The Ethics, Theory And Practice Of Cursing
By Ian Sturrock
Published Samhain 1996
"Them that seek to entrap thee, to overthrow thee, them attack without pity or quarter; & destroy them utterly. Swift as a trodden serpent turn thou and strike! Be thou yet deadlier than he!"
Liber AL, III:42.
Curses are not really in accord with the Wiccan Rede. Fortunately the Wiccan Rede is a moral pronouncement rather than a suggestion as to ethical behaviour, and I have no truck with moral pronouncements, leaving me free to curse if I so Will. From an ethical point of view, I wouldn`t be inclined to curse anyone who had not wronged me or mine. Revenge, though, is one of our finest and most ancient pagan traditions, so anyone who does wrong me is fair game. I tend to be fairly lazy so it has to be a pretty serious wrong to motivate me to get the black candles and henbane out. Pagans wishing to get more cursing practice in may wish to take offence at more minor slights.
This brings me to another point on ethics - making the punishment fit the crime. It doens't seem entirely reasonable to hurl a death curse at somebody who forgot to pay you back fifty pence. What might be more sound is to put a temorary curse on their wallet or purse, to not hold any money for a week or so. Whatever. Make it up as you go along. I usually do. For example: a taxi knocked me off my bicycle, buckling a wheel. Though I recalled the registration, there were no witnesses, and so the driver knew I had no real case against him, though it had been entirely his fault as he had freely admitted at the time. He ignored the letters from my solicitor, knowing he could get away without paying up the paltry £25 or so I was asking for a new wheel. Since he had disabled my transportation (also occasionally my means of earning a living) it seemed only reasonable to curse his vehicle in response.
The more severe responses such as death magick should usually be reserved for out-and-out enemies, those whose ideas are wholly incompatible with one's own to the point that total war is the only way to resolve your differences. Examples of such techniques would be the niðing-pole of Norse tradition or the Cake of Light beetles from Thelemic tradition. Targets against whom they might legitimately be used would be born-again Christians, far-right politicians or others who deny our right to live as pagans.
One of the classic ideas from the Western Mystery Tradition (borrowed of course from the Eastern) is that of the Lords of Karma. These folks, allegedly, make sure that everybody, sooner or later, faces the consequences of their failures. In the system of magick I work with, such failures would occur when the magician was not true to his or her own Will, not necessarily when he or she wronged another. However if someone thwarts what you sincerely believe to be your Will, you`re probably justified in taking action against them, since they are unlikely to be doing their own Will in so affecting yours. That is when you might feel you want to give the Lords of Karma a bit of a helping hand. After all, we`re not a bunch of Christians here: we can safely ignore "Vengeance is mine, sayeth the Lord," and make our own justice. I see no reason why my curse should not be a part of the karmic punishment dealt out to the person who wronged me. I`m obviously not claiming to be an agent of cosmic justice here; it`s just that I firmly believe that the Lords of Karma are just as lazy as the next anthropomorphic personification, and if they can get their job done without lifting a finger, because some pagan fancies dealing out a little "Instant Karma", then they will do.
"Curse them! Curse them! Curse them!" Liber AL, III: 50.
The psychological theory of why curses work in primitive societies is that they are entirely psychosomatic: witchdoctor points bone, victim knows he or she is cursed with death and so obligingly gets on with it and dies within the week. This makes a certain amount of sense, though it fails to explain the many occasions when the victim is unaware of the curse. I think it`s largely a matter of personal style and specific application to determine whether you`d rather your enemy knew you`d cursed them or not.
The magickal theory of curses is very much like any other magickal working. The one thing many magicians still overlook is the magickal link. You may have written the most exquisite, poetic yet concise ritual, you may pour an enormous amount of energy into it, your intent may be clear... but if you have no link to your victim all your preparation will be for nothing. The analogy here is an electrical circuit- even the most powerful generator will not light up a bulb if you don`t link the two together in some way.
