Coptic Curses

Coptic Curses IV: “The curses of God, the Law, and Deuteronomy will descend upon Alō and Phibamōn!”

This week’s post takes a deep dive into an applied curse from Kyprianos, our database of Coptic magical texts. P. Mich. inv. 3565 is a papyrus sheet of 20.9 by 30.3 cm. With five horizontal and three vertical creases, it looks as if the papyrus was folded into a rectangular package of approximately 4 by 7.5 cm, before being deposited, as was invariably the case with curses, at or near the houses of the targets, crossroads where they might pass, or in tombs. The online catalogue entry for this manuscript records that the papyrus was purchased from Maurice Nahman – a famous antiquities dealer – in 1925 and came to the Michigan University Library at Ann Arbor in October 1926 as a gift of Oscar and Richard Webber. Published first by William Worrell in his article “Coptic Magical and Medical Texts”, a translation of the text also appeared in the collection Coptic Texts of Ritual Power by Marvin Meyer and Richard Smith, where it was translated by Stephen Skiles.

P. Mich. inv. 3656

The text written upon the recto (front) of the papyrus can be described as an applied curse – a curse in which the name of the target had already been filled in – which makes use of the language of law and justice. Written in a seemingly unpractised scribal hand, in large disjointed letters written upon lines that slant downwards to the right, the text was dated by Worrell to the 6th century CE. The scribe makes the odd mistake in writing, for example writing the Greek loanword libanos (“frankincense”) where libellos (“petition”) would be expected from parallels, but the text is otherwise easily understandable despite this seemingly unpractised hand. Because the language of the text is written in a form of the Sahidic dialect of Coptic that shows features of the Akhmimic dialect, we could conclude that the scribe was trained in writing Sahidic, but his own spoken dialect was Akhmimic, which consequently crept into some of the spellings he used. This has led to the suggestion that the papyrus was found near Akhmim (although Akhmimic was actually spoken around Thebes, further south), although Worrell himself suggested that it was acquired in the Fayum, much further north. Important for us to bear in mind when considering dialects, then, is that a scribe’s dialect is only evidence of where they were from, not where a particular text was written, nor where it was found.

The text itself curses a woman called Alō, the daughter of Aēse, and a man called Phibamōn. The names of these targets are interspersed with seven staurograms (⳨) that line the top of the manuscript, which are then followed by a series of dashes and vowels, and then 15 lines of continuous linear text. The Jewish-Christian God, here called Sabaoth, by the name Saō and Sabaōt – variants of that name, is invoked as the one who shall receive the petitioner from the hand of the Apa Victor, the son of Thibamōn, the client of the practice. Apa Victor specifies that he both writes and adjures Sabaoth – concretising that the “petition” comprises both a recitation of the text and a writing of the text, which he delivered to Sabaoth both orally and physically (“from my hand”).

Alō, the daughter of Aēse and Phibamōn
— — — eōōōōōōō
I write (and) I adjure you (s.), Saōt Sabaōt! You (s.) will receive this petition from my hand! You (s.) will proclaim word which guards me against Alō, the daughter of [5] Aēse! Ha…ouēl, you (s.) will bring loss and grief as this oath ascends to Heaven, until you enact justice for me with Alō, the daughter of Aēse, while the curse of God descends upon Alō and the darkness receives Alō, the daughter of Aēse, from afar! You (pl.) will entreat he who received the petition from my hand! The curses of the Law and Deuteronomy will descend upon Alō, the daughter of Aēse! Hunger and misery will rule the body of Alō and Phibamōn, their eyes shall see the fiery furnace coming out before the mouth of Alō, the daughter of Aēse! The curse of God will descend upon Alō and her entire household, while disturbance and death will be in the house of Alō! You will stick them in bed! Amen, Amen, Sabaōt!
Apa Victor, the son of Thi[…]amōn!

The ritual itself has the double function of “guarding against” and “bringing a loss and grief” to Alō, while the curse is described as an “oath” that “ascends to Heaven” until justice is enacted upon Alō. At that time, the “curse of God” will come down upon Alō, and she will be received by the darkness.

A plurality of beings is invoked in the following section of the text, and they are commanded to “entreat he who received the petition from my hand”, Sabaoth, ensuring that Sabaoth heeds the “petition”. The consequence is not only that the “curse of God” will come down upon Alō, but also “the curses of the the Law (perhaps in this context not just divine law, but specifically the legal strictures given in the books of Exodus, Leviticus, and Numbers) and Deuteronomy” do so too. In this way, the curse makes considerable use of the language of law and justice in the context of Christian Egypt, a phenomenon treated by Tonio Sebastian Richter in his monograph on legal semantics and rhetoric (2002).

