Curse Tablets


Those who wished to use a binding spell to restrain another person, a group of people, or even an animal, would inscribe commands to a deity or spirit on curse tablets, the "metal strips engraved with mysterious letters" described by Apuleius in his novel The Golden Ass.[[1]] (Click here for photographs of curse tablets.) Although usually written on sheets of lead or lead alloys - lead was often used because it was cheap, available, and easy to write on, and also perhaps because its coldness was akin to that of the corpses whose graves functioned as depositories for curse tablets[[2]] - these spells also appear on pottery fragments (ostraca), papyrus, ceramic bowls, gemstones. They are commonly referred to as defixiones (from the Latin verb defigere, which sometimes means "to fasten/nail down") or katadesmoi (from the Greek verb katadein, "to bind up/tie down"). Thus the term "curse tablet" is slightly misleading, though not wholly inaccurate. Curse tablets were composed as letters to the supernatural world; indeed, unlike most inscriptions, which were created to be openly displayed, these were buried or submerged so that only their intended recipients would read them. Their texts usually featured words of magical power, an address to a certain divinity, spirit, or even a corpse-spirit, and then orders for the divinity or spirit to carry out. Such orders cover a wide range: erotic binding, whereby a man or woman would be drawn to the person who had commissioned the tablet; silencing the tongues of opponents in court; impeding an athlete or chariot team, so that one's favorite would be certain to win; and more. With some exceptions, the purpose was not to cause physical harm, but rather to affect actions and emotions. Such items were used in various parts of the Mediterranean region for a millennium; however, most of those found in North Africa date to the second, third and fourth centuries C.E. [[3]]

The magical papyri, which are the remnants of the ancient handbooks used for performing various types of magic, include several different instructions for preparing curse tablets. For example, the process for creating a "restraining spell" is as follows:

Write on a tin lamella with a bronze stylus before sunrise the names "CHREMILLON MOULOCH KAMPY CHRE OPHTHO MASKELLI... EREKISIPHTHE IABEZEBYTH." Then throw it into [the] river [or] into [the] sea before sunrise. Also write on it, with [the others], these characters: "[magical characters]. Mighty gods, restrain" (add the usual, whatever you wish). (P.G.M. VII.417-22; trans. M. Smith in H.D. Betz (1986).)

Preparing curse tablets was usually not a simple matter of writing the proper spell; rather, an elaborate series of rituals was necessary to imbue the tablet with magical powers, as is demonstrate by the lengthy instructions in another restraining spell. As St. Augustine suspected, preparation of binding spells often included the killing of animals. One such spell described in the papyri is to be written upon a lead strip which is then smeared with the blood of a bat and placed inside the abdominal cavity of a frog, which is then sewn up and hung somewhere on one's property by ox hairs attached to a reed.[[4]] In another magical recipe, a cat was essential to the ritual. Although curse tablets were generally quite similar, there were many different rituals and magical words involved, as the magical papyri clearly show. [[5]]