What is a curse?

What is a curse?

Hello, and welcome to the Folklore & Fiction newsletter. In this edition, I'm writing about curses with help from scholars Natalie Underberg, Evangelos Gr. Avdikos, and others, discussing the use of curses in storytelling, and providing you with an example and a reflective writing exercise. If you're new to the newsletter or missed March's "What is a charm?" edition, do go back and read it before engaging with this one. Many folklore scholars agree that curses may be viewed as negative charms, and with that in mind, this discussion is an extension of the last one (Roper 2003a; 2003b; Ryan, Kapalo, and Pocs 2012).

Folkloric Discussion of Curses

Like charms, curses are expressions of folk belief and verbal lore. Moreover, Jonathan Roper's definition of charms also works for their negative counterparts. They are patterned traditional utterances performed in specific contexts, they are sometimes accompanied by gestures and accessories, and they are credited with the power to bring about changes in the health, fortune, safety, and emotional state of an individual or group (Roper 2003b, 8). With these similarities on board, we can begin to look at curses a bit more closely.

Natalie Underberg identifies and discusses several curse motifs in folklore and literature, including:

  • Curses that result in the creation of outcasts like Cain, the Ancient Mariner, and Suibne, Pagan king of the ancient Pictish kingdom Dal Ariadhe (2004, 312; Sailer 1998, 115).
  • Cursing competitions that require feats of verbal dexterity, like the ancient Germanic flyting and the Irish cursing matches popular in the early days of Christianity (2004, 313).
  • Maledictions delivered by holy men or women like Saint Ronan, who cursed Suibhne with madness for obstructing his efforts to establish a church in Dal Ariadhe (2004, 314; Sailer 1998, 115).
  • Ritualized curses delivered by poets in ancient Ireland, whose words were believed to be uniquely powerful (2004, 315).
  • Maledictions grouped into those intended to cause physical harm, bad luck, misfortune for the recipient's descendants, or death (2004, 316).

Underberg also writes that "Generally, a form of sympathetic magic underlies many rituals associated with cursing. Imitative magic works according to the principle of “like produces like”— a voodoo doll is a good example. Contagious magic, on the other hand, operates on the idea that something that was once in contact with a person will continue to exert control over him or her even after it has been removed" (316).

But what interested me most while researching this newsletter was the argument Underberg and Evangelos Gr. Avdikos both make about the power imbalance that exists between the curser and the accursed. Underberg writes that there is an inverse relationship between a group's social power and the proliferation of its cursing traditions (2003, 318), while Avdikos discusses this issue at some length in his work on Karpathian curses. Specifically, he approaches them as "counterhegemonic devices" that seek to address social asymmetries in the community. Put simply, people place curses because they feel powerless, are aggrieved in some way, or believe a wrong needs to be righted (Avdikos 2011, 90-94).

A Few Karpathian Curses

It occurs to me that I've written two newsletters about verbal lore and haven't offered any examples from folklore. So here are a few Karpathian curses found in Avdikos' work.

Invocations of God as the Ultimate Authority:

  • "May you be paid back by God."
  • "May God wither and roast you."
  • "Ever since he fell on Earth's track, he's been my enemy and been fighting against me; may God oust him from it."
  • "Before God you'll be arraigned and from him may you find it and not lose it."

Avdikos writes that in cases where a curser calls upon God for justice, it is often because she feels too weak to assert her rights in society and needs a powerful ally (2011, 95).

Invocations of the Devil to Ostracize and Punish the Offender:

  • "May the black angel talk to you."
  • "May the anaraes (wicked fairies) talk to you."
  • "May the Devil enter your eyes."
  • "May the Devil be within you, in your guts your head, your little brain, your eyes, your belly, your going, your coming, your staying, your mouth, your throat, your shoes, the veins of your body, your five fingers."

Avdikos writes that curses invoking the Devil are more numerous and more specific than those invoking God and more deeply express the indignation, agitation, and humiliation the curser has suffered (2011, 96).

How Curses Have Been Used in Fiction Writing

While curses, like charms, may be categorized as verbal lore, many fictional examples of these do not contain the verbiage of the spell that lies at the root of the plot. So it is with The Curse of Chalion by Lois McMaster Bujold. In this scene, the primary character Cazaril learns of a curse inflicted upon the lineage of his young student, the princess Iselle and her brother, the prince Teidez. More interestingly, the curse itself is not an example of folk belief or verbal lore but a purely magical transference of "ill luck and subtle bitterness." I'm sharing it because this is a general's curse, but it might have been a saint's curse or a poet's curse. Further, while it afflicted a king's progeny with bad luck and death, it might also have afflicted them with madness, poverty, or some other sort of malady. My point here is what it often is in these discussions of folkloric principles for fiction; let them inspire you, but don't be afraid to stretch them and tell your own story. Here's how Bujold reveals the curse at the heart of hers:

Umegat put his cup down, tugged on his bronze-gray queue, and sighed. “It all goes back to Fonsa the Fairly-Wise and the Golden General. Which is, I suppose, history and tale to you. I lived through those desperate times.” He added conversationally, “I saw the general once, you know. I was a spy in his princedom at the time. I hated everything he stood for, and yet...had he given me a word, a mere word, I think I might have crawled after him on my knees. He was more than just god-touched. He was avatar incarnate, striding toward the fulcrum of the world in the perfected instant of time. Almost. He was reaching for his moment when Fonsa and the Bastard cut him down.” Umegat’s cultured voice, lightly reminiscent, had dropped to remembered awe. He stared into the middle distance of his memory.

