BMCR 2022.04.30

Devotio malefica: Die antiken Verfluchungen zwischen sprachübergreifender Tradition und individueller Prägung

, Devotio malefica: Die antiken Verfluchungen zwischen sprachübergreifender Tradition und individueller Prägung. Hamburger Studien zu Gesellschaften und Kulturen der Vormoderne, 15. Stuttgart: Franz Steiner Verlag, 2021. Pp. 339. ISBN 9783515129732 €60,00.

Chiarini’s book is a revised edition of her Habilitation thesis, and it is based on over 400 Greek and Latin curse tablets, selected from the TheDeMa—a vast database of curses, developed at and hosted by the University of Magdeburg until 2019, to whose creation Chiarini has greatly contributed.[1] Ever since the 1991 publication of the book Magika Hiera: Ancient Greek Magic and Religion, edited by C.A. Faraone and D. Obbink, there has been an ever-burgeoning number of scholarly studies—on curse tablets in ancient Greece and Rome, both in the form of monographs and articles. Therefore, the immediate question that springs to mind is, what does Chiarini’s study add to the already existing and overwhelming discussion of cursing practices in the Graeco-Roman world? Chiarini’s four chapters, two per main part, merge a cross-linguistic approach with past scholarly works on curse tablets, ancient magic, individual religious experience—as theorised by J. Rüpke within the framework of the Lived Ancient Religion project—and behavioural patterns of punishment, a paradigm in the field of philosophical anthropology. Through the combination of these studies with linguistics, Chiarini’s monograph seeks to offer a new comprehensive and systematic examination of ancient Greek and Latin curse tablets by looking at specific features of the curse texts instead of pinning them down to specific contexts.

That this is the intent of her book is already evident from Chapter 1, “Die bisherigen inhaltlichen Klassifizierungsversuche”. Here, Chiarini explains that a cross-linguistic approach is aimed at the reassessment of past classification systems of curse tablets into different genres (e.g. judicial, economic, erotic). Departing from these old taxonomies—specifically from those created by A. Audollent, E. Kagarow and C.A. Faraone,[2] which the author nicely summarises—Chiarini proposes a genre-independent classification that outlines the recurring structures and components of ancient Greek and Latin curses. This approach allows Chiarini, on the one hand, to examine even those tablets that A. Audollent could not originally place in any category of curses since the motives for their creation were hard to detect and, on the other hand, to argue that, even if the reason for their production is known, it does not mean that the occasion for these curses arose from that very context (p. 26). In other words, if someone had something against an athlete or a merchant, they may have wanted to hurt their enemy precisely in his athletic performance or business, regardless of whether hatred or enmity arose in either a sport or economic context (pp. 26, 264).

Chiarini’s classifying principle is expounded in Chapter 2, “Vorstellung eines sprachwissenschaftlich und -pragmatisch basierten Formelmodelles”. Her provocative taxonomy is based on three essential parts of a curse, namely: the target of the cursing ritual (patiens); the actions that pertain to the ritual and its desired effect (actio); the supernatural entities that, in the realm of ancient Greek and Roman cursing practices, were important for the successful fulfilment of a curse (agentes). A detailed analysis of the formulaic language of cursing leads Chiarini to set the ground for the creation of a new umbrella term, which can substitute the well-known noun defixio and at the same time describe the entire phenomenon of ancient cursing practices. For, in “Der Gattungshorizont ‘Gebet’”, the last section of the present chapter, she summarises the results of her cross-linguistic investigation into an examination of the concept of prayer. Through the adoption of past scholarly studies on the general notion of “prayer” in antiquity as well as in modern times,[3] Chiarini explains how specific rhetorical features of Greek and Latin curse texts—ranging for instance from pressure and coercion to dedication and consecration—were used to establish a connection between the individual and the divine, an act that for Chiarini is also at the very essence of the term “prayer” (p. 199). In making such a claim, Chiarini then concludes that the overall structure of ancient curses fits within the prayer genre. With this conclusion, Chiarini applies a term that was originally created by H.S. Versnel to solely define certain expressions within the so-called “prayers for justice” to the whole corpus of ancient curse tablets (pp. 201-202). The extension of H.S. Versnel’s term “prayer” to the overall phenomenon of curse tablets and its application according to his definition as “an element that can provide a rhetorical framework within which the texts were written” (p. 202) enable Chiarini to follow—although only to a certain extent—H.S. Versnel even in his explanation of the noun “justice” in Chapter 3, “Die Bereiche der individuellen Gestaltung in den Verfluchungen”, to which I now turn.

Generally speaking, Chapter 3 explores the non-formulaic textual evidence thus dealing with what Chiarini regards as complementary components of ancient curses. These elements, which according to Chiarini could have been freely added by curse writers (pp. 207-208), are arranged around three fields: the conditions used to justify the cursing ritual; the emotional state of the cursers, analysed through some examples such as insult, complaint, pleas for protection and requests for blessing; the legal dimension of the ritual, examined through the many forms of punishment that were intended for the curse victims. In the latter context, Chiarini makes the important claim that cursers took their point of departure from a long-standing repertoire of formulas—explained in the section on actio in Chapter 2—to subjectively design the most suitable kind of retribution for their enemies (p. 263). The theme of subjectivity is therefore at the core of the present section, and it becomes even more evident in the last pages of Chapter 3, where Chiarini postulates that ancient curse tablets reflect a “subjective notion of justified punishment” (p. 285: die subjektive Vorstellung von „berechtigter Bestrafung“).[4]

