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Study Reveals Ancient Greek Cursed Pot with Bones of Dismembered Chicken

Αssociated Press

Visitors stand inside Stoa of Attalos, at ancient agora, in Athens, on Wednesday, May 20, 2020. Greece has entered the third phase of easing lockdown restrictions by reopening ancient sites Monday, along with high schools, shopping malls, and mainland travel.(AP Photo/Petros Giannakouris)

ATHENS – Excavations in the Ancient Agora of Athens revealed a curious artifact, an inscription-covered ceramic pot containing the bones of a dismembered chicken which was probably part of a curse made 2,321 years ago, according to a study published in Hesperia: The Journal of the American School of Classical Studies at Athens. The Curious Case of the Cursed Chicken: A New Binding Ritual from the Athenian Agora by Professor Jessica L. Lamont includes Lamont’s findings concerning the pot which was “unearthed in 2006 along with a bronze coin from under a corner of the Classical Commercial Building in the Ancient Agora of Athens,” the Daily Mail reported.

“The agora, or 'gathering place', was the central public space in ancient Greek city states, serving as the heart of artistic, business, social, spiritual and political life,” the Daily Mail reported, adding that “the presentation of the pot suggests it was intended as a binding curse that would have paralyzed its 55 intended victims, whose names are carved across the artifact.”

“The jinxing jar was found near several burned pyres that also contained animal remains — a placement which may have been thought to increase the curse's power,” the Daily Mail reported.

“The pot contained the dismembered head and lower limbs of a young chicken,” explained author and classicist Jessica Lamont of Yale University, who recently analyzed the jar and deciphered its many inscriptions, the Daily Mail reported, noting that “analysis of the bones has indicated that the unfortunate chicken was no older than seven months at the time it was killed, which would have held special meaning.”

“The chick's helplessness and inability to protect itself, like the motherless puppy and baby fox [of other known curse objects], would have been symbolically transferred to the named individuals,” Lamont said, the Daily Mail reported. “Perhaps by twisting off and piercing the head and lower legs of the chicken the curse composers sought to incapacitate the use of those same body parts in their victims. Thus the dozens of individuals cursed on the chytra [a form of unglazed cooking pot] would have been prevented from using their minds, mouths, noses, ears, tongues, and lower limbs— important cognitive and sensory faculties, especially for craftsmen.”

“The other aspect that makes the artefact recognizable as a curse assemblage — specifically, an Athenian binding curses that aimed to 'bind' or inhibit its victims —  is that the jar had been driven through by a large iron nail,” Lamont explained, the Daily Mail reported.

“The pot was thus subjected to the same ritual nailing as hundreds of lead curse tablets which, after incision, were pierced prior to deposition and burial,” she wrote, adding that “for lead curse tablets and surely our chytra, the nail had an inhibiting force and symbolically immobilized or restrained the faculties of its victims. All exterior surfaces of the chytra were originally covered with text. It once carried over 55 inscribed names, dozens of which now survive only as scattered, floating letters or faint stylus strokes.”

According to Lamont, differences can be seen in the handwriting on the jar suggesting “that it was written by two or more individuals,” the Daily Mail reported.

“It was certainly composed by people with good knowledge of how to cast a powerful curse,” she told Live Science.

“Curses that target this many individuals are often judicial in nature,” Lamont wrote, noting that “composers might cite all imaginable opponents in their maledictions, including the witnesses, families, and supporters of the opposition.”

“The curse could have been created by craftspersons working in the industrial building itself, perhaps in the lead-up to a trial concerning an inter-workplace conflict,” Lamont wrote, adding that “it is also possible that the assemblage was politically motivated and aimed to curse members of rival political factions and their associates.”

“Assuming it was contemporaneous with the nearby pyre deposit, the chytra dates back to around 300 BC, mere decades after the death of Alexander the Great in 323 BC, which threw his erstwhile empire into chaos,” the Daily Mail reported, noting that “several factions were left fighting for control of Athens at this time — a period which Professor Lamont said was ‘plagued by war, siege and shifting political alliances.’”

The full article, The Curious Case of the Cursed Chicken: A New Binding Ritual from the Athenian Agora by Jessica L. Lamont, published in Hesperia: The Journal of the American School of Classical Studies at Athens, is available online: shorturl.at/asFJY.