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2400-Year-Old Curse Tablets are the Tweets of Ancient Greeks

I will bind my enemy Demetrios, and Phanagora, in blood and in ashes, with all the dead. Nor will the next four-year cycle release you.

Take that, Demetrios and Phanagora. Those curses, and many more, were found written on 2400-year-old lead tablets buried with the ashes of a young woman in a grave in Piraeus, Greece. Are these so-called ‘curse tablets’ the equivalent of ancient Greek tweets? Was Demetrios running for office? Was Phanagora covering the walls of Piraeus with nude paintings of herself?

Curse tablets were a common way for ancient Greeks and Roman to ask the gods, evil spirits or ghosts of the deceased to cast spells or do bad things to other people. They were written in elegant prose by a professional curse writer (“Cosmo’s Curses – You Hate ‘Em, We Negate ‘Em”) on extremely thin sheets of lead that were then rolled, folded or stapled with nails and buried underground, often in graves so the deceased could deliver the curse to the proper underworld authorities.

One of the lead sheets containing an ancient Greek curse

One of the lead sheets containing an ancient Greek curse

While these curse tablets sound like ancient tweets, they were more like legal documents used to settle differences. That seems to be the case with the curse tablets found in Piraeus, according to Jessica Lamont, an instructor at John Hopkins University in Baltimore and author of an article about them published recently in the journal Zeitschrift für Papyrologie und Epigraphik.

Hekate Chthonia, Artemis Chthonia, Hermes Chthonios cast your hate upon Phanagora and Demetrios, and their tavern and their property and their possessions. I will bind you in such a bind, Demetrios, as strong as is possible, and I will smite down a kynotos on [your] tongue.

Lamont says the curses laid on tavern owners Demetrios and Phanagora indicated one or more serious grievances. Hermes was a notorious curse enforcer and the curses were written on not one but four tablets. Kynotos means “dog’s ear,” a reference to the gambling that went on in the taverns which wished upon the cursed the lowest throw of the dice. Even worse, the fifth tablet was blank, indicating that curse was so bad it could only be spoken. Lamont believes the curse buyers were also tavern keepers whose business was probably doing poorly and the owners were blaming the competition from Demetrios and Phanagora.

Hermes

Hermes

Did the curse tablets work? Unfortunately, there’s no follow-up tablets reporting on whether Demetrios and Phanagora accidentally drowned in a vat of Greek wine or if the response to the curses brought down the underworld’s communications system.

It’s probably a good thing we don’t know if the curse tablets were effective because the current political campaigns already have too many curse tweets.

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Paul Seaburn is the editor at Mysterious Universe and its most prolific writer. He’s written for TV shows such as "The Tonight Show", "Politically Incorrect" and an award-winning children’s program. He's been published in “The New York Times" and "Huffington Post” and has co-authored numerous collections of trivia, puzzles and humor. His “What in the World!” podcast is a fun look at the latest weird and paranormal news, strange sports stories and odd trivia. Paul likes to add a bit of humor to each MU post he crafts. After all, the mysterious doesn't always have to be serious.
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