im·pre·ca·tion / ˌimpriˈkāshən/ • n. formal a spoken curse: she hurled her imprecations at anyone who might be listening. DERIVATIVES: im·pre·ca·to·ry / ˈimprikəˌtôrē/ adj.
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So imprecatory XVI. — medL.
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CURSING , the antithesis of blessing, is a pan-global, pan-historical phenomenon in which language, spoken or written and with or without special accompanying actions, is directed at bringing down evil or misfortune upon an intended object, person, or community. Although in colloquial parlance cursing commonly refers to imprecations spoken as spontaneous outbursts of rage or to cold-blooded private wishes of malice, as well as to "profane" language generally, this article emphasizes not only expressiveness but also the presumed efficacy of such language. A curse can be considered efficacious in a given cultural context either because of an explicit or implicit appeal to a deity or spiritual power to endorse and realize the curse or because the spoken or written word in and of itself is recognized as efficacious by the sender and the object of the curse and/or by the cultural community. In the latter case, the curse may be considered operative upon being pronounced, and the object of the curse may henceforth consider him or herself, and be regarded by the community, as "accursed."
A middle ground between cursing as spontaneous oral outburst and culturally recognized or institutionalized ritual is the broad category of inscribed personal curses that serve exclusively private ends. Linguists and folklorists in many cultural contexts have collected private and personal curses, including modern Palestinian curses that follow biblical curse formulas. For example, a daʾweh may call upon God (or sometimes Satan) to bring down affliction on an enemy's health, family, honor, or property: "may God make a disease, whose cure nobody knows, befall you," "may God destroy your tent and your pasture.… may God deprive you of all that throws a shadow" (Canaan, 1935, pp. 247, 259).
Among the richest sources of such private curses are the tabellae defixiones of the classical Greco-Roman world. Thousands of such tiny lead tablets, etched with inscriptions and sometimes diagrams and rolled and pierced by a nail, have been discovered at the bottoms of wells or buried at stadia, crossroads, marketplaces, and the thresholds of homes and shops. These tabellae use succinct and sometimes cryptic but often explicit subjunctive or optative language to call down mishap, misfortune, financial disaster, sexual dysfunction, bodily harm or death upon the object of the curse, whether a despised neighbor, a rival shop-owner, a courtroom adversary, a chariot-racing competitor (Gager items 66, 45, and 6, respectively), or the object of frustrated sexual desire: "I bind you, Theodotis, daughter of Eus, by the tail of the snake … and the penis of the god so that you may never be able to sleep with any other man, nor be screwed, nor be taken anally, nor fellate, nor find pleasure with any other man but me" (Gager item 54).
Sometimes the tablet includes a tiny lead doll, bound and pierced, and the written "binding" inscription implies an accompanying manipulative action that makes this more like a spell or charm than a purely linguistic curse. The most thorough and inclusive of all these defixiones curses is a Latin example c. 75–50 bce against a woman in retribution for a curse she had put upon the scribe: it scrupulously enumerates her body parts, including "intestines, belly, navel, shoulder blades, sides" and concludes, "Terribly destroy her, terribly kill her, terribly ruin her" (Falco, 140–41). The roots of such punitive counter-curse formulae can be traced to the much earlier, first-century Mesopotamian Maqlu tablets, which contain extensive counter-witchcraft directives and incantations: "May their witchcraft, poisons, and charms that are not good, but rather evil. / Turn upon them and attack their heads and their faces.… May they dissolve, melt, drip ever away, / May their life force come to an end like water from a water skin" (Tablet AfO 18, 1957–1958, ll. 56–7, 76–7, in Abusch, 2002, pp. 73–74; cf. Cryer and Thomsen, 2001, p. 47).
In the matter of cultural interpretation, scholarship on cursing in the mid-twentieth century was heavily influenced by the turn-of-the-century research of Sir James Frazer's Golden Bough, A Study in Magic and Religion, 12 vols. (London, 1911–1915) and the Cambridge school of ethnography. Their work globalized cultural studies, but from a very hegemonic perspective. Thus, the early classic studies of cursing by Edward Westermarck, Ernest Crawley, and others often display cultural and ethnic stereotyping that derives both from their theoretical perspective of cultural evolution and from their uncritical use of travel accounts, colonial memoirs, and ethnographies as sources of descriptive and anecdotal evidence. Canaan, for example, in his article on Palestinian cursing quotes with approval an earlier writer, Rihbany, who cautioned that in the matter of extravagant verbal outbursts one must "keep in mind the juvenile temperament of the Oriental" (Canaan, 1935, p. 260).
Early scholarship assumed a fundamental dichotomy between the mentalities of "primitive" cultures, which used magic, and the mentalities of "higher" civilizations, which developed religion. Scholars believed that cultures begin in magic and "progress" toward religion and that religion itself naturally "progresses" from animism through polytheism to monotheism (see, for example, Malinowski, 1948 and the critical responses to Malinowski reviewed by Tambiah, 1968; cf. Keim, 1992, chap. 1; Fox, 1914, p. 122; and Cryer and Thomsen, 2001, pp. 113–117). "Although the theoretical basis of this interpretive model has been largely discredited and abandoned by anthropologists today," as Keim concludes, "its legacy remains strong within the field of biblical studies.… [as] the idealistic framework remained intact, whereby the mythological and magical develops (in Israel) toward the historical and ethical" (p. 9).
Thus, until recently, biblical scholarship operated from similar presumed contrasts between the "higher" theocratic and ethical religious ideology assumed to be reflected in the Hebrew scriptures and the polytheistic, "idolatrous," and allegedly non-ethical religious ceremonialism of the neighboring cultures of Mesopotamia, Egypt, and Canaan (see, for example, Pedersen, 1926/1964; Mowinckel, 1962; Hempel, 1961; Alt, 1934; and Blank, 1950–1951; cf. the criticism and the review of scholarship in Keim, 1992, pp. 7–10; Gervitz, 1961, pp. 137–140; Brichto, 1963, chap. 7; and Crawford, 1992, chap. 2). According to this traditional reading, cursing was a God-dependent supplication for the biblical Hebrews, whereas it was a mechanical, magical contrivance for the other Ancient Near Eastern cultures When a biblical text described curses similar to those of neighbor cultures, the scholar might lament how "the common people of Israel even in the more mature stages of their religious development frequently relapsed into the gross practices of idolatry and witchcraft [including].… practices closely akin to the extant Greek and Roman tabellae defixionum, or curse tablets" (Fox, 1914, pp. 111–112). Thus, Alt in his classic 1934 monograph on the origins of Israelite law, which influential scholar William Foxwell Albright endorsed in his review in the Journal of Biblical Literature (1936, pp. 164–169), promotes the chauvinistic idea that "Hebrew apodictic law was original and unique in Israel," whereas "less advanced" casuistic law was followed in Mesopotamian and Canaanite cultures.
The following comment by Westermarck is typical of the cultural evolutionist viewpoint on the distinction between mechanical and intentional curses: "It is not to be expected, then, that distinctions of so subtle a nature should be properly made by the uncultured mind.… But with the deepening of the religious sentiment this idea [of mechanically effective curses] had to be given up. A righteous and mighty god cannot agree to be a mere tool in the hand of a wicked curser" (1908, vol. I, pp. 235, 564; but cf. Thisleton, 1974; Lauterbach, 1939; and Blank, 1950–1951, p. 78). But as Graf has demonstrated in a study of Greek magical papyri, the Frazerian dichotomy is untenable (1991, p. 194). Contemporary scholarship tends to show, in fact, that there is no definable, consistent contrast between the curse-formulas and usages of ancient Israel and those of her neighbors (see, for example, Gervitz, 1961 and 1962; Hillers, 1964 and 1984; Keim, 1992, chap. 1; Crawford, 1992, pp. 231–235; and Cryer and Thomsen, 2001, pp. 120–34, 144–146).
Current anthropological and cultural studies and scholarship in comparative religion are no longer tied to the Frazerian evolutionist paradigm or unaware of its colonialist biases, as Mary Douglas shows in Purity and Danger: An Analysis of the Concepts of Pollution and Taboo (London, 1966). Instead, Western scholarship has come to be as concerned with emic or indigenous self-representation and self-understanding, as with etic analysis and interpretation from the outside (see, for instance, the theoretical introduction by Frank Salomon and Stuart Schwartz to the South America volume of the Cambridge History of the Native Peoples of the Americas, 1999). Anthropologists no longer confidently plot a diachronic cultural progression from magic through religion to science (whose defining differences no longer seem self-evident, in any case) but are more inclined to see these as overlapping and synchronic mentalities, not only within cultures but within individual psyches. Moreover, in his seminal monograph How to Do Things with Words, John Austin offered a significant philosophical and linguistic contribution to the discussion of such speech acts as cursing and blessing, which seem to combine both utterance and performance. Although Austin's taxonomy of "performative language" continues to be critiqued by philosophers of language (see, for example, Tambiah, 1968; Searle, 1965, 1975, and 1979), it has nonetheless proved useful to analyses of ritual language, as in recent studies of West African ceremonialism (Finnegan, 1968; Ray, 1973–1974). The concept of performative language offers at least the beginning of a more productive way to think and talk about cursing or blessing as understood within given cultural contexts.
