Curses are magic spells that are directed at a
person, place, or object in order to bring about harm. Curses are believed to result in failure, injury, illness, or even death. Curses appear in both folklore and real life, in the Bible and the Koran, in the ancient world and the modern. There are different forms of curses, including those that are spoken and those that are invoked with a look, a form of curse commonly known as the evil eye.
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Effigies and Other Objects
Of the various methods by which curses are placed, perhaps one of the oldest is the use of efﬁgies. These are crude ﬁgures that represent targeted individuals. The idea is that as an efﬁgy is injured or destroyed, so, too, would the victim suffer and die.
Wax efﬁgies have been found at ancient Egyptian and Indian sites, among others. Later examples were made of clay, wood, or stuffed cloth and painted to look as much as possible like the victim. During the reign of the Egyptian Pharaoh Ramses III (c. 1184–1153 B.C.E.), conspirators against him were found to have wax efﬁgies in their arsenal.
In ancient Greece, curses were called katadesmoi. To the Romans, they were tabulae deﬁxiones. In both cases, the curses included aninvocation to a god or demon. They were written on a solid material, such as lead, and buried where it was believed their power would be activated, such as in a cemetery or near a sacred well. In the fourth century B.C.E., the Greek philosopher Plato wrote in his book The Republic, “If anyone wishes to injure an enemy; for a small fee [sorcerers] will bring harm on good orbad alike, binding the gods to serve their purposes by spells and curses (performed on efﬁgies).”
Wax ﬁgures also were used in Europe during the Middle Ages and the Renaissance. King James I of England broadened the Witchcraft Act, bringing penalty of death toanyone who invoked evil spirits or communed with familiar spirits. These activities were described in King James’s book Daemonologie (1597):
To some others at these times [the Devil] teacheth how to make pictures of waxe or clay. That by the roasting thereof, the persons that they beare the name of, may be continually melted or dried away by continuall sicknesse.
Efﬁgies are sometimes stuck with pins or knives. So-called voodoo dolls play on this theme in New Orleans and other locations where voodoo is practiced.
Animal and human hearts, animal corpses, or any other objects that will quickly decompose also have been used for placing curses. These are buried in the ground with an invocation stating that as the objects rot away, the victim of the curse will die.
In Ireland, there are so-called cursing stones, which are turned to the left as a curse is recited.
Cursed People, Places, and Things
There are certain people, places, and objects that are said to carry a curse.
The famous curse of King Tut was placed on anyone who disturbed the tomb of Tutankhamen. It was said that an inscription on a clay tablet found within the tomb read, “Death will slay with its wings whoever disturbs the peace of the pharaoh.” Earl Carnarvon, who funded the excavation of the tomb, and archaeologist Howard Carter, who opened the tomb in 1922, were believed to be the victims of thiscurse. Six months after he entered the tomb, Carnarvon was dead, and rumor makers spread the word. Although six members of the team did die suddenly, others, including Carter who simply dropped out of public view, went on to live long and normal lives. The mysterious tablet was never found and likely never existed. Ancient Egyptians were not known to write on clay tablets or refer to “winged death.”
The ﬁrst curse recorded in the Bible appears in the Book of Genesis, when the serpent is cursed to crawl upon its belly. In other references, as in the Book of Proverbs, undeserved curses are said to have no weight and may be turned to a blessing by God.
A famous curse protects William Shakespeare’s grave. It says, in part, “Curst be he who moves my bones.”
There are also supposedly cursed places. One such place is the Bermuda Triangle, a region in the Atlantic Ocean in which many people, along with ships and aircraft, have disappeared without a trace. Within the Bermuda Triangle lies the Sargasso Sea. The lack of wind over the sea and the proliferation of sargassum weed, which can entangle vessels, may contribute to the mysterious happenings.
The Hope Diamond was said to be cursed, supposedly bringing about the demise of several of its owners. But a twentieth-century gem dealer confessed to making the story up in an attempt to make the diamond seem more exotic.
The Boston Red Sox were said to suffer from “the curse of the Bambino.” Babe Ruth (aka the Bambino) placed a curse on the team when he was sold to the Yankees in 1920. The curse stated that the Red Sox would never win another World Series. This held true until more than eighty years later, when the Red Sox won the series in 2004.
Many old families are thought to be cursed. A recent example is the Kennedy curse. The family’s patriarch, Joseph Kennedy, supposedly had a curse placed on him that has affected many of his male descendants.
Curses in Folk Belief
The power of the curse became ﬁrmly ﬁxed in European folk belief during the Middle Ages and the Renaissance. In England, a case came to trial in March of 1612 about a curse placed by Alison Device on John Law, a peddler who had refused to open his pack for her. Law believed that he had been cursed and collapsed with what was very likely a stroke. Device admitted to placing the curse on him and was sentenced to death.
Curses often are found in folktales. In “Sleeping Beauty,” an evil fairy foretold that the heroine would prick her ﬁnger on a spindle and die. This curse was softened when a good fairy altered the punishment to a sleep of 100years. In “The Frog Prince,” a handsome young prince is cursed to remain a frog until aprincess can break the spell, either with a kiss or, more violently, by hurling him against a wall.
There are as many ways to break a curse as there are types of curses. The power of an efﬁgy or other cursed object can be taken away with a ceremony in which the object is destroyed. Other rituals can be performed to banish curses. Protective talismans or amulets also can be worn to ward off curses like the evil eye.