The inscription attached to the wall of a tomb in the ancient Italian city of Pompeii laments the instigation of prosecutorial proceedings by a former friend and warns others to avoid him, reading:
This petty piece of archaeological graffiti is known as a "curse tablet" — or "defixione," from the Latin word for "bind." It was written by an ex-friend of the deceased and put on display for the whole city to read after his death.
Though it might seem strange today, writing curse tablets was a common practice in ancient Rome and Greece. But what was the purpose of these objects (aside from the obvious), and who was writing them? Today, we're talking all things curse tablets.
Lead: A Blessing and a Curse
Curse tablets essentially did what the name implies: They were objects, usually from ancient Greece and Rome, upon which somebody wrote a curse. "The standard definition," says Stuart McKie, a scholar of Roman history at Durham University in the U.K., "is that their intention is to influence, by supernatural means, people and animals against their will." This definition was originally put forth by the late David Jordan, former director of the Canadian Institute in Greece.
All sorts of objects, from shards of pottery to scraps of papyrus to graves, could be turned into curse tablets. "There's one really cool one that was written on a lamp," McKie says. But the most common curse tablets, by far, were written on thin scraps of lead.
Lead is a byproduct of silver mining, which was a major source of wealth in ancient Greece and Rome (particularly in the Greek city-state of Athens). This meant that there was a lot of extra lead lying around at the time. The ancient Romans frequently used it as a cosmetic, or to line their drinking vessels and pipes — a kind of curse in itself.
But they also used it to inscribe messages, especially ones to the gods. Scholars think that the choice of lead as a writing material was part practical — lead is soft and therefore easy to mark — but also part aesthetic. "You get this sort of silvery, fluid-looking line against the oxidized surface of the metal," says Britta Ager, a classicist at Arizona State University. "It just looks magical."
Curse tablets went in and out of fashion numerous times across Greek and Roman history. "It's much more like short, sharp moments of popularity," McKie says, as opposed to a gradual rise and fall. But when they were popular, they were ubiquitous.
"What we can see is that these seem to cut across all social classes and situations," says Ager. Wealthy politicians would sometimes curse their political rivals or the opposing party in a legal battle. Working-class folks would curse thieves, murderers, their crushes or the chariot racing team that they wanted to lose. There are even records of enslaved people using curses.
A "Magical Arms Race"
The wealthy and educated could, of course, hand-write their own curses if they so chose. But many folks may have relied on a third party for their cursing needs. "If you weren't literate enough to write one of these, you could go to a professional who would do it for you," Ager says.
These local magicians acted kind of like contract attorneys, drafting up curse templates for their clients and letting them fill in the blanks. Archaeologists have even found curse tablets where the name of the person being cursed was slightly too long to fit in the blank; the letters had to be smooshed together as a result.
Of course, where there are curses, there are counter-curses. "There was something like a magical arms race," says McKie. Amulets to ward off curses like the "evil eye" were — and still are — popular in many parts of the world. Some curse tablets detailed protective measures in case the cursed person discovered the spell and decided to retaliate. And other curse tablets even included clauses to ensure that the curse circumvented popular protective measures.
Cursing in the Modern Era
So, when did curse tablets go out of fashion for good?
The answer depends on how you look at it. By the fourth century, curse tablets in the Roman Empire were becoming scarce. "In some of the later Roman law codes, from Constantine onward, you do start to get much more heavy policing of religious options," McKie says, "and also, you know, culture changes."
However, the basic human feelings — powerlessness, frustration, jealousy and anger — that drove people to write curse tablets never went away. "The same impulses are there, no matter what era you're looking at," says Ager.
Take, for example, Twitter (which many would argue is absolutely cursed). In 2016, British Twitter users took their political frustrations to the internet in the immediate aftermath of the Panama Papers reveal. For several days, the hashtag #cursedavidcameron was trending everywhere. Whether or not those Twitter users actually believed they were going to curse the then-British prime minister, the message was clear: This person had done harm, and they wanted justice, be it divine or online.
In that sense, McKie and Ager say, regardless of religious belief, we all still use curses. "It's only a short step from spreading malicious gossip about someone to writing a curse," says McKie.