Chariot racing goes back thousands of years and so do attempts to fix the race. Today people can hobble horses with high-tech but back then, they relied more on the gods. Now it turns out that not only did ancient Greeks and Romans exhort the deities to ruin their rivals' beasts: Jews were hexing the horses too and betting on their favorites.
The first-ever evidence of Jewish cursing in sports was found in a rolled-up metal tablet that had been located in ancient Antioch by Princeton University researchers in the 1930s – and had been left rolled up until now.
The tablet, about 9x6 centimeters in size, dated to about the 5th or 6th century C.E., according to Rivka Elitzur-Leiman, a doctoral student at Tel Aviv University who aided in deciphering the tablet, with Dr. Margarethe Folmer of Leiden University; the study is part of a broad project called "Magica Levantina" under Dr. Robert Daniel of the Institute für Altertumskunde.
Upon unrolling it over 1,500 years later, today's scientists were astonished to find that it wasn't written in Greek, as one would expect from Antioch, but in Aramaic, Elitzur-Leiman told Haaretz.
The early Christians of Antioch would also have spoken Aramaic. But the dialect used in the curse and the form of writing were typical of the Jewish community, not the Christians, she says.
In fact, the antique scroll was taken down from its wall at Princeton and unrolled a year or two ago. But it took time to realize that the writing was Aramaic; and that it wasn't some sort of gibberish but an erudite curse, says Elitzur-Leiman
But is the angel listening?
The tablet had been made of lead, which in and of itself indicated the nefarious purpose of its owner – to jinx. Elitzur-Leiman explains: "The ancient gamblers wouldn't use gold or silver for that purpose, they used lowly lead to cast hexes."
Secondly, not content with painstakingly etching the decidedly long curse in Aramaic, the gambler doubled his odds by rolling up the soft metal scroll and ramming a nail through it.
"After the tablet was inscribed, people would knock a nail into it – another aggressive act of cursing, like voodoo dolls," she says.
Then the hexer would inter the nailed curse beneath the hippodrome race track. The idea is that the horses would activate the curse while running over it.
Some bits are missing but the Jewish gambler of yore was betting against the Blue faction, one the color-coded teams that competed in the chariot races, she says. He hoped the Blue horses get mired in the mud, but mainly derived his fond hopes of divine intervention from biblical precedent. As it says in the Book of Numbers:
"And when the ass saw the angel of the Lord, she fell down under Balaam: and Balaam's anger was kindled, and he smote the ass with a staff." Numbers 22:27
Our Blue faction hexer hoped that the angel would descend to the race track and stop the Blue horses in their equine tracks.
There is no word on whether it worked.
Byzantine-era Jews would use amulets, but usually to protect themselves against evil, not to cause it, says Elitzur-Leiman. Positive amulets would be made more typically of gold, silver or copper, engraved with the spell.
It bears adding that the rabbis frowned on horse-racing and certainly wouldn't have approved of resorting to black magic to sway the odds. Apparently, like today, not everybody heeded their exhortations.
Also, perhaps the Jewish involvement in horse racing 1,500 years ago wasn’t that surprising, given the Roman and Byzantine obsession with sport and racing. At the time the scroll was written, the sport had reached such importance that the various teams had become connected to political and religious factions, and controlled local militias. In 532 C.E., the emperor Justinian was nearly toppled in a violent revolt that burnt down half of Constantinople and started as a riot by the Blue and Green factions.
Justinian, incidentally, was a Blues supporter and a not particularly benevolent ruler to the Jews, known for imposing several legal restrictions on them. Assuming the scroll dated from his time, this may perhaps explain the hostility of one anonymous Jew from Antioch toward that team.