Four tablets inscribed with curses call upon deities of the underworld to 'cast hate' upon the owners of four taverns, and bind them in blood and ashes with the dead. These narratives date back to the early fourth century BC and researchers say they divulge a great deal about the social and ritualistic practices of the ancient society. This reports the Archaeological News Network.

In a recent paper published in 'Zeitschrift für Papyrologie und Epigraphik', Jessica Lamont of Johns Hopkins University describes the elaborate ritual unearthed in a classical grave northeast of Piraeus, Greece. Of the five lead tablets first discovered in 2003, four were inscribed with text, each targeting husband-wife tavern owners with a similar curse. The tablets were each pierced with an iron nail and folded, and placed in a grave which contained the cremated remains of a young woman. Burial pyres contained libations and other offerings for the gods, so the cemetery was an optimal location for 'supernatural exploitation.' In the paper, Lamont describes the narrative of one tablet, which reads:

"Hekate Chthonia, Artemis Chthonia, Hermes Chthonios cast your hate upon Phanagora and Demetrios, and their tavern and their property and their possessions. I will bind my enemy Demetrios, and Phanagora, in blood and in ashes, with all the dead. Nor will the next four-year cycle release you. I will bind you in such a bind, Demetrios, as strong as is possible, and I will smite down a kynotos on [your] tongue."

Hermes is commonly called upon in curses, the researcher explains, and the goddess Hekate was dangerous and liminal. And, though Artemis is largely associated with the protection of women, the curses appeal to the 'destructive side' of this Goddess, 'tied to the realm of the sinister and the threatening.'

Kynotos means 'dog's ear,' Lamont explains, which is likely a reference to gambling, wishing upon the subjects the 'lowest possible throw of dice.' In the three other tablets which each contained a curse as well, Lamont writes that the narratives paralleled the one revealed above, targeting the businesses, properties, and possessions of tavern owners. This particular ritual was no simple feat and was likely an act of desperation, the researcher explains. The structure of the text suggests the curses were carved by an experienced scribe.

 "Commissioning a curse tablet was a drastic measure; commissioning five betrays an even greater investment, and state of desperation, on the part of the curser." the author writes.

Though one of the tablets was included without any inscribed text, the researcher says that this too likely had importance. An associated curse may have been recited rather than written, and each tablet was a 'vehicle in a larger chain of private ritual activity.' While it can't be said for certain that the reason behind the curse can be traced to commercial rivalry, the researcher says the narrative and assemblage indicates this is the most likely reason. The curses may have been deposited by a mourner who was involved in the burial, or the ritual may have taken place as a 'clandestine midnight scenario' by a professional.

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 tablets like these called  'katadesmoi'.

Katadesmoi are relatively small tablets, inscribed with a desire asked of the Theoi to fulfil. 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.

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.