The Powers of Hell: A Deadly Curse from Medieval Egypt

Korshi Dosoo

Leiden curse rib.jpg
Leiden, National Museum of Antiquities F 1965/8.5
Images courtesy of the National Museum of Antiquities, Leiden

Somewhere in Upper Egypt, around the tenth century CE, someone wanted to destroy a man named Haron. They took a pair of rib bones from a large animal, perhaps a cow or a camel, still wet with gristle, and they wrote a curse three times, on both sides of one rib, and one side of the other:

Koukhos, Trokhos, Aphōnos, Pesphokops and Plemos and Ouliat: these are the six Powers of Death, they who bring every soul out of every body, it is they who bring every sickness upon man, it is they who will go to Haron the son of Tkouikira …

I call, I adjure you, oh dead one, by the way that you took, and the places of fear to which they took you  and the places of fear that you saw, and the river of fire which cast wave upon wave … so that in the moment I place this bone under you, you shall bring all your suffering down upon Haron the son of Tkouikira, yea, quickly, quickly! Go, go! Quickly, quickly!

We don’t know what Haron did to deserve this curse, but we have some idea how it was carried out. At night, Haron’s enemy probably hired a ritual specialist, a ‘magician’, to recite a spoken invocation, while writing the curse in red ink, meant to resemble blood, before burying it in a tomb. This type of ritual – known in Greek as a katadesmos (“binding-down”), or in Latin as a defixio (“fastening”) – is first attested in Greek Sicily, over one and a half millennia earlier in the 6th century BCE, but spread throughout the Graeco-Roman world, from Britain to Iran and from Germany to Egypt.

A view of the western mountain of Asyut, the site of the First Intermediate Period tomb where the third curse was found. Photo © The Asyut Project

The rib from which this version of the text is taken is held in the National Museum of Antiquities, Leiden in the Netherlands, which bought it from a Dutch dealer. This dealer had purchased it in turn from the family of the famous Egyptian antiquities merchant Maurice Nahman. But, while we know who the curse was directed against, where it is from isn’t so certain. The two texts on ribs, both owned by Nahman, were published by the Copticist James Drescher, who was told by Nahman’s son, Robert, that they came from Akhmim, although he doesn’t seem to have trusted this claim. A clearer idea of its origin appeared in winter 2004-2005, when a German-Egyptian excavation team in Asyut found another bone, written by the same scribe with the same text, in a tomb from the First Intermediate Period, belonging to a local magnate named Iti-Ibi who lived over three millennia earlier, ca. 2060 BCE. The name of the victim of this curse is missing, but it was found in a burial shaft untouched since antiquity. There were three other shafts in the tomb which had been looted in the 19th century, so it’s possible the Leiden bone came from one of these.

Christopher Faraone, who has done much work on earlier curses in Greek and Latin, has noted that they tend to fall into a small range of categories: some are against legal opponents, and aim to stop them from speaking or succeeding in court; some are against rival businessmen; others are against sportsmen, used by rivals or punters to fix competitions; others still are against those who had wronged the user in some way, often by stealing something from them. Curses in Coptic rarely tell us the reasons they were created, but it’s likely that they arise from similar circumstances – people who felt that their financial, social or emotional wellbeing was threatened might try to fight back using curses, even though such practices were both illegal and condemned by the Christian Church; those using them could be excommunicated, or even executed, depending on who caught them. This might be part of the reason why Haron’s enemy never says who they are, or why they are attacking him.

Crum MS.jpg
A rare depiction of one of the ‘Powers of Death’, here called a dekanos (“decan”) removing a soul from its body. Source: Photo taken by Arthur S. Hunt of a mural of a church in Tebtunis in the Fayum. Crum MSS 24.67

While the older curses are sometimes very narrowly targeted – they might ask for legal opponents to be tongue-tied, or chariots to crash – this one attempts to totally destroy Haron. The opening part names six ‘Powers of Death’, asking them to bring his soul out of his body. These beings are known from many literary texts produced by Christians in Egypt and around the Mediterranean from the second century onwards; they accompany the Angel of Death, and violently separate soul from body in the final moment. A rare depiction of this event from a church in the Fayum shows us their monstrous form – animal headed beings in black armour – pulling a soul in the form of a little human figure out of its body with their teeth.