This hypothesis is better explained and even taken one step further in the concluding chapter of the monograph, “Das Fluchritual als Mittel zur Durchsetzung einer subjektiven Rechtsvorstellung”. Here, Chiarini argues that ancient curse tablets developed from an individual conception of law that was completely independent from the public justice system. The many painful and vindictive forms of crime reparation that are almost never attested in the public legal realm but occur instead with great frequency in the corpus of Greek and Latin curse texts are, according to Chiarini, proofs that cursing practices in antiquity followed a non-institutionalised legal system that relied on a divine level, rather than on a secular one, and was determined by a subjective assessment of what was just (p. 295). Having established that curse tablets fundamentally work on a parallel level to the secular legal system, Chiarini ends her monograph on two interrelated notes: Presenting an individual notion of justice, Greek and Latin curse tablets should be called “prayers for subjective justice” („Gebete um subjektive Gerechtigkeit“) and be regarded as important tools that allowed people to enforce their own interests when legal or socially accepted means did not enable them to do so (pp. 298-299).

Chiarini has skilfully managed an enormous amount of curse tablets, giving an accurate translation in German for each text she cites. Overall, the book is well-structured and clear to an expert eye. However, I would have personally liked to see the material being organised in a chronological order and according to the geographical location where the tablets have been found. This methodology, combined with an historical and socio-economic/socio-political approach, would have added in my opinion even more substance to her analysis, avoided at times general conclusions, and facilitated a better understanding of several issues she only hints at and which would have been worth expanding on. I will give two examples. In the last section of Chapter 3 (p. 263), Chiarini mentions that the different forms of punishment that curse writers wished for their enemies could have been influenced by the social condition of their victims for whom only certain kinds of suffering were possible. This idea is put forward in relation to a Greek tablet from Thebes (TheDeMa 798, second century BC) that curses a woman and two men, whom Chiarini identifies as a farmer and a fisherman respectively. Two questions must therefore be asked: Can Chiarini’s hypothesis be generally applied since the cursing formula used in the present tablet diverges from others found in many Greek curses that allude to a similar circumstance? Was it just a matter of greatly harming the curser’s victims, as Chiarini advocates (p. 264), regardless of whether enmity or hatred arose between the parties in an economic context? I believe that only an investigation into the historical and socio-economic realities of when and where the tablet—or any other tablet—was produced can answer these questions. Similarly, Chiarini’s general thesis that Greek and Latin curse tablets developed independently from the public justice system would have benefitted from an historical analysis merged with a chronological and geographical systematisation of the material. The works of W. Riess and E. Eidinow,[5] both acknowledged in Chapter 4 (pp. 292-293), are relevant in this context. They point in a different direction from Chiarini’s, at least for various Athenian curse tablets.

Typographical errors are few both in the main body of the text and in the bibliography. In the latter, however, Fitzgerald’s book, which is cited in footnote n. 3 and used quite often in Chapter 3, has not been included. But, despite these oversights, Chiarini’s monograph is a welcome addition to the on-going research on Greek and Latin curse tablets and it should be read carefully by any scholar investigating cursing practices in antiquity.


[1] The TheDeMa, also known as the Thesaurus Defixionum Magdeburgensis, collected almost 2,000 curse tablets. To each curse the place of origin, material, date, original text, proposed translation(s) as well as past scholarly studies on each tablet were given. Since 2020, the database is hosted by the University of Hamburg under the name “TheDefix”, and it is publicly accessible (

[2] Audollent, A. 1904. Defixionum tabellae quotquot innotuerunt tam in Graecis orientis quam in totius occidentis partibus praeter Atticas in corpore inscriptionum Atticarum editas. Luteciae Parisiorum: Fontemoing; Faraone, C.A. “The Agonistic Context of Early Greek Binding Spells”. In Faraone, C.A. & Obbink, D. (eds.). 1991. Magika Hiera: Ancient Greek Magic and Religion. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 3-32; Kagarow, E. 1929. Griechische Fluchtafeln. Paris: Les Belles Lettres.

[3] Aubriot-Sévin, D. 1992. Prière et conceptions religieuses en Grèce ancienne jusqu’à la fin du Ve siècle av. J.-C. Lyon: Maison de l’Orient Méditerranéen; Bianca, M. L. 2006. Richiedere & pregare: introduzione a una teoria generale della richiesta e della preghiera. Milano: Angeli; Fitzgerald, W. 2012. Spiritual modalities: prayer as rhetoric and performance. University Park, Pennsylvania: Pennsylvania State University Press; Pulleyn, S. 1997. Prayer in Greek religion. Oxford: Clarendon Press.

[4] Similarly, Versnel, H.S. “Prayers for Justice in East and West: Recent Finds and Publications”. In Gordon, R.L. & Simón, F.M. (eds.). 2010. Magical Practice in the Latin West. Papers from the International Conference held at the University of Zaragoza, 30 Sept.-1 Oct. 2005. Leiden, Boston: Brill, 323.

[5] Eidinow, E. 2016. Envy, poison and death. Women on trial in classical Athens. Oxford: Oxford University Press; Riess, W. Performing interpersonal violence. Court, curse and comedy in fourth-century Athens. Berlin, Boston: De Gruyter.