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Dismembered chicken in a pot was used by ancient Athenians as a 'bizarre' curse

Yale professor Jessica Lamont says the 'chicken curse pot' was likely used during a heated court case

The pot was found in buried in the back corner of an commercial building in ancient Greece, and was likely used to curse the opposing litigant and any witnesses in a high stakes court case.(L. Lamont/Athenian Agora Excavations)

If you were one of the ancient Athenians whose name was inscribed on a pot with a dismembered chicken inside, it's not likely because you were invited over for chicken stew, says Jessica Lamont.

"This was meant to be a powerful curse," the Yale classics professor told As It Happens Carol Off.

The "chicken curse pot," as Lamont calls it, was excavated from the corner of a commercial building in the Athenian Agora in 2006, and was recently analyzed by Lamont.

Her findings were published in the journal Hesperia, in a paper titled "The Curious Case of the Cursed Chicken."

'Ritual magic'

The small, 2,300-year-old ceramic pot is inscribed with more than 30 names. Inside, there is a coin and the dismembered head and lower limbs of a young chicken. The entire pot is gouged with a large nail.

"It's a little different from what you would expect from, you know, cooking a chicken dinner in the kitchen. It was very much a ritual-magic, bizarre action," Lamont said.

The large nail that punctured the pot and the chicken.(L. Lamont/Athenian Agora Excavations)

Lamont said the people who made the curse likely did it to help themselves out in a court case, as a way to have "a leg up on the competition in court." She said there is other evidence that a lot of curses during this time were related to the courts.

The names inscribed on the pot are likely those of anyone who was involved — the opposing litigant, any witnesses, as well as their families and social networks, she said.

The chicken parts, pot, coin and nail.(Craig Mauzy/Athenian Agora Excavations)

"We can certainly, you know, get a taste for the anxiety and the fear and the nervousness heading into this trial."

There are only first names on the pot, so it's impossible to know what the case was about, said Lamont, but the detail and work that went into the curse must mean the stakes were high.

"Whoever commissioned this curse probably had a lot to lose from the occasion," she said.

Jessica Lamont is a Yale classics professor. (Submitted by Jessica Lamont)

The large nail that punctured the pot and chicken likely was a symbol, Lament said. By piercing the chicken, they believed you would be able to "effectively incapacitate your enemies or opponents or rivals through this binding curse."

Lament said she felt a "certain unease" when she held the pot in her hand, because it "really held a lot of hatred and a lot of anxiety for people in antiquity."



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