Apotropaia and Phylakteria

Conference Paper

Archaeological evidence: 3d. Apotropaic qualities of objects: Inscribed and other form of evidence
Friday 2021-06-25
17:25 | 19:25
Place: Swedish Institute at Athens & Zoom

Curse tablets as an “everyday” ancient means of confronting evil

Charlotte Spence, 2021-06-25, Time: 17:25 - 17:45


In this paper I would like to present curse tablets as an extremely rich source of evidence for looking at ‘confronting evil’ in ancient Greece. Following the tradition of Plato curse tablets or katadesmoi are often viewed as being evil themselves. He talks of mendicant priests who ‘peddle’ ritual purifications and curse tablets (Rep. 2.364b-c). One could follow this line of thinking and view curse tablets as an evil which had to be confronted through amulets or counter-spells. A tablet dating to the very early fourth century BCE discovered in Attika nicely exemplifies this: “If anyone has cursed me in the presence of Hermēs the Erionos... I curse in turn all my enemies.”

Although there is a well attested use of curse tablets as counter-spells, I would argue that the majority of tablets we have are actively trying to confront and influence evil in their everyday lives. I would say that they are evidence of individuals responding to mortal evil. Sometimes they make use of ‘otherworldly’ evil and power through the invoking of the ‘restless dead’ or daimones at other times the gods. A tablet from Arkesine on Amorgos almost pleads with the goddess for help regarding the actions of an evil neighbour (the dating for this tablet ranges from second century CE and first century BCE): “Lady Demeter, I supplicate you because I have suffered injustice: hear me, oh goddess, and pass a just sentence.”

There are tablets which illustrate the risk associated with the creation of curse tablets. An example is DTA 100, a fourth-century BCE tablet from Attika which attempts to ensure not only that the power of the dead is being directed towards the victim of the curse but that the curse creator is protected with the phrase: ‘...preserve the one that struck the lead.’

About the Author(s)

PhD Candidate Classics and Ancient History, University of Exeter, UK


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