Archaeology Magazine Archive

A publication of the Archaeological Institute of America

Special Introductory Offer!

In ancient times, a curse could help you win in the stadium or the courts, and a plea addressed to a demon could bring you the woman of your dreams


The 2nd-century A.D. novel Metamorphoses includes a witch able to transform herself into an owl. When Lucius, the main character attempts the same, he turns himself into an ass.

During an emergency excavation at the site of a new parking garage in Rome's Piazza Euclid, archaeologist Marina Piranomonte and her colleagues found the remains of a fountain dedicated to a minor and very ancient Roman goddess, Anna Perenna. Embedded in the layers of mud and debris they came upon a cache of voodoo dolls and lead curse tablets that had apparently been hidden there sometime in the fourth century A.D. Many of the dolls had been placed in lead canisters, one of which yielded a thumbprint, probably of a woman, according to the police fingerprint laboratory. The discovery supports the impression we get from ancient literary sources that women often acted as professional witches. In his novel Metamorphoses, for example, the second-century A.D. author Apuleius describes in vivid and undoubtedly exaggerated detail a witch at work:

First she arranged her deadly laboratory with its customary apparatus, setting out spices of all sorts, unintelligibly lettered metal plaques, the surviving remains of ill-omened birds, and numerous pieces of mourned and even buried corpses: here noses and fingers, there flesh-covered spikes from crucified bodies, elsewhere the preserved gore of murder victims and mutilated skulls wrenched from the teeth of wild beasts. Then she recited a charm over some pulsating entrails and made offerings with various liquids.... Next she bound and knotted those hairs together in interlocking braids and put them to burn on live coals along with several kinds of incense.

Behind this lurid scene set in far-off Thessaly, there are undoubtedly some true-to-life facts, for magic was pervasive in the classical world. Indeed, everything for the ancients, from impotence to political assassination, might be caused by magic. The Roman poet Ovid wondered, in the late first century B.C., if his lovemaking ability had been cursed: "Was I the wretched victim of charms and herbs, or did a witch curse my name upon a red wax image and stick fine pins into the middle of the liver?" The historian Tacitus records chilling discoveries made at the time of the death of Germanicus, grandson of Augustus and heir of the emperor Tiberius, in A.D. 19:

explorations in the floor and walls [of his house] brought to light the remains of human bodies, spells, curses, leaden tablets en-graved with the name Germanicus, charred and blood-smeared ashes, and others of the implements by which it is believed the living soul can be devoted to the powers of the grave.

[image] [image]
Germanicus, the grand-nephew of the emperor Augustus, was believed to have been killed by witchcraft.

In the end, Roman authorities executed a woman named Martina for murdering Germanicus, while the senator Gnaeus Calpurnius Piso and his wife, Plancina, thought to be behind the deed, were forced to commit suicide. Magic was clearly not something to be trifled with. What, then, was the witch who left us her thumbprint at the fountain of Anna Perenna in Rome doing? There are two strong possibilities: she was engaged either in cursing people or in magically compelling them to fall in love.

The magical paraphernalia of Apuleius' witch and Martina, who allegedly attacked Germanicus, included tablets inscribed with strange letters or the victim's name. Archaeologists have found hundreds of these. The Greeks called them "curses that bind tight," and the late Latin term for them meant "curses that fix or fasten someone." To make such a "binding spell" one would inscribe the victim's name and a formula on a lead tablet, fold it up, often pierce it with a nail, and then deposit it in a grave or a well or a fountain, placing it in the realm of ghosts or underworld divinities who might be asked to enforce the spell. These curses seem to have been a Greek invention, and many focus on that most Greek of concerns, competition, especially in athletic and legal contests. A Roman-era curse tablet found at Carthage, for example, calls on demons to:

...bind every limb and every sinew of Victoricus, the charioteer of the Blue team...and of the horses he is about to race.... Bind their legs, their onrush, their bounding, their running, blind their eyes so they cannot see and twist their soul and heart so that they cannot breathe. Just as this rooster has been bound by its feet, hands and head, so bind the legs and hands and head and heart of Victoricus, the charioteer of the Blue team, for tomorrow.

