I’ve just read Melusine Draco’s fascinating book By Spellbook & Candle: Cursing, Hexing, Bottling & Binding. (Recommended). It’s a very interesting piece of work which includes all sorts of information about the history of cursing. The one thing that grabbed me particularly was the idea of community cursing. The general image of cursing is more of the solitary, perhaps shameful act of malevolence against another. It’s done alone, in darkness, the evidence carefully hidden so you don’t get burned as a witch. A clichéd image, I know, but I think that’s the more normal association.
Community cursing is a whole other thing, and this book flagged up a number of times and places when its known to have been carried out. The best know example would be the Catholic excommunication, the accompanying language for which is tantamount to cursing somebody. And what could be more damning than removing a person from the presence, and care, of god? When a community gathers to publically throw a curse at someone, this has a totally different vibe from the private cursing image. For a start, normally the one who curses would be the one to face punishment in the event of discovery. Communal cursing, especially religion sanctioned, perhaps even undertaken by your priest or some other figure of authority, keeps power with the majority. It begs the question of why you might choose a curse in that scenario rather than more conventional, physical responses to a problem person.
If the intended recipient of a communal curse is an outsider, perhaps they will never know. It makes sense to curse the enemies of the tribe, and sociologically speaking, I suppose that’s as much about group identity and making up for a sense of lost power as anything else. When the majority undertakes to curse the lone individual from inside the community, there have to be other reasons, and I am not sure what they are. Punishment by public humiliation? A method for controlling behaviour, akin to the rough music used in some communities to shame those who do not conform to shared standards? Is it an implicit threat that next time action will be more direct? It probably varies across places and times. In the case of Catholic excommunication and other curse exiles, it is about publically removing the person from the community. For a lot of history, being outside the fold was probably a death sentence.
The whole issue flags up for me how contextual most things are. If someone with power, sanctioned by religion, curses another, that’s not evil, it may even get you saint status. When the curse is the only means of revenge or justice available to someone who is largely powerless, then the discovery of it will likely lead to further disempowerment.
Of course some, if not most of the cursing evidenced by folk practice, was all about greed and malice. Much of it won’t have had any decent justification. Cursing is just another way in which humans have sought to get advantages over each other, score points, and get our own way. It’s neither pretty nor excusable. But then there are the curses of the starving beggar, turned away from the rich house in the depths of winter, empty handed and powerless. I’ve encountered a few witch trial stories that start from just such a point. The wronged one powerless to get justice by conventional means, and invoking poetic justice, the wrath of God or their own anger in a quest to balance the books. And oddly enough, as Melusine points out, when someone poor and powerless curses in this way, and the curse comes to pass, no one seems to consider that this might not be evil at all, but a bit of divine intervention on behalf of the aggrieved one.
It had never before occurred to me that curses could be such a loaded, political issue!