Once his soul has been taken out of his body, the curse calls upon the spirit of the dead person in whose tomb it is buried. It describes the dead person as being in Hell – having being taken by the Powers of Death upon the terrible path to the afterlife, to the ‘places of fear’ where the evil dead are tortured, past the river of fire which burned the wicked but not the just. This ‘geography’ of the Afterlife, like the description of the Powers of Death, comes from the same literary texts written by Late Antique Christians to expand upon or clarify things which are mentioned, but not fully described, in the Bible. Among these was Hell, in Greek hadēs, Coptic amente.

Iti-Ibi tomb.jpg
The entrance to the tomb of Iti-Ibi in Asyut, as seen during Napoleon Bonaparte’s expedition to Egypt in the late 18thcentury; the facade was destroyed by stone quarrying in the course of the 19thcentury. Source: Commission des sciences et arts d’Egypte, Description de l’Égypte: Antiquités, volume IV, Paris: C.L.F. Pankoucke, 1822, plate 48

Older Greek curses often relied upon the person in whose tomb they were buried belonging to the category of the restless dead – people whose violent or early deaths resulted in their souls being susceptible to manipulation by magic. By contrast, this curse relies on the dead person with which it is buried being in Hell. But how could someone know whether a particular dead person belonged to the category of wicked or righteous? The answer, again clear from literary texts, is that Christian Egyptians believed that their ancestors, whom they called “pagans” (hellênes, literally “Greeks”), were condemned to Hell for worshipping ‘idols’ and animals. It is for this reason that the curse found in Asyut, and likely the two others, were buried in a First Intermediate Period tomb; for the Christian descendants of the ancient people of that town, the Pharaonic tombs and the bodies inside them could serve as a resource in their attempts to triumph in social conflicts through the practice of cursing.

Technical Details
Provenance: Upper Egypt (Akhmim or Asyut)
Date: 10th or 11thcentury CE
Language: Coptic
Collection: Leiden, National Museum of Antiquities F 1965/8.5The second bone once owned by Robert Nahman is Os. Mil. Vogl. inv. 1, held in the Istituto di Papirologia dell’Università degli Studi in Milan. The third bone, found in Asyut is Asyut Tomb III S05/46, belonging to the Supreme Council of Antiquities, Egypt, currently held in a warehouse in Shutb, Egypt.
Designation: Leiden F 1965/8.5 / Nahman Bone B
Bibliography: James Drescher (1948), “A Coptic Malediction”, Annales du service des antiquités de l‘Égypte 48, 267–276; Christopher A. Faraone (1991), “The Agonistic Context of Early Greek Binding Spells”, in Magika Hiera: Ancient Greek Magic and Religion, edited by Christopher A. Faraone and Dirk Obbink (New York: Oxford University Press), 3–32; John G. Gager (ed.) (2005), Curse Tablets and Binding Spells from the Ancient World(New York: Oxford University Press); Jochem Kahl (2007), Ancient Asyut. The First Synthesis after 300 Years of Research (Wiesbaden: Harrassowitz Verlag); Jochem Kahl (2016), “Magical Bone”, in Asyut, Tomb III: Objects, edited by  Jochem Kahl et al. (Wiesbaden: Harrassowitz Verlag), 332–337; Sergio Pernigotti (1995), “La magia copta: i testi”, in Aufstieg und Niedergang der römischen Welt II 18.5, edited by W. Hasse and H. Temporini (Berlin: Walter de Gruyter), 3721–3722 [nos. 25–26]; Maarten Raven (2012), Egyptian Magic. The Quest for Thoth’s Book of Secrets (Cairo: American University of Cairo Press), 173–174; Robert Ritner in Marvin W. Meyer and Richard Smith (1999), Ancient Christian Magic: Coptic Texts of Ritual Power (Princeton: Princeton University Press), 204–206 [no. 98].

Published by JCROMWELL

Senior Lecturer in Ancient History at Manchester Metropolitan University and member of the Manchester Centre for Youth Studies.

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