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A curse is an attempt by a person to cause harm or misfortune to another person via supernatural means. Cursing someone would be the opposite of blessing them. It could take the form of an imprecatory prayer if one is asking God to bring about the harm.
A curse can be a ritual performed by someone, where the ritual itself causes the damage, for example, Voodoo Dolls or 'The Evil Eye', or it can be an invocation for a deity, demon, dead spirit, or other supernatural entity to do the dirty deed for you. People who make a living out of cursing others are generally called witches.[note 1]
Virtually every culture studied by anthropology has some form of curse (and the associated prayer or healing ritual) in that society's myths and rituals.
Due to the nature of a curse as being something bad, the term 'curse' has come to be associated with society's "bad words". The original curse words might have been true curses (e.g. "God damn it"), but most words that are now called 'curse words' are just 'dirty' words.
Where do curses come from?
Anthropology suggests that curses have two or three social aspects which feed into the creation of an idea that you can 'curse' someone. Humans seem biologically prone to ask "Why does something happen?", and when even primitive "science-like" answers are unavailable, the best answer humans have is that something magical has happened. And of course, if the outcome is not good, the magic must have been "not good". So in a community without science, when things happen like a sudden heart attack, an outbreak of illness in one family, or a drought that hits one tribe but not another, an easy answer is that an unfriendly person intentionally harmed them through magical means.
Another aspect of curses is that anyone who 'professionally' invokes curses (by their own design or not) tends to be an outcast of society. Anthropologists note that this was a way that early societies dealt with people who didn't quite "fit in". The society blamed them for the ills of the society, and they became the local 'witch' of the community.
Finally, there is always the aspect of power. Saying you will curse someone, and having them believe you will curse them, is a powerful tool, even if there is no magical power behind it. Throughout the history of many so-called primitive societies, as well as early pagan cultures, there are references to men of power who have 'magicians' who can curse others. In the Bible, there is Pharaoh with his merry band of priests; Gilgamesh finds Shamhat who serves a king; and legendary Chinese Emperors are often associated with magical assistants who curse their enemies.
If there is no magic, why does the myth persist?
Curses actually work. But they don't work because of magic, they work because of self-fulfilling prophecy. The human mind is very susceptible to suggestion,[note 2] so it is not uncommon for someone who believes they have been cursed to reinforce that belief with confirmation bias, saying "I tripped today, must be the curse". In more extreme cases, a person can physically make themselves ill because of their belief in the curse.
Curses can even kill people if victims become convinced that they have been cursed to death and cannot survive as a consequence of the nocebo effect. The native Australian ceremony of Kurdaitcha or pointing the bone is one example. The effect of the curse is increased by a frightening chant and dramatic language is used about how the bone pierces the soul of the victim, and afterwards the victim is referred to in the past tense to reinforce the belief that he (or perhaps she) will die.
The healing or removal of the curse works the same way. You believe you've been cured, so you allow yourself to get better, or notice only the good things that happen to you.
Also, because of the oh-so-elusive nature of anything 'supernatural', if a curse doesn't work, you can just say the curse was weak, or that someone invoked a counter-curse. Since you cannot prove that the curse happened, you also cannot prove that it didn't happen, thus leaving it a powerful motivation factor among those who buy into curses.
Today, the concept of cursing frequently applies to particular situations that appear to always go bad. For example, every fourth US Presidency was considered cursed, since someone noted (correctly or not) that the 4th president kept getting killed or shot at
Some rather 'famous' curses include:
- The Hope Diamond, which causes harm to anyone who touches it.
- The Curse of the Bambino, which ensured that the Red Sox would fail to win a World Series.
- Curse of Ham, allegedly the cause of dark skins among Africans, and explains the prominence of pork in soul food.
- Voldemort's curse on the Defense Against the Dark Arts teaching position, which prevented any teacher in that position from keeping it for more than one year. None ever did — it's like it was made up or something.[note 3]
- The Sports Illustrated Cover curse which ensures that if you are on the cover, you will either lose the next big event, or get hurt, or just suffer general decline. This actually happens due to the statistical phenomenon Regression to the mean.
- Tutankhamun's curse, levied by the Egyptian pharaoh on the despoilers of his tomb.
- The Bermuda Triangle is said to be cursed, and all ships that enter there will perish.
The evil eye
In folklore, the evil eye is a famous curse. The basic feature of the belief system is that various people, often women who are characterized as witches, can bestow a curse on various victims by their malevolent gaze. The effects on victims vary; some have them cursed with bad luck of various sorts. Others believe that the evil eye has even more baleful powers, such as causing disease, wasting away, and even death. Some cultures hold that the evil eye is an involuntary jinx that is cast unintentionally by people unlucky enough to be cursed with the power to bestow it by their gaze. Others hold that while it is not strictly voluntary, the power is called forth by the sin of envy. In southern Europe and the Middle East, people with blue eyes are feared to possess the power to bestow the curse, intentionally or unintentionally.
Among Europeans, the belief seems to have been strongest in the Mediterranean basin. In Italian, the evil eye is called jettatura or mal' occhio, in Greek baskania or matiasma. In Latin, the evil eye was fascinum, the origin of the English word "to fascinate". Belief in the evil eye also features in Islamic mythology; it is not a part of Islamic doctrine, however, and is more a feature of Islamic folk religion. The evil eye belief also spread to northern Europe, especially the Celtic regions. It generally is not a part of the native folklore of East Asia.
Attempts to ward off the curse of the evil eye resulted in people resorting to a number of talismans. The large eyes often seen painted at the prows of Mediterranean boats are there, traditionally, to ward off the evil eye; the staring eyes return the malicious gaze back to the sorcerer. The same can be said of the nazar boncuğu, or the blue glass eye amulet practically ubiquitous in Turkey. In ancient Rome, people believed that phallic charms and ornaments offered proof against the evil eye; the idea here was that the ribald suggestions made by sexual symbols would distract the witch from the mental effort needed to successfully bestow the curse. Those who were not fortified with phallic charms had to make use of sexual gestures to avoid it. This is one of the uses of the mano cornuto (a fist with the index and little finger extended, the heavy metal or "Hook 'em Horns" gesture) and the mano fico (a fist with the thumb pressed between the index and middle fingers). In addition to the phallic talismans, statues of hands in these gestures, or covered with magical symbols, were carried by the Romans as talismans. In Brazil, carvings of the mano fico continue to be carried as good luck charms.
- Not to be confused with pagans, 'wiccans', or other modern nice witches; the term 'witch' is used in the common vernacular within anthropology for someone who is an outcast of society and is considered to have access to bad or evil magic.
- Suggestion is the condition that makes hypnotism work, but also the reason advertisers spend so much on TV ads; suggestion is culpable in the mental condition of hypochondria, and is one of the reasons we elect who we do for president.
- Granted, this is in a fictional universe where magic actually does exist, and Voldemort was quite talented at using it, so it's also entirely possible that the position really was cursed.
- See the Wikipedia article on Hope diamond.
- Protection Against Evil by Henri Gamache. Originally published in 1946 as Terrors of the Evil Eye Exposed, "was packaged for sale to hoodoo practitioners in the African-American community."