Five lead tablets that cursed tavern keepers some 2,400 years ago have been discovered in a young woman’s grave in Athens, Greece.
Four of the tablets were engraved with curses that invoked the names of “chthonic” (underworld) gods, asking them to target four different husband-and-wife tavern keepers in Athens. The fifth tablet was blank and likely had a spell or incantation recited orally, the words spoken over it.
All five tablets were pierced with an iron nail, folded and deposited in the grave. The grave would have provided the tablets a path to such gods, who would then do the curses’ biddings, according to ancient beliefs.
Dog’s ear curse
One of the curses targeted husband-and-wife tavern keepers named Demetrios and Phanagora. The curse targeting them reads in part (translated from Greek):
“Cast your hate upon Phanagora and Demetrios and their tavern and their property and their possessions. I will bind my enemy Demetrios, and Phanagora, in blood and in ashes, with all the dead…”
“I will bind you in such a bind, Demetrios, as strong as is possible, and I will smite down a kynotos on [your] tongue.”
The word kynotos literally means “dog’s ear,” an ancient gambling term that “was the name for the lowest possible throw of dice,” Jessica Lamont, an instructor at John Hopkins University in Baltimore who recently completed a doctorate in classics, wrote in an article published recently in the journal Zeitschrift für Papyrologie und Epigraphik. The “physical act of hammering a nail into the lead tablet would have ritually echoed this wished-for sentiment,” Lamont wrote.
“By striking Demetrios’ tongue with this condemningly unlucky roll, the curse reveals that local taverns were not just sociable watering holes, but venues ripe for gambling and other unsavory activities in Classical Athens,” Lamont wrote.
A woman’s grave
The grave where the five curse tablets were found was excavated in 2003 by archaeologists with Greece’s Ephorate for Prehistoric and Classical Antiquities. The grave was located northeast of the Piraeus, the port of Athens. Details of the burial have not yet been published, but Lamont said that excavation reports indicate that it contained the cremated remains of a young woman. Lamont has been studying the curse tablets at the Piraeus Museum, where they are now kept.
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