Why I Am Writing my Thesis on Curses?

I am currently in the midst of writing my MPhil thesis on curses in Pauline letters. This means, among other things, that I spend a lot of time reading, thinking and writing about curses. And not just the imprecations that are found in the letters of Paul but also Greco-Roman curses that are roughly contemporary with them. So why did I choose this topic? It does not seem to be a particularly optimistic one. There are, indeed, more cheerful things to ponder, but studying curses is fascinating and helpful in many ways.

We do not make much (if any) use of curses in the modern Western world. One does not hear of fans of FC Barcelona casting a binding spell on the Real Madrid football team. When someone’s business is in trouble he rarely, if ever, tries to find the curse tablet prepared by the owner of another company. And although grave-vandalism does happen, it does not occur to us that a dreadful imprecation engraved on a tomb would scare off potential offenders.

It was not so, however, in the ancient world. Pliny the Elder wrote this frequently cited statement in his Natural History: There is indeed nobody who does not fear to be spell-bound by imprecations (Nat. 28.4.19). Curses were widely used and widely feared. They were part of some laws, they protected religious traditions, they were appealed to as a means of achieving justice for the powerless. They were also utilised to gain an advantage in various spheres of life such as love, sport, lawsuit or commerce.

So let us look at some examples that illustrate what I am talking about. In ancient Anatolia (modern-day Turkey) many epitaph inscriptions were concluded with imprecations on anyone who would dare to vandalise the monument or bury someone else in the grave. We find such curses on pagan, Jewish and Christian graves alike. Some of them are quite fascinating. For instance, here is the text from a funerary inscription dated to the 3rd century AD:

(But if anyone will introduce another body,) he will have to reckon with the most high God, and may the sickle of curse (enter) into his house (and leave no one behind).1

Where does the sickle of curse come from? Probably from Zechariah 5:1. In Hebrew the prophet sees a flying ‘scroll,’ but, according to the Greek translation of the Old Testament, he sees a ‘sickle’. The Hebrew words for ‘scroll’ (megilla) and ‘sickle’ (maggal) are similar, and hence this substitution is easily explicable. We can see, that this particular epitaph inscription was almost certainly Jewish and the curse was inscribed to protect the grave.

On another grave on the island Rheneia in the 2nd century B.C. someone placed this inscription:

I call upon and beseech the highest god, Lord of the spirits and of all flesh, against those who by deceit murdered or cast a spell/poisoned miserable Heraklea, untimely dead, causing her to spill her innocent blood in unjust fashion, so that the same happen to those who murdered or cast spell on/poisoned her and also to their children (…)2

Here we have the family of a woman who died prematurely suspecting that her death was not entirely natural. The Greek leaves room for interpretation, and they may have in mind poisoning or casting a lethal spell. But whatever it was, the family resorts to the only means they have to vindicate justice; that is, they curse the murdered – whoever it was – and ask God to put this imprecation into effect. Because of the biblical language this inscription was also probably made by Jews or Samaritans. 

On the lighter side, what shall a woman do when she is afraid that her partner may be flirting with other women? One lady who lived in Attica in the 4th century B.C. knew exactly what to do and inscribed on a small lead tablet the following words:

(I bind?) Aristokudes and the women who will be seen with him. May he not marry any other woman or young maiden.3

I am studying curses because they open a fascinating window into a world that was very much like our world and yet very different from our world at the same time.  On the one hand, ancient people were solving their problems by means that we in the modern West are unlikely to utilise. On the other hand, they were dealing with the very same problems that we have… death of loved ones, jealousy, fear of death and what happens afterwards.

And, bringing this post to Paul, I think we should pay attention when he says If anyone is preaching to you a gospel contrary to the one you received let him be accursed (Ga 1:9 ESV) or If anyone has no love for the Lord, let him be accursed. Our Lord, come! (1 Cor 16:22 ESV). I do not think these are just rhetorical techniques that express how important is the subject matter to Paul. They come from a world where people actually believed in imprecations and took them very seriously.

The cover image is a photograph of a curse tablet that is displayed in the Brisith Museum. It reads: “I curse Tretia Maria and her life and mind and memory and liver and lungs mixed up together, and her words, thoughts and memory; thus may she be unable to speak what things are concealed, nor be able.” The photograph is taken from the Wikimedia Commons. For the description of the object see the website of the British Museum.

  1. Johan H. M. Strubbe, ‘Curses Against Violation of the Grace in Jewish Epitaphs of Asia Minor’, in Studies in Early Jewish Epigraphy (Leiden: Brill, 1994), 111.
  2. John H. Gager, Curse Tablets and Binding Spells from the Ancient World (New York & Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1992), 187.
  3. Gager, Curse Tablets and Binding Spells, 91.

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