"You taught me language -- and my profit on't is, I know how to curse."
--Shakespeare, The Tempest
Say the word "curse" and generally two sorts of images will leap to mind; the first will probably be the composite picture of a thousand B-movie and cartoon villains exclaiming "Curses! Foiled again," and the second may be one of several things, but it will very likely have something to do with Egypt, and will almost certainly involve a corpse, or a doll stuck with pins. This second set of images is not absolutely misleading, but it is limiting. Because these images are mostly foreign to us, it is easy to think that curses are safely confined within some exotic and ignorant past. But many people throughout the western world still believe in curses and perform them, and they do so for reasons that would not seem strange to those who lived in Europe and the subcontinent two, three, or six thousand years ago. The cursing methods of these places are the source of the great majority of curse stories and methods which are popular in the Western world now, and this overview will therefore concentrate on them.
Curses are essentially prayers (to what deity, or force, will vary depending on the era) to bring misfortune or death to someone or something. The most basic reasons for cursing someone -- hatred, fear, jealousy, and their offshoots -- have changed not at all, though their guises shift occasionally. But as with all prayers, it must be truly meant in order to have a chance of its being answered. While extra apparatuses -- ritual spells, herbs, dolls, pins, and other things -- have been supposed to be helpful in concentrating feeling and making the curse stronger, the one compulsory ingredient of any curse is a very strong negative emotion. And while several common themes appear in almost every recorded historical curse -- that the victim should suffer, that they should have no offspring, or that they should be miserable after death -- the ways in which these curses have historically been employed are not all identical. Curses can be broken down into three rough categories, all of which have equivalents or near-equivalents today: protective curses (intended to guard an object or person), malicious curses (intended to harm), and -- less well-known, but still present -- self-curses.
Self-curses are the least complicated sort, because serious ones are rare, and in any case they are always conditional. They are meant simply to be guarantees of good faith, and storybooks are full of tales of self-curses that misfire -- that is, they are fulfilled. One of the most famous is the legend of the Flying Dutchman; the captain swore during a storm that he would get around the Cape of Good Hope if it took him till Doomsday. The ship sank, and so by the captain's own curse the phantom of the ship is supposedly still sailing. Somewhat similarly, in Dante's Inferno, Dante worms his way into a damned soul's confidence by lying to him, and then saying that if he is lying "May I be sent to the bottom of the ice" -- that is, the deepest pit of Hell. Dante is equivocating, however, because he fully intends to go to the bottom of the ice; however, not being a damned soul, he will take a different path, and at the bottom he will find an escape route to Purgatory.
Everyday usage of self-curses is still common -- every small child has said "Cross my heart and hope to die" as a guarantee that what he is saying is true, but not even very small children expect any serious consequences if they fail to hold up their end of that bargain. They were taken more seriously in the past, when a sudden death or unfortunate lightning strike after a promise could be taken as just punishment. Of course, the only place where self-curses could be made even somewhat against one's will was in court, where a person would have to (and still often does have to) swear before God that they will tell the truth -- the implication being that if he or she then lies, it will be inviting God's wrath.
The self-curse makes a much fiercer appearance in Jan Yoors' account of a 1930s trial held by Gypsies: one of their number had had a bag of gold coins stolen, and it was plain that no outsider could have done it, so a trial was held. Every person in turn had to come up to the judge, who would recite a series of curses, beginning with "If you know or have anything related to the gold pieces stolen from Carolina, and you do not inform this Kris [court] may you die in horrible agony." The person would have to say "Bater," meaning "May it be so." Yoors writes that "the curses grew more terrible and merciless. . . one after the other the Rom were interrogated and conditionally cursed." As high-pressure as the situation was, only someone who lied would consider himself to be in danger of having the curse fulfilled. (Terror was not so absolute that nobody could lie, though. The outcome of this particular trial was that nobody confessed; however shortly afterwards a woman died of a sudden illness, and she confessed to stealing the coins before the end).
Self-curses are unique in that they involve only one person and are thus voluntarily entered into by both the curser and the victim. Not so with protective and malicious curses, which are usually the ones that people first think of when the subject arises.
