Innocent looking Jar from 2,300 years ago holds curse against 55 people in Athens


A 2,300-year-old ceramic jar filled with the bones of a dismembered chicken was likely part of an ancient curse to paralyze and kill 55 people in ancient Athens. The finding reveals new evidence for how people tried to use magic in the city. They discovered the jar, along with a coin, beneath the floor of the Agora's Classical Commercial Building, which was used by ancient craftspeople.

Jessica Lamont, a classics professor at Yale University, wrote in an article published in the journal Hesperia said, the pot contained the dismembered head and lower limbs of a young chicken. 

At the time, around 300 BC, the people who made the curse also gouged a large iron nail through the vessel.

All exterior surfaces of the jar were originally covered with text, it once carried over 55 inscribed names, dozens of which now survive only as scattered, floating letters or faint stylus strokes. Lamont wrote, noting that Greek writing contains words that may mean we bind.

The nail and chicken parts likely played a role in the curse. Nails are commonly found with ancient curses and had an inhibiting force and symbolically immobilized or restrained the faculties of the curse's victims.

The chicken was no older than 7 months when it was killed, and the people who created the curse may have wanted to transfer the chick's helplessness and inability to protect itself to the people whose names are inscribed on the jar. 

The style of the handwriting on the jar suggests that at least two individuals wrote the names on the jar. It was certainly composed of people/persons with good knowledge of how to cast a powerful curse. Why they went to the trouble of creating such an elaborate curse is not certain, but it may have been related to a legal case. 

The sheer number of names makes an impending lawsuit the most likely scenario curse composers might cite all imaginable opponents in their maledictions, including the witnesses, families, and supporters of the opposition. Trials were common at the time in Athens and galvanized a lot of the public, according to Lamont.

The jar's location, a building used by craftspeople suggests that the lawsuit may have involved a workplace dispute. The curse could have been created by craftspersons working in the industrial building itself, perhaps in the lead-up to a trial concerning an inter-workplace conflict.

Another possibility is that the curse is related to the strife in Athens around 2,300 years ago. After Alexander the Great died in 323 BC, his empire collapsed and his generals and officials fought for power.

Historical records show that several factions fought for control of Athens at the time. It was a period plagued by war, siege, and shifting political alliances.

The curse jar was excavated in 2006 and was recently analyzed and deciphered by Lamont. Excavation of the jar was overseen by Marcie Handler, who was a doctoral student in classics at the University of Cincinnati at the time. 

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