The courts of law were another competitive venue for the use of binding spells, which focus on the victims' minds and words rather than their bodies. Take for example this curse tablet from Athens:

Theagenes the butcher. I bind his tongue, his soul and the speech he is practicing. Pyrrhias. I bind his tongue, his soul and the speech he is practicing. I bind the wife of Pyrrhias, her tongue and soul. I also bind Kerkion, the butcher, and Dokimos, the butcher, their tongues, their souls and the speech they are practicing. I bind Kineas, his tongue, his soul and the speech he is practicing with Theagenes. And Pherekles. I bind his tongue, his soul and the evidence that he gives for Theagenes. All these (i.e. their names) I bind, I hide, I bury, I nail down. If they lay any counterclaim before the arbitrator or the court, let them seem to be of no account, either in word or deed.

The lawsuit that prompted this curse apparently involves the testimony of three butchers (or perhaps cooks) and their friends, which this curse is intended to silence. The curse also binds the "tongue and soul" of Pyrrhias' wife, but there is no specific mention of her testimony since women were normally not permitted to testify in Athenian courts. The author of this tablet nonetheless feels compelled to bind the wife as well, fearing no doubt that her thoughts and her advice to her husband might help him win his case.

Most pre-Roman binding curses, riddled with spelling and grammatical errors and often idiosyncratic formulas, seem to have been inscribed by amateurs. There are, however, hints that professional sorcerers were inscribing binding spells in Athens as early as 400 B.C., as a passage from Plato's Republic suggests:

And then there are the begging priests and soothsayers, who going to the doors of the wealthy persuade them that...if anyone wants to harm an enemy, whether the enemy is a just or unjust man, they [the priests and soothsayers], at very little expense, will do it with incantations and binding spells, since [they claim] they have persuaded the gods to do their bidding.

[image] A man named Kardelos was attacked in this 4th-century A.D. curse tablet from Rome.

A group of lead effigies dated securely to Plato's lifetime corroborates the philosopher's testimony. More elaborate than the spell cast against the butchers, each of these effigies, probably made by a professional sorcerer, is inscribed with a name or names and then entombed in a lead box, the lid of which is also inscribed with names. The first of this group to be discovered was found in a grave in the Kerameikos, one of Athens' ancient cemeteries, more than forty years ago. Its right leg is inscribed with the name Mnesimachos, and the lid of the coffin lists nine men, including Mnesimachos, and closes with a catch-all phrase: "and anyone else who is either a legal advocate or a witness with him." Three more figurines, of similar manufacture, were recently discovered in a grave near the first one. Of the four people named on these figurines, three--Theozotides, Mikines, and Mnesimachos--have extremely rare names, and can in all probability be identified with Athenian politicians who were prominent around 400 B.C. and who all were apparently prosecuted in this same period in lawsuits by men using speeches ghostwritten by the famous orator Lysias. Could it be that the same wealthy person or persons who hired Lysias to write speeches prosecuting these men in the courts also paid another kind of professional--a sorcerer--to cast spells against them, so they would be magically bound and unable to give their own speeches in defense?

This kind of cursing, especially in competitive situations, was as persistent as it was pervasive in the Greek and Roman world. To what degree was it tolerated by society? A character in one of Plato's dialogues, penned in the early fourth century B.C., asserts that "if it be held that a man is acting like an injurer by the use of spells, incantations, or any such mode of poisoning, if he be a prophet or diviner, he shall be put to death." It is clear that Plato's character thinks that magic, as a technique or technology, should be punished, but this is stated nowhere in ancient Greek or Roman law, which focuses instead on the use to which magic is put--if you murder someone with poison or a magic spell, the punishment is death. Eight centuries after Plato, the future St. Augustine could recall in his Confessions that as a youth he had refused a magician's offer to guarantee him victory in a poetry competition. Was he afraid of the legal or moral ramifications? Apparently not. He refused the offer, he says, because it would have involved killing an animal. It seems that, like the bound rooster used in the binding curse against the Carthaginian charioteer, the proposed ritual would have bound or impaled a living creature.