Protective curses are laid upon a person or object for their own defense; often the protected object would have the curse written on it. They are sleeping curses, so to speak -- if nobody tries to harm the protected object, the curse will never be awakened. They have something in common with protective charms and amulets, but protective curses differ in that they are supposed to make an evildoer's own evil rebound upon the sinner, not simply stifle the evil itself.
Everyone has seen movies where protective curses come into play; in the most recent version of The Mummy, a team of feckless archaeologists opens a cursed tomb, with predictably fatal results. Interestingly enough, the best-known story of a cursed tomb is probably apocryphal. When the Earl of Carnarvon's exploration team opened King Tutankhamen's tomb in 1922, they were said to have found a clay tablet which read "Death shall come on swift wings to him that toucheth the tomb of the Pharaoh." Several of the explorers who opened the tomb did die fairly young in following years, and these deaths were attributed to the curse. However, this curse tablet almost certainly never existed. As another explorer pointed out, there was no precedent for Egyptians couching a curse in such language, and furthermore, they did not use clay tablets for writing.
However, many less notorious ancient tombs did have curses inscribed on them. One especially detailed curse, dating from about 350 BC, was made on the tomb of a king who had ruled a Middle Eastern province: "I, Tabnith, priest of Ashtart, King of the Sidonians, son of Eshmunazar, priest of Ashtart, King of the Sidonians, lie in this coffin. My curse be with whatever man thou art that bringest forth this coffin! Do not, do not open me, nor disquiet me, for I have not indeed silver, I have not indeed gold, nor any jewels. Only I am lying in this coffin. Do not, do not open me, nor disquiet me, for that thing is an abomination to Ashtart. And if thou do at all open me, and at all disquiet me, mayest thou have no seed among the living under the sun, nor resting place among the shades."
Tombs were not the only objects so protected. Books, and written material in general, were very precious objects -- expensive and time-consuming to manufacture, easy to damage -- and for thousands of years they and the libraries which contained them had protective curses laid on them. This was not done solely because of their expense, though that did play a large role. According to Marc Drogin in his book Anathema, "Every civilization which created for itself a form of writing felt that the skill had originated as a direct gift from superhuman sources." By writing things down they were using a divinely given instrument, and they feared to see it abused in any way.
No wonder, therefore, that six thousand years ago the King of Nippur inscribed a curse on his library, which was intended to deter anyone who might try to damage or destroy the building. "Whoever removes this inscribed stone, may Bel and Shamash tear out his foundation and exterminate his posterity." The Babylonian King Assurbanipal, who died in 626 BC, went further; his curse is inscribed on most of the clay tablets in his library. "I have transcribed upon tablets the noble products of the scribe . . . whosoever shall carry off this tablet, or inscribe his name on it, side by side with mine own, may Ashur and Belit overthrow him in wrath and anger, and may they destroy his name and his posterity in the land." Modern librarians, seeing books routinely torn and scribbled on, can only dream of making such threats.
Western Europeans, whether because they wrote less or wrote on more perishable items, enter the historical record later than the Babylonians, but by the time records begin, protective curses were going strong and continued to do so as Christianity spread. The names invoked for protecting objects became those of Christ and the saints, and the instrument of the curse became excommunication, but the basic themes of damnation (considered automatic for an excommunicant) and wiping out of the offender's seed had not changed. During the Third Council of Constantinople, in 680, it was decreed that anyone who lent, sold or damaged any holy books would be excommunicated. Individual books were commonly cursed, with the curses often being inscribed in the colophons and margins. One 11th century lectionary made in the Abbey of St. Peter, in Salzburg, had a beautifully lettered curse on its last page: "Whoever steals this, may he suffer violent bodily pains."
These curses were not used exclusively for religious material; they could also be written on grants or charters, in order to warn off anyone who decided to dispute. When Petrus Veremudi, who lived in the late Middle Ages, decided to leave his estate to an entity other than his immediate relatives, the charter had this rider attached to it. "If anyone of my lineage or anyone extraneous should violate this document, may curse and malediction and excommunication befall him, and may he be damned in Hell like Judas who betrayed the Lord, and may he be accursed unto the seventh generation."
Book curses, though the best-documented, were not the only protective curses used in the Middle Ages and before. Several turn up in Anglo-Saxon charms, which are an interesting combination of old curses mixed with somewhat newer Christian iconography. One charm, for protection of cattle from thieves, runs in part:
If one do this deed, let it never avail him!. . .
