1,700-year-old Curse Discovered in Roman Villa in Jerusalem

Inscription reveals that a woman named Kyrilla sought to put a curse on a man named Iennys by invoking names of six Greek gods in apparent legal dispute.

A 1,700-year-old curse was discovered recently in the ruins of a luxurious Roman villa in Jerusalem’s City of David.

A few months ago, excavators led by Doron Ben-Ami and Yana Tchekhanovets of the Israel Antiquities Authority uncovered a rolled-up lead tablet in the villa and sent it to the authority’s laboratories to be opened. When conservator Lena Kupershmidt gently unrolled the tablet, she found that it contained a Greek inscription.

The text was then sent for analysis and deciphering to Dr. Robert Walter Daniel of the University of Cologne in Germany, since that university runs a joint project with the antiquities authority for conserving and analyzing lead tablets of this type.

The text, Daniel said, revealed that a woman named Kyrilla sought to put a curse on a man named Iennys. To do so, she invoked the names of six gods from a variety of traditions, including the Roman god Pluto, the Greek gods Hermes and Persephone, and the Mesopotamian god Ereshkigal.

“I strike and strike down and nail down the tongue, the eyes, the wrath, the ire, the anger, the procrastination, the opposition of Iennys,” Kyrilla said in one section of the curse. She also asked the gods to ensure that “he in no way oppose, so that he say or perform nothing adverse to Kyrilla … but rather that Iennys, whom the womb bore, be subject to her.”

Kyrilla and Iennys were apparently involved in a legal dispute, the archaeologists said, and Kyrilla hoped to gain the upper hand over her adversary by means of the curse. They said the curse tablet was probably prepared by a professional magician, and the preparations may also have involved something like a voodoo ceremony, in which Kyrilla would have struck an image of Iennys with a hammer and nails.

After getting the curse tablet, Kyrilla had to plant it among Iennys’ possessions or in his house. Thus the room where the tablet was found may have been part of Iennys’ residence.

Such amulets were not uncommon in the Roman world, and several have been found in excavations in Caesarea. In recent years, Kupershmidt has specialized in opening such amulets, and in most, she has found curses.

But not all were aimed at people: Some targeted horses, expressing hope that they would go blind or break a leg. The goal was apparently to help whomever commissioned the amulets to defeat his opponents in the horse races held in Caesarea during the Roman period.

Israel Antiquities Authority