After the tragedy of the misogynist-driven killings in Isla Vista, I felt a little guilty about the lighthearted approach I took in a recent guest post about ancient curses. That’s because, when I reread one of the ancient spells, it suddenly sounded very much like the kind of “curse” the young mass-murdering misogynist might have made.
First, some background. The ancient Greeks and Romans believed that the gods of the underworld and/or unhappy spirits would do their bidding if they appealed to them in specific ways, usually by scratching spells on thin lead tablets and leaving them in certain places, like sacred groves, springs, cemeteries, or temples.
Curses were typically leveled against rival chariot teams, as well as former lovers, legal combatants, thieves, and every conceivable type of individual involved in an inter-personal conflict. The ancients didn’t kid around either—they beseeched the dark gods to have their enemies “hearts and soul” twisted until they “could not breathe”—or their tongues bound, limbs and sinews snapped, and internal organs liquefied from the inside out. For the ancients, when it came to curses, it was go big or go home.
When I first came across the ancient voodoo-like clay figure of a female featured in the previous column, I just assumed—given the violence of it (hands and feet bound, and pierced by thirteen needles) that it was a woman trying to get rid of a female enemy or rival (hmmmm, I should probably try to unpack that assumption too…but that’s a different post).
It was, instead, a violent type of love-curse.After having statuette pierced, the spell-caster wrapped the figurine in a lead curse tablet wherein he beseeched the gods and spirits of the underworld to:
…Not allow her to accept for pleasure the attempt of any man, just that of me…Drag her by the hair and her heart until she no longer stands aloof from me…obedient for all the time of my life, filled with love for me, desiring me, speaking to me the things she has on her mind. (Source: Curse Tablets and Binding Spells from the Ancient World, edited by John Gager, Oxford University Press, page 98.)
“Drag her by the hair?” Um, okay. The choice of words and, especially, the violence perpetrated on the figurine belies its categorization as a “love” spell. This wasn’t love, but a rage fueled lust that came with a demand for total control.
According to one classicist, the majority of spells of this sort were made my men against women (83% have a “male agent and female victim”).
There are other chilling examples of angry “love” bindings. We can only imagine the rage these ancient men must have felt when they discovered the women they “magicked” continued to act with autonomy and not choose them for lovers.
Both the “manifesto” of the Isla Vista killer and the wording from the above “spell” share a sense of violent outrage at not getting their demands met from specific women. However, in the ancient world, women were considered one step above slaves. They had few rights and almost no agency or autonomy. So it shouldn’t be much of a surprise then, that some men perhaps even most men, believed that they had the right to the affections of “lesser” beings who had no rights of free choice.
Yet two-thousand years later we are still dealing with the vestiges of that kind of misogyny.
Only today, we have guns.