May he wither entirely, like wood withered by fire,
Be brittle as a thistle,
He who thinks to thieve these cattle,
Or carry off these cows.
(Translation by Gavin Chappell)
Protective curses seemed to fade into the background during the Renaissance and after, though they did exist -- Shakespeare's grave, with its inscription of "Curst be he who moves my bones" is enough indication of that. There is plenty of evidence of protective charms -- red string, stone amulets, and so forth -- remaining popular, but many of these charms had lost their threatening aspect; they were simply intended to ward off evil, not to throw the evil back at the original perpetrator.
But protective curses still live today, if in somewhat more muted form: The Witch's Almanac publishes a spell by Sybil Leek, intended to ward off evil influences, which contains the line "Let the evil return to whence it came" -- a fairly clear protective curse. A present-day witch named Silver RavenWolf has an entire book dedicated to protective spells, both old and new; one of the newer ones is for protection of one's car, which is understandable considering the investment involved. She is vague about whether these are actual protective curses, though, and while she mentions several methods of "deflecting negative energy" by using crystals and mirrors, she does not state where the evil thus deflected goes. Present-day witches and Wiccans (these two groups are by no means identical) disagree about the nature and applicability of curses, but they share a tendency to dislike the idea of an extraneous or unnecessary curse; the general feeling (although there are exceptions) seems to be that in choosing between protection with a curse, and plain protection with no negative rebound, one should choose the latter.
A protective curse could be considered successful even if -- perhaps especially if -- it was never "activated." Not so for malicious curses, whose only reason for existence is to harm someone, almost always physically. It is because of this that the image most associated with the idea of malicious curses is that of the pin-pricked "Voodoo doll."
The name is inaccurate -- such dolls, useful for focusing the emotion necessary for a curse, have been used in Europe and the Mideast for several thousand years, and the slaves who practiced Voodoo may well have picked them up from their European owners. Dolls were used almost everywhere on the European continent, as well as in other regions as far away as India. It is impossible to determine a place of origin for the doll, and the practices associated with it do not vary much from place to place except in degrees of aggression.
Some of the earliest extant dolls are the Greek kolossoi, the earliest-known of which date from the fourth century BC and which were usually made of soft metal or wax. The figure would be named for the person it represented -- writing the name somewhere on the figure was considered most effective -- and the hands, feet and head would be twisted backwards, and needles driven through the heart, eyes and other parts of the body. The Greeks generally used these dolls for simple incapacitation of enemies, but others meant such curses to be fatal. It is impossible to know how many people actually used dolls, but fear of them was universal. In eleventh-century England, a nun narrowly escaped lynching; she had somehow acquired the reputation of "making figures." Five centuries later, Ambroise Pare, a French doctor, wrote that there were those "who, having contrived the image and likeness of some absent party, pierce it with certain instruments, and boast of afflicting -- with any such illness as pleases them -- the one whose likeness they are piercing." During the hysteria of the Salem witch trials, Elizabeth Proctor was alleged to have been caught red-handed with a "poppet" which was stuck full of needles, and this was offered as evidence of her performing curses.
Dolls were not the only devices out there; often they were enhanced with or replaced by something directly connected to the intended victim; bits of their hair, nail-parings or urine. The connection did not have to be a biological one; in seventeenth-century England, a woman called Mother Flower attempted to kill the family of the Earl of Rutland by cursing and burying a handkerchief and glove belonging to two family members. Antonia Fraser writes that "the coincidental (as we must believe) sickenings and deaths of the [Rutland] children represented at once Mother Flower's triumph and her downfall," as these events were the catalyst for her eventual arrest. But sometimes the object used did not have to have the slightest association with the victim.
Ligature was another spell which was known almost everywhere, and it consisted simply of saying a spell over a piece of string, and then tying it into knots; this was supposed to cause impotence in the victim which could only be cured by unknotting the string. A twentieth-century Gypsy variant on this is mentioned by Jan Yoors; when a friend of his died, he was given a strip of cloth from a shirt that had once belonged to the dead man. It was primarily meant for good luck, but if the bearer found himself in trouble with the law, he could tie three knots in it, and by so doing would render the police unable to testify against him -- a different sort of powerlessness.