One way to create order out of the welter of ethnographic and literary sources on cursing is to survey the material thematically, the approach taken in Falco's dissertation on "The Malediction in Indo-European Tradition." Drawing upon Indic, Hittite, Mesopotamian, Greco-Roman, Germanic, and Celtic literary sources, Falco offers examples of curses that reference such universal themes as the body and its parts (particularly the eye), food and hunger, sex, childlessness, homelessness, and pursuit and also more culturally specific themes such as allusions to swine and the sea and metaphors of atavistic dissolution into water, earth, and ashes. Particularly elaborate is the so-called Hittite Soldiers Oath, actually more of a threat of sanction than an oath, which charges that any soldiers breaking the military code will be changed "into women, and may they dress them in a womanly fashion … and let them place in their hands a distaff and a spindle.… And let them be so cursed that their land not bear fruit, that their wives not bear children like unto their begetters, but monsters, that their cattle not increase according to nature, that they suffer defeat in battle and in lawsuits and in marketplace, and that they perish utterly" (Falco, 1992, pp. 89, 121).
In ethnographic study and popular culture, perhaps the most familiar category of curses as speech acts that happen are the reported instances of "vodou death." Haitian vodou, Brazilian Xango, and Cuban Santería derive from West African religious traditions syncretically combined with aspects of folk Catholicism, and all are popularly supposed to include traditions of casting charms and spells, including fatal curses that take effect instantaneously and across any distance (for Haitian vodou, see Metraux, 1959/1972; Rigaud, 1953/1985; Pluchon, 1987; Abrahams, 1983). Casting of powerful and deadly spells has been reported for Malaysia (Skeat, 1965, chap. VI) and for Melanesia (Codrington, 1891, pp. 51, 147) and is illustrated in the documentary film Ongka's Big Moka, which shows an oath-making ceremony intended to refute an accusation of death by sorcery in a village of Papua, New Guinea (dir. Charlie Nairn, Granada Television International, 1974).
Comparable traditions have been widely reported for other indigenous cultures of Native America, Africa, Oceania and, especially, Aboriginal Australia. Death brought about by Aborigine "bone pointing" became a fixture of early ethnographic reporting (Warner, 1941; Basedow, 1925) and of popular culture as well, as in the Australian mystery novel The Bone Is Pointed by Arthur Upfield (1947/1984). Similarly, it is reported that among the Maoris, "the anathema of a priest is regarded as a thunderbolt that an enemy cannot escape" (Polack, 1840, I.248; cf. Crawley, 1934, pp. 11–19 for other Maori citations). A healthy but inconclusive ongoing scholarly exchange on the subject of vodou death, with an emphasis on Australian Aborigine culture, has appeared over the years in the pages of American Anthropologist (Cannon, 1942; Lester, 1972; Lex, 1974; Eastwell, 1982; Reid & Williams, 1984), often looking for empirical explanations of such reported deaths or, in the case of Reid and Williams, charging that vodou death is a European/American construct and not an Aborigine reality.
Personal Curses and Institutionally Sanctioned Curses
Nonetheless, belief in the power of the word itself, independent of any separate invocation of a deity, can be attested in many cultural contexts, including the Indo-European. In fact, it is particularly distinctive of the Sanskrit tradition, in which numerous Vedic, Brahmanic, and Upaniṣads texts convey the idea that a primordial word, such as Brahma itself, embodies the fundamental creative and sustaining power of the universe that can accomplish all things (Zimmer, 1956, pp. 74–83; Westermarck, 1908, I.563; II.658, 716), and the idea of chanted mantra having all-pervasive efficacious power is common to Hindu, Buddhist and Tantric traditions alike. Not surprisingly, therefore, efficacious curses abound in Indic, Persian, and other Indo-European epic literature, as Falco demonstrates. A number of biblical passages imply an automatic potency to curses (e.g., Num. 21–22), although this remains a subject of scholarly controversy (see Fox, 1914, p. 122; Hillers, 1984, p. 185; Lauterbach, 1939; Thiselton, 1974; and Blank, 1950–1951, pp. 78, 86).
Similar beliefs in mechanically effective cursing speech acts have been documented from numerous cultures throughout the world (see especially Grimm, 1883–1886/1966; Frazer, 1911–1915; Westermarck, 1908 and 1933, Crawley, 1934; Hobley, 1967; Skeat, 1965; Kluckhohn, 1944/1967). The curse can be reified and treated as a baneful substance, as in reports of Irish folk opinion "that a curse once uttered must alight on something" (Crawley, 1934, p. 368) or of old Teutonic images of curses alighting, settling, and returning home to their sender like birds (Grimm, 1883–1886/1966 III.1227) or in the somewhat more symbolic notions that Arabs considered curses so polluting and contagious that they would lie flat on the ground so that a curse could fly over them, or that when forced to take an oath a Berber might undress entirely so that the oath could not cling to the clothing (Westermarck, 1908, I.57–59). The idea that curses can be contagious is the basis for two of Frazer's most prominent themes in The Golden Bough, sympathetic magic and the transference of evil. Actual personification of curses is familiar from the Greek myth of the pursuing Erinyes, who may be born of the blood of a murdered man, as in Aeschylus's Eumenides (cf. Choephori 283 seq.; Plato, Laws ix.866).
In contrast with private and personal cursing, culturally recognized and institutionally sanctioned cursing involves speech acts that depend not only on the power of the words or formulas themselves, or on the deity or spiritual power which may be invoked, but on the proper setting and circumstances and, above all, on the recognized empowerment of the (special) person delivering or pronouncing the curse—the "technician of the sacred." Depending on the religio-cultural context, such a person may be designated as priest, prophet, sage, shaman, wizard, or witch.
The "specialist" in cursing goes under many different cultural designations, along a spectrum of degrees of perceived positivity and negativity, ranging from the priest who heroically curses enemies on behalf of a community to the witch or sorcerer whose curses are wholly malicious. The major Mesopotamian text on witchcraft, Maqlû, consists of rubrics and incantations of an asipu or exorcist directed at subverting the negative powers of a kassaptu, a sorcerer or witch, one who performs destructive magic: "May the curse of my mouth extinguish the curse of your mouth" (Abusch, 2002, p. 132). In his writing about West African culture, Dominque Zahan emphasizes the polarity between magicians who are healers and sorcerers, whom he labels nyctosophers, or practitioners of night-wisdom (1970/1979, chap. 7). Both have fearful power that mediates between the community and that which is wild or extraordinary, but among such groups as the Azande or the Lugbara, the sorcerer represents the inversion of the idealized human image (Ray, 1976, p. 151; Evans-Pritchard, 1936/1976). A similar fundamental distinction between healer and witch as spiritual "technicians" holds for the Navajo, but in addition Clyde Kluckhohn states that four distinct kinds of witchery are designated by four distinct Navajo terms, with the sorcerer ('inzi'd ) being the one to specialize in spells and curses (1944/1967, pp. 31–33; cf. Simmons, 1974/1980, chap. 9).
Alternatively, the person's power to curse may derive instead from some more existential circumstance: from his or her role as parent, a superannuated person, a stricken or dying person, or from the social role of stranger, guest, beggar, or victim of injustice. The curse of a parent is particularly dreaded in many cultures. According to a Moorish proverb, "If the saints curse you the parents will cure you, but if the parents curse you the saints will not cure you," and it is reported that among the Nandi of Uganda a father's curse, unless forgiven, is believed to be fatal (Westermarck, 1908, I.622). Examples from Cameroon are given in Ngankam Fogue, La malediction chez les Bamileke du Cameroun (Baroussam, 1985; p. 14). Oedipus in exile delivers a terrible paternal curse against his disloyal sons (Sophocles, Oedipus at Colonnus 1299, 1434). In fact, the curses of parents were embodied as avenging spirits, as the Erinyes among the Greeks or as the divi parentum of the Romans (Iliad 9. 453–457;and 21.412 seq.). The final scene of the third act of Verdi's Rigolleto contains a highly dramatic malediction pronounced by a wronged father: Count Monterone curses his tormentor, the jester Rigoletto, a curse fulfilled at last against both Rigoletto and the count's own innocent daughter. By extension, many cultures privilege the curses (and blessings) of the elderly and especially the dying; Grimm reports that in old Teutonic ideology, the curse of a dying person was the strongest of all curses (1883–1886/1966, IV.1690; cf. Westermarck, 1908, II.637 for examples from Africa and classical Rome).