A 4th-century A.D. curse tablet related to chariot races from near Rome

What about the recent finds from underneath the Piazza Euclid in Rome? Were they curses designed to bind a rival or an enemy and prevent them from defeating the witch or one of her clients in an upcoming lawsuit or race? The Roman witch does seem to have used a similar technique: for each ensemble, she molded a single figure of varying materials (including wax and flour) and then placed the effigy in a lead canister. In at least one case she inscribed the canister with the name Antonius. But we must be careful not to jump to conclusions, because in the Roman period such effigies were adapted for a number of other uses and venues outside the realm of competition, particularly in elaborate erotic spells to force a person--usually a woman--to lust after a man.

It is difficult for modern observers to understand the close connection between erotic magic and curses, until we realize that with few exceptions, eros, or erotic love, was understood by most ancient Greeks and Romans to be an accursed thing that attacked its human victims with torches and whips, made them ill, and could in some cases kill them. The second-century A.D. Greek physician Galen spends a good deal of time refuting the popular idea that erotic seizure is actually caused by the attack of a god who holds burning torches to the victim.

Since erotic magic aims at inducing such uncontrollable seizures in the victim, it is not surprising that images of hostile attack, whipping, and fire regularly appear in such spells. Take for example this spell inscribed on a potsherd found in Oxyrhynchus, Egypt, that may have been heated up during a ritual:

Burn, torch the soul of Allous, her female body, her limbs, until she leaves the household of Apollonius. Lay Allous low with fever, with unceasing sickness, lack of appetite, senselessness.

Also from Egypt, at the site of Eshmunen, is the following spell, inscribed in Greek on a lead tablet that was then rolled up around some strands of brownish red hair and inserted into the mouth of a mummy, to whom the spell was apparently addressed:

Aye, lord demon, attract, inflame, destroy, burn, cause her to swoon from love as she is being burnt, inflamed. Goad the tortured soul, the heart of Karosa...until she leaps forth and comes to Apalos...out of passion and love, in this very hour, immediately, immediately; quickly, not allow Karosa think of her [own] husband, her child, drink, food, but let her come melting for passion and love and intercourse, especially yearning for the intercourse of Apalos.

[image] Witches in antiquity were often described as hags who could command the dead, like Lucan's Erictho using a dead soldier to foretell events or the Bible's witch of Endor raising the ghost of Samuel at the behest of Saul.

The most elaborate and disconcerting of all Greek efforts in this regard is a small clay effigy of a woman, probably from Antinoopolis, Egypt, which has been dated to the third or fourth century A.D. The effigy kneels with her feet tied together and her arms bound behind her back, and she has been methodically pierced with thirteen pins: one in the top of the head, one in the mouth, one in each eye and in each ear, one each in the solar plexus, vagina, and anus, and one in the palm of each hand and in the sole of each foot. The effigy was then wrapped in the inscribed lead tablet and sealed in the pot. One would assume that this effigy was designed to torture a lifelong enemy. The inscription, however, reveals that a man named Sarapammon made or commissioned it in hopes of forcing a woman named Ptolemais to abandon her haughty demeanor and make love to him:

Lead Ptolemais, whom Aias bore, the daughter of Horigenes, to me. Prevent her from eating and drinking until she comes to me, Sarapammon, whom Area bore, and do not allow her to have experience with another man, except me alone. Drag her by her hair, by her guts, until she does not stand aloof from me.

