Cursing, hexing, bottling and binding
A reputation for ‘successful cursing’ could easily lead to a formal charge of witchcraft, as in the case of 14-year-old Mary Glover. In 1602 the maid reported that one Elizabeth Jackson, having been turned away from the door, had wished ‘an evil death to light upon her’. The girl died and at the trial much was made of Jackson’s threats – ‘the notable property of a witch’. Another instance of successful cursing was that of old Cherrie of Thrapston in Northamptonshire, who died in gaol in 1646 while awaiting trial as a witch. He had wished that his neighbour’s tongue might rot off … and it did!
According to Religion and the Decline of Magic, this was to become the stock pattern of witchcraft accusations: ‘When a bad tongued woman shall curse a party, and death shall shortly follow, this is a shrewd token that she is a witch.’ Author Keith Thomas observes that it was ironic such presumptions should have been made so readily, in that if the curser had been provoked, it is hard to understand why contemporaries should have been so reluctant to see the outcome as divine judgement. ‘The notion that God might avenge the poor by responding to their supplications was one which the Church, like society as a whole, seems to have been unwilling to face …’ or cursing being seen as a means by which the defenceless tried to avenge themselves upon their enemies when the normal channels of legal action had been denied them.
Thomas warns it would be wrong to suggest all persons accused of witchcraft had malevolent thoughts about their neighbours, but it was the witch’s ‘traditional malignity’ that rendered the charges plausible within the community. That was why some of the most powerful minds of the 17th century believed in punishing so-called witches, even though sceptical as to their actual powers. In other words, even if the accused wasn’t capable of directing a successful curse, the mere token of the action itself was a declaration of malice towards another, and the witchcraft statues could be justified as a method of repressing malevolent feelings. But as one contemporary historian observed: ‘If mere ill-will was to be punished then men would be driven to the slaughter-house in thousands.’
Because of the low social station of many of those accused, modern researchers are also loath to believe witches of the time could exploit the psychological effects of a carefully placed curse. That said, cases recorded by anthropologists are of those of the Australian Aboriginal people, who do not have a formal training in psychology either! Neither do the Azande of Africa, who had been used as academic references for witchcraft for years.
Curses have been ‘thrown’ for the protection of homes, treasures, tombs and grave sites … the latter often remaining active for years. There are also records of curses being laid upon families, which have plagued them for generations – the Templar’s curse reaching down through the ages to the death of Louis XVI on the guillotine. These were instruments of revenge or protection, and not placed by practitioners of witchcraft. The longest Christian curse is the one placed by God on
Adam and Eve when they were expelled from the Garden of Eden. While the solemn ritual of cursing that dates from the Middle Ages is excommunication; the Catholic Encyclopaedia describes the outcast as being ‘considered as an exile from Christian society and as non-existent … in the sight of ecclesiastical authority’. The Church basing its right to curse on Mathew 18.18 where Jesus tells his disciples that ‘whatever you bind on earth shall be bound in heaven’.
The Old Testament’s ‘catalogue of maledictions’ were so drastic that the Jewish congregations were frightened of hearing them read, in case they brought the curses down upon the listeners. These curses of Hebrew origin were the predecessors of the Christian rite of excommunication, more popularly known as ‘Bell, Book and Candle’. Here the officiating cleric closes the book from which he has read the curse, a bell is tolled as for a dead man, and candles are extinguished as a sign that the soul of the offender has been moved from the sight of God. Even in the original version of the Church of England’s Book of Common Prayer there is a relic from earlier times, a service called a commination, or ‘denouncing of God’s anger and judgement against sinners’, which recalled some of the curses from the Old Testament. The medieval church laid this heavy imprecation on the heads of its excommunicated sinners:
Let him be damned in his going out and coming in.
The Lord strike him with madness and blindness.
May the heavens empty upon him thunderbolts
and the wrath of the Omnipotent burn itself unto
him in the present and future world. May the
Universe light against him and the earth open
to swallow him up.
[Pope Clement VI 1478-1534]
Perhaps one of the most well-known of ancient curses is that connected to the Egyptian boy-king, Tutankhamun, and placed at the time of his burial by the priesthood to protect the tomb of the young Pharaoh:
May death come on swift wings to him who
disturbs the rest of the Pharaoh.
The world’s press faithfully recorded the ‘untimely’ deaths of several members of the archaeological team involved in the 1922 excavation and the legend of the ‘Curse’ was firmly established as fact.
Nearer to our own times, the cursing well at Llanelian-yn-Rhos, near Colwyn Bay in Wales, was still doing a flourishing trade in the mid 19th century, and even the epitaph chosen by William Shakespeare for his own tomb was couched in the form of a curse:
Good friend, for Jesu’s sake forbear
To dig the dust enclosed here.
Blest be the man that spares these stones
And curst be he that moves my bones.
In the esoteric encyclopaedia, Man, Myth & Magic, a curse is defined as the ‘product of inner tension … even though few of us any longer expect the curse to do physical damage to its victims’.
And while the author of The Encyclopaedia of Witches & Witchcraft, Rosemary Ellen Guiley, maintains that ‘contemporary witchcraft does not condone cursing’, the often-quoted piece by the late Evan John Jones, states quite categorically that one of the signs of a genuine witch is one who does have ‘the power to call, heal and curse’.
So, let us make no bones about it, cursing, or ill-wishing isn’t confined to witches, but when dealing with magic it is always advisable to have one or two tricks up our sleeves, as other folk may not be so reticent about demonstrating their magical prowess. We should also bear in mind a ‘price’ often exacted on those laying a curse, because if it should ‘misfire’, it will inevitably rebound on the sender. Think things through beforehand and do not fling a curse if a bottling or binding will do the trick.
This has nothing to do with the belief in the ‘Three-Fold Return’ – all magic must be ‘earthed’ in order for it to work, and if a spell hasn’t been correctly directed, it will return to the sender just like a boomerang – because it has nowhere else to go!
This WARNING must be borne in mind by any potential curser. No matter what the books may tell you about spells for lifting curses … there is no such thing. Once sent, a curse cannot be lifted, called back, withdrawn or negated. It can, however, be deflected and, if the cause is not just, can be rebounded on the sender, especially if another magical practitioner is involved.