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Archaeologists Discover Ancient Curse Tablets in Athens Well

curse tablets athens
Part of a curse tablet against Pytheas, ordered by his opponent in an Athenian court. Photo credit: Dr. Jutta Stroszeck – German Archaeological Institute

A major, and a bit spine-tingling, archaeological discovery of a trove of ancient curse tablets was made recently in Athens‘ downtown neighborhood of Kerameikos (Ceramicus) by archaeologists from the German Archaeological Institute of Athens.

A total of thirty well-preserved curse tablets dating back to the Classical period (2,500 years ago) were found in an ancient well which was originally discovered back in 2016, when other everyday objects — but not the tablets — were found.

The ancient tablets have curses engraved on them which Athenian citizens would pay to have made against other people, a practice which was relatively common in ancient Greece.

The rocky, muddy opening to the ancient well in Kerameikos, Athens where the curse tablets were found. Photo credit: Dr. Jutta Stroszeck – German Archaeological Institute

Kerameikos in Athens is full of ancient artifacts

The German Archaeological Institute, which has been conducting continuous research in the broader Kerameikos area since the early 1900s, has discovered more than 6,500 burial sites there, making Kerameikos indisputably the main burial site of ancient Athens.

The curse tablets were found accidentally in 2020, while archaeologists were investigating the supply of water to a 1st century BC bathhouse which was close to the well.

Ancient Greeks were known to use the method of engraving curse tablets and attaching them to wells or tombs in order to curse someone with whom they had serious differences.

curse tablets athens
Love and Hate: This curse tablet was made against a newlywed woman named Glykera. The curse, which focuses on her vagina, was made by someone who envied the woman’s marriage. Photo credit: Dr. Jutta Stroszeck – German Archaeological Institute

Curse tablets and sorcery in ancient Athens

They would place the tablets near tombs because they believed that the souls of the dead would carry these curses to the gods of the underworld.

Sorcery was not an accepted practice in Athens, so this was seen as an alternative for all those who believed in the power of evil, in which they would invoke the gods of the underworld who, in their turn, would make the curse a reality.

Normally, people would curse someone they hated for personal reasons, or perhaps someone who they were fighting in court.

curse tablets athens
Lead objects found at the bottom of the Kerameikos well, dating back to the 5th century BC. Photo credit: Dr. Jutta Stroszeck – German Archaeological Institute

Athletes also tended to engage in this unique practice, apparently in an attempt to bring bad luck upon their opponents.

Even ordinary merchants were known to curse the owners of rival businesses, in an effort to bring good luck to their stores and bad luck to those of the others.

According to archaeologists, Ancient Greek curse tablets never mentioned the name of the one who was placing the curse, but only the name of the man or the woman to whom the curse was directed.

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