You are here

The Koine of Cursing in Early Greece: Bindings and Incantations from the Epigraphic Evidence

Jessica Lamont

Yale University

This paper begins by exploring the epigraphic evidence for curses and binding spells in early (Archaic-Classical) Greece, in both the public and private spheres. A cache of five new curse tablets from Peiraieus is discussed; it is argued that they preserve a hexametrical binding tradition, which likely evolved over time from an oral version of a curse-incantation (Faraone 1995; Lamont 2015; forthcoming.). While this tradition can be glimpsed in curse tablets—spells from the private sphere of Greek society—it seems likely that older oral traditions of cursing, found across the wider Greek world, occurred in large part within the public realm. While we do not have the text of any “public” Archaic or Classical binding curses, the enactment of such curses at the polis-level can be pointed to indirectly from an epigraphic perspective (the Dirae Teorum, Syll. I3 37-8 = M/L 30; the oath-curse of the settlers of Cyrene, M/L 5.56-9).

This project examines the presence of binding incantations in both the polis-sanctioned public sphere of early Greek society, and also within the private realm, in which personalized, inscribed “throw-away” curses would have circulated. What were the mechanisms by which these shared traditions and phrases—a “magical” koine of sorts—were able to move across the Greek world? In addressing this question, the second part of this paper combines epigraphic and literary evidence in order to pinpoint a fundamental “vocabulary” of cursing in early Greece. This arguably hinged upon terms such as δήσω, δεσμοῖς, and σὺν + a powerful agent, as found in the inscribed lead tablets above; also key were similia similibus formulae that employed ὥσπερ, οὕτως…γένοιτο, etc. to construct a framework in which objects and actions were charged with new meaning, apart from that of everyday life (e.g., DTA 67.7-11). These common phrases might be explained in part, it is suggested, by the presence of collections of hexametric binding-spells; perhaps such collections, similar to those within the books of Musaeus and Orpheus (Pl. Resp. 364b-e), existed by the turn of the fifth century. The eloquent hexameters, employed across the formulaic curses discussed above, support the notion that a master text, book, or formulary was used in the composing and vending of binding curses throughout Greece, in both the public and private realms. But who would have had use for such books?

In order to account for this shared tradition of cursing across the Greek world—stretching from the Black Sea to Sicily by the fourth century BCE—this project illuminates a shadowy group of “religious specialists,” figures variously grouped under the title of goēs, magos, mántis, agúrtēs, etc. (Hipp. Morb. Sacr. 1.10-46; Pl. Resp. 364b; Derveni Papyrus col. 6). These intriguing passages call our attention to, amongst other things, a figure in Greek society tied to the sale and circulation of spells, incantations, and initiations. The same “collecting priests” and “seers” could promise, should someone wish to harm an enemy, “to hurt them, just or unjust alike, at little expense by certain bringings-against and bindings (ἐπαγωγαῖς τισιν καὶ καταδέσμοις), persuading the gods, as they say, to do their bidding.” (Pl. Leg. 908b-909d). It is suggested that these agents, able to persuade and “harness” the gods through incantations and binding curses, were well-established fixtures of Archaic and Classical Greek society; it is clear that they filled an important social niche—one which provided individuals and households with incantations, initiations, exorcisms and, of course, curse tablets. The vocabulary of binding, shared by curse tablets from across the Mediterranean world, suggests that these itinerant professionals were the primary instruments through which binding spells were circulating within the private sphere of Greek society. Thus, though rooted in epigraphic sources such as curse tablets and polis-decrees mandating curses (on sanctioned public-occasions), this paper explores the practice of cursing more broadly in Archaic and Classical Greek society, as well as the shadowy “religious professionals” who trafficked in such supernatural binding spells and curse tablets.

Session/Panel Title

Epigraphy and Religion Revisited

Session/Paper Number


© 2020, Society for Classical Studies Privacy Policy