When They Put It in Writing, They Were Cursing, Not Cussing

In ancient times, those in the know called on the many spirits of the underworld to make their curses, hexes and spells come true

Scholars are gaining fresh insights into the ancient custom of cursing. Recently archaeologists turned up dozens of defixiones, or curse tablets, that may shed new light on how people throughout the Greco-Roman world relied on written hexes and spells to help them get what they wanted. Previous finds have already documented that cursing was once surprisingly widespread. Written to order by magicians and professional scribes, curses appealed to gods and spirits of the underworld to fix horse races, rig legal proceedings, sabotage wrestlers and handicap business competitors. Cursing was also employed to help the lovesick ensnare the objects of their desire. The practice has not entirely disappeared. Last summer a voodoo priestess was called in to put a hex on drug dealers in a high-crime neighborhood of New Orleans. According to the priestess, crime went down.

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