Ancient curses and “voodoo dolls”

Witchcraft was always used to fulfil personal desires, whether good or bad. Models of human figures were mainly made of metal, clay or wax. The symbolic piercing, melting or binding of the body parts were thought effective for achieving every goal. The kolossoi („voodoo dolls”) were usually enclosed inside a lead box bearing binding curses.

An ancient “voodoo doll” from Chalkis, Greece, 3rd century BC and a small “Skyphos” with a curse, 4th century BC as seen at the Archaeological Museum of Chalkis

The skyphos was a two-handled deep wine-cup. The owner of the pot casts a curse on a certain Daiton that ”May all end bad for him”

Curses were usually incised on sheets of lead (in Greek ”katadesmoi” and in Latin ”defixiones”) or on other objects and then folded up and pierced with an iron or bronze nail. This type of cursing was known as the “binding spell” and it was used to summon the underworld (chthonic) deities and the spirits of the departed. For this reason the curse tablets or dolls were placed mainly near cemeteries, in graves or wells.

The Street of Tombs at Kerameikos, the graveyard of ancient Athens

Beside the invocation of the infernal gods like Pluto, Hecate or Charon, the tablets were often addressed to Hermes. Hermes was considered the messenger of the Olympians Gods, a protector of travellers, merchants and thieves. But the role that made him popular among the curse-casters was that of “Psychopompos”, the guide of the souls into the afterlife. So Hermes himself could deliver their grievance to the more potent Gods of Hades or he could guide the souls of the dead to do the job.

 

Hermes the conveyor of the souls of the dead to Hades. As seen at the Archaeological Museum of Chalkis

The tablets or dolls were not always about curses. Many of them were also inscribed with love spells and included pieces of clothing or hair from the head of the target love interest, for better results.

They were also used to help the immortal souls of the departed, usually the ones that died young or from a violent death, as well as to allow them to rest in peace. Nevertheless, those souls were also considered as most potent to get the message through, so the graves of such persons were preferred for the placing of the tablets.

The raised hands, a symbol of invoking either divine revenge or curse upon somebody. The epitaph is addressed to the underworld gods by Asclepiodes in memory of his children, dead at an early age. 1st century AD. As seen at Constanța (ancient Tomis) History and Archaeology Museum, Romania.

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