by Christine L. Johnston
In November of 1922, when Howard Carter and the Earl of Carnarvon opened the tomb of King Tutankhamun, the world was watching (fig. 1). This was—and is still—the only (mostly) un-looted royal tomb discovered in the Valley of the Kings. The wonders that emerged from the tomb of King Tut gave rise to a public obsession with ancient Egypt. Yet these grave goods were not the only cause for fascination—after the tomb was opened, some members of the excavation party suffered terrible accidents while others fell gravely ill. In 1923, Carnarvon himself succumbed to blood poisoning, caused when he nicked a mosquito bite while shaving… not just any mosquito bite, but one he got while excavating Tut’s tomb. In the midst of this newfound fascination with ancient Egypt, the misfortunes of the excavation team led to a fixation on the idea of the “mummy’s curse” (fig. 2).
Although this specific curse may not have been real—Howard Carter actually died back in England 17 years after he opened the tomb—protective curses on tombs did actually exist in Egypt and elsewhere in the ancient world. These curses were often specifically directed at those who disturbed the dead. Some of our earliest curse examples from the ancient Mediterranean are found in the spells known as the “Pyramid Texts”, written in the tombs of Old Kingdom Kings of Egypt (starting around ca. 2300 BCE). Pyramid Text spells were written all over the walls of the interior tomb chambers (fig. 3), and included both protective spells to help the deceased make their way into the afterlife, as well as curses that called on the gods to protect the deceased and their tombs from those who would do them harm. For example, Utterance 23 from the Tomb of Unis asks Osiris, the god of the Egyptian Underworld, and Thoth, god of writing, wisdom, and magic, to punish anyone who speaks ill of him:
“Osiris, acquire for yourself all those who hate Unis and anyone who speaks bad of his name. Thoth, go, acquire him for Osiris: get the one who speaks bad of Unis’s name; put him in your hand…”. (translation Allen and Allen, 2015)
Later protective curses in Egypt go into more detail addressing the many different threats posed to the deceased, like the desecration of their body or tomb, or the theft of burial goods. These curses also lay out the specific harm that the curse should inflicted upon anyone who would threaten the tomb owner or their contents. For example, the New Kingdom statue of Wersu and his wife (ca. 1400 BCE; fig. 4), found at the site of Koptos, includes both an offering for the deceased, as well as the following curse:
“Wersu, he says: ‘As for anyone who will desecrate my corpse in the necropolis, who will remove my statue from my tomb, he will be a hated one of Re, he will not receive water from the water-jar of Osiris, he will not hand over his possessions to his children, ever.’
He says: ‘As for the one who desecrates my place, who will damage my tomb or remove my corpse, the soul of Re will hate him, he will not hand over his possessions to his children, his heart will not rest in life, he will not receive water in the necropolis, his soul will be destroyed forever.’” (translation Colledge, 2015)
Spells cursing thieves—both those who steel from the dead and the living—were also common in the Greco-Roman world. These curse texts generally call on a god to ensure that the cursed person is punished. One example, found at Gloucestershire in the UK and dating to the Roman period (2nd–4th century CE; fig. 5), has a Latin inscription that reads as follows:
“Biccus gives Mercury whatever he has lost (that the thief), whether man or male may not urinate nor defecate nor speak nor sleep nor stay awake nor [have] well-being or health, unless he bring (it) in the temple of Mercury; nor gain consciousness of (it) unless with my intervention.” (translation provided by the British Museum)
Here the inscription asks Mercury (Greek Hermes) to curse the thief to be unable to live comfortably until they return the stolen goods. Like many such spells from this time, the punishments are specific and comprehensive, impacting both physical health and general wellbeing. As you can see from this example, curses were generally inscribed on lead tablets, rolled up, and often pierced with pins. Greco-Roman curse tablets were generally placed in locations with close connections to the power of the underworld, including sanctuaries related to the underworld (or “chthonic” sanctuaries), underground sources of water, and in graves.
In addition to directly cursing others with harm, curse spells could also bind. This was a preventative form of protection; you could bind others to stop them from causing you future harm. One of my favourite examples of this type of protective spell are the “Execration Texts” of ancient Egypt. Common from the Middle Kingdom on (ca. 2000 BCE), though earlier examples exist, these spells were used to bind those who would do harm to Egypt. This usually meant neighbouring states like the Libyans to the West, the Palestinians or Phoenicians to the North, or the Nubians to the south. These texts were generally written on bowls or pieces of pottery, or on clay figurines (fig. 6). The text itself could be as simple as a list of names, or could specify those within foreign groups to bind, such as those plotting or conspiring against Egypt. Once the object was inscribed with the appropriate names, the object was then ritually destroyed. This was a multi-step process in which the object was bound, smashed, stomped on, stabbed, cut, speared, spat on, locked in a box, burned, saturated in urine, and buried (Muhlestein 2008). Given the protective nature of these Egyptian spells, it is no surprise that many were found near cemeteries and by military forts along the borders of Egypt (the fortress at Mirgissa had over 1000 examples).
