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Binding Male Sexuality: Tacility and Female Autonomy in Ancient Greek Curse Tablets

Teresa Yates

University of California-Irvine

Curse tablets served as a ritual outlet for private concerns, and thereby provide a unique perspective of the intimate anxieties of the average Greek citizen.  In particular, they gave women in a dire situation an opportunity for a private, personal mediation with their world. The constructed and fictional empowerment given to women in certain literary sources more fully emerges in these ritual artifacts, which presented practitioners with an opportunity to assert control over their domestic and social statuses. 

Two of the extant curse tablets, the so-called Pella tablet and DT78, were created by women; ritual custom dictated that these katadesmoi be bound and buried to ensure both ritual efficacy and physical unassailability.  Upon execution, these two tablets sought to limit a man’s sexual and marital activity with any woman but themselves, and by extension, to ensure their own marital status and place within society.  I argue that the production and implementation of these two tablets exhibit a rare, undiluted picture of female autonomy.  These katadesmoi are pieces of tactile handiwork, allowing the female authors to channel their agency in a different way than the women of the literary record.  The tactile element represents a close connection between creator and object, and mirrors the physicality desired in the outcome of the ritual.  For example, authoress of the Pella Tablet expects to be able to dig up (anorussō) the tablet when she wishes (hopoka); this shows a unique instance of a practitioner confidently controlling both the implementation and future outcome of her ritual act.  This paper investigates why these material artifacts allow for a more complete channeling of female autonomy through their tactile creation and implementation, and how these tablets present an unadulterated image of women seeking to protect their own sexual and reproductive capacities.

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