Seeking the defixio’s Near Eastern origins (Defixiones, Part 7)
The first known example of a lead curse tablet (defixio) pleading for justice for a crime done to the supplicant is not from the far-flung provinces of Rome, nor is it from Rome proper, it’s not even Greek, it’s from Carthage (Punic 𐤒𐤓𐤕•𐤇𐤃𐤔𐤕). The text runs thus:¹
Lady Ḥawwat, Goddess, Queen who causes (things) to be poured out! May I, Maṣliḥ, make ʾEmʿaštart melt, and ʿMrt(?) and all which is hers, because she has rejoiced at my expense about the money that I have lost completely(?). (and may I/you cause to melt) every person who rejoices at my expense about the loss of this money, just as the lead is poured out.
Let’s establish the bona fides of the specimen: It is a sheet of lead, inscribed with a prayer in Punic, which was rolled up and deposited into a tomb in a Carthaginian necropolis near the coastal area of Dermech in modern Tunis.
The deity called upon is the “Goddess, Queen” Khawwat¹ (𐤇𐤅𐤕), an epithet of Tanit (𐤕𐤍𐤕), the head of the Phoenician pantheon together with her consort Baʿal (𐤁𐤏𐤋). Although no fire or melting were involved the defixio’s deposition, the rhetoric focuses on “melting” and “pouring out”, presumably referring to a simple method for the creation of a lead sheet—pouring molten lead onto a hard, flat surface, such as a stone—as the analogy for the punishment of wrongdoers.
Overall, it’s quite familiar, with the only slightly odd feature being the supplicant, Matslikh,² has lost money, but rather than seeking justice for the theft, he asks those rejoicing in his loss be punished—an early prayer for deliverance from schadenfreude.
Now to the dating of this object, which is less clear: it is often ascribed to the third century BCE, making it quite early in the context of curse tablets generally. However, first, the necropolis the defixio was excavated from dates to the seventh–sixth century, and second, the dating is based on the idea the Greek tradition had to have preceded it. The data here are admittedly scarce, and their interpretation is uncertain, as Christopher Faraone et al. note:³
[Classical scholar William Sherwood] Fox, on the one hand, suggests [… a] “Semitic” influence on the Greek materials, whereas much of the scholarship on the Carthaginian curse assumes or argues for the reverse, namely, that the Greek tradition of binding spells was being imitated or adapted by the author of the Punic tablet.
It seems clear choosing a date based on the idea this tablet was made in imitation of Greek models is bad science, so I’d definitely lean towards an earlier one. Furthermore, the practice of cursing via a necropolis requires the defixio be placed in the tomb of one untimely dead, and if somehow the knowledge of such a tomb survived for three hundred years, one would imagine a massive trove of defixiones would have been discovered at the spot. Even this assumes deposition of three hundred years of detritus would not have completely effaced the tomb or even the entire complex.
If—as I think should be done—we move the date of the curse tablet toward the active dates of the necropolis, it goes from being the first known plea for justice to perhaps the first known defixio full stop. Of course, we have already seen Egyptian execration texts predating the Greek models, and the ancient Near East (ANE) was generally seen as the source of much of Greece’s wisdom traditions, so why wouldn’t the practice first appear in that same context?
Faraone et al. posit a biblical passage in the Book of Judges is a reference to the practice among the Canaanites in the ninth century, which, if true, would easily predate any known curse tablet.⁴
There was a man in the hill country of Ephraim [אֶפְרָיִם] whose name was Mikha [מִיכָה].
He said to his mother, “The eleven hundred (pieces) of silver that were taken from you, about which you uttered a curse and even spoke it in my hearing—the silver is in my possession; it was I who took it.” And his mother said, “May my son be blessed to Yahweh [יהוה]!”
Then he returned the eleven hundred (pieces) of silver to his mother; and his mother said, “I have indeed consecrated the silver to Yahweh from my hand for my son, to make an idol of cast metal. So now I return it to you.”
So when he had returned the money to his mother, his mother took two hundred (pieces) of silver, and gave it to the smith, who made it into an idol of cast metal; and it was deposited there in the house of Mikha.
Again, although no actual curse tablet is mentioned, the ritual elements sound entirely familiar: in Roman terms, there is a curse and a vow made and when the lost money is recovered, an ex voto offering is made of the promised silver—we’ve just substituted Mercury with Yahweh here. Percentagewise, the amount donated by Mikha’s mother is low, but 200 pieces of silver seems quite a substantial sum, especially given it’s enough to cast into an idol.
It’s also worth noting Judges describes a series of incidents of the unfaithfulness of the people of Israel to their God, Yahweh, with whom they are supposed to have a covenant. This is expressed in several ways in this passage, as both theft and witchcraft (although, I’ll note of the latter, conflictingly) are clearly proscribed by Mosaic Law, as is the making of idols. Indeed, there is a formulaic pro-monarchical criticism repeated throughout the book, just as it is immediately after this tale:⁵
In those days there was no king in Israel; all the people did what was right in their own eyes.
