Cursing Your Neighbor and Corinthian Magic

A Roman curse tablet.

A Roman curse tablet. Note the nail holes where it was formerly pierced.

How do you negotiate strife in your social network? Even the most reclusive among us encounter it. Friends disappoint us, rivals butt into our business, and we are left with the unenviable task to mediate our sometimes volatile social interactions.

Among the many strategies in our repertoire—confrontation, gossip, compromise, forgiveness—I doubt any of us resorts to hexing our neighbors. As odd as this sounds to us in the 21st century, ancient Greeks and Romans often employed curse tablets as a means to exert control over their social lives. Curse tablets—or defixiones as they are called in Latin—generally were thin sheets of lead inscribed with magic words or spells to harness ritual power. After writing the spell, the users would fold the sheet and pierce them with a nail as a way to “activate” or “fix” the curse.

In 2013, Ron Stroud, one of the head excavators at Corinth, published 10 curse tablets discovered in the Sanctuary of Demeter and Kore…a small temple complex on the slopes of Corinth’s acropolis (Acrocorinth). Perhaps the most striking feature about these ten tablets is that three of them appear to target the same victim—a woman named Karpime Babbia. Apparently Babbia had a rival in the city of Corinth who frequented the Sanctuary of Demeter to unleash divine punishment upon her.

These three tablets call on chthonic deities like Hermes and Gaia to “exact justice” and “punish Babbia’s acts of insolence.” The rhetoric is laden with references to fertility and menstruation, implying that the spell’s author was female and envied or resented Babbia’s offspring.

Besides a curiosity from antiquity, though, how can these artifacts illuminate the social history of ancient Corinth? At a basic level, they illustrate the role magic played in ancient societies. Although it is tempting to conceptualize this practice as a deviant ritual operating outside of the official temple religion, the priestesses of Demeter likely aided in the spells’ deposition to service a prominent need in society. Therefore, the Sanctuary of Demeter was a catchment area where the public “civic” religion intersected with the private religious expressions of the populace.

Like our own social networks, relationships in antiquity were fraught with uncertainty. Human agency opens the possibility for heartbreak, envy, or anxiety. Individuals employed rituals such as curse tablets to mitigate and compartmentalize this uncertainty. Although magic strikes us as an odd way for regaining a semblance of control, it was a readily available strategy in antiquity that melded agency with the prevailing religious idioms of the time. Asserting that curses can’t possibly “work” (whether misfortune really did befall Babbia in the coming weeks as a result of the curse) misses the more important question of how this ritual changed the texture of her relationship with her rival. Perhaps inscribing the curse was a cathartic experience? Perhaps the hexer acted differently toward Babbia knowing that a curse was deployed?

Artifacts like these draw us close to the daily lives of the ancient Corinthians. Rather than reading the rarefied thoughts of a single, literate author like Paul or Pausanias, we see direct evidence of the fears and anxieties that impelled an individual’s specific actions. Despite the exotic nature of these rituals, the anxiety and need for control that they evince remains as relevant today as it did 2000 years ago.

 Further Reading:

Stroud, Ronald. The Sanctuary of Demeter and Kore: The Inscriptions, (Athens: ASCSA, 2013).

Andrew Henry is a PhD student in early Christianity at Boston University. His research focuses on the popular and domestic religion of the eastern Mediterranean, particularly the magico-religious rituals deployed to harness and direct ritual power.

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