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Suppose I want to curse someone — I want to ask some gods or spirits to do evil upon a particular person. (No, I'm not angry at any user of this site.) How do I do this in Latin?

I am not familiar with the typical structure or vocabulary of such curses. I don't know if there is a reliable cursing guide somewhere out there, but I'm sure I can survive without one if I have good examples. A link to a curse text corpus together with some examples showcasing the most typical curses would be great! Perhaps there's a list of curse tablet texts somewhere? Mentions in other literature are also welcome if they tell how to curse. I want to know how to curse authentically, so my interest is limited to curses of the (pagan) classical antiquity. I assume there's an idiomatic way to phrase "please take this offering and kill that other guy" in classical Latin.

There is also a question regarding the syntax of swearing, but it's not really relevant here.

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The best-known type of curse is called a dēfixio, literally "binding", calqued from Greek κατάδεσμος. The word itself is more modern; while Roman dēfixiōnes do tend to use the verb dēfīgō, the noun wasn't nearly as common as in Greek.

Dēfixio tended to involve writing a prayer on a metal tablet, then "binding" it somehow. Some might be simply folded in half, while others were pierced with nails, marked with some of the target's hair or blood, or even shaped into a miniature likeness of the target before being pierced (like a Hollywood "voodoo doll").

The best corpus of these I've found are the Bath tablets, tablets found at a sacred spring in Bath, UK.

These curses tend to begin by naming the deity (in the dative) and the writer (in the nominative with a verb like queritur "complains", or ablative with a noun like commonitorium "formal complaint").

The writer first lays out the nature of the complaint ("because someone downvoted my answer"). Then they request (with a verb like rogat) that the deity do some terrible things to the target ("drain all of their reputation"). The target can be listed directly by name, or with a formula like "whether free or slave, whether man or woman, whether old or young, whether pagan or Christian" (si...si...si...si...) if their identity is unknown.

Finally, the writer promises some sort of reward or sacrifice to the deity in return. Often this involves the target, or in the case of stolen goods, the goods themselves ("half the reputation points you take from them").

This formula isn't universal, and some curses can be much less formal. A brief curse might be as simple as "whoever downvoted my question, let his name be given over to Mercury" (see Uley 3 for a fragmentary example). But the longer ones tend to follow this general pattern.

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    If you want to complain to a community manager about someone downvoting your answer, I recommend against using a fragmentary Latin text on a lead tablet. Other aspects of the method might work, though... (Joking aside, thanks!) – Joonas Ilmavirta Jul 19 '17 at 21:01
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You can find some at Attalus, along with a bunch from Roman Britain. The latter is region-specific, but breaks it all down for you.

There isn't one way to do so, and there's no special language that can be applied to every curse, though certain themes and vocabulary are frequent and sometimes "magical" gibberish is used in incantations. Lead tablets are frequently preferred for their longevity. One standard work that includes far more than Latin texts is Gager's Curse Tablets and Binding Spells from the Ancient World], though I highly recommend everyone check out Daniel Ogden's Magic, Witchcraft, and Ghosts in the Greek and Roman Worlds, an excellent sourcebook with tons of curse examples.

There is also apparently this book, but I haven't personally checked it out:

Abstract:

There are altogether about six hundred Latin curse texts, most of which are inscribed on lead tablets. The extant Latin defixiones are attested from the 2nd cent. BCE to the end of the 4th and beginning of the 5th century. However, the number of extant tablets is certainly not final, which is clear from the new findings in Mainz recently published by Blänsdorf (2012, 34 tablets), the evidence found in the fountain dedicated to Anna Perenna in Rome (Blänsdorf 2012, Piranomonte 2012, (26 tablets and other inscribed magical items), or the new findings in Pannonia (Barta 2009). The curse tablets were addressed exclusively to the supernatural powers, so their authors usually hid them very well to be banished from the eyes of mortals; not to speak of the randomness of the archaeological findings. Thus, it can be assumed that the preserved defixiones are only a fragment of the overall ancient production. Remarkable diversities in cursing practice can be found when comparing the preserved defixiones from particular provinces of the Roman Empire and their specific features, with respect to the language, genre, and content.

For Greek, the standard corpus is the Papyri Graecae Magicae (PGM).

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A type of curse seems to have been the phrase "te perdant" after a deity. For example, "Iuppiter te perdat!" and "Iuppiter te dique perdant!", which seem to mean something like "That Jupiter destroys you!"

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(from here via google)

More generally:

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(from here via google)


Another form of curse seems to have been "i in malam crucem!" (or "abi in malam crucem!", which seems to translate like "go to the bad cross", or "go to crucify yourself", but is translated into English like "go and be hanged!". Given that crucifixion was humiliating punishment, this is clearly a terrible insult. Below an example from Terence's Phormio play,

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and the English translation:

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(both from here)

  • So is abi in malem crucem somewhat equivalent to Greek βαλλ' εις κορακας "throw yourself to the crows" or εις κακιστον "go to the worst place/go to hell"? Those two are quite familiar from Aristophanes but I didn't know similar phrases appeared in Latin. – Draconis Jul 20 '17 at 19:39
  • @Draconis I am entirely ignorant on Greek, so I cannot help you with that. :( – luchonacho Jul 21 '17 at 10:59

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