Women and Curses
In cultures where women carry an aura of taboo or where witchcraft is widely credited, a woman's curse can be particularly feared. Alice Ahenakew tells the Cree story of "The Old Woman's Curse," about a mother who inflicts a terrible fate on the young man who robbed her of her daughter (Wolfart and Ahenakew, 2000, pp. 20–24 and chap. 11). Zahan emphasizes the role of women in nyctosophy among the Bambara of West Africa because of "woman's enigmatic and impenetrable character.… All the more amazing because of the psychological character of her soul" (1970/1979, pp. 94–5), without acknowledging the gender bias inherent in such a comment. Similarly, Westermarck reports that among the Berbers of Morocco, "a person who takes refuge with a woman by touching her is safe from his pursuer," explaining that the "reason why women are regarded as able to offer an asylum is obviously the belief in their magic power and the great efficacy of their curses" (1907, p. 367). There is a great deal of evidence of malevolent cursing in medieval and Early Modern Europe (see Kittredge, 1929; Thomas, 1997; Douglas, 1970), but scholars now discount the idea that there were active covens of female witches who consciously preserved elements of pre-Christian European religion (see the review of critical literature on European witchcraft in Thomas, 1997, chap. 16, esp. pp. 514–515).
Social Justice and Curses
At the opposite pole from figures of authority and technicians of the sacred, is another group believed to have a special power to curse: the stranger, the guest, the poor and the needy, and the victim of injustice. Thus in many parts of the world—and numerous examples ranging from North Africa to the Tonga Islands and the Native American Southwest are presented in the surveys by Westermarck and Crawley—strangers who step over the threshold are not only welcomed, but given a position of privilege at bed and board, at least for a limited period of time, lest any dissatisfaction from a guest bring harm to the household. The Greeks believed that guests and suppliants and beggars had their Erinyes, or avenging spirits, which personified the curses they cast upon any who despised them or turned them away (Homer, Odyssey xvii.475; Aeschylus, Suppliants 349, 489). Ecclesiasticus warns, "Do not avert your eye from the needy, and give no one reason to curse you, for if in bitterness of soul some should curse you, their Creator will hear their prayer.… The prayer of the poor goes from their lips to the ears of God, and his judgment comes speedily" (Sir. 4:5–6; 21:5; cf. Prov. 28:27). A pair of Palestinian proverbs sums up the philosophy of social justice underlying this category of cursing: "Do not be an oppressor and you do not need fear curses," and "There is no veil separating heaven from the prayers and imprecations of the oppressed" (Canaan, 1935, p. 263).
A special case of the conditional curse as an appeal for social justice, protection, or sanctuary is the North African Arab concept of l-ʾâr, which signifies a compulsory relationship in which a claimant invokes support and protection at the implied risk of a curse in the event of being denied. As Westermarck explains, the "constraining character of l-ʾâr is due to the fact that it implies the transference of a conditional curse," mediated by what he calls "external conductors," such as sharing food, or grasping or touching a person, the person's child or horse, or grasping the person's tent-pole (1907, pp. 361–362). A similar claim and conditional curse can be represented by a heap of stones:
A common practice among scribes is to make a cursing cairn for a wealthy man whom they have in vain asked for a present. They make a cairn either outside his house or in some open place, read over it some passages of the Koran, and, with the palms of their hands turned downwards, pronounce a curse upon the niggard. (p. 364)
A coercive claim can be made upon a saint by building a cairn or by tying a rag to a house or a tomb and declaring, "O saint, behold! I promised thee an offering and I will not release [literally open ] thee until thou attendest to my business" (p. 369)—a threat/prayer analogous to that of Jacob wrestling with the angel (Gen. 32.26). Another method would be to sacrifice an animal at the threshold of the person whose benefits are sought, for "of all conductors of curses none is considered more efficient than blood" (p. 365). Westermarck reports that in the Great Atlas Mountains a Jew who settles in a Berber village "always places himself under the protection of some powerful man by putting ār upon him." Because a supplicant's declaration that "I am in the ār of God and your ār ", implies a claim of sanctuary, Westermarck concludes that lār "is thus a great boon to weak and helpless people, criminals, and strangers" (p. 366).
On the other hand, the protective conditional curse is at the heart of prohibitive inscriptions and edicts of rulers and the elite, and of the traditions of oaths, treaties, and covenants in Egypt and the Ancient Near East. In each case, the conditional curse invokes stated or agreed sanctions in the event that a tomb or boundary marker is violated, or an oath, treaty, or covenant is broken. Curses as protective threat-formulae are a familiar feature of ancient Egyptian inscriptions. Represented in Western popular culture as "the mummy's curse," the textual threat-formulae (involving a variety of Egyptian word roots, including and others) encompass a vast lexicon of stipulations and injunctions and a vast array of threatened punishments for such criminal or sacrilegious acts as theft, defilement, effacements, and other violations of tombs, stelae and monuments (Morschauser, 1991; Nordh, 1996; Parrot, 1939). In the words of one Sixth Dynasty tomb inscription: "As for any noble, any official, or any man who shall rip out any stone or any brick from this tomb, I will be judged with him by the great God, I (will) seize his neck like a bird, and I will cause all the living who are upon the earth to be afraid.…" (Pritchard 1969, p. 327c; for other examples, see pp. 326–328). Similar protective curses are common in Mesopotamian and Iron Age Syro-Palestinian Semitic inscriptions (For Mesopotamian examples see Pomponio, 1990; Grätz, 1998, chap. 2; and Speyer, 1969, pp. 1170–1174. For Syro-Palestinian examples see Crawford, 1992, chaps. 4 and 5). An eighth-century Karatepe inscription carved in Phoenician upon a statue and pedestal of Baal, threatens any defacers of the name of King Azitiwada:
Now if a king among kings, or a prince among princes, or any man who is a man of renown, effaces the name of Azitiwada from this gate and puts up his own name, or more than that, covets this city and pulls down this gate which Azitiwada made, and makes another gate for it and puts his own name on it, whether it is out of covetousness or whether it is out of hatred and malice that hew pulls down this gate—then let Baalshamem and El-Creator-of-Earth and the eternal Sun and the whole generation of the sons of the gods efface that kingdom and that king.… (Crawford, 1992, p. 162; cf. p. 165, and Beyerlin, 1975, pp. 242–243; also see the inscriptions of Hadad and Nerab, in Crawford pp. 200–207)
A sixth-century tomb found in Sidon tries to warn off potential tomb-robbers:
I, Tabnit, priest of Astarte, king of the Sidonians, son of Eshmunazor, priest of Astarte, king of the Sidonians, lie in this sarcophagus. Whoever you may be who comes across this sarcophagus, do not open it and do not disturb me. For they have collected no silver for me, nor have they collected any gold nor any other kind of valuable. Only I am lying in this sarcophagus. You must not open it and you must not disturb me, for that would be taboo to Astarte. And if nevertheless you do open it and do destroy me, may (you) not have any seed among the living under the sun nor a resting place among the spirits of the dead. (Beyerlin, 1975, p. 245)
To maximize their efficaciousness, Egyptian curse-threats often were directed against the violator's own mortuary cult and ritual burial, his remembrance, his family, and his offspring: "As for anyone who shall violate my corpse in the Necropolis, or who shall damage my image in my chamber: he shall be a hated one of Re. He shall not receive water or ointment for an Osirian, nor shall he ever bequeath his goods to his children" (Morschauser, 1991, pp. 117–129, 179). Some inscriptions known as the execration texts, imply that magical actions accompanied the formulae (p. 142), and spells in medical papyri and curses in royal decrees are particularly prominent in the Rammesid period (Morschauser, 1991, p. 182; cf. Nordh, 1996, p. 103). A stock image in late New Kingdom texts is the threat against a perpetrator, his wives, or children of sexual violation by an ass or of their sexual violation of each other: "He shall violate an ass, an ass shall violate his wife, and his wife shall violate his children" (Morschauser, 1991, pp. 198–200, 227–229).
