In A Nutshell
A rolled lead tablet discovered in the City of David is one of the oldest recorded curses ever found. Calling on six gods from three different religions to curse one party in an active legal case, the tablet pre-dates two others by only about 100 years. The other two, left sitting in an Italian museum before being translated, call curses down on a Roman senator and a veterinarian and feature appeals to the gods asking for them to be crushed, killed, and strangled. (And in the case of the senator, the petitioner asked for his limbs to be dissolved.)
The Whole Bushel
Putting a curse on someone wasn’t always just a figure of speech; it could be serious business. In 2013, the Israel Antiquities Authority found out just how serious it was with a 1,700-year-old tablet found in the City of David.
When excavating the Givati Parking Lot, archaeologists discovered a lead curse tablet. Tightly wound into a scroll, its meaning was only discovered after it was painstakingly unrolled. The tablet called on six gods to protect a woman named Kyrilla, who seemed to be ensnared in some sort of lawsuit against someone named Iennys.
The exact details of the case are still unknown, but we know that it must have been pretty intense. The tablet seemed to have covered all the bases, invoking four Greek gods (Hecate, Pluto/Hades, Persephone, and Hermes), one Gnostic god (Abrasax), and one Babylonian god (Ereschigal). Some of the text appeared to contain magical words that were rooted in Hebrew.
The (translated) curse itself reads, in part, “I strike and strike down and nail down the tongue, the eyes, the wrath, the ire, the anger, the procrastination, the opposition of Iennys.” Written in Greek, it also calls on the power of the Earth and a “chthonic daemon” and was most likely chiseled by someone who worked as a professional magician. The magician probably would have performed a series of rites and rituals while making the inscription to make sure the curse worked.
The thin sheet of lead was tightly rolled and was found in the northeastern corner of a building dated to the early Roman era and identified as likely having been built by Rome’s 10th legion.
There’s plenty of speculation about the tablet, and it tells us just enough about whatever was going on in the lives of Kyrilla and Iennys for archaeologists to make some guesses. The building that it was hidden in likely had some sort of major connection to Iennys, perhaps his home or workplace. It’s also possible that the building was where the courthouse was or where the legal dispute that involved the two of them was going to be decided. The building itself was destroyed and abandoned after an earthquake.
The curse tablet is around a century older than the curses that previously held records for being the oldest ever found. These, too, called on Hecate, goddess of necromancy, witchcraft, ghosts, and the night. Often depicted as a companion of Persephone and dweller in Hades, Hecate is often shown carrying two torches and, as on the curse tablets, sometimes has snakes for hair.
In 2009, 1,600-year-old curse tablets were rediscovered in Italy’s Museo Archeologico Civico di Bologna. Although they had been uncovered in the 19th century, it wasn’t until now that they were deciphered and their centuries-old targets identified.
One tablet names the Roman senator Fistus as the target of the curse, while the other names both a veterinarian and his wife. The veterinarian’s curse tablet is pretty graphic stuff, showing a carving of a mummified person, with text that calls for the destruction, crushing, killing, and strangulation of both the vet, Porcello, and his wife, Maurilla. For Fistus, his curse called for him to be crushed as well (and repeatedly) and asked the gods to dissolve his limbs.
While we’re not sure just what these people did to gain the ire of someone who would go as far as hiring a professional to issue a curse on them, it’s a fascinating glimpse into how the gods were invoked and what they were asked to do.