cursing in ancient and modern competition

While today cursing tends to be associated with expressive use of obscene words, in the ancient world cursing was one dimension of competition.  These ancient curses typically declared a constraint other than death on a rival.  The curses were usually written on lead and buried in a location associated with underworld gods.  For instances, about 2450 years ago someone buried in a necropolis in Sicily a lead tablet on which was written: “These people are written down for a downturn in profits.”  Another written about two hundred years later declared: “I bind the workshops of these men … so that they may not be productive, but be idle and without luck.”[1]  Because literacy was rare, writing curses was a service business in itself.  Collections of standard-form curse tablets, probably used in a cursing business, have been discovered.[2]

Hesiod’s Works and Days, written on the Greek peninsula about 2700 years ago, condemns war and praises commercial competition.  Hesiod describes commercial competition thus:

She stirs up even the shiftless to toil; for a man grows eager to work when he considers his neighbour, a rich man who hastens to plough and plant and put his house in good order; and neighbour vies with is neighbour as he hurries after wealth. This Strife is wholesome for men. And potter is angry with potter, and craftsman with craftsman, and beggar is jealous of beggar, and minstrel of minstrel.[3]

A potter angry with another potter may well have directed obscene words at the other.  The potter may have also buried a curse against the rival.

Shouting matches are a form of competition.  Patent fights are a form of competition.  Political lobbying is a form of competition.  So too is better satisfying customers with better designed, more capable, cheaper products.  Getting competition is easy.  Getting competition to please customers is difficult.  If you merely advocate competition, than you’re just an ideologue.

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[1] Quoted in Faraone (1991) p. 11.  In ancient ritual services markets, curses or spells directed at the financial interests of business rivals are relatively rare.  Curses or spells more typically concern rivalry in love, oratory, and sport.

[2] Id. p. 4 describes these artifacts, which are from the Roman period or later.  Plato described cursing as a service business:

Beggar priests and diviners go to the doors of the rich man and persuade him that the gods have provided them with a power based on sacrifices and incantations.  If he himself, or his ancestors, has committed some injustice, they can heal it with pleasures and feasts; and if he wishes to ruin some enemies at small expense, he will injure just and unjust alike with certain evocations and spells.

Plato, Republic, 364b-c, trans. Bloom (1968) p. 41.   The Psalms in the Hebrew Bible probably were originally written as re-usable texts for temple visitors.

[3] Works and Days, ll. 11-24, translation from the Online Medieval and Classical Library.


Plato, and Allan David Bloom. 1968. The Republic. New York: Basic Books.

Christopher A. Faraone.  1991. “The Agonistic Context of Early Greek Binding Spells” in Christopher A. Faraone and Dirk Obbink (eds.) Magika Hiera: Ancient Greek Magic and Religion.  Oxford: Oxford Univ. Press, pp. 3-32.

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