Harsh and even crude as such curses sound, both Morschauser and Nordh emphasize the functionality of the Egyptian curse-formulae as supplements to and guarantors of stipulations that, although having legal and moral standing, were nevertheless unenforceable, as in the case of the protection of the tombs, monuments, and inscriptions of the deceased. Nordh proposes further that curses were a way of propagating the orthodox ideology of living in accordance with the all-embracing Egyptian cosmovision subsumed under the name of Maat (Nordh, 1996, p. 104; cf. Morschauser, 1991, p. 266). As Keim insists,
One of the things that must be asserted at the outset, and reasserted in the course of study, is that ancient Near Eastern maledictions are religious.… There can be no question of such practices arising out of magical practices and then developing into religious systems. If there was such a development, it was long before the dawn of history and is no longer recoverable. Everything we actually know about maledictions in the ancient Near East attests to the deeply religious nature of their forms and operations. (1992, p. 33)
Indeed, the most renowned legal inscription of the Ancient Near East, the Code of Hammurabi (c. 1675 bce), concludes with an extended curse invoking the gods Adad, Sin, Innana, and others to inflict terrible punishments on any who disregard, distort, or efface the king's words (Pritchard, 1969, pp. 178–180). In addition, Tzvi Abusch argues that the counter-witchcraft ritual, the Mesopotamian Maqlu, was based on the fundamental social contract embodied in an oath, mamitu, whose violation by the witch brings down the punitive counter-curse (2002, pp. 236–245, 253; and see Mercer, 1912, pp. 26–28).
As many scholars have pointed out, any oath intrinsically implies a conditional self-curse calling down on oneself a sanction or punishment in the event that the oath-taker proves untrue to what has been sworn. Often the medium or vehicle of the oath embodies its assurance: the eye, the heart, the right hand, one's children, orone's parents are put at risk; or a weapon or a ritually slain animal are taken to represent either the means or the consequences of a violated oath, as with the custom of the Nagas of Assam in which each party to an oath lays hand on a dog chopped in two (Mercer, 1912, p. 40 n.3; Crawley, 1934, p. 47; cf. Gen. 15 and the discussion in McCarthy, 1981, pp. 93–95). Crawley (1934, pp. 39–48) and Westermarck (1908, chap. 50) present within a Frazerian evolutionist model numerous examples of such oaths, and the related convention of trial by ordeal, from worldwide cultural contexts.
Kudurru and Covenants
The oath/curse formula characterizes two important, distinct yet related genres of Ancient Near Eastern literature: kudurru, or boundary-stone inscriptions, and vassal-treaties, or covenants (for examples and sources see Fensham, 1963; Grätz, 1998, chap. 2, esp. pp. 46–65; and Hillers, 1964, chap. 2). Scholars have differed over the commonalities and differences among these Ancient Near Eastern kudurru and treaty forms, but Dennis McCarthy has demonstrated "the essential elements of the form: stipulations, the god lists or invocations, and the curse formulae which are invariably found in the treaties from Eannatum of Lagash to Ashurbanipal of Assyria" (McCarthy, 1981, p. 122; cf. Fensham, 1962, p. 1–6; Hillers, 1964, chap. 1). McCarthy reviews and analyzes important examples of Hittite, Assyrian, and Syrian treaty texts, including the seventh-century Assyrian treaty of Esarhaddon and the eighth-century Aramaic-Syrian treaties of Sefiré (McCarthy, 1981, Part I; for original publication of texts see Wiseman, 1958; Dupont-Sommer, 1958, and Korosec, 1931; for translations and bibliography see Pritchard, 1969, pp. 534–541, 653–662). McCarthy's comparative study shows that although a verbal blessing and cursing formula typically concludes the Hittite texts (chap. 4), the Sefire treaties actually incorporate the rubrics of acted out or performed curse-actions (1981, chap. 5; cf. Hillers, 1964, pp. 21–24), and the Esarhaddan treaty includes an exceptionally long and graphic curse (a "baroque elaboration," as McCarthy calls it (p. 121), accompanied by demonstrative actions: "just as male and female kids … are slit open and their entrails roll down over their feet, so may the entrails of your sons and daughters roll down over your feet" (p. 117 and chap. 6). "The reason for this emphasis on the curses," McCarthy concludes, "is evident enough. They sought to secure the observance of the treaty by multiplying as it were the religious sanctions and by the use of rites which were thought infallibly to bring about the ruin of the transgressor" (p. 151).
The Ancient Near Eastern vassal-treaty and its attendant curse formulae provide an apt transition to analysis of the curse traditions of the Hebrew scriptures, specifically in relation to the central biblical idea of covenant (see Hempel, 1961; Alt, 1934; Fensham; Hillers; Keim, 1992; and McCarthy, 1981). The locus classicus is the blessing and cursing ritual at Shechem in Deuteronomy 27, and the expansion or midrash on the blessings and curses in Deuteronomy 28, with its overwhelming preponderance of curse sanctions threatened for disobedience to God's law (Dt. 28:15–68; cf. the parallel text in Lev. 26; see Lewy, 1962; Buis, 1967; Hillers, 1964 chap. 3; McCarthy, 1981, chap. 9 and sources). The curses of Deuteronomy 28 are compulsively thorough, promising every manner of illness, misfortune, destruction, abandonment, and disaster: "Cursed shall be the fruit of your womb, the fruit of your ground, the increase of your cattle and the issue of your flock. Cursed shall you be when you come in, and cursed shall you be when you go out" (Dt. 27: 18–19). Although scholars continue to debate the origins of cultic proclamation of covenant law, the cultic character of the Deuteronomic formulae is clear (see Alt, 1934; Mowinckel, 1962; Grätz, 1998, chap. 3; Schottroff, 1969, esp. pp. 217–230; and the review of scholarship in McCarthy, 1981, pp. 197–199). But, it is reported, so dread were the Deuteronomic maledictions in medieval synagogues that there were difficulties in obtaining readers at the appointed times; in one case, "on a Sabbath on which the 'chapter of maledictions' was to be read, the Scroll of the Torah was shamefully permitted to lie open for several hours, because no member of the congregation was willing to come up to the pulpit" (Trachtenberg, 1970, p. 59, sources on p. 284, notes on pp. 32–35).
Other Old Testament texts that focus on the covenantal relationship, notably the Sinai texts of Exodus and various prophetic texts that espouse a covenant theology, have recourse to the curse sanctions of the Near Eastern treaty model: "If the prophets of all periods knew the terms of the covenant with Yahweh," Hillers concludes, "they knew the curses associated with the covenant as well, for these, an essential part of the covenant between men … were also commonly attached to the covenant with God" (1964, pp. 84–85). Hillers adduces numerous parallels between Assyrian and Aramaic treaty-curses and such biblical passages as Isaiah 34:11–17 and Jeremiah 13:26–27 and 50, which call down curses of flood and desolation, devouring animals, broken weapons, incurable wounds, dry breasts, rape, and harlotry (1964, chap. 4). Fensham had earlier concluded that there "obviously exists a close connection between certain curses of the ancient Near East and various prophetic maledictions," focusing on examples of punitive maledictions from Amos 4 and Isaiah 13. "We have followed the line through from kudurru -inscriptions to treaties and hence to the Old Testament prophecies," Fensham continues, although the latter, he insists, substitute a moral/theological grounding for the "mechanical, magical execution of the treaty-curse" (1963, pp. 172–173). It is precisely this last point, however, that more recent scholarship calls into question. For example, Gervitz's survey of West-Semitic commemorative, funerary and votive inscriptional curses shows the contain the same mix of apodictic and casuistic forms as do the Hebrew scriptures.
Study of the topic of cursing in Old Testament contexts is complicated by the fact that several quite distinct Hebrew words are commonly translated as curse into English (or as malediction in French or Fluch in German.). The major Hebrew terms are ʿalah, ʿarr, qillel, and qbb (for major discussions see Brichto, 1963; Keim, 1992, pp. 15–20; Scharbert, 1977; Gordon, 1997). The preponderance of occurrences of the verb qbb in the OT occurs in the Balak/Balaam episode in Numbers 22–24 in which Balak futilely urges Balaam to curse, rather than bless, Israel; Balak's expectation is that such a curse (or blessing) would be automatically efficacious upon pronouncement, whereas Balaam assumes that it would be dependent upon God. Qbb as revile also occurs in Proverbs 11:26 and 24:24 as an unambiguous malediction upon bad behavior, and also in the familiar passage in which Job curses the night of his birth (3:8). In fact, the extended passage of Job's curse upon his birth (3:1–9) includes parallel uses of three of the Hebrew words for curse: qbb, ʿarr, and qillel. As a noun qelala is used to signify either that which is accursed or curse as the opposite of blessing (baraka —and sometimes berek, bless, is used euphemistically to mean qillel, curse, as in I Kings 21:13 and Job 1:5 and 9–11). As a verb qillel is generally used in the Old Testament in a rather defuse and imprecise way to convey personal contempt, disrespect, or abuse directed at a variety of objects, including parents, kings, and, in Leviticus 24:10–16 and Exodus 22:27, the Deity. In Genesis 8:21 God promises never again to qallel the earth, which as Brichto argues (1963, pp. 119–120), means abuse or treat injuriously, rather than curse (for full discussion on this root see Brichto, 1963, chaps. 4 and 5).
