Quick Reference

A curse expresses a wish that evil may befall a person or persons. Several different types can be distinguished, according to setting, motive, and condition. The most direct curses are maledictions lacking any explicit religious, moral, or legal legitimation. This category is exemplarily represented by the so‐called curse tablets, thin lead sheets inscribed with maledictions intended to influence the actions or welfare of persons. If a motive is mentioned, it is generally inspired by feelings of envy and competition, esp. in the circus and the (amphi)theatre, litigation, love, and commerce. Nearly all these texts are anonymous and lack argumentation or references to deserved punishment of the cursed person(s). If gods are invoked, they belong to the sphere of death, the Underworld, and witchcraft. In later times the magical names of exotic demons and gods abound. Spirits of the dead are also invoked, since the tablets were often buried in graves of the untimely dead. The tablets might be rolled up and transfixed with a needle, and sometimes ‘voodoo dolls’ were added. These tablets first appear in the 6th cent. bc often with simple formulas (‘I bind the names of…’) and develop into elaborate texts in the imperial age. More than 1,500 have been recovered.

Included in the well‐known collections of curse tablets, yet a distinct genre, are prayers for justice or ‘vindictive prayers’. They differ from the binding curses in that the name of the author is often mentioned, the action is justified by a reference to some injustice done by the cursed person (theft, slander), the gods invoked are great gods (e.g. Helios), and they are begged to punish the culprit and rectify the injustice. This variant becomes popular only in the Hellenistic and Roman periods and is found all over the Roman empire, but esp. in Britain.

Both these types of curse are concerned with past and present occurrences. Another type refers to future events. Conditional curses damn the unknown persons who dare to infringe certain laws, prescriptions, treaties. They are prevalent in the public domain and are expressed by the community through its representatives (magistrates, priests). A special subdivison in this category is the conditional self‐curse as contained in oath formulae. Here the person who offends against the oath brings upon himself the curse he has himself pronounced and the wrath of the gods. Similar imprecations, both public and private, are common in funerary inscriptions against those who violate graves.

Subjects: Classical Studies.

Reference entries

See all related reference entries in Oxford Index »