The classical theories used in creating a magickal link are described in Frazer's Golden Bough : the Law of Sympathy and the Law of Contagion. The Law of Sympathy is "Like affects like." So a "voodoo doll" or poppet can be constructed in the image of the victim, and what you do to it will affect the victim because of their similarity. The Law of Contagion is "Once together, always together." So you can make your voodoo dolly more effective by stapling a lock of your victim`s hair or swatch of clothing to it.
It will be noted that you do not need a magickal link if you have a physical link. Clearly you can affect someone magickally through a touch. All the magickal link is is a way for you to complete the circuit at a distance. There will still usually be a physical link at one end or the other: e.g. you hold the voodoo doll, so there is a physical link between you and the doll, which in turn is magickally linked to the victim. I will explore some variants of this in the section on Practical Cursing.
One aspect of the magickal link that is often forgotten in cursing is that links work both ways. Otherwise they wouldn`t be links. So if you curse your enemy, and they become aware of it, they can strike back through the link. Conversely, if someone manages to set up a link with you, for their own ends, you can zap them in some way through that link- even if you don`t know what the link is.
Like any other act of magick, it is worth planning the timing of the working depending on day of the week, moon phase, astrological influences, season, and time of day/planetary hour. The obvious planets to use would be Saturn (for seriously nasty curses, usually fatal) and/or Mars (for that warlike destructive energy). The issue is not so cut-and-dried. Almost any planet might be appropriate depending on the effect you wish to cause: simply consider calling on the badly-aspected versions of their usual uses. One might do a Solar ritual that drained energy from the victim, rather than giving it; a Mercurial one to cause the victim`s possessions to be stolen; a Lunar one to make them prone to illusion; a rite to Venus to make them unlucky in love, or to Jupiter to make them unable to lead effectively, or cause them to appear a tyrant. Similarly almost any god or goddess might be appropriate. The main thing is to think it through: what effect do you want to create? and what is the nature of the victim? Crowley mentions a failed curse in Moonchild : the magician hurls enormous amounts of Martial energy at the victim, who just happens to be of a highly Martial nature, and loves every minute of it! "Fight fire with fire" is not generally an axiom to be applied literally in magick.
The major difference in between cursing and most other magick is the vastly enhanced effectiveness of purely psychic cursing, in comparison to other psychic powers. Anyone, with no magickal training whatsoever, can throw a curse that can get past many defenses, if only they hate enough. It is more usual, at least in ceremonial magick, to cultivate a state of profound disinterest, of no-mind. The only other style of magick in which strong emotion is called for is devotional magick such as Liber Astarte. The question of the magickal link arises once more and I can only assume that the psychic attacker is able to hold an image of their victim in mind sufficiently strongly as to be able to form a rudimentary link using the Law of Sympathy. I do not find this as effective as the other forms of link, so I tend to reserve purely psychic attack for occasions when I can look the victim in the eye and form a link that way: the old "evil eye," or "to look daggers at someone."
In folk tales, the power of curses often seems much more severe than in modern times. This is partly down to the exaggeration/boasting elements of folk tales. Another reason seems to me to be the confusion between the ideas of the curse and the geas. In Celtic myth a geas was a kind of constraint laid upon a specific person (usually by a magician at the time of the person`s birth), in the form "do not do x , or else y will surely come to pass," or, less frequently "be sure to do x , or else y will surely come to pass." This may seem at first glance to be a curse with a condition attached. However a careful reading of the literature suggests that a geas is more of a prophecy, or even a pronouncement of destiny: almost invariably, the geased person is forced at some point to break the geas and thus suffer the consequences, usually to prevent something worse from happening. This occurs however improbable it may seem: you kinda know that if, at birth, you`re geased to never ride round a particular hill three times deosil at sunset, some bizarre circumstance is going to come about which means you pretty well have to do just that.