Thus, the two primary terms for curse in the Old Testament remain ʿalah and ʿarr. The ʿalah term usually has the force of conditionality and is associated with oaths and swearing, and it is deeply implicated in the curse-sanctions of treaties and covenant. As elsewhere in the Ancient Near East the ʿalah curse is associated with the protection of property (Judg. 17:2; Lev. 5:1; Prov. 29:24), with juridical oaths (I Kings 8:31) or trial by ordeal (Num. 5:21–28, where guilt of adultery is tested by the curse of bitter waters), and with royal commands (1 Sam. 14:24, where Saul precipitously puts a battlefield curse on anyone who eats before evening). But the most important association of ʿalah is as punishment upon Israel for betrayal of the covenant (berith ), as set forth in Deuteronomy and a number of prophetic texts (Deut. 29:20; Isa. 24:6; Jer. 23:10; Ezek. 16:59; Dan. 9:11; and see Zechariah's vision of the flying scroll of curses, Ezek. 5:1–4).
The ʿarr term, cognate to the Arabic lār discussed earlier, forms the basic operative cursing rubric in the Old Testament in its qal passive participle: "cursed be.…" Its fearful efficacy is associated with utterance by a figure of authority (Num. 5:18–27); a professional curser (Gen. 27:29; Num. 24:7); a king (e.g., Jehu, who curses Jezebel in 2 Kings 9:34); or the Deity, as in the paradigmatic curses in Genesis on the serpent, the ground itself, and Cain (Gen. 3:14, 17; 4:11); or the angel of the Lord who curses those who do not participate in a holy war (Judg. 5:23). Such a curse has the force of a spell, as in the Balak/Balaam sequence in Numbers 22–23, and it is the basis of the catalog of curses associated with violation of the covenant in Deuteronomy 27 and 28, discussed above. In one enigmatic passage God threatens to curse Israel's blessings (Mal. 2:2), in a passage that Gordon takes as a satire on the priestly blessing (1997, I.525). In other passages, a curse can be nullified by a blessing (Judg. 17:1–2), or it can be taken on by another person, as Rebekah does to protect Jacob (Gen. 27:13). Other uses of ʿarr include cursing the day one was born (Jer. 20:14–15; Job 3:1–9), or, as a noun, it is used to signify that which is cursed (Gen. 4:12 and 9:25; Josh. 9:23) or banned (Jer. 17:5). Compare it with the related term herem "identical with the curse in its most potent form" (Pedersen, 1926/1964, vol. 2, p. 272), meaning that which is placed under a ban, even to threat of extinction (Exod. 22:19; Deut. 7:6 and 13:13; Judg. 5:23 and 21:11).
Cursing in the Old and New Testaments
A special case of the use of cursing in the Old Testament, one that has been particularly problematical for pastoral theology, is the "cursing psalms," which Brueggemann has subsumed under the more general heading of "Psalms of Disorientation" (1984, chap. 3; cf. Pedersen, 1926/1964, vol. 1, pp. 446–452; Mowinckel, 1962, pp. 48–52). Here cursing is turned into a weapon against personal enemies (Ps. 35) or, more characteristically, into a weapon of Israel against its national enemies (Pss. 79, 109 and 137). Thus, the familiar Psalm 137, "By the rivers of Babylon.…" concludes with the violent wishful prayer that the hated Edomites be crushed for "what you have done to us!/Happy shall they be who take your little ones and dash them against the rock!" (8–9). Most extravagant of all is Psalm 109, an uninhibited prayer for Yahweh to visit every manner of cruel revenge upon the unnamed evildoers.
"Curses of the covenant" delivered by priests and Levites appear in the initiation ceremony of the Qumran community (1QS 2:16 and 5:12; and CD 1:17; 15:2–3), and whoever attacks the covenantal relationship is accursed (11QTemple 64:9–12). The Talmud permits cursing the wicked (Men. 64b), and acknowledges the efficacy of curses (Ber. 7a; Meg. 15a; Sanh. 105b), especially when uttered by a sage, and even if undeserved (Ber. 56a; Mak. 11a). Hence, there also are prohibitions against cursing, for example, by a wife (Ket. 72a), and against self-cursing (Shebu. 35a). A Jewish curse adapted from Psalm 109 that has retained currency is Yimmah shemo (vezikhro ): "May his name (and memory) be blotted out!," but the general rabbinic provision was to "Let yourself be cursed, rather than curse someone else" (Sanh. 49a). One well-known perpetuation of synagogue exclusion was the excommunication of Spinoza from the Portuguese synagogue of Amsterdam in 1656 (Little, 1993, pp. 277–278).
There is some continuity but not as much emphasis on cursing in the Old Testament Apocrypha and Intertestamental literature (see Van Den Doel, 1968, chap. 2). In the wisdom tradition, a well-known passage in Sirach parallels a mother's curse and God's curse (3:9, 16) and another warns against the curse of the neglected poor (4:5–6). The Wisdom of Solomon reiterates the Genesis curse on the Canaanites (12:11) and promises that the ungodly and idolatrous will be accursed (Genesis 3:12; 14:8), and Tobit 13:12 calls accursed all those who would dominate or harm Jerusalem. One distinctive cursing form found in the Intertestamental literature is the roll-call of woes: 2 Esdras contains woes against Assyria (2:8); the Sibylline Oracles call down woes upon Babylon, Ethiopia, Libya (3:295–334), Phoenicia, Crete, Thrace (3:492–511), Lycia (5:1–26), and Greece (11:183–185). The Apocalypse of Baruch declares that in the last days the dead will be blessed (10:6, 11:7) and the living will be cursed (10:7, 14:14). Most impressively, the final judgment section of 1 Enoch (94–105) contains a rolling denunciation of the foolish and the unrighteous, especially of the wealthy who oppress the poor, for they will be given over "to a great curse" (94:6–8; 97:8–10).
These Intertestamental apocalyptic themes and the rhetoric of the woes offer a direct connection to some of the most distinctive curse motifs in the New Testament. (Note that the NT, like the Septuagint (LXX), adopts the Greek words anathematizo and kataraomoi as equivalents to the various Hebrew words for cursing.) The apocalyptic woes spread over the earth in Revelations 9–12 directly carry over from the Intertestamental woes, as does Jesus' pronouncement of woes upon the towns of Galilee (Matt. 11:21–23; Luke 10: 13–15). On the other hand, Jesus' reiterated "Woe unto's" reflect a more intense focus on personal authenticity and spirituality, as when Luke parallels the beatitudes with woes unto the opposite behaviors (6:20–26). Jesus pronounces woes unto the betrayer of the Son of Man (Mark 14:21; Luke 22:22). But the major instance occurs when Jesus pronounces woes against the scribes and Pharisees as blind fools, hypocrites, and vipers (Matt. 23:13–36; Luke 11:42–52), a rolling denunciation that is the New Testament equivalent of the Deuteronomic curses in the Old Testament. Apart from these texts, the only direct curses Jesus utters are the apocalyptic words of judgment, "Depart from me" (Matt. 25:41), and the enigmatic cursing of the fig tree (Mark 11:12–22; Matt. 21:18–20), usually taken as an "acted out" parable denouncing the barrenness of Israel (see Van Den Doel, 1968, pp. 247–251; Hatch, 1923; Robin, 1962). Other than this, Jesus' main teaching on the matter of curses is to refrain from all oaths (Matt. 23:16–22; cf. James 3:9), and the Book of Revelation declares that in the Heavenly Jerusalem "Nothing accursed will be found there any more" (22:3). Paul, nevertheless, concludes his First Epistle to the Corinthians with the words, "Let anyone be accursed who has no love for the Lord" (1 Cor. 22; a similar Islamic execration is found in Qurʾān 2:161).
