with an iron nail, each of these ancient artifacts was folded and carefully placed inside the grave, some 2,400 years ago.

The grave, as believed during ancient times, served as a path for the tablets to reach the invoked gods, who would then effectuate the curse. As the archaeologists pointed out, one of the tablets imprecates a curse against tavern keepers, named Demetrios and Phanagora. When translated to from Greek, the curse reads as follows:

Cast your hate upon Phanagora and Demetrios and their tavern and their property and their possessions. I will bind my enemy Demetrios, and Phanagora, in blood and in ashes, with all the dead… I will bind you in such a bind, Demetrios, as strong as is possible, and I will smite down a kynotos on tongue.

According to the team, the term “kynotos” actually means “dog’s ear, and was a commonly-used gambling term, referring to the “lowest possible throw of dice”. Speaking about the unusual find, Jessica Lamont, a researcher at John Hopkins University, wrote as part of an article published in the Zeitschrift für Papyrologie und Epigraphik journal:

[The] physical act of hammering a nail into the lead tablet would have ritually echoed this wished-for sentiment. By striking Demetrios’ tongue with this condemningly unlucky roll, the curse reveals that local taverns were not just sociable watering holes, but venues ripe for gambling and other unsavory activities in Classical Athens.

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Piraeus, the ancient port of Athens. Source: Pinterest

Located near Piraeus, a port in Athens, the grave was first excavated back in 2003 by a team of archaeologists from the Ephorate of Prehistoric and Classical Antiquities in Greece. Additionally, the researchers had also revealed that the grave likely housed the cremated remains of a young woman. The curse tablets, retrieved from the site, were then kept at the Piraeus Museum. Lamont added:

The way that curse tablets work is that they’re meant to be deposited in an underground location. It’s thought that these subterranean places provided a conduit through which the curses could have reached the underworld.

In fact, chances are that the woman buried in the grave was no way related to the tablets or the curses engraved on them. As the team pointed out, she might just have died at a time when someone belonging to the same community wanted to put these curses on the tavern keepers. The tablets, the researchers believe, were probably deposited along with the remains of the deceased. The writings on the tablets are surprisingly neat, and the actual prose of the curse quite eloquent. This in turn suggests that the incantations were authored by a professional curse writer. Lamont explained:

 It’s very rare that you get something so explicit and lengthy and beautifully written, of course in a very terrible way… I think it’s likely that the person who commissioned them was probably in the world of the tavern himself or herself.

Image Credit: Jessica Lamont

The article was originally published in our sister site HEXAPOLIS, via LiveScience.

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  • Les Parks

    Fascinating post. Keep up the good work

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