This fragment of an iron "curse tablet" was written by a magician 1,700 years ago in Jerusalem, for a wealthy Roman woman named Kyrilla. Calling upon the gods, the magician writes in this section: "Come to me, you who are in the earth, chthonic daemon, you who rule and bind…"
This discovery is part of an excavation in Jerusalem, which has revealed an ancient mansion in a wealthy Roman neighborhood that was thriving 1700 years ago. Kyrilla probably paid a magician to unleash the curse because she wanted to win a legal dispute with a man called Iennys. Because Roman-occupied city was so cosmopolitan, Kyrilla's curse tablet invoked six different gods from a range of religions — just to make sure it got the job done. Archaeologists found other signs of witchcraft in Kyrilla's house, too, including symbolic figurines of women.
Here's the full view of the curse tablet, and below you can see the outlines of the letters. The tablet is written in Greek, which would have been a common language for upper-class people living in Jerusalem at the time this was written.
The tablet reads, in part:
I strike and strike down and nail down the tongue, the eyes, the wrath, the ire, the anger, the procrastination, the opposition of Iennys, [so that he] say or perform nothing adverse to Kyrilla … but rather that Iennys, whom the womb bore, be subject to her…
To obtain her goal Kyrilla combined elements from four religions, Robert Walter Daniel, of the Institut für Altertumskunde at the University of Cologne, told LiveScience in an email. Of six gods invoked, four of them are Greek (Hermes,Persephone, Pluto and Hecate), one is Babylonian (Ereschigal) and one, Abrasax, is Gnostic, a religion connected to early Christianity. Additionally, the text contains magic words such as "Iaoth" that have a Hebrew/Judaism origin.
A professional magician likely created the curse for Kyrilla, who may have literally used a hammer and nails to perform a magical rite that enhanced the effectiveness of the curse, Daniel said.
It's fascinating to think about how this document is a perfect blend of cultures, as well as a blend of the modern legal state apparatus and ancient rituals of superstition. At the time, it would have seemed perfectly reasonable to invoke curses to influence the justice system. Our modern equivalent today might be when people to try to drum up media attention for their legal cases, and sway public opinion.
Find out more about the life of the woman who cast this curse, and see more pictures, over at Live Science.