Joshua Cook


(Chris Faraone)



A. Surviving Evidence of binding spells

1. About 1000 Greek examples, not all studied yet.

2. They range in date from 5th century BC to the early Christian era, and spread in this time from Sicily, Olbia and Attica to the entire Greco-Roman world.

3. Classical examples were inscribed on small lead sheets folded and pierced with a nail, then buried with the untimely dead or in chthonic sanctuaries.

4. Later examples were placed in underground bodies of water or buried at significant places.


B. Performance by professional magicians?

1. Literary and archaeological evidence testifies to the existence of professional magicians.

2. However, the low skill level required made employment of professionals unnecessary.


C. Layout of binding spells

1. A few were written formally, with patronymic and demotic, or imitate public monuments.

2. A few seem to be letters written to a chthonic god or nekydaimon.

3. Because similarities to other forms of writing are infrequent, this probably doesn't shed light on the origin of this type of spell.

a. At first they may have been purely verbal, or verbal with an accompanying ritual act.

b. Earliest references to binding spells do not mention writing.

c. Verb of binding most likely spoken some time during the ritual.

d. Spell became more elaborate in later antiquity.


D. Formula types

1. Direct Binding Formula

a. Uses first person singular verb to act directly upon the victim.

b. It was most likely a performative utterance with a ritual act.

c. It often specifies a part of the victim's body as the target.

d. Most common additions are names of deities.

e. Most verbs seem to be legal or technical terms making the gods responsible for carrying out the curse.

f. The simplest written formula is probably shorthand for a longer ritual.

2. Prayer Formula

a. Invokes divinites with a second person imperative, involving the gods more directly in the action.

b. Also accompanied by a distortion of lead tablet or binding of limbs of an effigy.

c. Resembles some Greek prayers to chthonic deities.

d. Formula elaborated by adding more gods or epithets of the gods.

3. Wish Formula was used as the second part of similia similibus formula.

4. Similia Similibus

a. Use of retrograde writing and lead tablets probably had no real significance at first, but as these things passed out of use in other forms of writing, they came to have "persuasively analogical" meaning. This was an attempt to persuade the object of the curse to become like another object in a specific way. It aimed at restraining the victim, not killing him.

Examples: Orchomenos, Syedra, and Thrace

b. Placement of curses in graves and chthonic sanctuaries may originally have been an attempt to communicate with those spirits, but later took on meaning as similia similibus.


A. Most binding spells are too brief to give insight into context, but the few that do can be divided into 4 groups.

1. Commercial curses (25) used by tradesmen and innkeepers to bind businesses, profits or workshops of victims.

2. Curses against athletes and performers (26) perhaps aimed not to gain an unfair advantage, but to even up the odds in an unfair contest. Curses related to the theater are mainly classical and hellenistic, while athletic curses are evidenced throughout.

3. Amatory curses (38) were of two types.

a. Separation curses aimed at creating distance between two would-be lovers.

b. Aphrodisiac curses were not so much binding spells as attractive magic, encouraging rather than inhibiting activity.

4. Judicial curses (67) were written before the final verdict was given, in hopes of a favorable outcome. They aimed at binding performance of orators, perhaps involving broader political concerns. They also involved more than the immediate associates and allies of the litigants.

B. Binding spells often had broader implications, such as damaging aristocratic patrons of certain athletes or groups of fans, or liturgists behind theatrical competitions.



A. Secrecy of the spells

1. Thought by some to indicate shameful activity

2. However, secrecy was necessary as a part of the ritual and to prevent overturning of the spell.

3. Burial spots in chthonic sanctuaries, graves, or underground bodies of water would prevent accidental discovery by others.

4. Secrecy may also have been motivated by social rank, when the defigens (spell-caster) aimed at a person of higher rank than himself. Examples of this from literature are those of Chryses, Pelops and Orestes. Secrecy is due to "tactical, not ethical, concerns" (p.18).

B. Psychological attitude of defigens hard to assess until later, more elaborate texts.

1. All binding spells were really prayers to chthonic deities.

2. The intent, benevolent or malevolent, is not so important in defining binding spells as the correct ritual approach.

C. Distinction between magical and religious binding spells

1. All of them make some recourse to the gods, so Jevens's definition of a magical act as one that operated without the help of the gods must be rejected.

2. The different formulae used are seemingly interchangeable and random.

3. The distinction between magic and religion is not helpful in analyzing binding spells. They were simply a special type of ritual used perhaps in a defensive stance to level the playing field in a contest.


Return to Main Page: CLST 4003H. Greek Religion Honors Colloquium. Spring, 2002.