Archaeologists have unearthed, in recent years, a number of items which are referred to as spell tablets or curse tablets. They’ve been excavated in several places, and although there are several different methods of creation, they seem to be generally used for malevolent magic. The curse tablet or spell tablet appears to have been most popular in the Greek and Roman classical worlds, although there are examples from other societies as well.
A typical curse tablet was created on a thin sheet of lead or other pliable metal. The individual casting the spell scratched a prayer to the gods into the lead, usually asking the deities for their assistance in smiting someone who had wronged them. Targets were often rivals in love or war. One such tablet, on display at Johns Hopkins Museum, calls upon the goddess Proserpina (the Roman version of Persephone) for the unpleasant death of a slave called Plotius. There's no indication as to what Plotius might have done to torque someone off, but it's clear they want him to die painfully – and the conditions of the curse are outlined in very specific, painful detail.
In 2008, a seventh-century tablet was unearthed in Cyprus by archaeologists excavating the ruins of the kingdom of Amathus. The tablet, inscribed in Greek, reads, "May your penis hurt when you make love.”
N.S. Gill, our About.com Guide to Ancient History, says that curse tablets were often used as theft deterrents in Roman bath houses: “A victim of theft might seek the god's vengeance or double the likelihood of divine help by transferring ownership of his stolen garment (or other article of value) to the god who would then want to retrieve the garment in his own interest … Inscribing on his piece of lead the victim would call on the god to right the wrong, by bringing the criminal to justice and retrieving the lost article.” Over a hundred curse tablets have been excavated from the springs at Aquae Sulis, which is now known as the city of Bath.
In addition to thieves and romantic rivals, curse tablets were often used in court cases. If you were going up against someone in a legal matter, a curse asking the gods to tie your opponent’s tongue could come in very handy.
Christopher Faraone's book Magika Hiera: Ancient Greek Magic and Religion reminds us that it’s important to note that not all spell tablets were specifically designed with curses in mind. Many were used for love and lust spells, and some were placed at gravesites to help the dead travel peacefully through the underworld. A spell tablet can, theoretically, be used for any purpose at all.
Spell tablets were typically disposed of in several different fashions. They could be buried or hidden underground, tossed into a river or spring, or nailed to a wall – particularly the wall of the home of a spell’s victim.