IN the ancient world, sports fans and athletes turned to magic to empower them against their foes … and this was particularly true in the ancient athletic world of charioteering.
Hundreds of curse tablets, amulets and magical recipes survive today.
They reveal that magic in the ancient Mediterranean was often tied to the world of sports.
In the late Roman Mediterranean, factions of charioteers existed instead of football teams.
Each faction was named after the colors draped onto their horses and worn by the charioteers. There were the Blues, the Greens, the Reds and the Whites.
They drove four horse chariots called quadrigae both in the hippodrome at Rome’s Circus Maximus and the one at Constantinople.
There were many other chariot racing venues throughout the Roman empire and fans of these factions became quite attached to their color and the star charioteers on them.
Love for their faction and a desire to help their team to victory frequently led athletes, faction managers, and fans to seek out magical methods in order to snatch victory from the other faction.
A curse tablet from 3rd Century AD Carthage notes: "Bind the horses whose names and images on this implement I entrust to you; of the Red [team]: Silvanus, Servator, Lues…bind their hands, take away their victory…Now, quickly."
Another, found on the Via Appia outside Rome, even mentions a charioteer's mother:
"I invoke you… so that you may help me and restrain and hold in check Cardelus and bring him to a bed of punishment, to be punished with an evil death, to come to an evil condition, him who his mother Fulgentina bore."
Many within the Greco-Roman world may have written out a curse themselves, but most likely hired a magician to help them with the process I have sketched below:
A. Know Your Curse Types: There were generally five types of curse tablets in antiquity:
1. litigation or judicial curses (e.g. those used against someone prosecuting you in court)
2. business or trade curses (e.g. those curses used to bring down, say, a rival amphora supplier)
3. erotic curses (e.g. the ever-popular love spells)
4. restitution and punishment curses (e.g. those waged against a thief)
5. defixiones agonisticae (agonistic "binding" curses concerning competitions. These are also called κατάδεσμοι).
Frequently, defixiones were used to bind an athletic enemy … their hands, their feet, their mouths … and keep them from movement.
Often, they wished for a charioteer to fall off their chariot and be dragged by the horses behind it before they could take their knife and cut themselves out of the reins they tied to their bodies.
B. Pick Your Material Wisely: In the ancient world, most curse tablets were made out of lead. It was easy and relatively cheap to procure the material (particularly in Athens, where the silver mines that produced the bi-product were nearby).
Lead was often used in antiquity for magical purposes: oracles, votives, incantations and curse tablets.
Many curse tablets are written on thin pieces of lead, then had nails used to pierce them.
Sometimes, locks of hair or other identifying features of an enemy were also wrapped into the curse before being buried.
C. Curses Have Power But Need To Be Activated: It is notable that many of the curses from these ancient tablets seem to have an oral component attached to them. Performance carried empowerment. Names had an innate power that was activated by speaking them aloud and by inscribing them.
A number of magical papyri, called the Papyri Graecae Magicae, reveal that curses were often activated through the oral performance of incantations and perhaps a sacrifice.
The visual presentation of the written curse was also important; many have triangular shapes and accompanying depictions of the person being cursed or the magical deities being invoked.
Frequently, there is also the use of somethng which is called a palindrome παλίνδρομος … which is Greek for "running back again" and carried power in its symmetry. These words retained potency whether read from right to left or left to write.
The use of the magical palindrome Ablanathanalba was popular particularly on curses and amulets, and medical evidence from the early 3rd Century AD suggests that the word Abracadabra was used as an "activating word" in antiquity, before becoming highly popular in the medieval period.
D. Geography Is Key To Curse Potency: If there is one thing archaeologists know, it is that geography matters in the context of ancient magic. Boundary zones and "liminal" areas are the most magical spaces where one can access the chthonic gods that live underground and who are being spoken to.
That is why we find many curse tablets buried near doorways, in graves, in wells and baths, and on the boundary lines outside sports venues such as the hippodrome.
Some curse tablets, such as the famous one from around 400 BC found buried in a grave at the Kerameikos Sanctuary, also had leaden representations of the people they wished to curse before being buried.
Collectively, the curse tablets addressing charioteering and other sports events in the ancient world, such as wrestling, reveal that all sports fans wanted what they couldn't and can't have: the power to sway the outcome of a competition.
Magic was a way to give agency to those that felt powerless to control the future: powerless to retain the love of another, powerless to control the outcome of a court case, or perhaps powerless to effect the outcome of a key race of the Greens against the Blues.