Something I often hear about the ancient Hellenic religion, and prescribed about its modern equivalent, is that there was no magick in ancient Hellas. This is true. It's also a lie. It all depends on your definition of magick, and while I want to spend another blog post on that subject at a later date, let me say for now that for the purpose of this post, we are going to see magick as a form of prayer and ritual, conducted outside of the usual ritual steps. The Theoi were always invoked, but for magick, the sacrifices were usually to the khthonic, or Underworld Gods. When reading this post about a very specific subset of this type of magick, try to disassociate it with the modern use of the word: the same goes for 'spells', 'cursing', and 'binding'. That having been said: this post is about katadesmoi (κατάδεσμοi); cursing tablets, or binding tablets.

The ancient Hellenes were a competitive people, and struggled with many of the issues we do today: the urge to perform well, the desire for justice to be served, and a need for love. Prayers for these things were made often, usually in their normal ritualized form at the house altar. If these requests were made against, or at the expense of another person, however, they were generally taken out of the realm of regular worship and kharis, and into the realm of the khthonic. The preferred form were katadesmoi.

Katadesmoi are relatively small tablets, inscribed with a desire asked of the Theoi to fulfill. The Katadesmoi that have survived were generally made out of very thin sheets of lead, which were then rolled, folded or pierced with nails. Wax, papyrus, stone, precious metals, and precious minerals would also have been used as a medium. Some katadesmoi were accompanied by a small doll representing the intended victim or even a lock of their hair, especially in the case of love spells. In general, the katadesmoi always included the name of the intended victim and the name(s) of the appropriated Gods--most often Hades, Kharon, Hekate, and Persephone. Exceptions have been found, of course.

There have been around 1600 katadesmoi found around the whole of Hellas, and the practice was wide-spread. In fact, for the Olympic Games, competitors had to vow to Olympian Zeus that they would not cheat, and curse their opponents. Divine retribution would befall those competitors who did. A large percentage of the katadesmoi found contained love spells ("I want [name] to love me beyond all others"), or legal desires ("May [name] stumble on his words in defense of himself"), but many other ill wishes have been found.

Katadesmoi were usually deposited where they would be closest to the Underworld: in chasms, pools of water, wells, caves, temples to the deity in question, buried underground, or placed in graves. The latter was usually a special form, however, and the katadesmoi placed with the dead were usually requests to avenge the death of the deceased.

In general, katadesmoi were used out of desperation: regular channels had been exhausted, human courts would never convict the perpetrator of a crime, or the murderer could no be found. Pleading with the Gods--who knew more, saw more, ad had a much farther reach--was considered the only alternative to get justice. This was even the case in many love spells. Katadesmoi were not made willy-nilly: there needed to be a strong incentive to make one.

One other such incentive was the fear that a katadesmos curse had been placed upon you. In this case, the subject of the curse could make their own, and ask that the perpetrator of the katadesmos may suffer for it, and that his or her katadesmos may have no effect at all, except maybe to backfire on them. In this case, the katadesmos acts as a binding curse.

We will revisit katadesmoi in the grander scheme of political and social structures at a later date, but for now it is important to realize that the practice was frowned on by many philosophers (most notably Plato), but that the act was not considered 'evil'. It was a form of protection, and a vessel for justice. It was regarded as such.

Personally, I see no need for katadesmoi, and have struggled against these urges in times of need. I see their appeal, but my modern frame of mind would not do them justice, I think, and therein lies lots of potential for trouble. I wouldn't encourage anyone to use katadesmoi, but would understand if they did in times of need. Still, I would rather place my trust in the Theoi, regardless of curses or bindings.