A Cursed Figurine

I had the opportunity recently to revisit an interesting artifact at the Louvre. It is a small nude female figurine with hands and feet bound, pierced through with thirteen pins. According to the Louvre website, the figurine was bought in 1975 from a person (or business?) identified as “Mathéos, Alkis Dimitrios,” about whom I know nothing (any leads are welcome). The seller reported that the figurine came from Egypt.

Magical figurine; Musée du Louvre E 27145; image source: Brent Nongbri 2022

The figurine is said to have been found together with a defixio (a lead curse tablet) inside a small ceramic jar. The assemblage is assigned to the third or fourth century on the basis of the script of the defixio, which is said to resemble the writing of papyri of those dates (specifically this papyrus from the year 236 CE and this papyrus from the year 372 CE).

Magical assemblage: vase, figurine, and defixio; Musée du Louvre E 27145; image source: Brent Nongbri 2022

I had seen the measurements of the figurine (9 cm high) before, but I didn’t appreciate just how small this set was. Nor had I seen the full “kit” all together: vase, figurine, and defixio. The display in the Louvre is nice–well lit in a dark space below the ground level. But text of the tablet is tough to read in the display, and the pedagogical materials provide neither a Greek text nor a translation into a modern language.

The full Greek text of the defixio is available through the PHI Greek Inscriptions site. The original edition of the Greek text of the tablet can be found online here. Below I reproduce an English translation from Beard, North, and Price, Religions of Rome Volume 2: A Sourcebook (Cambridge University Press, 1998), pages 266-267:

I entrust this binding spell to you chthonic gods (παρακατατίθεμαι ὑμῖν τοῦτον τὸν κατάδεσμον θεο[ῖ]ς καταχθονίοις), Pluto and Kore Persephone Ereschigal and Adonis also called Barbaritha and Hermes chthonian Thoth Phokensepseu Erektathoti Misonktaik and Anoubis the powerful Pseriphtha, who holds the keys of Hades, and to you chthonic divine demons, the boys and girls prematurely dead, the young men and women, year after year, month after month, day after day, hour after hour, night after night; I conjure all the demons (ὁρκίζω πάντας τοὺς δαίμονας) in this place to assist this demon Antinous. Rouse yourself for me and go to each place, to each neighborhood, to each house and bind Ptolemais whom Aias bore, the daughter of Horigenes, so that she should not be fucked, buggered or should not give any pleasure to another man (ὅπως μὴ βινηθῇ μὴ πυγισθῇ μὴδὲν πρὸς ἡδονὴν ποιήσῃ ἑταίρῳ ἀνδρὶ), except to me alone Sarapammon, whom Area bore; and do not let her eat nor drink nor resist nor go out nor find sleep except with me Sarapammon, whom Area bore. I conjure you, Antinous spirit of the dead, in the name of the Terrible and Fearsome, the name at whose sound the earth opens up, the name at whose sound the demons tremble in fear, the name at whose sound rivers and rocks burst asunder. I conjure you, Antinous spirit of the dead (ὁρκίζω σε, νεκύδαιμον Ἀντίνοε), by Barbaratham Cheloumbra Barouch Adonai and by Abrasax and by lao Pakeptoth Pakebraoth Sabarbaphaei and by Marmaraouoth and by Marmarachtha Mamazagar. Do not disregard me, Antinous spirit of the dead, but rouse yourself for me and go to each place, to each neighbourhood, to each house and bring me Ptolemais, whom Aias bore, the daughter of Horigenes; prevent her from eating, from drinking, until she comes to me, Sarapammon, whom Area bore, and do not allow her to accept the advances of any man other than me alone Sarapammon. Drag her by the hair, the guts, until she does not reject me, Sarapammon, whom Area bore, and I have her, Ptolemais, whom Aias bore, the daughter of Horigenes, subject to me for the entire extent of my life, loving me, desiring me, telling me what she thinks. If you do this, I will release you (ἀπολύσω σε).

The figurine seems to have been made by following a set of instructions very much like those preserved in a papyrus codex in Paris, BnF MS Supp. grec 574 (PGM IV):

BnF MS Supp. grec 574, folio 5 recto; image source: Gallica

These instructions have been translated in Betz, The Greek Magical Papyri in Translation (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1986), page 44:

Wondrous spell for binding a lover (φιλτροκατάδεcμοc θαυμαcτόc). Take wax [or clay] from a potter’s wheel and make two figures, a male and a female. Make the male in the form of Ares fully armed, holding a sword in his left hand and threatening to plunge it into the right side of her neck. And make her with her arms behind her back and down on her knees. …[Instructions for inscribing the figurine’s body parts follow.] …And take thirteen copper needles and stick 1 in the brain while saying, “I am piercing your brain, [name]”; and stick 2 in the ears and 2 in the eyes and 1 in the mouth and 2 in the midriff and 1 in the hands and 2 in the pudenda and 2 in the soles, saying each time, “I am piercing such and such a member of her, [name], so that she may remember no one but me, [name], alone. And take a lead tablet and write the same spell and recite it. And tie the lead leaf to the figures with a thread from the loom after making 365 knots while saying as you have learned, “ABRASAX, hold her fast!” You place it, as the sun is setting, beside the grave of one who has died untimely or violently, placing beside it also seasonal flowers. The spell to be written and recited is: “I entrust this binding spell to you, chtonic gods (παρακατατίθεμαι ὑμῖν τοῦτον τὸν κατάδεcμον θεοῖc χθονίοιc)…” [a spell very much like the one on the defixio follows.]

Further bibliography on the figurine and the defixio can be found at the Louvre website. For reasons why we should avoid calling this figurine and others like it “voodoo dolls,” see this recent article.

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2 Responses to A Cursed Figurine

  1. From the photograph, I might have guessed tubes rather than needles.

  2. Vladimir Stissi says:

    Regarding the provenance: Google leads to an Alkis Matheos who is a minor mid-20th French Greek artist, and a company called Matheos Alkis Dimitrios founded by an Alkis Matheos (born november 1944), with 24, Rue de la Seine as its address. This is a street full of fancy art galleries.
    The Cleveland Museum of Art has an Egyptian palette from the same dealer, and adds the name Uraeus Gallery. That name appears in some provenance listings of mostly minor Egyptian and Cypriote antiquities, the Getty has four items online bought with Uraeus.
    An article (https://www.bibalex.org/alexmed/Attachments/Publications/Files/news%20letter%20issue%201.pdf) indicates Alkis Matheos returned to his mother city Alexandria some time before 2005, to run a restaurant and an art gallery there, but also kept a house in Paris. He seems to have sold the gallery in 2008 at the latest (it was taken over by another gallery then). The Uraeus Gallery is still visible at 24 Rue de la Seine on Street View, and appears in searches, but google lists it as permanently closed.

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