Archive for December 24th, 2011

Yahweh invoked in ancient Antioch curse tablet

Saturday, December 24th, 2011

Lead curse tablet invoking "Iao," Antioch, 4th c. A.D.A recently deciphered lead curse tablet discovered in a well in Antioch (modern Antakya, Turkey, just north of the Syrian border) invokes Iao, the Greek name for Yahweh, asking that he turn his terrible power onto a local greengrocer named Babylas.

“O thunder-and-lightning-hurling Iao, strike, bind, bind together Babylas the greengrocer,” reads the beginning of one side of the curse tablet. “As you struck the chariot of Pharaoh, so strike his [Babylas’] offensiveness.” […]

In addition to the use of Iao (Yahweh), and reference to the story of the Exodus, the curse tablet also mentions the story of Egypt’s firstborn.

“O thunder—and-lightning-hurling Iao, as you cut down the firstborn of Egypt, cut down his [livestock?] as much as…” (The next part is lost.)

Back side of the curse tablet which summarizes the main points of the full curseThe curse was inscribed in Greek 1700 years ago by an unnamed person. There’s no way of knowing what religion he may have been. Antioch in the 4th century had large Christian, Jewish, Jewish Christian (the latter two inspired the future saint John Chrysostom to write some opprobrious homilies that wouldn’t have been out of place engraved on lead and thrown down a well) and polytheistic communities. It’s possible that the unfortunate target of the curse was Christian, as the name Babylas was also the name of a third-century bishop of Antioch and martyr who died in prison during the suppression of Christianity under the emperor Decius (253 A.D.).

Babylas’ putative Christianity could have inspired his hater to ask Yahweh to hit him with the full thunder-and-lightning treatment, or the curser might simply have picked the deity that most suited him for his own reasons. University of Washington professor Alexander Hollmann who translated the tablet at first thought that the use of “Iao” suggested the curse writer was Jewish, but after examining comparable magic invocations Hollman realized Yahweh was deployed in spells cast by polytheists as well.

“I don’t think there’s necessarily any connection with the Jewish community,” [Hollman] said. “Greek and Roman magic did incorporate Jewish texts sometimes without understanding them very well.”

The curse was discovered in the 1930s during an excavation by Princeton University. They found many curse tablets from hundreds of years of Antiochans (one from the late 5th, early 6th century A.D. asks Kronos to bring down the horses of the Green and White chariot factions), so many that scholars are still translating them. The collection, including this most recently translated “Iao” curse, is kept in the Princeton University Art Museum.

Since curses were often rolled or folded up and then dropped in wells or drains to do their otherworldly damage unimpeded, it takes considerable conservation effort and care to open them up to the point where they can be read and translated, hence the deliberate pace.

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