Curse definition: “A solemn utterance intended to invoke a supernatural power to inflict harm or punishment on someone or something.” So how long have we vengeful humans been cursing? In Britain there is ‘documented’ evidence in the form of curses written on tablets which date back to between the 2nd and 4th centuries AD. These have been found at various pagan temples and shrines across the country, some inscribed on lead tablets others on pewter, wood and papyri. Back then if someone had ‘got on one’s goat’ then you simply got hold of a tablet and scrawled on it the name of the God you were appealing to, the person who caused you grief and what dire retribution you would like exacted on them. The tablet was then left at the temple or shrine and in theory justice would be served. Then along came Christianity which along with its teachings replaced many of the pagan beliefs, temples and shrines and the curses were replaced by prayers. It’s probably safe to say that as far as the Christian doctrine goes cursing one’s fellow man was not the done thing and so the curse tablets were replaced by prayers of deliverance from any suffering. However, according to the bible it was OK for the All Mighty to curse any wrongdoers e.g.; “Cursed be everyone who does not abide by all things written in the Book of the Law, and do them.”, Galatians 3:10.
Old habits die hard and throughout history the belief in supernatural powers has never disappeared which meant the power to ‘curse’ still had/has the ability to exact vengeance and retribution. In remote areas such as Dartmoor where old beliefs die hard it was at one time a well known fact that some people had the ability to curse anyone who caused them harm, offence or disrespect. Known locally by the term ‘ill wisht‘ there are numerous traditional examples of such fates befalling people in all walks of life that have lived on through the ages. It was not just the likes of witches, piskies and the kind that had the knack of cursing, granted they probably had a fuller repertoire but ‘Joe Public’ was just as capable of some pretty potent stuff. Gone was the need to write on tablets as there was no temple or shrine in which to deposit them. Oh no, things had progressed to such a state that a simple look would suffice in the form of the ‘Evil Eye‘ which would deliver the same grief as a curse. Alternatively one simply had to write the curse on a piece of paper and simply pop it in the mail, the postman would do the rest for you. It was not just a person that would be cursed it may have been; a whole family, a place, an object, livestock, or a building
Is bad luck a result of a curse or a coincidence? Again it is all down to one’s belief, imagine walking down a pavement and tripping up on a raised paving slab. Maybe prior to the accident you had upset someone who had’ ill wisht’ you with the hope that you would come to harm. So was the accident the result of the curse or perhaps a coincidental lack of attention where you were walking? Probably today your first thought would either be along the lies of silly me or what’s the phone number of ‘Claims for Us’. If the same thing happened a couple of hundred years ago you may be thinking who you had recently hacked off – it’s literally all in the mind. I love these wise words: “Bad luck isn’t personal – it just happens.”
The big question is why were/are curses effective? Maybe the answer lies in the above definition of a curse; “invoke a supernatural power.” and is the reason why folk were so afraid of them. If there was a strong belief in such powers then the human brain is quite capable of convincing itself of the consequences. On the other hand if one does not recognise such powers then a curse is utterly meaningless and ineffectual. Likewise should any misfortune present itself then instead of finding the cause it was easy to put this down to being cursed, there was/is always an enemy upon who the suspicion could fall. If you consider the negative emotions that may lead to a curse being made then they are plentiful; jealousy, anger, hatred, dejection, spite etc.
Back in 1889 there was a farmer who lived in the Ashburton area and for whatever reason he had offended someone who anonymously sent him the following (whose name and farm has been replaced):
An Injured One’s Curse.
“Smith, repent, the time is near, When before thy God you shall appear; Thy life has been a wicked race So pray to God to give thee grace. Thy bonnie bride, when she has borne A son, shall leave thy home forlorn: And when the first born son is won, And your farm goes to first born son; It’s then my curse shall have its sway, From that time forth to judgement-day, Without some act of special brand, To a despised and suffering man, You wipe away by glorious deeds The act that makes my heart to bleed; When this is done my curse is o’er, No Smith its weight shall bear no more.“
The farmer’s wife gave birth to a son the next May but tragically he died the following September. In addition the farmer suffered a long lasting illness and was fretting that another death would befall his family. Whether or not he performed a ‘glorious deed’ for a ‘despised and suffering man’ is not known but apparently he recovered from his illness and lived happily ever after. So how much there was a coincidence and how much had the farmer’s belief in the curse caused his illness? That we shall never know but it serves as a prime example of what effects a curse can have on those who let such things cause them concern and anxiety.
There were/are numerous ways in which to curse of which some can be quite specific. for example if you wanted to affect the fertility of someone’s land then all you had to do was bury an egg on their property, as it rotted so did the soil. If one really wanted to cause harm then to simply recite Psalm 109 along with the person’s name would be enough to ensure a fatality; “Let his/hers children be fatherless and his wife/husband a widow.”
At one time on Dartmoor the most feared and respected curses would be the infamous ‘Gypsy’s Curse’, probably because of tradition and the fact they could often be found camped on the moor. It was the fear of such that made them so potent and the reason why folk avoided upsetting the peg seller. Needless to say the Romanies used this fear to their advantage when asking for things or favours. Does the Gypsy’s Curse apply today? Next time you are in Exeter for example and a traveller comes up and tries to sell you some ‘lucky heather’ tell her to bugger off, or similar words, and see what happens – chances are you will hear a Gypsy’s Curse.
Just to bring things up to date, having seen the above brief overview of curses and how they work here’s a thought. With the advent of Facebook, Twitter and a host of other such apps has dawned the age of ‘cyber bullying’. There have been numerous reported cases of cyber bullying victims living in fear and dread which occasionally have had fatal results. What is the difference between such activities and the written curse sent to the farmer in 1889? I would suggest the only difference is the way it was delivered – the results are very much alike and in some cases it’s an illegal offence to undertake such activities.
Today, people who truly fear and fret about the unwanted effects of curses along with a strong belief in their consequences can be said to be suffering from a recognised phobia called – ‘Deprecorophobia’. This word comes from the Latin word deprecor which translates as a ‘curse’, so people suffering from ‘Deprecorophobia’ have a dreaded fear of curses. Believe it or not the symptoms of this phobia along with various treatments have been defined. The symptoms include; anxiety, sweating, trembling, nausea, light-headedness and confusion. The various treatments involve cognitive-behavioural therapy, relaxation techniques and medication. For such sufferers in this modern day and age the course of action would probably a consultation with a therapist of some kind. In comparison, a couple of hundred years ago if someone believed that they has a curse laid upon them their course of action would be a consultation with a white witch who had the know-how of lifting the curse. Could it be said that both the therapist and the white witch, albeit through different methods, are/were trying to convince their patients either that there is no such thing as an effective curse or that it had been lifted?