Spells, Potions, and Curses of the Ancient World

Happy Halloween! Today’s post is a slight departure from our regular talk of digital humanities, but still has an epigraphic focus – we’re looking at ancient papyri texts with spells, curses and potions.

Invisibility Spell

P. oxy. LVIII.3931

P. oxy. LVIII.3931

Translation by Richard L Phillips:[1]

ASSESOUO, dim the eyes of every man or woman, when I go forth, until I achieve as many things as I wish, and I say, Choreith, listen to me, (you) who are in charge of the universe, ALKME, master of the sea; (you) who are in charge of the night. 



P.Oxy.LVIII 3931; Papyrology Rooms, Sackler Library, Oxford

The back side of the papyrus seems to have a potion recipe on it, cautiously restored as:

Soak fine….in oil with crocodile dung and a few mature mallows and rub on the face.

Crocodile dung sounds really gross, but weighed against the benefits of invisibility…I might be tempted.


Prophetic Dreams

To see a true dream:

Upon going to sleep say after you have eaten ritually pure food, “Verily by Neith, verily by Neith, if I shall succeed in a certain activity, show me water, if not, fire.” 


Neith, Goddess of War and Hunting, Nurse of Crocodiles, Cow of Heaven, Opener of the Ways.

These two examples basically mean the ancients sat around doing the papyri equivalent of a Buzzfeed quiz;  Which psychic power should you have?[2] Or at least, that they had the same silly desires we do – invisibility and the ability to tell the future. What other frivolous concerns did they decide were worth dabbling in the supernatural?


Spell for the Chariot Race

Spell for the Chariot Race


“…Sarakenos Belehmu Parthaon Didyme Nymphike Pele- Strabos…by the holy names that are attached to you…smite the horses of the Blues, hold them back so that…Parthaon Nymphike Strabos Pele-. I adjure you, spirit of the dead, by (voces magicae). I adjure you […by] Gabriel, Raphael, Michael, Bouel, go off to the (hippodrome?) so that you may cast down, cause to fall, and bind the…Parthaon Didyme Strabos Nymphike Pele-…I adjure you by the God of the Gods…Ousirapis Ousor Mnevis Ous-…of the Lord Ouser-…drag, cause to fall…smite…”[3]

The text of this curse, from 4th Century Beirut,  is missing the end of each line but it is clearly a curse against the horses rather than the charioteer. Chariot races were extremely popular in the Roman world and people got as heated about their faction as any modern sports fan does for their team – check out the Wikipedia entry on the Nika riots,”the most violent riots in the history of Constantinople”; it began in the hippodrome, escalated to the nearby palace and half the city was destroyed.

Curse tablets directed against sporting rivals or specific horse teams like the one above are often found buried in and around the sites of chariot races, but curses were also a popular way to deal with legal troubles, business rivals and thieves.[4]

The commonalities between spells, curses and potions of the ancient world are that they invoke the gods – the more, the better, it seems – there is a ritual formula that anyone can use, no special training necessary, and they tend to borrow foreign words in much the same way that modern tv shows throw out Latin or Sumerian when they want to really impress the viewers. Co-opting foreign words because they sound more magical is just one more thing that hasn’t really changed with time.

Have a happy Halloween, everyone, and if you find any crocodile dung…let me know how that invisibility spell works out for you.

Jack-o'-Lantern 2003-10-31

Jack-o’-Lantern 2003-10-31


[1] R. Phillips, “Blinding as a Means of Becoming Invisible” ICS 35-36 (2010-11) 111-20.

[2] I got Clairvoyance, for the record.

[3] H. Amirav, G. Bevan, D. Colomo

[4] http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Curse_tablet

Further Reading:

Adams, Geoff W (2006), The social and cultural implications of curse tablets [defixiones] in Britain and on the Continent, Studia Humaniora Tartuensia, 7.A.5: 1–15.

Baker, K. (2003), ‘Greco-Roman Curses: Curse Tablets’, History of Magick

Kotansky, Roy, Greek Magical Amulets: the inscribed gold, silver, copper and bronze lamellae (Part I: Published Texts of Known Provenance), Papyrologica Coloniensia 22/1, Opladen: Westdeutscher Verlag, 1994

Ogden, Daniel (1999), “Binding Spells: Curse Tablets and Voodoo Dolls in the Greek and Roman Worlds”, in Ankarloo, Bengt; Clark, Stuart, In Witchcraft and Magic in Europe: Ancient Greece and Rome, Philadelphia: University of Pennsylvania Press, pp. 3–90.

Tomlin, Roger (2005), Curse Tablets of Roman Britain, et al, Oxford, ENG, UK: Oxford University.


About Lisa Tweten

As one of the project mangers, Lisa is the heart of the project. She works with Digital Humanities to photograph the MacGregor squeeze collection.

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