Sports-related curses were extremely prevalent in the ancient world. In fact, it was assumed that those who competed in public contests regularly employed curses. Moreover, this was not just some literary fantasy—material evidence of lead curse tablets (defixiones or katadesmoi) bears this opinion out. To get specific, these curses were inscribed on lead tablets which were consigned to a strategic location, such as a water-well, a grave, or a victim’s main locus of operation. For example, a curse that targeted a chariot race might be buried in the arena, so as to have an immediate effect on its victim (Gager 18-21).
Needless to say, games were an important feature of ancient Mediterranean life, one which overlapped with other significant areas. Many religious festivals involved a competitive dimension where athletes, dramatists, and dancers competed for glory. One thinks here of the Athenian Dionysia, or even the Pan-Hellenic Olympic games as examples of civic-religious events that involved a sporting component. Christopher A. Faraone suggests that sporting curses are evinced as early as the writings of Pindar, a poet from the 5th Century BCE (Faraone 11). He cites Pindar’s Olympian, which depicts a charioteer named Pelops calling on Poseidon to not just give him the advantage in a race, but to damage his opponent as well (Faraone 11).
When games became both more numerous and more frequent in the Roman era, so too did sports-related cursing. Chariot races, wrestling matches, and gladiatorial matches became regular past-times for people living in the Mediterranean, but that didn’t lessen the stakes for those who participated in them (Gager 43). Like our professional athletes today, those who competed were similarly of a professional rank (when they weren’t, uh, slaves), and winning an event not only meant prestige, but one’s financial livelihood (Gager 44). With such tangible benefits on the line, curses were often used to bolster one’s chances of winning.
The methods invoked to debilitate an opponent are endless. They range from mild requests to deprive the target of sleep (presumably to ensure a diminished performance), to graphic depictions of mutilations. One lead tablet makes a gruesome plea for victory, bidding an angel to “chop into pieces the horses and charioteers” of a particular team (Faraone 12, Gager 53-56). Some curse tablets even make provisions in the event the target withstood the curse’s main objective. A tablet from Athens demands that illness strike a particular wrestler. However, if he were to compete, the creator of the curse would be happy that the wrestler “fall down and make a fool of himself” (Gager 50-51). In this case, public embarrassment was punishment enough.
These tablets could be a simple inscription which named the participant and their occupation (Gager 50). They could also be more elaborate, involving not just an inscription, but also detailed drawings of the target being worked-upon by supernatural figures. One curse appeals to a Phrygian goddess (in modern-day Turkey) to make a rival charioteer “headless, footless, and powerless with the horses of the Blue colors.” Accompanying these words are drawings of a coffin, the victim being bound by daimons, a horse-like figure, and various charakteres, indecipherable symbols that contain supernatural potencies (Gager 71-72).
These sorts of curses became commonplace, not just for athletes, but also for their fans, who resorted to curses to help them triumph. Through cursing, spectators could directly participate in these games, even if only from the benches. (It would be interesting to know if fans gambled on the outcome of these matches, something which would suggest an additional motivation!) Curses became part of the fabric of sporting culture, and they were invoked as an explanation for atypical gains—or particularly stunning losses. One imperial decree notes the unlikely success of one charioteer who “won so often that envious rivals declared that he conquered by means of witchcraft” (in Gager 46). In this way, unexpected misfortune in the hippodrome or a rival’s success on the field could be attributed, not to strength or skill, but to an underhanded means of attainment.
Sporting contests were one area of ancient life that stirred up strong emotions. For those who competed, a curse could provide the necessary edge that ensured a winning outcome. For fans, it was a way of engaging in an event beyond being a mere spectator. Curses could be used to explain the prowess of an improbable victor, or the loss of a champion. Whatever the reason they were used, they were extremely common, and represented a significant component of sports in the ancient world.
Faraone, Christopher A. 1997. “The Agonistic Context of Early Greek Binding Spells,” in Magika Hiera: Ancient Greek Magic and Religion, edited by Christopher A. Faraone and Dirk Obbink. Oxford: Oxford University Press.
Gager, John G. 1992. Curse Tablets and Binding Spells from the Ancient World. Oxford: Oxford University Press.