Museo Archeologico Civico di Bologna
Two ancient curses dating back 1,600 years depict a deity with snakes coming out of its head. This deity may be none other than the goddess Hekate, the Queen of the Crossroads. Invocations in the curses resemble those used for her.
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updated 5/22/2012 11:44:13 AM ET 2012-05-22T15:44:13

At a time when black magic was relatively common, two curses involving snakes were cast, one targeting a senator and the other an animal doctor, says a Spanish researcher who has just deciphered the 1,600-year-old curses.

Both curses feature a depiction of a deity, possibly the Greek goddess Hekate, with serpents coming out of her hair, possibly meant to strike at the victims. Both curses contain Greek invocations similar to examples known to call upon Hekate.

Museo Archeologico Civico di Bologna
This tablet contains a curse directed at a Roman senator named Fistus, possibly the only known case of a curse targeting a senator. An eight-point star covers the deity's genitals and snakes project out of its head. The curse is written in Latin with Greek invocations.

The two curses, mainly written in Latin and inscribed on thin lead tablets, would have been created by two different people late in the life of the Roman Empire. Both tablets were rediscovered in 2009 at the Museo Archeologico Civico di Bologna in Italy, and were originally acquired by the museum during the late 19th century. Although scholars aren't sure where the tablets originated, after examining and deciphering the curses, they know who victims of the curses were.

Kill the pig
One of the curses targets a Roman senator named Fistus and appears to be the only known example of a cursed senator. The other curse targets a veterinarian named Porcello. Ironically, Porcello is the Latin word for pig.

Celia Sanchez Natalias, a doctoral student at the University of Zaragoza, explained that Porcello was probably his real name. "In the world of curse tablets, one of the things that you have to do is to try to identify your victim in a very, very exact way."

Sanchez Natalias added that it isn't certain who cursed Porcello or why. It could be for either personal or professional reasons. "Maybe this person was someone that (had) a horse or an animal killed by Porcello's medicine," said Sanchez Natalias.

"Destroy, crush, kill, strangle Porcello and wife Maurilla. Their soul, heart, buttocks, liver ..." part of it reads. The iconography on the tablet actually shows a mummified Porcello, his arms crossed (as is the deity) and his name written on both of his arms. [See images of the curse tablets]

The fact that both the deity and Porcello have their arms crossed is important. Sanchez Natalias believes that the spell forced the deity, and thus Porcello, to become bound. "This comparison may be understood in two ways: either 'just as the deity is bound, so will Porcello be' or else 'until Porcello is bound the deity will stay bound,'" she writes in a recent edition of the journal Zeitschrift fur Papyrologie und Epigraphik.

May his limbs dissolve
The case of Fistus, a Roman senator, is also remarkable. The senate in ancient Rome was a place of great wealth and, earlier in Roman history, was a place of considerable power.

By the time this curse was written toward the end of the Roman Empire, the influence of the senate had diminished in favor of the emperor, the army and the imperial bureaucracy.

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Fistus would still have been a person of some wealth, however, and whoever wrote the curse had it in for him. The Latin expression for "crush" is used at least four times in the curse. "Crush, kill Fistus the senator," part of the curse reads, "May Fistus dilute, languish, sink and may all his limbs dissolve ..."

Again, Sanchez Natalias isn't sure of the motives behind the curse; but whatever they were, even by the standard of modern-day political attack ads, this was a nasty senatorial blow.

Sanchez Natalias' translation and study of the senator curse is detailed in two recent articles published in the German journal Zeitschrift fur Papyrologie und Epigraphik.

© 2012 LiveScience.com. All rights reserved.

Explainer: 7 ghoulish archaeological discoveries

  • University of Bradford

    Remember the haunted house in grade school where your hand was guided into a bowlful of "brains"? Those skinned grapes have nothing on what happened to Rachel Cubitt of the York Archaeological Trust in England. As she was cleaning a 2,000-year-old skull unearthed during a campus expansion project into a prehistoric farm, she "felt something move inside the cranium. Peering through the base of the skull, she spotted an unusual yellow substance," read a press release announcing the discovery of the oldest surviving human brain in Britain. The skull was found alone in a muddy pit. Researchers believe it may have been a ritual offering. In this image, Cubitt is using an endoscope to examine the remains. Click the "Next" arrow above to learn about six more ghoulish archaeological discoveries.