Curses were not just restricted to protecting against, or punishing others, for crimes like violence or theft. Spells were also used in the ancient Mediterranean for personal gain. For example, a large number of curse tablets have been recovered that record people using magic to try to cheat in athletic competitions, like the ancient Olympic Games. In these contexts, curses were used to try to sabotage competitors. For example, a curse text against runner Alkidamos, found in the Athenian Agora, asked that Alkidamos “be deaf, dumb, mindless, harmless,” and for the god to “not allow (Alkidamos) to get past the starting lines of the Athenaia. And if he does get past, in order that he may veer off course and disgrace himself” (translation Jordan 1985). Cursing was actually such a common form of cheating that athletes were made to swear oaths to Zeus before events to promise that they would not use magic.
Cursing your opponent was not just common in athletic competitions—it also happened in romantic affairs. Curses were used to both increase the affections of a lover, as well as to bind anyone who may get in the lover’s way. One well known example, The Pella Curse Tablet (fig. 7), nicely demonstrates the use of curse texts in romantic competition. In it a young women asks the gods to keep her lover Dionysophon from marrying any other woman—most especially Thetima. She asks the he be kept for her to marry, asking “let me alone grow old by the side of Dionysophon and no one else.” But she doesn’t stop there. She also asks to see her rival “wretched Thetima (perish) miserably,” while “(she) becomes happy and blessed” (translations Voutyras).
Many spells, like those discussed so far, were written down because the act of creating a permanent record of the curse magically added to its ritual power, but curses could also be made verbally. These spoken curses were especially powerful when made by individuals with magical powers, or at charged moments—like the last words spoken on a death bed. The power of such a curse is seen in the famous curse made by Queen Dido of Carthage upon Aeneas, the mythological ancestor of Rome’s founders. Not only was Dido a devotee of Hecate, goddess of magic and spells, but her curse on Aeneas was made as Dido took her own life (fig. 8):
“You, Sun, whose fires scan all works of the earth, and you, Juno, the witness, midwife to my agonies—Hecate greeted by nightly shrieks at city crossroads—and you, you avenging Furies and gods of dying Dido! Hear me, turn your power my way, attend my sorrows I deserve your mercy-hear my prayers! If that curse of the earth must reach his haven, labor on to landfall—if Jove and the Fates command and the boundary stone is fixed, still, let him be plagued in war by a nation proud in arms, torn from his borders, wrenched from Iulus’ embrace, let him grovel for help and watch his people die a shameful death! And then, once he has bowed down to an unjust peace, may he never enjoy his realm and the light he yearns for, never, let him die before his day, unburied on some desolate beach! (Aeneid, Book 4.759–773, translation Fagles)
The story of the curse of Dido is told by Virgil in his great epic, The Aeneid, in order to explain the rivalry that arose between Carthage and Rome. This rivalry led to the very famous Punic Wars of the 3rd and 2nd centuries BCE. Writing 200 years later, Virgil passed over the political and economic causes for the wars, and instead explained the hostility between Rome and Carthage as the result of a broken-hearted sorceress who laid a curse upon the husband who abandoned her.
Curses in the ancient Mediterranean were considered a very real threat to one’s health, happiness, and well-being. The power to harm through verbal or written incantations was believed to be strong. In surviving medical texts, we find descriptions of different maladies thought to be caused by curses. From Mesopotamia we have Babylonian and Assyrian medical records that list pneumonia, indigestion, infection, impotence, and various other ailments as being caused by curses. For example, the symptoms now associated with pneumonia were described and diagnosed as follows:
“If a person is feverish, his stomach is continually nauseous, he guhrhru-coughs (brassy) and his thick sputum is dark, that person is sick with a curse.” (AOAT 43.253, translated by Scurlock and Andersen 2005)
Mental illness could also result from a curse: “If he continually says greetings, he is sick with an illness of curse.” (AOAT 43.253, translated by Scurlock and Andersen 2005). In all of these cases, the illnesses suffered were thought to come from the hands of a god, perhaps one working on behalf of a mortal who had cast a curse. It made the use of protective amulets and spells (like those covered in our last Blog Post) all the more necessary!
So, dear reader, be careful to avoid the curses competitors, spurned lovers, and romantic rivals. For added protection, we recommend that you light a candle, carve a turnip, and keep reading every Friday. Or else …
References and Further Reading
Allen, James P., and Jr Allen. 2015. The Ancient Egyptian Pyramid Texts, Second Edition. Society of Biblical Literature.
Colledge, S.L. 2015. “The Process of Cursing in Ancient Egypt.” Ph.D. diss., University of Liverpool. https://livrepository.liverpool.ac.uk/3000011/1/ColledgeSar_Sep2015.pdf
Fagles, R. 2006. Virgil: The Aeneid. New York: Penguin Publishing.
Gager, J.G. 1992. Curse Tablets and Binding Spells from the Ancient world. Oxford: Oxford University Press.
Jordan, D.R. 1985. “Defixiones from a Well Near the Southwest Corner of the Athenian Agora.” Hesperia 54: 205–255.
Muhlestein, K. 2008. “Execration Ritual.” UCLA Encyclopedia of Egyptology 1(1). https://escholarship.org/uc/item/3f6268zf
Scurlock, J., and B. R. Andersen. 2005. Diagnoses in Assyrian and Babylonian Medicine: Ancient Sources, Translations, and Modern Medical Analyses. Urbana: University of Illinois Press.
Voutyras, E. 1998. Dionysophōntos Gamoi: Marital Life and Magic in Fourth Century Pella. Amsterdam: J.C. Gieben.