Getty Villa Deciphers Ancient Curse Tablet, Reveals First Century BCE Call for Vengeance

The ancient Greeks and Romans had a surefire way of exacting revenge: etching their dark wishes on tablets and tossing them in a well. Burying them near fresh tombs was also an option (the logic being that these people were close to both the living and the gods of death, thus ensuring optimum message delivery), or perhaps placing them in some subterranean temple, but the goal was always the same — to implore the gods to carry out vengeance.

One of these tablets is currently on loan to the Getty Villa from the Museo Archeologico Regionale of Aidone as part of the “The Sanctuaries of Demeter and Persephone at Morgantina” exhibition on the Sicilian ancient settlement of Morgantina. The rectangle of lead, which dates from around 100 BCE, is scrawled with the words: “Gaia, Hermes, Gods of the Underworld, receive Venusta, slave of Rufus.” The rectangle is bent from when it was once folded to disguise the writing (a common practice, and some went even further and stabbed it all through with a nail), and it may have been covered in herbs or some hair from an animal or the victim of the curse before being tossed.

As Alexandra Sofroniew at the Getty explains, it is one of the 10 tablets found in a chasm at a temple to the Gods of the Underworld in Morgantina and, interestingly, four of these all cursed poor Venusta in practically the same language, impatiently begging the gods to drag her down to hell already. “She, we assume, eventually did join the realm of the dead — though we can’t say whether the curse tablet hastened the process,” Sofroniew writes.

Curse tablets have been discovered throughout the Roman Empire, with stolen goods and missing objects being the major frustrations for which they seek divine retribution. This year, a curse tablet at the Princeton University Art Museum was deciphered as beseeching the gods to bind a rival grocer and “drown and chill” his soul, and two at the Museo Archeologico Civico di Bologna, which actually had drawings of the god they are addressing on them, were unraveled as “Destroy, crush, kill, strangle Porcello and wife Maurilla” against a veterinarian, and “Crush, kill Fistus the senator. […] May Fistus dilute, languish, sink and may all his limbs dissolve …” for a loathed senator.

While the modern equivalent may be muttering diatribes under your breath and raising your fist to the sky, it would make for a great, possibly therapeutic smartphone app to scratch out your frustrations on your screen and then have them disappear into a digital chasm.

Allison Meier

(Image: Curse tablet, via the Getty)