Dolls and enchanted bits of string are more colorful than the plain written word, but the latter had its place in the world of malicious curses, for those who could use it or could hire others to do so. One method of cursing practiced in the Middle East for more than two thousand years involves writing the victim's name in a clay bowl, then smashing it to pieces; the symbolism is obvious. Going back even further, Psalm 129, the "Cursing Psalm," cries "Let [the enemy] be like grass on a roof / Which withers before it can grow." The Greek kolossoi mentioned previously were sometimes almost indistinguishable from plain writing tablets; they were made of lead, flattened, and had the name of the victim and the binding curse written on them.
Romans also used curse tablets, when they could do so; the Roman Baths museum in Bath, England, has an impressive collection of them. (The baths there also doubled as the temple of a goddess, and curse tablets were thrown into the water of the spring. In other regions, such tablets were buried). These curses were typically written on lead tablets, probably both because it was less expensive and because, lead being "soft and weak," it was thought that these qualities would be transmitted to the victim.
These curses were not free; a scribe had to be paid to write them down properly. This was because they were generally written backwards, as that would keep anyone but the gods from being able to read it at a glance. A typical curse describes the crime committed (usually the theft of a possession, or lover) and asks that the usual pain and suffering be inflicted. Sometimes the petitioner would help the gods along by naming a few suspects. A typical curse at Bath -- made by someone who seems to have been in an extremely rocky relationship, considering the number of potential victims listed -- runs as follows: "May he who carried off Vilbia from me become as liquid as water. May she who obscenely devoured her become dumb, whether Velvinna, Exsupereus, Verianus, Severinus, Augustalis, Comitianus, Catsuminianus, Germanilla or Jovina."
It was quite common, if a curse was directed at a named victim, for rumors to get around -- probably spread intentionally -- and it was considered well worth the investment for the victim to ward off the curse, offer his own tablet, or otherwise make things square with the gods before much time had passed.
Similar approaches to written curses were taken by the Vikings, who would write Runic charms on sticks of wood and either bury them or hide them somewhere in the intended victim's possessions. During the Middle Ages, a doll was considered especially effective if the user could contrive to write the victim's name on it. The magic still inherent in the written word was emphasized by the fact that one of the common themes during the witch-craze of the sixteenth and seventeenth century was "writing one's name in the Devil's book" -- accusers at Salem and other places almost always claimed that the supposed witch had tried to get her victim to write her name (often the only thing she knew how to write) in a black book. This was the act that would seal her pact with the Devil.
But where written words could not be obtained, simple spoken ones, without any sort of physical accompaniment, could be enough if there was sufficient feeling behind them. Phrases like "Go to Hell" were not always metaphorical, and similar words led to a lot of trouble for some unfortunate women during the witch-hunts of the 1500s and 1600s. Sarah Good, accused at Salem, had as evidence against her the fact that she had muttered imprecations when people refused to give her food, and many domestic disasters were attributed to her mysterious (probably half-senile) mumblings. The Salem judges were less careful than their medieval forebears when it came to distinguishing between a solemnly-meant curse and common swearing. In The Canterbury Tales, Chaucer gives an example of this distinction. His Friar tells the story of a wicked summoner who falls in with the Devil while on his way to defraud an old woman. They pass by a man who curses his oxen and wishes them with the Devil, but the Devil refuses to take them, because the curse was not really meant. However, when the summoner arrives at the old woman's cottage and she wishes him with the Devil, the Devil promptly drags him away -- because the woman spoke "wyl in ernest." Presumably Chaucer's old woman had no reason to worry about repercussions for cursing the summoner, since he is presented as being fully deserving of it, but the old woman's real-life counterparts three hundred years later could not, unfortunately, count on having their own situations so carefully examined.
In the present day, an interesting fictional example of "wyl in ernest" turns up in, of all places, the Harry Potter series, where the forces behind magic and even minor curses are generally treated more like electricity than anything else. When Harry attempts to use a strong Unforgivable Curse, he is told by Bellatrix Lestrange that it didn't work because there was no real feeling of hatred behind it. "You have to mean it, Potter!"
