Archeologists Find Ancient Greeks Practiced That Old--Very Old--Black Magic

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During the Golden Age of ancient Greece, no one was safe from spells, not even exalted politicians and orators.

Magicians worked in secret and buried hexes with the dead, who they believed would carry them to the underworld. Some curses were for opponents in lawsuits. Others sought to hex a political figure. Still others meant to bring harm to enemies.

“I bind to the earth,” begin some of the inscriptions on the 55 katares, or curses, found during nearly nine decades of excavations at the Kerameikos cemetery, near the ancient marketplace where politicians made public addresses.


Specialists are now restoring and studying the katares for a planned book that explores how rites of black magic--although outlawed in ancient Greece--played a fundamental role in a society that also prized logic and the intellect. The book will mark the first comprehensive volume on the katares of ancient Athens.

“These practices were indeed carried out. . . . They shed light on the political and cultural history,” said Jutta Stroszeck, head of the German Archeological Institute of Greece, which leads the cemetery digs.

The katares found were inscriptions etched into lead, sometimes found with figurines. They were often buried in the graves of youths because it was believed a premature death would get the spell to the underworld gods faster, archeologists said.

Although katares have been discovered throughout the Mediterranean, the Athens collection tells of the life of a society at its zenith: the Age of Pericles about 2,500 years ago, when the Parthenon was built.

The objects also give fascinating examples of the direct connection between ancient superstitions and daily life.

“Katares were the appropriate medium to destroy political opponents,” said Felice Costabile, an expert in ancient inscriptions at the University Magna Graecia in Catanzaro, Italy.


The ancient magicians--outlaws to the Athenian authorities--apparently performed a secret ritual to prepare the katares.

But it is uncertain what exactly transpired, experts say. It could be that the magicians were responsible for finding the lead, writing out the curses and finding tombs of young people who had recently died. Katares were also dropped in wells, another avenue to the underworld.

“You made the spell in the very moment that you wanted to weaken another person . . . to impede, to make immobile, to bind somebody,” Stroszeck said. “It is clearly an expression of hate.”

Some katares meant to curse a warrior were accompanied by small bent swords. Others were male figurines with hands tied behind their backs, pronounced genital organs, birdlike heads and numerous inscriptions.

A different type of katara was shaped in the form of a bracelet and placed in the hands of the dead, perhaps to be carried to the underworld or improve the potency of the hex, Stroszeck said.

Etched into one katara are the names of Lykourgos, an Athenian politician who participated in managing the city’s finances and building program and who lived from 390 to 324 BC. The name of Hyperides, an orator who lived at about the same time and who led the city to battle with the Macedonians in the Lamian War in 323 BC, was found on another.


One of the most important finds is a lead plate with three curses inscribed on it. They are written together, as if in a book of three columns, and show how ancient texts were composed 2,400 years ago on papyrus, Costabile said.

“It did not have any relation to the official religion as it was then,” said Stroszeck, referring to the ancient belief in the 12 Olympian gods led by Zeus.