Like the charioteer curse from Carthage, which was accompanied by the trussed-up rooster, this spell combines two types of overlapping ritual operations, one that requires supernatural assistance and another that does not: Sarapammon directs a ghost to bind Ptolemais and to force her to come to him, and by binding the arms and legs of her effigy and then piercing it, he seeks by a sympathetic magic to bind her and most likely to torture her as well. A contemporary magical handbook, also found in Egypt, provides a recipe for a nearly identical effigy, telling the practitioner where to pierce the figurine and what to recite. The goal is apparently to make the woman feel aches and pains throughout her body that will cause her to remember the man who pierces the effigy.

The ancients also could use a pair of images to encourage sexual desire. In a Roman-era work from Egypt, probably by a professional sorcerer, two wax figurines were molded face-to-face in an erotic embrace, wrapped in a pair of papyrus sheets, and sealed in a clay pot. They were probably then buried in a cemetery. The innermost of the two sheets was inscribed with a long incantation that includes the following commands, addressed to a ghost:

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 but make her leap out...and leave behind her father, mother brothers, sisters, until she comes to me.... Burn her limbs, liver, female body, until she comes to me, loving me and not disobeying me.

The wax figures that accompanied this text may, on its face, seem less violent than the previous one--the woman is embraced, not stabbed with needles--but the method and the goal are quite the same: burning and binding will lead to complete submission of the woman to the desires of the man. A biography of Saint Irene, a ninth-century Cappadocian nun, tells of a novice who was attacked by a former suitor with exactly this kind of erotic spell:

...the girl was unexpectedly attacked by a seething passion which maddened her with a frantic lust for her former suitor and did not allow her to control herself. Violently leaping, screaming, moaning, crying and calling out his name in a loud voice, she assured with fearful oaths that unless someone would let her see him with her eyes and enjoy in excess his sight and conversation, she would hang herself. Then one could see her continually running to the gateway, urging her escape and with inarticulate screams and shameless gestures ordering the gatekeeper to let her out.

Later we are told that in response to prayers for help from Irene and her fellow nuns, two saints flew over the abbey and dropped a package inside of which were found the magical devices that had apparently caused the girl's insanity: two effigies made of lead and embracing each other. Such a detailed description of the supposed effect of an erotic spell is quite rare, but we can see how closely the novice's symptoms match up with the desired effects of such spells. It also attests the longevity of such beliefs.


A Pompeiian mosaic shows a scene from a play in which two women consult a witch.

Returning to the small figurines recently discovered in the ruins of the fountain of Anna Perenna, we suspect that, since there are so many of them, they are the work of a professional witch, but who were her clients and what were their goals? Were they curses designed to bind a rival charioteer like Victoricus or poet like the young Augustine in an upcoming contest? Were they designed to prevent a legal opponent from testifying in court against them? Or were they aimed at a much more important figure, like Germanicus, in line for high political office? So far, Marina Piranomonte has been able to read only one name on the corroded surface of the lead canisters: Antonius. Since roughly seventy of the eighty extant erotic curses are aimed at women, it is much more likely that the effigy enclosed within that container was used as part of curse against a rival or an enemy. But this need not be the case with the other canisters, since curses and erotic spells were often prepared and treated in the same manner and then deposited in the same place. Once the cleaning and conservation process is over, however, we will know more from the inscriptions. And then we will have the names of the people involved. If they are curses against rival athletes or politicians, they will mention only the victim's name, but if they are erotic spells they will preserve the names of both the victim and the client, because the demons need to know to whom they should send the sex-crazed victim. It is, however, highly unlikely that we will ever learn the name of the witch who prepared them. Unlike the woman apprehended and executed for the murder of Germanicus, all she has left us is her handiwork and a single thumbprint.

Christopher A. Faraone, a professor of classics at the University of Chicago, is author of Ancient Greek Love Magic (Harvard University Press, 1999) and coeditor of Magika Hiera: Ancient Greek Magic and Religion (Oxford University Press, 1991).