Written words, spoken words, dolls, bits of hair, strategic knots -- all of these were (and are) convenient, if not vital, tools. But for the most basic curse -- and one of the most feared -- they were completely irrelevant. This curse was the Evil Eye, which in many ways was more insidious even than a spoken curse, because one could supposedly use the Evil Eye on a victim without even being aware of it. The Evil Eye was simply an undesirable emotion, usually jealousy, which was so strong that it turned itself into a curse. A sterile woman who admired a baby, or a poor man who admired a rich man's herd of cows, were considered prime suspects for accidentally casting an evil eye on the baby and the cattle, and if either one took sick afterwards, it was thought that the power of unacknowledged jealousy had done it. Only in a few places -- Italy and Greece, predominantly -- were people supposed to be able to control or cultivate the Evil Eye; everywhere else, it seems to have been considered almost entirely a force of nature. This did not, however, prevent people from ostracizing those who were particularly unfortunate, and so thought to be especially prone to jealousy.
The Evil Eye was a curse in its roughest form -- sheer raw emotion, not channeled into objects or put into words so as to concentrate feeling, but simply striking at whatever was closest, uncontrollable even by its possessor. In this sense, Caliban's statement in The Tempest that because he knows language, he "know[s] how to curse" is not quite accurate. For the Evil Eye, at least, no spoken, or even mental, words are needed.
Belief in the Evil Eye still remains, largely in Mediterranean countries. But North America is certainly not immune from it; whenever anyone demurs at another's praise, or says "Don't jinx it," they are, in a way, trying to ward off the Evil Eye. Curse tablets are not so popular, but despite the disagreement between different factions of modern witches, manipulation of dolls for cursing purposes is still written about and practiced. Walk into any chain bookstore and you can easily find publications like The Modern Witch's Spellbook which describe how to torment an enemy by means of a doll ("poppet" is the preferred term). As of old, they advise their readers to increase the power of the curse by writing the victim's name on the doll -- or, in a modern variation, by attaching a photograph. As a way of protecting oneself from any sort of karmic payback, they usually recommend emotionally dissociating oneself from the curse immediately after performing it (Mexican witches of today often use the methods which Silver RavenWolf mentioned in another context -- deflecting payback with mirrors) but they also emphasize the universal constant of curses: that they must be meant.
Kathryn Paulsen, in The Complete Book of Magic and Witchcraft, writes a depressing account of a friend who supposedly ruined a former lover's wedding with a curse, and at the end she states that the reader, too, can do such things, but that "hatred" has to be strong. Her book also contains old formulas for ligature -- virtually unchanged -- and a spell for bringing infertility on a woman. It is impossible to know how many people actually use such spells, but many of these books have been in print for ten years and more, so they are selling. Underneath their modern gloss and stories of successful businesswomen who can curse former lovers and their spouses, one senses the same desire for their pain and extinction expressed long ago by Tabnith -- "Mayest thou have no seed of the living under the sun."
In the end, there is little to choose between the distraught former lover from two thousand years ago and the distraught former lover of today; they both want the same disasters to befall their enemies, and they will tie the same knots and employ the same dolls to bring these about. Self-curses are spoken every day, though most of their rhetorical grandeur is gone. Protective curses are not as fiercely worded, nor as open, but amulets and lucky stones and red strings are still clung to for help in warding off evil. And when all else fails, there are always plain words, and when those fail, there is still emotion. As long as humans feel hatred, fear, and jealousy, they will curse, and it is unlikely that any advancement will ever raise us so high that we escape them altogether.
Copyright © 2004 Marian Kensler
Marian Kensler is a freelance writer and researcher living in Illinois; more of her work can be seen in the forthcoming issue of The Circle. She would like to thank Andrew Kensler, Anne Butzen, and Andrew Derksen for suggestions made while writing this article.
Timothy Crawford, Blessing and Curse in Syro-Palestinian Inscriptions of the Iron Age.
Barry Cunliffe, Roman Bath.
Antonia Fraser, The Weaker Vessel.
Mary Beth Norton, In the Devil's Snare: The Salem Witchcraft Crisis of 1692.
Kathryn Paulsen, The Complete Book of Magic and Witchcraft.
Silver RavenWolf, Protective Spells.
Jan Yoors, The Gypsies.
Translations of several Anglo-Saxon charms, including the protective charm for cattle.
An excellent site on Greek kolossoi, with photographs.