Thirty lead tablets engraved with curses have been discovered at the bottom of a 2,500 year old well in ancient Athens. Discovered in the area of Kerameikos, ancient Athens’ main burial ground, the small tablets invoked the gods of the underworld in order to cause harm to others.

These curses were ritual texts, usually scratched on small lead objects. “The person that ordered a curse is never mentioned by name, only the recipient,” observes Dr. Jutta Stroszeck, director of the Kerameikos excavation on behalf of the German Archaeological Institute in Athens.

Before the discovery of the 30 specimens in the well, dozens of curses from the classical period (480-323 B.C.E.) had been found mainly in tombs of dead people who had died in an untimely manner and were therefore thought suitable to carry the spell to the underworld. One had also been found in another well. But there was good reason for the transition of ill-will from graves to wells in ancient Athens. 

Forbidden magic

The well where the curses were found was excavated in 2016 by a team under Stroszeck’s direction while investigating the water supply to a bathhouse about 60 meters beyond the Dipylon – the city-gate on the road to the Academy. It was a public bathhouse, not a private one, that operated from Classical to Hellenistic times,  the fifth to the first centuries B.C.E., and is thought to be the spa referred to by the comic playwright Aristophanes (Knights, 1307-1401). It was also mentioned in a speech by the 4th century B.C.E. Greek rhetorician Isaeus (against Kalydon, fragment 24). 

Model sarcophagus and figurine made of lead, found at the bottom of the Keremeikos well, 5th century B.C.E.
Model sarcophagus and figurine made of lead, found at the bottom of the Keremeikos well, 5th century B.C.E.Dr. Jutta Stroszeck / German Archaeological Institute

Despite more than a century of excavations in Kerameikos, the well had not been excavated before. Previous work in the area had been done by the architect Heinz Johannes and the archaeologist Kurt Gebauer, but was interrupted by World War II. None of the excavators survived the war: Johannes was sent to the Russian front and died there in 1945, and Gebauer died in an airplane crash over Vienna in 1942. Only recently were the excavations at the bathhouse resumed.

Inside the well the archaeologists found a wealth of material, including drinking vessels (skyphoi), wine mixing vessels (krater), clay lamps, cooking pots, special broad-mouthed clay pots used to draw water (kadoi), wooden artifacts including a trinket box, a scraper used by potters, a wooden pulley, part of the drawing mechanism of the well) a number of bronze coins, as well as organic remains such as peach pits. And the curses.

Apparently, there’s a reason the hexes were in the well. According to Cicero (De Legibus II 66), Demetrios of Phaleron, who ruled Athens in 317-307 B.C.E. enacted legislation to govern the management of tombs. He also created a new magistrate’s office to oversee adherence to the law: et huic procurationi certum magistratum praefecerat.

“Black arts” were frowned on in Athens to begin with, and with the new law governing the cemetery, hexes couldn’t just be placed in tombs any more, as had been the habit (35 had been found in the graves of Kerameikos, in previous excavations).

So, ill-wishers by the last years of the fourth century B.C.E. had to find other points of contact with the underworld gods, Stroszeck explains. It seems they came up with the stratagem of covertly tossing their curses into wells.

Curse tablet in the shape of a liver.
Curse tablet in the shape of a liver, KerameikosDr. Jutta Stroszeck / German Arc

Avenue to the underworld

The well is ten meters deep and at its bottom, the archaeologists found a built-in pedimented niche about a meter in height, made of limestone.

It is true that the denizens of Athens would never see it, but it wasn’t for them. It was dedicated to the well’s water nymph.

“Water, and in particular drinking water, was sacred,” Stroszeck says. “In Greek religion, it was protected by nymphs, who could become very mischievous when their water was treated badly.”

To appease these emotionally precarious godlets, offerings such as miniature vessels containing liquids and other gifts were thrown into in the water.

Graves in the classical section of the Kerameikos necropolis
Graves in the classical section of the Kerameikos necropolisDr. Jutta Stroszeck / German Archaeological Institute

Waters in rivers and wells, both protected by nymphs, was believed to provide direct access to the underworld, as Dr. Stroszeck says. The belief was that throwing the curse into a well would activate it.

The 30 new tablets have been documented using reflectance transformation imaging, an digital technique that enables even the smallest inscriptions on lead to be read. The archaeologists hope to ultimately learn the name of the nymph, the nature of the curses and whether the targets of the hexes were any of the famous Athenians living in the city during the late fourth century B.C.E.

The place of the living and the dead

The excavations conducted by the German Archaeological Institute in the Kerameikos since 1913 unearthed about 6,500 burials.

The Kerameikos graves from the Classical period were ornate, marked with stelai, reliefs, sculpted animals, or marble vases. Grave markers in Hellenistic times were much simpler. In any case, this area was characterized by transition: from urban to rural land, and from the city of the living to the realm of the dead.