The New Testament does present a number of instances of individuals pronouncing oaths and curses, especially in the Acts of the Apostles. Examples include the oath of conspirators against Paul (Acts 23:12), Peter's implicit curses against Ananias and Simon Magus (Acts 5:1–11, 8:9–24), and similar punitive curses of a folkloric character that occur in a number of the New Testament Apocrypha (see Van Den Doel, 1968, p. 247). In 2 Peter 2:14 the apostle denounces false teachers as "accursed children," and earlier Peter had sworn an oath against himself upon denying Christ (Mark 14:71; Matt. 26:74).
But the curse of greatest theological richness occurs in Galatians 3:10–14, in the teaching that "all who rely on the works of the law are under a curse" because justification is only by faith, but that "Christ redeemed us from the curse of the law by becoming a curse for us—for it is written, 'Cursed is everyone who hangs on a tree'" (citing Deut. 21:23). This radical doctrine of substitution (cf. 2 Cor. 5:21) may have led certain Gnostics to honor only a spiritual Christ and to repudiate the earthly Jesus, leading to Paul's otherwise enigmatic admonition, "Therefore I want you to understand that no one speaking by the Spirit of God ever says, 'Let Jesus be cursed!'" (1 Cor. 12:3).
Early Christian writers wrestled with the question of the appropriateness of cursing, generally labeling it a pagan practice but allowing for it as an occasional moral corrective (Augustine, De sermone Domine in monte 1:63–4; PL 34 1261–62) or as a judgment of justice rather than revenge (Gregory the Great, Moralia in Job 6; PL 75:638–9). In the eighth century, Rhabanus Maurus Christianized the Deuteronomic presentation of blessings and cursings (Deut. 27) by associating the curses with the Law and the blessings with the Gospel (Enarratio super Deuteronomium 3:24–5; PL 108:947–61). Thomas Aquinas' scholastic solution was to conclude that justified curses were curses only in accident and not in substance when judged according to intentionality (Summa theologiaa IIa–IIae, q. 76).
Cursing and the Church
Moreover, the post-Constantinian Church, building upon Paul's comments in 1 Corinthians 16:22 and Galatians 1:8, incorporated formal procedures for anathema and excommunication, ratified at the councils from Elvira (fourth century), Tours (sixth century), and Toledo (seventh century) to Toulouges (eleventh century). In his study of medieval cursing rituals, Benedictine Maledictions, Lester Little sets out the documentary history of liturgical maledictory formulas in the monasteries of northern France from the tenth through the thirteenth centuries. Little shows that in the context of deeply unsettled social structures, amid the threat of recurrent violence and disorder, and in the absence of effective instruments of law and justice, the Benedictine monasteries developed a pair of elaborate ritual responses: the Clamor and the Humiliation of the Saints. These rituals were influenced both by biblical precedent and by the Irish Christian folk culture that had earlier been carried by monks to the Continent. The rich tradition of Irish saints, beginning with Patrick, whose weapons in the wilderness were fasting and cursing combined with the strong language of the maledictory Psalms, produced a powerful ritual of prostration and cries unto the Lord for protection against enemies who ranged (in the eyes of the monks) from marauding Vikings to recalcitrant or peremptory local barons. (See Little, 1993, Appendix C for "A Miscellany of Curse Formulas"; Little also reminds us that a modern literary adaptation of the Clamor appears in Sterne's Tristram Shandy.)
The Clamor was made even more dramatic when combined with the Humiliation of the Saints, a tradition with far less ecclesiastical sanction (Geary, 1983), when the chief relics held by a monastic church were taken from their usual places of veneration and placed on the floor of the chancel and covered with thorns. This ritual, combined with the cessation of virtually all work and ritual at the monastery, apparently created enough distress on the part of the local community and the offending baron that a settlement of the relevant issue could be negotiated. The religious phenomenology of the ritual is complex and conflicted: although the prayers are directed to God, the successful outcome is attributed to the saint, who has, however, not been prayed to but in effect coerced and even punished for dereliction of duty. Verification of this interpretation comes from unauthorized versions of the Humiliation ritual in which peasants would angrily strike the relic (an interesting contemporary representation occurs in the Francine Prose novel Household Saints and its film adaptation). Behind all this, as Little argues, was the very real need for justice and protection against very real adversaries in a situation of extreme vulnerability. Nevertheless, by the time of the Second Council of Lyons in 1274, the church forbade the ritual of Humiliation, although the tradition of the Clamor continued in the form of special votive masses and prayers in time of trouble and in the Ash Wednesday Commination in the Book of Common Prayer.
Although the Protestant Reformers were understandably hostile to the Catholic Church's claim of authority to anathematize and excommunicate, many of the Reformed churches (basing themselves upon Matt. 18:15–18 and 1 Cor. 5:11) arrogated to themselves comparable powers of "evangelical separation," usually referred to among the radical Anabaptist sects as banning or shunning. Characteristic expressions of this reformed version of exclusion can be found in several texts collected in George Hunston Williams's Spiritual and Anabaptist Writers (1957/1970), including Conrad Grebel's "Letters to Thomas Müntzer" (1524), Balthasar Hubmaier's "On Free Will" (1527), Caspar Schwenckfeld's "An Answer to Martin Luther's Malediction" (c. 1544), Dietrich Philips's "The Church of God" (c. 1560), and Ulrich Stadler's "Cherished Instructions on Sin, Excommunication, and the Community of Goods" (1537); and a systematic presentation is set out in Menno Simons's "On the Ban: Questions and Answers" (1550).
Cursing in the Early Modern Period to the Present
One of the most familiar carry-overs of the curse tradition in popular culture since the Early Modern period has remained the protective curse, famously called to the attention of tourists at Stratford-on-Avon, England, when viewing Shakespeare's tomb engraving:
GOOD FRIENDS FOR JESVS SAKE FORBEARE, TO DIGG THE DVST ENCLOASED HEARE: BLESE BE ye MAN yt SPARES THES STONES, AND CVRST BE HE yt MOVES MY BONES.
In Anathema! Marc Drogin has collected hundreds of fly-leaf book curses from medieval to Early Modern times aimed at protecting books from theft, defacement, misuse, or even misreading, concluding with a contemporary British postal mailing carefully inscribed, "PLEASE DO NOT BEND / if anyone shall bend this, let him lie under perpetual malediction. Fiat fiat fiat. Amen." To this someone in Her Majesty's Postal System succinctly appended, "FART" (1983, p. 111).
Finally, note that the corpus of world literature is full of curses that drive plots and provide dramatic and melodramatic dénouements, including: Enkidu's curse on the prostitute in Gilgamesh (vii.3); Oedipus's unwitting self-curse (Sophocles, Oedipus Rex 269–72); Dido's curse on Aeneas, who abandoned her (Aeneid IV.863–919); Medea's curse on Jason, who betrayed her (Euripides, Medea 160 seq.); Caliban's curse on his new island overlords (Shakespeare, The Tempest I.ii.353–67); Byron's denunciation of Lord Elgin in "The Curse of Minerva"; the bitter curses rained down upon Brother Lawrence in Browning's "Soliloquy of the Spanish Cloister"; and Dylan Thomas's plea to a dying father: "And you, my father, there on the sad height, / Curse, bless me now with your fierce tears, I pray / Do not go gentle into that good night. / Rage, rage against the dying of the light."
A comprehensive survey of primary and secondary references to cursing in the ancient Mediterranean world (Mesopotamian, biblical, and Greco-Roman) is provided by Wolfgang Speyer's article "Fluch" in Reallexikon für Antike und Christentum, Bd. VII (1969): 1160–1288. Such an assemblage will not have to be done again. Cursing, however, is a thematic topic embedded in a vast range of other ethnographic literature of which there is no comparably complete or analytic survey. The widest ranges of reference are to be found in the work of two early surveyors of ethnographic sources: Edward Westermarck and Ernest Crawley. For Westermarck see The Origin and Development of the Moral Ideas, 2 vols. (London, 1908), especially chapters xxiii, xxiv, xxv, and l; Pagan Survivals in Mohammedan Civilization (London, 1933; Amsterdam, 1973) and his important article, "LʾÂr, or the Transference of Conditional Curses in Morocco," Anthropological Essays Presented to Edward Burnett Tylor (London, 1907), pp. 361–374. For Crawley see Oath, Curse, and Blessing, edited by Theodore Besterman (London, 1934), extracted from Crawley's The Mystic Rose (London, 1902); the material is also abstracted in Crawley's article "Cursing and Blessing" for the Encyclopaedia of Religion and Ethics, edited James Hastings, vol. 4 (Edinburgh, 1908–1926; reprint, New York, 1970), pp. 367–374. Another comprehensive presentation occurs in the article "Maldición" in volume xxxii of the Enciclopedia Vniversal Ilvstrada Evropeo-Americana (Madrid, 1958): 486–492. Also see the early overview article by W. Sherwood Fox, "Cursing as a Fine Art," Sewanee Review Quarterly 27 (1919): 460–477. The classic expression of cultural evolutionism is James Frazer, The Golden Bough: A Study in Magic and Religion, 12 vols. (London, 1911–1915). A key example of early-twentieth-century anthropological perspective on magic and religion is Branislaw Malinowski, Magic, Science and Religion and Other Essays (New York, 1948).