Curses such as this, but those principally from the Eastern Mediterranean and Europe, are often termed “Judicial Prayers”, or “Prayers for Justice”, following a formative article on the topic by Henk Versnel (1991). While Versnel’s collection of “Judicial Prayers” are principally written in Greek and Latin, and come from outside of Egypt, Gudmund Björck’s (1938) study of “Punishment Prayers” and “Revenge Prayers”, from which Versnel took inspiration, comprised a study of both Greek and Coptic sources from Egypt, which showed that curses that use the language of law and justice are also found in Egypt.

The ideas behind characterising certain curses as “Judicial Prayers” is that they utilise the language of law and justice, are addressed to a divine recipient, and seem to be motivated not by jealousy and competition concerning a future matter, as in binding curse tablets – the defixiones – proper, but by a sense of injustice done to the client in the past. That is to say, the client of the practice believes they have been unjustly wronged by the target and frame their “prayer” as a redressing of a legitimate grievance that ensures ‘justice is done’. Ultimately, and in line with Björck’s characterisation of prayers for both “punishment” and “revenge”, such “Judicial Prayers” are only concerned with one side of ‘justice’ – punishment!

This is exactly what we see in Apa Victor’s curse. Although Apa Victor commands that Sabaoth, and the beings invoked alongside him, ‘enact justice’, and that he is ‘petitioning’ them – using the language of legitimate legal disputes, what Apa Victor wants is the punishment of Alō and Phoibamōn. Not only are curses from God, the Law, and Deuteronomy, to descend upon his targets, but Apa Victor also commands that “hunger and misery” “rule” their bodies. Not only this, their eyes shall see a fiery furnace coming out of the mouth of Alō! Alō’s household are also ‘guilty by association’, for they are too to be subjected to the “curse of God”, with only “disturbance and death” being able to reign among them. The final command that they will be stuck in “bed” suggests that they will be ‘bed-ridden’ with sickness.

Unlike in many of the curse texts characterised as “Judicial Prayers”, unfortunately we do not here get a sense of what Apa Victor believes Alō and Phibamōn are supposed to have done to deserve this punishment. The name of the client, Apa Victor may give us some clues. The designation “Apa” (from the Aramaic abba “father”) was conventionally used as a title for monks, priests, bishops and saints, although by the sixth century it could also be used as a title of respect for lay people. If the client’s name was Victor, his title “Apa” may indicate that he was a monk, and we might imagine that he could have been opposed to a moral crime – albeit perhaps one that had social dimensions. One conventional assumption from a curse that curses a named woman and man could be that is concerns romantic and/or erotic jealousy, but there are many different motivations for curses. Nevertheless, as with other clients in the “Judicial Prayers”, Apa Victor frames his grievance as one that is ‘unjust’ and so its resolution results in ‘justice being done’, and perhaps this is not surprising – we know from documentary papyri from Christian Egypt that monks often had the same mundane concerns and conflicts as other Egyptians. We should also note that there are certain personal names which begin with Apa – because it was common to refer to saints as Apa, people named after them might include this element in this name. One example is saint Cyrus, Kuros in Coptic; individuals named after him might be called Apakuros, and Maher Eissa has presented evidence that that a saint named Victor was one such namesake (2014).

Victor’s curse, whether produced by that of a monk or not, is yet another unique insight into the social world of Byzantine and Islamic Egypt illuminated by the corpus of Coptic magical texts under study by our project. Although we cannot be certain what the grievance was, this text allows us to look more closely at the social history of human relationships at this time, both their concrete and perhaps even their exaggerated grievances with others. But not only human relationships, this curse, Victor’s “petition” to Sabaoth also allows us to understand more fully the relationship between human and divine beings, and the way that divine intervention was thought to bring about real changes in their lived experience.

Bibliography and Further Reading

Björck, Gudmund. Der Fluch des Christen Sabinus: Papyrus Upsaliensis 8. Uppsala: Almqvist & Wiksell, 1938.

Eissa, Maher A., “The Use of the Title Apa for the Sender in an Opening Epistolary Formula”, Journal of Coptic Studies 16 (2014), 115-124.

Meyer, Marvin W., and Richard Smith. Ancient Christian Magic: Coptic Texts of Ritual Power. Princeton (New Jersey): Princeton University Press, 1999.

Richter, T. S. Rechtsemantik und forensische Rhetorik: Untersuchungen zu Wortschatz, Stil und Grammatik der Sprache koptischer Rechtsurkunden. Leipzig: H. Wodtke & K. Stegbauer, 2002.

Versnel, H. S. “Beyond Cursing: The Appeal to Justice in Judicial Prayers.” In Christopher A. Faraone and Dirk Obbink, (eds.). Magika Hiera: Ancient Greek Magic and Religion. New York and Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1991, 60-106.

Wipszycka, Ewa and Derda, Tomasz. “L’emploi des titres ‘abba’, ‘apa’ et ‘papas’ dans l’Égypte byzantine.” Journal of Juristic Papyrology 24 (1994): 23-56. URL

Worrell, William H. “Coptic Magical and Medical Texts.” Orientalia, NOVA SERIES 4 (1935): 1–37. URL

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