There has been a great deal of media attention paid to the subject of ‘cyber bullying’ whereby people receive threatening or malicious comments via email or text. There have been some fatal and upsetting outcomes of these actions and in some cases the senders have been prosecuted. However, is this a new trend or is it something that has been occurring since the written word came into being – I would suggest it has. Clearly the actual method of delivery is a modern one as text messages and emails are in the historic timeline recent inventions. In 1973 numerous wooden tablets were recovered from the Roman fort at Vindolanda it was later revealed that on some were written curses which dated back to the first or second century AD. It was usual practices to deposit such curses at ritual sites dedicated to various pagan deities in the hope that they would invoke divine retribution. With the introduction of widespread Christianity these pagan temples disappeared and so written curses tended to be delivered directly to the victim.
This is all well and good but what has it got to do with Dartmoor? Well, I recently came across a record of such a practice that occurred only 125 years ago in the Ashburton area. A man who once farmed a small holding near Ashburton clearly upset someone of his acquaintance for he received a written curse. This was delivered anonymously to him in the May of 1889 and took the form of a rhyming verse. At the time this was recorded in 1892 the unfortunate recipient of the curse was still living so for the sake of privacy his name was changed and more than likely the name of the farm, Furzdon, as well. The curse read as follows:
“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 bourne
A son, shall leave thy home forlorn;
And when the first born son is won,
And Furzdon goes to the 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 bleed;
When this is done my curse is o’er,
No Smith its weight shall bear no more.”
In May of 1889 the farmer’s wife gave birth to a son who as foretold in the curse sadly died that very September. As can be imagined, the farmer was distraught at the loss of his son and even more so that he believed the curse to be working. Fearing for his and his families future the poor man became seriously ill due to worry and stress. Unfortunately we do not know what his crime was to merit such revenge or what ‘glorious deed’ he did to remove the curse. What’s recorded is that he did something somewhere along the line because he recovered from his illness and the family lived happily ever after.
As mentioned numerous time on this website, Dartmoor being for centuries a remote areas has meant that belief in curses, the evil eye and witchcraft has been deep rooted. So what recourse could be taken to remove a curse such as the one above? The first and most important thing was to try and establish who initiated it and why. If this was achieved the logical step would be to approach them and come to some agreement whereby the curse was lifted. If this was not possible then the next port of call would be to the local white witch and ask for their assistance. One of several ways that could have been used was to take a small twig from an apples tree and slowly wind a hair from your head around it. As this was being done the following needed to be recited; “Whoever it be who vexes me, could vex themselves by the power of three, As I wisht them no harm, I bind their power, to the safety of this apple bower.” The twig then had to be placed high up in the apple tree from whence it came.
For those who believed in the church a less ‘traditional’ answer was to say the prayer of the Archangel St. Michael which goes; “Saint Michael the Archangel, defend us in battle. Be our protection against the wickedness and snares of the devil. May God rebuke him, we humbly pray; and do Thou, O Prince of the Heavenly Host, by the Divine Power of God, cast into hell Satan and all the evil spirits who roam throughout the world seeking the ruin of souls.” There are other versions of prayers to St. Michael but all work on the principle that it is he who constantly battles the forces of evil.
Probably the most infamous of curses is that of the ‘Gypsy’s Curse’ and I can say I have heard that a few times. The easiest way of counteracting this on the moor was to throw some salt at the gypsy as they walked away.
If it was suspected that a witch had cast the curse then there was a rather convoluted way of counteracting her magic. It required three small, close necked bottles, two frog’s livers, one toad’s heart, some new pins and some thorns taken from a hawthorn tree. The livers had to be stuck full of the pins and the heart filled with the thorns, each of these were then sealed in one of the bottles. Having done so the bottles then had to be buried in three separate churchyard paths, seven inches deep and seven feet from the church porch. As the bottles were being buried it was necessary to repeat the Lord’s Prayer backwards. Then over time as the livers and heart decomposed so did the power of the curse.
Another form of protection against one’s enemies was the wearing of a certain talisman similar to tha show opposite. This had to be made from pure cast iron and engraved with the symbols and words on the night of a full moon. The Latin words ‘In Hoc Vince’ or sometimes ‘In Hoc Signo Vince‘ roughly translate as “By this sign thou shall conquer’. Having made the talisman this then needed ‘fumigating’ with smoke known as the Spirit of Mars, this was a concoction of frankincense, red pepper and red sandalwood.
As with anything; prevention is better than cure and there were numerous ways of protecting the family and home from ill wishes, the most common of which is to nail a horseshoe to the door. Another was to plant a rowan tree in front of the house or alternatively carry a hare’s foot in ones pocket. A less popular talisman (with the church) that was said to protect against ill wishes was to carry a piece knocked off a statue of a saint contained in a church.. This was then ground down into a powder and infused with other magical ingredients or simply carried whole. Evidence of this is said to be seen in some churches although it is impossible to attribute such damage to this practice. These vandalised keepsakes are often known as Peter Stones and presumably the best statue to take them from is one of this saint?