By Stanley M. Aronson
The Providence Journal
There was a time in the distant past when curses were taken more seriously than they are now. Centuries ago, a person cursed with the full expectation that his swearing was more than a hasty expression of wrath or frustration.
A curse in the Middle Ages was viewed both by the curser and the one being cursed as a palpable threat. It was generally accepted that properly worded curses could cause herds of cattle to sicken, crops to wither, pregnant women to miscarry, strong men to waste away and even great empires to crumble.
In some belief systems, curses ranked high on the rosters of potential causes of human disease. And just as the administration of placebos might convince the credulous soul to feel cured, so, too, might a grimly delivered curse persuade an unskeptical person to retreat from radiant health and then sicken.
The student of cursing must distinguish carefully between expletive profanities, denunciations, oaths, swearings, spells, voodoos, whammies, incantations, solemn damnations and maledictions, all of which are sometimes called curses. And not all curses were designed expressly to affect another person's health.
Curses, after all, are of many sizes and missions: Some may be brief, others endure for generations; some are casually rendered, others solemn; some are narrowly focused while others are broadly indiscriminate. And the ultimate success of a curse is enhanced by the social standing of the one declaring the curse.
A curse intoned by a high cleric will probably be more effective than one uttered by an itinerant peddler.
A formal swearing, an oath, is more than a promise. It represents a solemn, intensely personal declaration to abide by a contract between the person doing the swearing and some higher authority. Persons taking elected office or those entering the military, the professions and even marriage generally take an oath to act in accordance with previously established rules.
Oaths follow an "if/then" formula: For example, if I uphold the rules of my profession, then I will be granted full rights to prosper.
Cursing, more as an insult than a malevolent wish, was institutionalized in Elizabethan England. It consisted of two or more belittling adjectives modifying a demeaning noun. The curse was more effective if the chosen words were alliterative. Examples: "You are an artless, alley-bred aborigine." "You are a fawning, festering flapdragon."
Note that this form of curse, common to the Shakespearean plays, assumed that the cursee was a victim of some terrible malady and that the curse accomplished little more than to announce something that was already a reality. In general, the more flamboyant the curse, the less malign its effect. Indeed, some such curses were so heavily laden with hyperbole, so excessively wordy, that they generated more amusement than fear.
Ireland, where poetry and curses are taken very seriously, improved upon Elizabethan cursing. Some of St. Patrick's original curses are still remembered ("May every day of it be wet for ye.") but his saintly expressions were subdued when compared with contemporary Celtic curses:" May your sword become as dull as your wit, your shield as thin as your deeds and your armor as dented as your brain appears to be." "Do you realize that you are depriving a village somewhere of its idiot?"
These Hibernian curses have wit, color and originality. Any commoner may wish a foe to go to hell, but how many would be inventive enough to wish that he be accompanied on his road to perdition by ravens pecking feverishly at his liver?
Eastern European Jews, for centuries oppressed by czars and other rulers, developed a unique variety of curses that were plaintive rather than vindictive, elliptical rather than blunt, and often poignantly humorous.
"May a little child be named after you." (Said in a culture where children were named only after those who were dead.)
"May you die and be reincarnated as a candelabrum, to hang by day and burn by night."
"May onions grow out of your navel."
When a curse begins with the word "may" ("May you be brought low by leprosy"), it implies that the victim of the curse does not currently have leprosy. Thus, the curse carries a tacit measure of uncertainty, an interval between the wish for leprosy and its emergence. This interval allows for yet another countervailing cottage industry to spring up, namely, those who, for a fee, will provide incantations to neutralize the impending effects of the original curse. The "may" curses, spoken by struggling humans, contrast sharply with scriptural curses proclaimed by the Lord: "I will send pestilence among you and you shall be delivered into enemy hands. The Lord will strike you with consumption, fever, . . . madness, blindness and dismay." (Deuteronomy 28.) Note that there is no "may," no latent interval, no ambiguity in curses of divine origin.
Stabbing, burning or otherwise harming wax figurines to cause sickness in others dates back to the earliest Egyptian dynasties and was practiced in many ancient Mediterranean cultures.
Effigies made of fabric continue to be widely used as a way of inducing illness in others.
Finally, there are curses, sometimes called spells, surrounding and protecting some venerated or sacred person or object. Thus, a grave may be said to be protected by an eternal curse activated only when the tomb is violated. Less than a century ago, the tomb of the young Pharaoh Tutankhamen was entered and explored by Howard Carter and Lord Carnarvon. Newspapers then talked darkly about a mortal curse that would strike dead any who despoiled the tomb. And Carter, who led the excavation, did indeed die - 17 years later.
The dynamics of cursing leaves many questions unresolved. Does a curse carry something like a statute of limitation or does it operate forever? Does the cursee have to hear the curse for it to become effective? Do curses function even if they are directed against someone innocent of the crime that had provoked the original curse? What is the source of invoked power to translate a curse to real hazard? And finally, why in this imperfect world are there more curses than blessings?
© 2002, The Providence Journal.
Distributed by Knight Ridder/Tribune Information Services.