In Antiquity, especially in the later Roman period, men were very superstitious. Sportsmen were certainly no exception. To enhance their chances of victory, they used magic: with magical formulas they called the gods of the underworld and the ghosts of the deceased for help. These magical formulas were written in tiny letters on a piece of papyrus or a leaden tablet. During a nocturnal ritual they placed it on a special place, e.g. at the turning pole of a hippodrome or in a tomb. Often they laid it next to a tied up animal.

With white magic, athletes asked for strength and speed. This positive magic, with which one tried to improve oneself, was not often used. Magic was dangerous: one wrong letter in a spell could give it a totally opposite effect. One did not like to experience that oneself.

With black magic, sportsmen tried to cause troubles for their opponents in order to enhance their own chances. In this case you ran no risk yourself. Through a spell the gods and ghosts were forced to 'bind' the opponents, i.e. to keep them in their power by paralysing their mind and body. In the Roman horse races, the sport in which magic was most frequently applied, the spell could for example make the horse of the opponent trip. This negative form of magic was forbidden.

© KU Leuven, 2012