There has been a good deal of scholarship on the motif of cursing in Ancient Near Eastern and Mediterranean literature. Egyptian material is covered in Katarina Nordh, Aspects of Ancient Egyptian Curses and Blessings (Uppsala, Sweden, 1996); Scott Morschauser, Threat-Formulae in Ancient Egypt (Baltimore, 1991); and André Parrot, Maledictions et violations de tombes (Paris, 1939). The Mesopotamian Maqlû ritual for countering a witch's curse is thoroughly analyzed by Tzvi Abusch in Mesopotamian Witchcraft (Leiden, 2002). Greek magical papyri are studied by Fritz Graf in "Prayer in Magic and Religious Ritual," in Magika Hiera: Ancient Greek Magic and Religion, edited by Christopher Faraone and Dirk Obbink, pp. 188–213 (Oxford, 1991). The major study of curse tablets or tabellae defixionum in the Greco-Roman world is John Gager's Curse Tablets and Binding Spells from the Ancient World (New York, 1992). Curses as a motif in the Indo-European literatures are the subject of Jeffrey Louis Falco's "The Malediction in Indo-European Tradition," Ph.D. diss. (UCLA, 1992). Cursing motifs in Germanic and Scandinavian folklore are dispersed throughout Jacob Grimm's classic early work, Teutonic Mythology, translated by James Steven Stallybrass, 4 vols. (1883–1888; reprint, New York, 1966). For examples from India, see Heinrich Zimmer, Philosophies of India, edited by Joseph Campbell (New York, 1956), pp. 66–83; and Paul Hockings, Counsel from the Ancients: A Study of Badaga Proverbs, Prayers, Omens, and Curses (Amsterdam, 1988), Index, p. 777.
Magical formulas, including curses, from Ancient Mesopotamia and Syria-Palestine, and from the Old Testament are illustrated and discussed in Frederick Cryer and Marie-Louise Thomsen, Witchcraft and Magic in Europe: Biblical and Pagan Societies (Philadelphia, 2001). Many relevant selections from Egyptian and Mesopotamian texts, legal, political, and literary, are conveniently available in James B. Pritchard, ed., Ancient Near Eastern Texts Relating to the Old Testament, 3d ed. with supplement (Princeton, N.J., 1969); Walter Beyerlin, ed., Near Eastern Religious Texts Relating to the Old Testament v (Philadelphia, 1975); and Francesco Pomponio, ed., Formule di maledizione della Mesopotamia preclassica (Brescia, Italy, 1990). A major comparative study is Sebastian Grätz, Der strafende Wettergott: Erwägungen zur Traditionsgeschichte des Adads-Fluchs im der Alten Orient und im Alten Testament (Bodenheim, Germany, 1998). Thomas Crawford's Blessing and Curse in Syro-Palestinian Inscriptions of the Iron Age (New York, 1992) analyzes Semitic cursing inscriptions in Akkadian, Ugaritic, Aramaic, Phoenician, Hebrew, and Edomite. Contemporary Palestinian curses are the subject of T. Canaan's "The Curse in Palestinian Folklore," Journal of the Palestine Oriental Society 15 (1935): 235–279.
Of particular importance among the Ancient Near Eastern texts for Old Testament study are treaties and covenants. Important original texts were published in D. J. Wiseman, The Vassal-Treaties of Essar-haddon (London, 1958); A. Dupont-Sommer, Les inscriptions araméennes de Sifré (Paris, 1958); and V. Korosec, Hethitische Staatsverträge (Leipzig, Germany, 1931). Important studies include Dennis McCarthy, S. J., Treaty and Covenant: A Study in Form in the Ancient Oriental Documents and in the Old Testament (Rome, 1981); Paul Arden Keim, "When Sanctions Fail: The Social Function of Curses in Ancient Israel," Ph.D. diss. (Harvard, 1992); and Delbert Hillers, Treaty-Curses and the Old Testament Prophets (Rome, 1964). Also see Delbert Hillers, "The Effective Simile in Biblical Literature," American Oriental Series 65 (1984); Samuel Mercer, The Oath in Babylonian and Assyrian Literature (Paris, 1912); F. Charles Fensham, "Malediction and Benediction in Ancient Near Eastern Vassal-Treaties and the Old Testament," Zeitschrift für die Alttestamentliche Wissenschaft 74.1 (1962): 1–9, and F. Charles Fensham, "Common Trends in Curses of the Near Eastern Treaties and Kudurru -Inscriptions Compared with Maledictions of Amos and Isaiah," ZAW 74.2 (1963): 155–175.
In addition to Speyer, already mentioned, major work on the subject of cursing in the Old Testament has been contributed by Josef Scharbert, including the articles "'Fluchen' und 'Segnen' im Alten Testament," Biblica 39 (1958): 1–26; "Curse," in the Encyclopedia of Biblical Theology, edited by Johannes Bauer (New York, 1981): 174–79; and articles in Theological Dictionary of the Old Testament, edited by G. Johannes Botterweck and Helmer Ringgren, translated by John Willis (Grand Rapids, Mich., 1977): I.261–266, 405–418; and his book Solidarität in Segen und Fluch im Alten Testament und in seiner Umwelt (Bonn, Germany, 1958). Other book-length studies focusing on cursing in the Old Testament include Willy Schottroff, Der altisraelitische Fluchspruch (Neukirchen-Vluyn, Germany, 1969); and Herbert Chanan Brichto, The Problem of "Curse" in the Hebrew Bible (Philadelphia, 1963). Robert Gordon is author of a series of articles on the various Hebrew words for curse in the New International Dictionary of Old Testament Theology and Exegesis, edited by Willem A. VanGemeren (Grand Rapids, Mich., 1997): vol. 1, items 457 and 826; vol. 3, items 7686 and 7837; and vol. 4, pp. 491–493.
An important article that offers a comparative analysis of cursing in the Hebrew scriptures and neighboring cultures is Stanley Gervitz, "West-Semitic Curses and the Problem of the Origins of Hebrew Law," Vetus Testamentum XI.2 (1961): 137–158 (and see his article "Curse" in the Interpreter's Dictionary of the Bible, 4 vols. [New York, 1962]: I, pp. 749–750). Earlier treatments of the same issue include: Albrecht Alt, Die ursprünge des israelitischen Rechts (1934); Johannes Hempel, "Die Israelitische Anschauungen von Segen und Fluch im Lichte altorientalisher Parallelen," Beiheft zur Zeitschrift für die Alttestamentliche Wissenschaft 81 (1961): 30–113; and, with respect to Deuteronomy, Immanuel Lewy, "The Puzzle of Dt. xxvii: Blessings Announced, but Curses Noted," Vetus Testamentum XII.2 (1962): 207–211; and Pierre Buis, "Deuteronome xxii 15–26: Maledictions ou Exigences de l'Alliance?," Vetus Testamentum XVII.4 (1967): 478–479. On the cursing element in the Psalms, see Johannes Pedersen, Israel: Its Life and Culture, 4 vols. in 2 (Copenhagen, Denmark, 1926; reprint, London, 1964); Sigmund Mowinckel, The Psalms in Israel's Worship, 2 vols., translated by D. R. Ap-Thomas (New York, 1962); Walter Brueggemann, The Message of the Psalms (Minneapolis, 1984); and Sheldon Blank, "The Curse, Blasphemy, the Spell, and the Oath," Hebrew Union College Annual XXIII.1 (1950–1951): 73–95. The question of whether Old Testament texts manifest a belief in the automatic efficacy of curses is addressed by W. Sherwood Fox, "Old Testament Parallels to Tabellae Defixionum," American Journal of Semitic Languages and Literatures 30.2 (1914): 111–124; by J. Z. Lauterbach, "The Belief in the Power of the Word," Hebrew Union College Annual XIV (1939); and by Anthony Thistleton, "The Supposed Power of Words in the Biblical Writings," Journal of Theological Studies 25 (1974): 283–299. For the biblical and later Jewish tradition, see Joshua Trachtenberg, Jewish Magic and Superstition: A Study in Folk Religion (New York, 1970), chaps. 4, 5, and 8; and the article "Cursing" in The Jewish Encyclopedia, edited by Isidore Singer et al. (New York, 1916): IV, pp. 389–390.
