Ancient and modern

Twitter has taken the place of the ancient curse-tablet

23 October 2021

9:00 AM

23 October 2021

9:00 AM

Twitter and other easily accessible means of online communication have encouraged the public to believe that Their Voice Will Be Heard. When it isn’t, they express their frustration throughabuse and threats or by blocking roads. In this way, the mentality of the ancient curse-tablet lives on.

In the ancient world, the purpose of the curse was to ‘bind’ the person you disliked — i.e. frustrate them from achieving the end they wanted and you did not. It was written on a thin lead plate, rolled up tight, sometimes twisted (to ‘hobble’ the victim) and pinned (to constrain him), then placed into the tomb of someone who had died before their time. The belief was that the dead man, resentful of his early demise, would be happy to enact the curse against the named victim.

The curse, composed in a terrifying formulaic language, might be designed to prevent a chariot team from winning a race, a lawyer or politician from gaining their ends, a competing trader from selling more goods, or someone running off with a beloved boy or woman.

But did it work? We hear of a few cases where that claim was made, including the lingering death of Germanicus, much-admired heir apparent to the imperial throne but hated by the emperor Tiberius: unusually, curse-tablets inscribed with his name were found behind the walls and under the floors of his house. The problem is that the curse-tablet was kept secret. So how was the victim of the curse even aware of it? Again, no curser attached his name to the tablet, or had any certainty of success. So what was in it for him?

Plato made the psychological point that such curses comforted the curser, while the prospect of being cursed might have struck fear into a guilty party. Is there a better explanation for the motives of the21st-century equivalents? Abusive Twitter-users, who never sign their names, imagine they will achieve their ends by screaming, pointing and threatening; protestors merely infuriate the public. This might make their voice heard, but does anyone except journalists pay the slightest attention?

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