The pedimented niche at the bottom of the well
The pedimented niche at the bottom of the wellDr. Jutta Stroszeck / German Archaeological Institute

“In such areas, the presence of divine and the supernatural were experienced intensively, which is why cult and mantic (prophetic) activities are dense there,” Stroszeck told Haaretz.

Why would the ancient Athenians place their curses in graves anyway? Because of the superstition that the souls of certain types of dead remained active around the tombs for a while after death, making them suitable bearers of the curses to the netherworld, where hopefully the chthonic gods would do the curser’s bidding.

Inscriptions found at ancient Kourion in Cyprus in the 1930s give precise instructions on how cursing was to be done. A tablet hexing a person very much alive had to be put in the tomb of the fresh corpse of a person who died prematurely – having failed to complete the “normal” life cycle, such as a child or an unmarried person; or a person who died by violence, like murder victims or war casualties, Stroszeck says. As their souls were believed to be “unquiet,” they could carry messages between the underworld and the mortal sphere.

All 35 curse tablets from tombs of the Kerameikos cemetery were situated at the necropolis’ borders, including in the children’s necropolis and in a polyandrion, a communal grave for fallen soldiers.

Final nail in the coffin

There seemed to have been four main types of reasons to curse someone: to win a lawsuit (by cursing the opponent’s tongue and hands, for example); for business purposes, for instance cursing metalsmiths, bankers, prostitutes and pimps; to win athletic contests; and – of course – because of love and hate.

The replica of the Grave Stele of Dexileos, who died fighting Sparta in 394 B.C.E., Kerameikos
The replica of the Grave Stele of Dexileos, who died fighting Sparta in 394 B.C.E., KerameikosGeorge E. Koronaios

The norm was to hire a professional curse writer, who was believed to possess supernatural powers and would know the requisite procedures and spells.

The completed curse tablet was folded up, pierced with an iron nail (defixio), and was sometimes nailed to the wooden coffin of the deceased conveyer.

And then there were the curses that weren’t done in secret. One of Athens’ most infamous sons, the general Alcibiades, was cursed very much in public.

Alcibiades had been a disciple of Socrates and was known for adopting the customs of whatever places he visited. For instance, in Sparta he was renowned for his cold baths and drinking black broth; in Thrace he was reportedly always drunk; and in Athens he became an orator who deliberately pronounced his r’s as l’s, since in this city, it was considered virtuous to lisp.

However, the day after his election as the admiral of an Athenian expeditionary force to Sicily during the Peloponnesian War, it so happened that the citizens of Athens discovered that the stone genitalia of the city’s hermes (rectangular boundary stones featuring a phallus and a head) had been broken off. Rumor spread that Alcibiades and his drunken companions were responsible for the vile deed. When the news reached Alcibiades, he became so afraid that he fled to Sparta and turned traitor. This merited him to be publically cursed in Athens.

Another person with the ill fortune to be publically cursed was Cassandros, one of Alexander the Great’s generals. The tablet cursing him was found inside a well near the Dipylon, the main gate of Athens and the principal point of entry of everyone in the city.

Love 'n' hate: Curse against the newlywed Glykera, by someone jealous of her marriage. Her vulva are mentioned in particular (reading: J. Curbera)
Love ‘n’ hate: Curse against the newlywed Glykera, focusing on her vulva, by someone jealous of her marriage (reading: J. Curbera)Dr. Jutta Stroszeck / German Archaeological Institute

Although the curse tablet was cleverly deposited so that Cassandros would be cursed when he made his first public appearance upon entering Athens, the spell seemed to have had little effect on him. He died a natural death, unlike many of his Macedonian peers, who were mostly either poisoned or killed in battle.

A stroke of bad luck

One has to wonder why a civilization that developed philosophy, science and logic would stoop to black magic. The answer may be very concrete, and may date back to the mid fifth century B.C.E. at the time of the dedication of the Parthenon atop the acropolis, the acme of the ambitious building program on that hill at the initiative of the Athenian statesman Pericles.

The construction of the Parthenon met with a fair amount of opposition. Some felt, not without reason, that it was not right to use the federal (union) treasury for municipal purposes in Athens.

Pericles answered that as long as Athens was fulfilling its defense obligations, it owed no accounting to its allies over its use of the tribute money.

But the criticism did not ebb, and Pericles was attacked both by satirists and in the general assembly. During a famous speech by Thucydides, son Melesias, against Pericles construction program at the Pnyx, the meeting place of the Athenian assembly, Thucydides managed to incite passions of the assembly against his political opponent –but in the middle of his speech his jaw suddenly dropped and he had to leave the platform. Probably he had been struck by stroke, but to the people it looked like Thucydides had been effectively cursed. This incident could explain the sudden increase of curse tablets in the Kerameikos during the 5th century B.C.E.

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