Tag Archives: curses

History of the troubled mind

I recently read a book on witchcraft – looking at historical witch-hunters. One of the things that struck me is that there was a time when what we now call depression, could be interpreted as magical attack – the consequence of a curse, or being afflicted by malign spirits sent to harass you. The same book also referred to melancholia, the condition of unbalanced humours. Back in the days when a person had a mix of choleric, sanguine, melancholic and phlegmatic that made up the balance of their personality and physicality, a person with too much melancholic influence, would be mournful. Depression explained!

Once upon a time, if you heard voices you were either divinely inspired or afflicted by demons. Now you have schizophrenia. Go back a few hundred years, and the uncontrollable voicing of obscenities would indicate you’d been attacked by a witch. These days, you’ll have Touretts syndrome. To be a lunatic, was to be under the strange influence of the moon. Today you might be diagnosed as having a psychotic episode.

The language of mental health has changed. It sounds scientific. You get syndromes, not curses. We talk of brain chemistry rather than lunar influences and humours. Sometimes medicating to rebalance the brain chemistry solves everything. Sometimes it doesn’t. Yes, the language has changed a lot, and how we relate to mental health has changed alongside the language. The very ailments that are labelled as ‘mental health’ issues would, in other times, have been understood as moral ailments, or afflictions of the soul, instead. Modern medicine does not like to think in terms of morality and soul. It prefers ‘healthy lifestyle’ as a term.

The same core issues remain. The labels have changed, along with the logic of the labelling. How we relate to treatment has changed, but not, really speaking, the way in which we tend to stigmatise the sufferer. Perhaps the biggest change is that, as a crazy visionary, you are much less likely to become a saint or prophet these days, that door is closed for now. You just get to be ill.

Perhaps there was a good thing about ascribing poor mental health to curses, and other magical influences. The afflicted person in this context was an unfortunate victim, but might not be responsible. They could have been cursed because of envy. In a world view that saw witchcraft as tending towards evil (and the mediaeval mindset most certainly did include this perspective) the victim of wicked enchantment is not to be blamed. On the downside, some poor scapegoat may be blamed instead, and the consequences when that happened could be dire, and probably of very little use to the person suffering from what we would understand as mental illness.

We’re not much better at curing malaises of the mind and spirit than were our medieval forebears. We are better at medicating people into compliance, but in terms of fixing afflictions, not a great deal has really changed. Tranquilising people is not the same as curing them. We have new words for some very old problems, but I’m not convinced we have any more functional understanding of it than our ancestors did. Yes, it may be more technically accurate to talk about a neurotransmitter in the brain, than a demon, but as I can’t see the chemicals in my brain, that’s as abstract to me as the little chap with horns and a pitchfork. Wonky brain chemistry or demon infested, there’s still not a heck of a lot I can do some days to put myself right.

It makes me wonder if we are in fact still as wide of the mark on mental health issues as our predecessors probably were with afflictions of unbalanced humours and malevolent witchcraft.

Druid cursing

A few days ago someone landed on the blog via google, searching for Druid curses, and no doubt directed to Community Cursing. If there’s an interest, that’s as good a reason to write, as any.

I’ve been pondering curses in the Druid tradition. There’s Arianrhod who curses her son Lleu with the fate that he shall have no name and bear no arms unless she gives them, and marry no woman of mortal race. There’s also the issue of geas, the taboos and rules inflicted on some mythic figures, which are not unlike curses, except that they require certain things to be done, or not done, to avoid incurring fate. The consequences of getting it wrong are grim enough for this to arguably count, as a curse. These are features from the mediaeval Celtic, so they may tell us something about the ancient Celts, and then again, maybe not.

For modern Druids, honour is a key issue. At first glance, honour and honourable relationship just do not go with cursing. Curses tending to be angry, vengeful, harmful things. However, there are ways, and I think it goes like this.

The first requirement in honourable cursing is that there should be no harm done where none is deserved. Sending back harm that has been done, or malevolence, seems entirely legitimate to me. The second requirement is that the curse should be good for the recipient. They might not like it, but that’s a whole other issue. Where someone really merits a metaphysical clip round the ear, I think these are wholly satisfying, and honourable things to hit them with…

May they have meaningful learning experiences.

May they have opportunity to grow, develop, and become better people.

May they come to understand how others see them.

May they come to understand the consequences of their actions.

May they have opportunity to learn what this is like from the other side, and so become more rounded and compassionate people.

May they have back everything they have given out.


You can carry on in this vein for some time. What I like best about this kind of wishing, is that it doesn’t feed your own bitterness, it enables letting go.

Community Cursing

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!

Reclaiming Magic

In my teens, I had a strong belief in magic. Not so much the spells and wands variety, but the essential, magical nature of reality, the importance of will, the strange complexities of existence. It’s one of the things I’ve lost along the way, and that wasn’t any kind of good or natural ‘growing up’ experience, or a deliberate embracing of another paradigm. Simply, I had my sense of magic stripped from me.

Over a period of years, I was exposed to a number of people with deeply disturbing and psychotic beliefs. People who claimed to be deities, who claimed to have cursed others and caused illness. People who claimed sole responsibility for keeping other people alive, the fate of others dependent on their whims. I also encountered people who claimed to be highly intuitive, but used their claimed intuition as a way to bully. It’s very easy to use the assertion that you have magical powers to control, intimidate and manipulate others. When modern writers criticise ancient cultures, it is often with the very assertion that people claiming magical powers used them to bully the credulous into serving them. It certainly does happen and is both alarming and destructive to encounter.

Exposed to this kind of behaviour and attitude, I became increasingly unwilling to think about anything in magical terms. Rational causality became ever more important to me. I felt a strong need to defend myself from what I was experiencing by becoming ever more conventionally rational. Magic became the word for experiencing the numinous or feeling a sense of wonder, but the idea of spells or deliberate will working I rejected. And oddly enough, that sense of the numinous, of the magical within life and nature, also began to diminish within me. I became, quite literally, disenchanted.

It is absolutely vital to maintain an understanding of reality that allows you, me, to functionally engage with others in viable and meaningful ways. However, humans are not wholly rational creatures. All things that we do begin in thought, will and imagination. We all have experiences we can’t explain, and the further reaches of science are so full of complexity and strangeness that getting my head round them is endlessly challenging, and much of the time, it might as well be magic. So often historically, ‘magic’ has been the word we’ve used for things we had no other explanations for. Letting that sense of wonder and possibility back in does not mean letting go of sanity or reason.

I am setting out to rediscover my sense of wonder, to rebuild my trust in the world and my ability to perceive it as a place that is not openly hostile to me, and that is rich with beauty and goodness, even amongst the pain and challenges. It is my intention to actively seek my own re-enchantment. The belief of my youth was just what naturally occurred to me. I didn’t put much work into it, so while it had an inherently innocent quality, it was also somewhat unformed, untested. To set out deliberately to rebuild in myself a sense of wonder and magic, is not going to give me back what I’ve had stripped from me. What happens, if this works, is bound to be different. I have no idea what to expect. Gone are the days when my sense of the future was keen and I trusted to my intuition.

I am choosing to step out into the darkness, with only intent to guide me. I want my magic back. I want my sense of magical possibility back, and my trust in both myself and the wider world. I want the rich, unconscious dreaming life I once had, and also I want those things I do not yet know about, that will be part of this journey. I’ll be blogging what happens alongside the other issues I tend to tackle here, and as ever, will be glad of anything anyone feels moved to share along the way.