Curses and hexes are possibly the oldest form of magic, going back to distant recorded history.
Magic was an everyday part of life for many ancient peoples around the world. Babylonians used clay tablets to dispel witchcraft and Romans made leaden curse tablets to defeat their enemies. Greeks hired professional magicians to create kolossoi, or voodoo dolls, or make curse tablets invoking gods tied to the Underworld like Hermes and Persephone. Amulets and charms were widely used as forms of protection.
But lest you think that curses were the province of pagans and witches, in 1525 the archbishop of Glasgow in Scotland pronounced a curse on the reivers (raiders) along the Anglo-Scottish border and their families, and caused it to be read out in all churches in the border area.
Even God uttered curses against Adam, Eve and the snake in the Garden of Eden for the unforgivable sin of seeking knowledge. For the snake He proclaimed:
And the LORD God said unto the serpent, Because thou hast done this, thou art cursed above all cattle, and above every beast of the field; upon thy belly shalt thou go, and dust shalt thou eat all the days of thy life: And I will put enmity between thee and the woman, and between thy seed and her seed; it shall bruise thy head, and thou shalt bruise his heel.
Cursed objects have usually, according to the legends that grow around them, been looted from a sacred place, or stolen from their rightful owners. The miscreants, and all subsequent possessors, suffer much misfortune. The Hope Diamond is supposed to bear such a curse,. According to legend, it was stolen from an eye of a sculpted statue of the Hindu goddess Sita, which clearly was a very bad idea. The trail of disaster is said to include (to name just a few):
- A man named Jacques Colet, who committed suicide after buying the diamond
- Prince Ivan Kanitovski, who bought the stone from Colet, was killed by Russian revolutionists
- A Turkish attendant named Hehver Agha, who was hanged for having it in his possession.
- Jeweler William Fals, who recut the stone and later “died a ruined man”
- Louis XVI and Marie Antoinette, who were deposed and beheaded
Authors and screenwriters love to use curses as an atmospheric vehicle for superstition and catastrophe. How many times in horror cinema has the Mummy brought ancient Egyptian revenge on anyone silly enough to dig him up! A ‘fairy tale’ beloved by many (including me) features the Beast, cursed for having behaved like an entitled jerk, and doomed unless rescued by love.
In ancient and medieval times, people even placed curses on their books, to befall anyone who dared pilfer them. Books were extremely valuable in the days before the printing press and bookstores in every city, and highly coveted. During those times, and for centuries following, people strongly believed in the power of curses, and such hexes were considered the only defense against theft. Perpetrators were destined to die an agonizing death, or, in medieval times, excommunication or damnation!
The earliest known book curse, issued by Ashurbanipal, King of Assyria in the 7th century BC and written on the tablets in the library at Nineveh, was a doozy:
“… Whosoever shall carry off this tablet, or shall inscribe his name on it, side by side with mine own, may Ashur and Belit overthrow him in wrath and anger, and may they destroy his name and posterity in the land.”
With the creation of manuscripts, produced on vellum, papyrus and paper from about the 5th century BCE, the curses were generally inscribed in the first or last page as part of the colophon (a statement containing information about the book’s publication). Medieval scribes were free to put whatever they wanted in that location, and each book curse tended to be unique. The Arnstein Bible, written in Germany circa 1172 (now in the British Library), included a pretty extreme torture for potential thieves: “If anyone steals it: may he die, may he be roasted in a frying pan, may the falling sickness and fever attack him, and may he be rotated and hanged. Amen.”
The scribe of a 13th-century manuscript kept in the Vatican Library had some fun with rhymes while he was at it:
“The finished book before you lies;
This humble scribe don’t criticize.
Whoever takes away this book
May he never on Christ look.
Whoever to steal this volume durst
May he be killed as one accursed.
Whoever to steal this volume tries
Out with his eyes, our with his eyes!”
The scribes had as much reason to pronounce a curse as the owners of the manuscripts. In the Middle Ages, scribes would toil for months on end to create a book, hunched over their copy tables and working by natural light alone because candles were too big a risk to the end product. The work was long, tiring and generally hard on both the eyes and body as the scribes painstakingly drew their error-free letters and illustrations.
With the introduction of the printing press, curses were then added via bookplates, allowing their owners to declare themselves and the consequences of stealing their property.
When a manuscript or book legitimately changed hands, the new owner often felt compelled to dispel any previous curses. In 1327 the bishop of Exeter acquired a book with this inscription:
“This book belongs to Sc. Mary of Robert’s Bridge; whoever steals it, or sells it, or takes it away from this house in any way, or injures it, let him be anathema-maranatha.”
Covering all the bases, the bishop prudently added his own inscription: “I, John, bishop of Exeter, do nor know where the said house is: I did not steal this book, but got it lawfully.”
There were also document curses, used to protect the text written in the document. They were typically found in legal records like grants, charters and wills to prevent fudging. One document curse from an 11th century will stated:
“And he who shall detract from my will which I have now declared in the witness of God, may he be deprived of joy on this earth, and may the Almighty Lord who created and made all creatures exclude him from the fellowship of all saints on the Day of Judgement, and may he be delivered into the abyss of hell to Satan the devil and all his accursed companions and there suffer with God’s adversaries without end and never trouble my heirs.”
Well, damn, I wouldn’t mess with that!
So if you ever become the proud owner of a venerable old document, don’t be tempted to make any addendums, and if an old book, don’t take any chances with a centuries-old curse that may have been added – avow your right of possession, or some hideous fate will await you 😉