Another related theme in Judges is the conquest of the land of Canaan (Punic 𐤊𐤍𐤏𐤍, Hebrew כְּנָעַן), and the settlement among the local people by the Israelites. The term Canaanite lumps together several settled and nomadic pastoral groups of the southern Levant, but the main coastal group who continued to identify themselves using the endonym in North Africa were the Phoenicians, better known as the Carthaginians. The implication in the book is that by mixing with the Canaanites, the Israelites are coming into contact with and being subverted by the non-Judaic traditions that held sway in the region before their arrival.
If we take the Judges passage as referring to this same set of cursing beliefs, it means we’re effectively winding the clock all the way back to at least the Late Bronze Age Collapse (LBAC) corresponding closely with the beginning of the Greek Dark Age, a time during which the culture was illiterate, ultimately borrowing the Phoenician alphabet some 200 years after its creation to return to writing the Greek language. Why would we not think the defixio was another borrowing by the nascent Greek culture from the wise ANE?
The Phoenicians would also be in much closer contact with the generally acknowledged sources of the mystical tradition that was to flow eventually into the Graeco-Roman world. In particular, Sumerian texts show a feature relevant to what we see later in sympathetic magic in the West: formulae of analogy accompanied by ritual.
All the way back in the Sargonic Period (ca. 2334–2154 BCE) we have incantations such as this one that “applies an analogy of pot-breaking to a daimon”:⁶
May it be smashed to bits like a pot!
There is a clear implication the act of smashing a pot is to be performed as a ritual together with the prayer, and there are many such.
Remaining in the Mesopotamian milieu, another tradition of the same descent is evidenced in numerous texts against witchcraft from the Middle Assyrian Empire (1392–934 BCE). These are quite consistent, typically beginning with a diagnosis, which also includes information about how the initial curse may have been performed:⁷
šumma amēlu kišpī epšūšu lū ṣalm[ūšu
ina m]ê temrū lū ṣalmūšu ana gulgullisic
amēlūti paqd[ū … ] […]
If witchcraft has been performed against a man, (if) either figurin[es of him] have been sunk [in wat]er […] or figurines of him have been thrown into fire, or figurines of him have been bu[ried] in the ground […]
We have seen poppets are part of the Western tradition, and the descriptions here of how they will have been treated match closely with what we know about defixiones as well: sunk into water, as at the springs at Aquae Sulis and Parioli, thrown into fire as at Mainz and Uley or buried in the ground as at various Necropoleis including the one at Dermech.
Another text more poetically describes such a figurine as having been “handed over to Eresh’k’ikal (𒀭𒊩𒆠𒃲, Queen of the Underworld) in dilapidated places,” also referring to burial, but connecting more directly to the idea of a tomb. Significantly, this goddess would later be syncretized with the Greek goddess of witchcraft, Hekate (Ἑκάτη). Other places of deposition are also given, the most colorful being in “the sewage opening of the city-wall”.
Next, instructions are given, with their purpose being:⁸
kišpīša ruḫêša saḫārim-ma ṣabātīša kaššāpi
that her witchcraft (and) her sorcery turn (back)—be it warlock or witch, [who bewitched him]—and seize her, to bind warlock and [witch]
Note those terms of seizing and binding, so closely intertwined with curse magic in the West, as well as the remarkable similarity to the common formula in Roman prayers for justice that targets a victim, “whether man or woman.”
The undoing of the curse is then described—essentially exchanging figurines of the cursed person with those who have cursed them. A final remarkable element in this tradition is the piercing of figurines:⁹
TA.ÀM ṣilli gišimmari tutakkapšunūte
You pierce them three times each with the thorn of a date palm.
It seems date palm thorns would eventually come to be replaced by iron nails, partly because of availability, and partly because of the Iron Age. Moreover, just as coins were to become a substitute for defixiones, defixiones themselves seem to have actually been substitute figurines. Just as there was a transition between curse tablets and coins placed in lamps in the shrine of Anna Perenna, in that same shrine there were poppets placed within inscribed lead containers, which I’d guess belonged to an earlier tradition that was also simplified over time.
In light of all of this information, locating the source of the defixio tradition in Greece seems increasingly doubtful. Not only were its days as the powerhouse of the Mediterranean still centuries in the future, the ANE was steeped in millennia-old mysticism that would have been pretty compelling to an impressionable young culture.
Read subsequent articles in the Defixiones series
Part 8: Hellenism Schmellenism
Read previous articles in the Defixiones series
Part 1: The Curses of Aquae Sulis
Part 4: Bargaining with the Gods
Part 6: More Than Money Can Buy
- KAI 89, transliteration and translation from C. A. Faraone, B. Garnand and C. López‐Ruiz, “Micah’s Mother (Judg. 17:1–4) and a Curse from Carthage (KAI 89): Canaanite Precedents for Greek and Latin Curses against Thieves?”, Journal of Near Eastern Studies, 2005. Punic is read from right to left, as is the case with many Semitic languages.
- The phonetic value ⟨ḥ⟩ is a “hard H” (/ħ/) often rendered, as I have here, as ⟨kh⟩.
- Faraone, et al, 2005.
- Ibid; the passage referred to is Judg. 17:1–6.
- Judg. 21:25, NLT, 1996.
- Graham Cunningham, Deliver Me from Evil: Mesopotamian Incantations, 2500–1500 BC, 1997. I’ve used my own transliteration and translation.
- Tzvi Abusch and Daniel Schwemer, Corpus of Mesopotamian Anti-Witchcraft Rituals, 2016.