David F. Godwin is managing editor of FATE and the author of Godwin's Cabalistic Encyclopedia.
A curse is a malediction, the opposite of a benediction. The person doing the cursing is wishing or invoking misfortune or evil upon the victim. The only question is, does the curse have any effect, or is it merely a satisfying way of letting off steam?
An irate driver may shout at another, “I hope you crash and burn!” But aside from helping pump adrenaline, the words have no effect. If such curses were effective, the world would be chaotic indeed.
But a curse delivered by a being of power-a god, a spirit, a magic worker-is a different matter indeed. Someone, perhaps a Native American shaman, is said to have cursed the U.S. presidency so that, beginning with Indian-fighter William Henry Harrison in 1840, the person elected every 20 years would die in office. The curse held true for Abraham Lincoln (1860), Chester A. Arthur (1880), William McKinley (1900), Warren G. Harding (1920), Franklin D. Roosevelt (1940), and John F. Kennedy (1960). Ronald Reagan (1980) escaped this curse, but there is speculation that it is nevertheless not yet broken. And when you get to someone like Jesus Christ, the mere utterance of a phrase-“You shall wait until I return”-is enough to create the Wandering Jew, cursed with being forced to wander the earth and being unable to die until the Second Coming.
Human beings capable of delivering effective curses are commonly thought to include shamans, priests, and witches. The heaviest curse delivered under the authority of the Church is excommunication. The priest reads the rite from a book: “We exclude him from the bosom of our Holy Mother the Church in heaven and on earth… We judge him condemned to eternal fire with Satan and his angels.” The book is then shut, symbolizing the fact that Scripture is now closed to the victim.
A bell is tolled, as if for the dead. Finally, in a hideously dramatic gesture, candles are thrown down or inverted and extinguished against the floor, showing that the soul of the cursed one has been removed from the sight of God.
Although witches in fairy tales and folklore are said to have been fairly free with curses, from turning people into frogs to bringing about the ruin of Macbeth, king of Scotland, modern Wiccan ethics advise against the practice. The operative principle is the Threefold Law-whatever harm you cause will return unto you three times as harshly. Before modern times, however, it was commonly thought that witches might curse cattle with disease, or poison a well. And as recently as the 20th century, there have been curse wars between ceremonial magicians. A notable example is the feud between Aleister Crowley and MacGregor Mathers. One result was that Crowley’s hounds all died and his servants fell ill, but Mathers never recovered from the financial ruin that set in after Crowley retaliated by summoning “Beelzebub and his servitors” and setting them on Mathers.
Native shamans are widely believed to be capable of laying curses, and numerous cases have been documented of the effectiveness of these curses, which frequently result in death. It is commonly thought that the conditioning and belief of the victim are instrumental in making the curse effective. Some poor guy finds an ominous fetish, a mutilated doll, for example, and knows that he has been cursed to sicken and die. So he obligingly does just that. Theoretically, the curse would have no effect upon an unbeliever-but there are some tales that would tend to contradict this idea.
Witches and shamans are thought to be capable of delivering curses by incantation, potion, spell, or even by pointing a finger or fixing the victim with a malevolent gaze-the evil eye. Certain practitioners are thought to be capable of making “voodoo dolls”-although the practice is not confined to voodoo: A doll is made of wax or some other substance, and something from the victim-a hair, a fingernail pairing, a piece of clothing-is incorporated into the manufacture of the doll. The doll then becomes a magical stand-in for the victim, so that anything done to the doll is also done to the person. If a needle is thrust into the doll’s leg, the victim will feel a stabbing pain in his leg. If the doll is held over a fire, the recipient of the curse will develop a fever, and so on.
There are also instances of laymen cursing effectively with the help of some outside agency, such as the well of St. Elian in Wales, frequently used during the 19th century. The person doing the cursing would write the name of the victim on a piece of paper, place the paper in a lead box, tie the box to a slate, and write their initials on the slate. The package was given to the well keeper along with a fee, the curse was read, and the box thrown into the well. If the victim knew what was happening, he could pay the keeper another (higher?) fee to retrieve the box and literally lift the curse.
Of course, it is those who can deliver the most powerful and effective curses-that is, the gods-who do it most frequently. Judaism and Christianity begin with God’s curse against Satan for tempting Adam and Eve. In Islam, Allah curses Iblis for being alone among the angels in refusing to bow down to worship God’s new creation, mankind. In the ancient Greek religion, Hera, goddess of marriage, routinely cursed the women seduced (or raped) by her errant husband, Zeus. Thus she had Leto, mother of Apollo and Diana, pursued all over the world by the serpent Python and decreed that she could only give birth in some place where the sun never shines. Similarly, Io was pursued by a gadfly. Hera got back at Callisto by turning her into a bear.
Curses in the Bible
The Bible abounds with curses, beginning with the Serpent of Eden and continuing right through to the final chapter of the Revelation, which, in its penultimate verse, curses anyone who “shall take away from the words of the book of this prophecy.” A couple of chapters earlier, the Serpent (“which is the Devil, and Satan”) takes his licks one more time when he is bound in hell for a thousand years. Along the way, we have God’s curse of Adam and Eve when they are evicted from the Garden, God’s curse against Cain after he had introduced fratricide into the world, the Flood, Noah’s curse against Ham and his offspring Canaan because Ham “saw the nakedness of his father” (a passage that was formerly used to justify human slavery, a curse in itself), the Lord’s curse that caused the confusion of tongues among the builders of Babel, Sodom and Gomorrah, the 40 years of wandering in the Wilderness, Shimei’s curse of David, Elisha’s curse against the children who taunted him (whereby they were devoured by bears), and so on and so on.
Often, the curse seems almost to be some operation of the forces of nature, or an automatic function of divine law, as when someone brings a curse down upon himself by swearing a foolish oath or making a particularly rash statement. Thus the Flying Dutchman, because he swore that he would bring his ship around the Cape of Good Hope if it took him until Doomsday, is now doomed to sail the seas forever. The leader of the Wild Hunt, because of his insistence upon hunting on Sunday or upon some holy day, is condemned to ride to hounds for eternity. The horses, dogs, and wild cries of the hunters can sometimes be heard on a stormy night as they thunder past on their everlasting quest. Samuel Taylor Coleridge tells The Rime of the Ancient Mariner, wherein a sailor and his whole ship are cursed when he impulsively kills an albatross with a crossbow. All the crew dies except for him, and he is trapped onboard with a shipload of inert corpses-all staring at him:
An orphan’s curse would drag to Hell
A spirit from on high;
But oh! more horrible than that
Is the curse in a dead man’s eye!
Seven days, seven nights, I saw that curse,
And yet I could not die.
Back in the Bible, we find God cursing Egypt with ten plagues because the pharaoh would not release the Jews from captivity, culminating in the death of every firstborn Egyptian child.
The full article is available in the March 2001 issue of FATE.