His gaze jumped out of the lost past and back to Cazaril. Remembering to smile, he held out his hand, thumb up, and waggled it gently from side to side. “The Bastard, though the weakest of His family, is the god of balance. The opposition that gives the hand its clever grip. It is said that if ever one god subsumes all the others, truth will become single, and simple, and perfect, and the world will end in a burst of light. Some tidy-minded men actually find this idea attractive. Personally, I find it a horror, but then I always did have low tastes. In the meantime, the Bastard, unfixed in any season, circles to preserve us all.” Umegat’s fingers tapped one by one, Daughter-Mother-Son-Father, against the ball of his thumb.

He went on, “The Golden General was a tidal wave of destiny, gathering to crash upon the world. Fonsa’s soul could match his soul, but could not balance his vast fate. When the death demon carried their souls from the world, that fate overflowed to settle upon Fonsa’s heirs, a miasma of ill luck and subtle bitterness. The black shadow you see is the Golden General’s unfulfilled destiny, curdling around his enemies’ lives. His death curse, if you will.”

Cazaril wondered if this explained why all of Ias’s and Orico’s military campaigns that he’d ever been in had fared so ill. “How...how may the curse be lifted?”

Umegat sighed. “In six years, no answer has been given me. Perhaps it will run out in the deaths of all who flowed from Fonsa’s loins.” (Bujold 2009, chap. 13)

How Curses Might Be Used in Fiction Writing

Just as a saint's curse of madness upon a king lies at the heart of Sweeney Astray, and a general's lineage curse upon Fonsa's descendants lies at the heart of The Curse of Chalion, you might also construct a work of fiction about X curser who delivers Y curse to Z accursed. Here are a few examples of what I mean:

Curser Curse Accursed
nun lineage hereditary priesthood
poet poverty stingy patron
child madness bullies
queen death enemies of the kingdom

You might also develop a canon of verbal lore based on the world-building you undertake for a work of fiction, in which your characters utter maledictions based upon their own gods and devils to correct their own societal imbalances.

And what about cursing matches? I haven't really covered those here, but a library search on the word flyting should yield a few good places to begin researching what cursing matches were in ancient Germanic contexts so that you can begin building cursing matches of your own.

Whatever you decide to do with the material, remember that curses are often expressions of powerlessness and deeply-held grievances that seek to right a perceived wrong. Sometimes they have entertainment value as well, but that's a discussion for the book chapter I'll be writing on the topic.

A Reflective Writing Exercise

Given the present global crisis and its emotional impacts upon all of us, I debated about whether or not to publish this edition of the newsletter now. But it's the second of a two-part series, and there may not be a better time to publish it in the near future. Still, I'm not prepared to ask that you write creatively about curses this month.

Laurie Penny makes an interesting argument in her recent piece for Wired, writing that "There’s an important difference between apocalypse and a catastrophe. A catastrophe is total devastation, with nothing left and nothing learned. “Apocalypse”—especially in the biblical sense—means a time of crisis and change, of hidden truths revealed. A time, quite literally, of revelation" (Penny 2020). It is with this sense of crisis, change, and revelation in mind that I'm encouraging you to begin or continue keeping a journal both for yourself and for the people in your community who will want your perspective on current events in the years to come.

As a folklorist and ethnographer, I keep a journal whenever I'm in the field undertaking research, and I've written a recent blog entry outlining a few of my favourite field journal techniques. You'll find it here. I hope it's useful to your processes of reflection, integration, healing, and growth.

That's all for now. Thanks so much for your time! I'll be back next month with a discussion of folk customs.

Bibliography

  • Avdikos, Evangelos Gr. 2011. ‘“May the Devil Take Your Head and Brain”: The Curses of Karpathos, Greece, Social Counterstructures, and the Management of Social Relations’. Journal of American Folklore 124 (492): 88–117.
  • Bujold, Lois McMaster. 2009. The Curse of Chalion. Harper Voyager.
  • Heaney, Seamus. 2014. Sweeney Astray: A Version from the Irish. New York: Farrar, Straus and Giroux.
  • Penny, Laurie. 2020. ‘This Is Not the Apocalypse You Were Looking For’. Wired, 30 March 2020. https://www.wired.com/story/coronavirus-apocalypse-myths/.
  • Roper, Jonathan. 2003a. ‘English Orature, English Literature: The Case of Charms’. Folklore: Electronic Journal of Folklore 24: 50–61.
  • ———. 2003b. ‘Towards a Poetics, Rhetorics and Proxemics of Verbal Charms’. Folklore: Electronic Journal of Folklore 24: 7–49.
  • Ryan, Francis, James Kapalo, and Eva Pocs. 2012. The Power of Words: Studies on Charms and Charmings in Europe. Budapest: Central European University Press.
  • Sailer, Susan Shaw. 1998. ‘Suibne Geilt: Puzzles, Problems, and Paradoxes’. The Canadian Journal of Irish Studies 24 (1): 115–31.
  • Underberg, Natalie M. 2004. ‘Curses: Motifs M400-M462’. In Archetypes and Motifs in Folklore and Literature: A Handbook, edited by Jane Garry and Hasan M. El-Shamy. Armonk: Routledge.

Monthly Folklore Archive Link

Here are the folklore-related blog posts and memes I published to social media in March 2020.


My name is Ceallaigh S. MacCath-Moran. I'm a PhD candidate in the Folklore Department at Memorial University of Newfoundland, and I'm also a speculative fiction writer under the pseudonym C.S. MacCath. The Folklore & Fiction newsletter synthesizes these passions with a focus on folkloric scholarship aimed at writers. You'll find the newsletter archive (and the rest of my work) online at csmaccath.com.