For the New Testament, the major studies, in addition to Speyer, are Anthonie Van Den Doel, "Blessing and Cursing in the New Testament and Related Literature," Ph.D. diss. (Northwestern Univ., 1968); and L. Brun, Segen und Fluch in Urchristentum (Oslo, Norway, 1932). Regarding the cursing of the fig tree; see A. De Q. Robin, "The Cursing of the Fig Tree in Mark XI: A Hypothesis," New Testament Studies 8.3 (1962): 276–281; and W. H. P. Hatch, "The Cursing of the Fig Tree," Journal of the Palestine Oriental Society III (1923): 6–12. Discussion of the various words for curse in the New Testament occur in articles by Behm and by Büchsel in Theological Dictionary of the New Testament, edited by Gerhard Kittel, translated by Geoffrey Bromiley (Grand Rapids, Mich., 1964): I, 355–356 and 448–451.
Aspects of ritual cursing in medieval Christendom, especially in monastic milieux, are the subject of studies by Patrick Geary, "Humiliation of Saints," in Saints and Their Cults, edited Stephen Wilson, chap. 3 (Cambridge, U.K., 1983); and by Lester Little, Benedictine Maledictions: Liturgical Cursing in Romanesque France (Ithaca, N.Y., 1993). Little is author of the article "Cursing" in the original edition of the Encyclopedia of Religion, edited by Mircea Eliade, vol. 4, pp. 182–185 (New York, 1987), which includes a focus on Catholic, and especially Irish, saint lore. Medieval book-curses are garnered in Marc Drogin, Anathema!: Medieval Scribes and the History of Book Curses (1983). Reformation traditions of banning as a Protestant form of excommunication occur in various texts collected in George Hunston Williams, ed., Spiritual and Anabaptist Writers (Philadelphia, 1957; reprint, 1970).
The role of cursing in European witchcraft appears intermittently in the discussion by George Lyman Kittredge, Witchcraft in Old and New England (Cambridge, Mass., 1929); and in the more recent essays by Norman Cohn, Peter Brown, Keith Thomas, and Alan MacFarlane collected in Part I ("The Context of Witchcraft in Europe") of Witchcraft: Confessions & Accusations, edited by Mary Douglas (London, 1970); and in Keith Thomas, Religion and the Decline of Magic: Studies in Popular Beliefs in Sixteenth and Seventeenth Century England (New York, 1997).
Cursing as an aspect of magic is a subject of ethnographic study in worldwide contexts. Classic studies of magic in Africa include: E. E. Evans-Pritchard, Witchcraft, Oracles, and Magic among the Azande, edited and abridged by Eva Gillies (1936; reprint, Oxford, 1976), esp. chaps. 3, 5, and 11; C. W. Hobley, Bantu Beliefs and Magic, 2d ed. (London, 1967), esp. chap. 7, "The Curse and Its Manifestation"; the essays collected in Witchcraft and Sorcery in East Africa, edited by John Middleton and E. H. Winter (London, 1963; reprint, 1969); Dominique Zahan, The Religion, Spirituality, and Thought of Traditional Africa, translated by Kate Ezra and Lawrence Martin (1970; reprint, Chicago, 1979), chap. 7, "Nictosophers and 'Healers'"; and Benjamin Ray, African Religions (Englewood Cliffs, N.J., 1976), chaps. 4 and 5. Relevant articles include: Ruth Finnegan, "How to Do Things with Words: Performative Utterances among the Limba of Sierra Leone," Man 4.4 (1969): 537–552; Benjamin Ray, "'Performative Utterances' in African Rituals," History of Religions 13 (1973–1974): 16–25; the essays by Alison Redmayne and R. G. Willis in Witchcraft: Confessions and Accusations : Part II, "Cleansing and Confession of Witches," and, on the subject of "cursing deaths" in East Africa, Godfrey Lienhardt, "The Situation of Death: An Aspect of Anuak Philosophy," in the same collection, chap. 13.
Curses, including death by cursing, is treated in studies of African-derived vodou traditions. For Haiti see Alfred Metraux, Voodoo in Haiti, translated by Hugo Charteris (1959; reprint, New York, 1972), Section V; Milo Rigaud, Secrets of Voodoo, translated by Robert Cross (1953; reprint, San Francisco, 1985), chap. 6; and Pierre Pluchon, Vaudou: Sorciers Empoisonneurs (Paris, 1987). Non-academic and exploitive literature on vodou abounds, as in the case of Robert Pelton, Voodoo Charms and Talismans (New York, 1973), which contains instructions, for instance, on how "To Place a Curse" (chap. 1). On performative language in the West Indies, see Roger Abrahams, The Man-of-Words in the West Indies: Performance and the Emergence of Creole Culture (Baltimore, 1983).
Related material on cursing traditions is found in studies of Southeast Asian and Oceanic cultures, including Walter William Skeat, Malay Magic (London, 1965), chap. vi, "Divination and the Black Art"; Francisco Demetrio, S.J., Encyclopedia of Philippine Folk Beliefs and Customs (Cagayan de Oro City, Philippines, 1991), pp. 52–54, 296; R. H. Codrington, The Melanesians: Studies in Their Anthropology and Folklore (Oxford, 1891), chaps. xi, "Prayers," and xii, "Magic"; and the book-length evangelizing work by Pieter Middelkoop, Curse—Retribution—Enmity: As Data in Natural Religion, Especially in Timor, Confronted with the Scripture (Amsterdam, 1960). For the Maori see J. S. Polack, Manners and Customs of the New Zealanders (London, 1840) and other nineteenth-century ethnographies cited in Crawley Oath 10–19.
For the extensive and controverted reporting on vodou death or bone-pointing among the Australian Aborigines, see, among the older works, H. Basedow, The Australian Aboriginal (Adelaide, Australia, 1925), pp. 178–179; and W. L. Warner, A Black Civilization: A Social Study of an Australian Tribe (London, 1941), p. 242; and, for the more recent scholarly debate in the pages of American Anthropologist : Walter Cannon, " 'Voodoo' Death," AA 44.2 (1942): 169–181; David Lester, "Voodoo Death: Some New Thoughts on an Old Phenomenon," AA 74.3 (1972): 386–390; Barbara Lex, "Voodoo Death: New Thoughts on an Old Explanation," AA 76.4 (1974): 818–823; Harry Eastwell, "Voodoo Death and the Mechanism for Dispatch of the Dying in East Arnhem, Australia," AA 84.1 (1982): 5–18; and Janice Reid and Nancy Williams, "'Voodoo Death' in Arnhem Land: Whose Reality?," AA 86.1 (1984): 121–133.
For classic studies of witchcraft and cursing traditions among Native Americans of the Southwest, see Clyde Kluckhohn, Navajo Witchcraft (Cambridge, Mass., 1944; Boston, 1967), sections 4, 5, and 10, Appendix II, "Sorcery," and Appendix III, "Wizardry"; Clyde Kluckhohn and Dorothea Leighton, The Navajo (Cambridge, Mass., 1946, 1974), chaps. 5 and 6; and Marc Simmons, Witchcraft in the Southwest: Spanish and Indian Supernaturalism on the Rio Grande (Lincoln, Neb., 1974, 1980). For other Native American examples, see They Knew Both Sides of Medicine: Cree Tales of Curing and Cursing Told by Alice Ahenakew, edited and translated by H. C. Wolfart and Freda Ahenakew (Winnipeg, 2000); and, for South America, Peter Riviere, "Factions and Exclusions in Two South American Village Systems," in Witchcraft: Confessions and Accusations, chap. 11.
The ur-text on performative language is John L. Austin, How to Do Things with Words: The William James Lectures Delivered at Harvard University in 1955 (Cambridge, Mass., 1962). The on-going debate is reflected in S. J. Tambiah, "The Magical Power of Words," Man 3.2 (1968): 175–208; and in the essays gathered in The Philosophy of Language, 3d ed., edited by A. P. Martinich (New York, 1996), part II, "Speech Acts": J. L. Austin, "Performative Utterances" (1961); and John R. Searle, "What Is a Speech Act?" (1965), "A Taxonomy of Illocutionary Acts" (1979), and "Indirect Speech Acts" (1975) Although there is little direct discussion of the subject of cursing in this literature, the concept has been invoked in the studies of African ritual by Finnegan and Ray.
George Scheper (2005)
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