  • Bricks thwarted vampires

    Matteo Borrini  /  AP

    A wooden stake in the heart is one well-known way to thwart a vampire, but the method was insufficient in the 16th century. Back then, a sure-fire vampire slaying entailed putting a stone or brick in the suspected vampire's mouth so that it would starve to death. The remains of the 60-year-old woman found in a mass grave near Venice, shown here, was one of those purported vampires, according to Matteo Borrini, a forensic archaeologist and anthropologist at Florence University. At the time, plague ravaged the region. People were buried in mass graves that were often reopened to add new bodies. When they did, bloated bodies with blood spilling from their mouths and holes in their head shrouds were often revealed. These corpses were thought to be vampires.

  • Ball and chain tied to gruesome tale

    Museum of London

    A 17th century iron ball and chain pulled from thick, black mud on the banks of the River Thames in London may have a gruesome tale to tell, according to scientists. The 18-pound shackles were found with the lock fastened and no key, suggesting the prisoner either slipped out of custody or drowned while attempting to escape. Kate Sumnall, an archaeologist with the Museum of London, shown here, told reporters the iron is of high quality and was unlikely discarded on purpose.

  • Unearthed Greek vessels contain human remains

    AP

    Human remains found in one of two large, silver vessels in the heart of Aigai, the ancient capital of Macedonia, have thickened a murder-mystery plot. The unidentified remains, thought to date to the end of the 4th century B.C., were unearthed a few steps away from what some archaeologists speculate are the bones of Alexander the Great's murdered teenage son. What's odd is both burials are outside nearby cemeteries, suggesting either a form of punishment or an illegal act, archaeologists told the Associated Press. "Either way, it was an exceptional event," archaeologist Stella Drougou of Aristotle University, told the news service. "And we know the history of the Macedonian kings is full of acts of revenge and violent succession."

  • Urine-filled 'witch bottle'

    For those afraid a witch may have cast a spell upon them, follow this recipe: pee in a bottle, toss in some fingernail clippings, strands of hair, iron nails, brass pins and a heart-shaped piece of leather pierced with a bent nail and then bury it upside down. If all goes well, the trick will cast the spell back on the witch, perhaps killing her — or so goes a 17th century witchcraft belief. Such a bottle was discovered in Greenwich, England, and dates to a time when witchcraft beliefs were more common, according to British Archaeology magazine.

  • Bog body preserves tale of violent death

    Trustees of the British Museum

    Someone in the first century had it out for Lindow Man, a 25-year-old found face down in a northwest England moss bog. Examination of the well-preserved body shows that the otherwise healthy gentleman suffered two blows to the head and a swift knee to the back. A cord tied around his neck was likely used to strangle him and break his neck. Then, just to make sure he was dead, his throat was slit. The sequence of events, some scientists suggest, is consistent with a ritualistic killing, perhaps a human sacrifice carried out by Druids.

  • Gory sacrifice found at Teotihuacan

    Henry Romero / Reuters

    In 2004, a grisly scene was unearthed outside of modern-day Mexico City. Decapitated bodies were found tossed to the side of a burial tomb, their hands tied behind their backs. The discovery suggests the little-known culture that built the giant Pyramid of the Moon at Teotihuacan held bloody, sacrificial rituals. Two other bodies decorated with beads and greenstones, as well as animals and other offerings, were also found in the tomb. "Whether the victims and animals were killed at the site or a nearby place, the foundation ritual must have been one of the most terrifying acts recorded archaeologically in Mesoamerica," archaeologist Saburo Sugiyama of Aichi Prefectural University in Japan said in a statement announcing the discovery.

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