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Curse tablets reveal spiteful sentiments from ancient Greece and Rome

Today, if someone wants to anonymously ruin your life, they might try to steal you digital identity, or perhaps post all your personal information on the internet. A few thousand years ago, vindictive behavior required a bit more patience, but with the promise of fairly dramatic results. Rather than having their home address passed around town, a target might have gods sent after them with the intent of crushing, killing and even dissolving their limbs. It might sound outlandish by today’s standards, but back in the day, so-called curse tablets were created all across the Roman Empire.

Curses and craftsmanship

A curse tablet was typically made of lead or pewter, and pounded out into a flat piece of metal that was thin enough to be easily molded. The curse, at times in elaborate detail, was written out, although like modern trolls the attacking party never identified themselves. The curses were generally addressed to gods or goddesses of the underworld, sometimes with illustrations of figures like Hekate, complete with hair made of serpents. In some cases, the requests were a bit less severe, such as a hope that a particular person would fumble an important task, or possibly become erotically entangled in some way. Whatever the degree of curse, once the invocation was complete, the tablet was folded over and then pierced with nails. The physical distortion of the tablet was supposed to cause the curse to echo out into the world, plus make the inscribed curse accessible only to the intended deity.

The final step was deliver the curse, placing it as deep underground as possible. This meant stuffing the mangled metal into holes, wells or best yet, graves and coffins. These locations were meant to get the demands for destruction of souls, hearts, livers and even buttocks as close to the requested god as possible. Occasionally the corpse given possession of a curse tablet might be part of the curse, but more often burying these metallic records of animosity with the dead was simply a matter of convenience. If a body was to be buried that week, they probably wouldn’t mind dropping off a curse as long as they were headed to the underworld anyway.

Casual cursing?

Curse tablets have found targeting all kinds of people, suggesting they weren’t too difficult to obtain from your local smith. Roman senators, animal doctors, and even tavern owners apparently upset those around them enough to be cursed, although there are, unsurprisingly, no records of anyone’s limbs or butts suffering as a result. For all the trouble the creators of these curses went through, in the end they may have caused less anguish to their targets than a tweet does today.

Source: Curse Tablets from Roman Britain, Centre for the Study of Ancient Documents

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