The main distinction between a curse and a geas is that the magician/shaman/druid/ whatever who pronounces the geas has no personal interest in seeing it come to pass, no malevolence towards the target. They are acting far more as an interpreter of fate than a manipulator of it. I believe that the idea of the geas is the root behind many of the curses in folk tales, except that in the folk tale the more neutral magician has been transformed into an evil fairy godmother or the like. Echoes of the older role remain, as the curser tends to allow some kind of get-out clause: "I will curse you to never find happiness UNLESS you can..." This starts to shade over into the idea of quests as well... I tend to think this whole area is best left alone unless you`re damn sure you really are some kind of agent of cosmic justice.
"Bahlasti! Ompehda! I spit on your crapulous creeds." Liber Al, III: 54.
I'm going to start this section of by looking a couple of examples of occasions when the magician`s own magickal defences appeared to take retributive action without having been explicitly instructed to do so. Obviously you need to have fairly smart defenses to do this. I believe we can get some good ideas as to how to operate our more deliberate curses by examining these incidents.
The first was some seven years ago. The pagan society at the university I was attending had gathered to perform the annual Exam-Passing Ritual. I was organizing this particular gathering, and I`d chosen to do a kind of group Runic ritual during which all the participants would inscribe a personal talisman. As I was performing the Hammer Rite as part of the opening ritual, a woman who had clearly attended with the sole desire of disrupting the proceedings, and had elected to remain in temple but not participate in the ritual, began to mimic each of the runes that I was vibrating. I ignored her and continued. She attempted to enter the circle and steal the offering of food we had placed on the altar, but she thought better of it. That evening, after the rest of us had completed the ritual (and, yes, we did all pass our exams that year) the woman crashed her car on her way home. I see no reason to doubt that the car had been knocked from the road by Thor's Hammer.
The other incident also involved a road accident (perhaps they`re easy to arrange or something). A witchy acquaintance of mine had been away, leaving the usual wards & guards over home & possessions. She returned to find that someone had stolen her bicycle. However, the thief only managed to get the bike as far as the next street, where it was found in a severely mangled state, clearly having been struck hard by another vehicle. History does not record the extent of the injuries sustained by the thief.
It will be noted that on both these occasions a clear magickal link is demonstrated: in the first case the woman was present during the banishing/protective ritual (and the forces evoked considered her a threat), and in the second the thief was physically touching a magickally protected object. These examples thus demonstrate two effective magickal links that can be used in more deliberate workings.
A group might perform a ritual in which the participants recognize a penalty they will suffer if they betray the group in some way (as is so frequently done with initiations, magickal oaths).
A physical object might be used as a link.The example given above uses a personal possession which if disturbed without authority will call down a curse on the appropriate person; all ones possessions might be so charged, or just specifically magickal ones.
Norse magick has the idea of the yfelrun : this is a usually a letter which when opened is revealed to be a runic talisman devoted to cursing the victim. Usually the curse will be obvious to the victim, so this is one of those really malevolent ways to curse someone both magickally and psychologically. Of course, if your target is another experienced magician, he or she will be alerted and more able to take specific countermeasures. In such a case one might need to be more subtle, and give them a gift which has been charged to a specific end without changing its appearance.
Magicians who have read their Machiavelli will ALWAYS look a gift horse in the mouth to see if one of its teeth is inscribed with Sparean sigils. To get round such sensibly paranoid foes, you may wish to borrow an idea from the Voodoo tradition. This involves sprinkling certain powders or smearing certain oils in such a position that the victim will be certain to step on them at some point, activating the curse. Obviously you should be careful to name the intended victim in your statement of intent, to ensure your curse doesn`t take out an innocent bystander.
Going back to the classic idea of the poppet/voodoo doll: there are a few twists that can be added to this. Adding hair or clothing associated with the victim by the Law of Contagion has already been touched on in the theory section. Other items you may wish to add are photographs of the victim, other possessions, or perhaps most useful of all, bodily fluids.
It is worth noting at this point that the more different magickal links you can build into a ritual, the stronger the link as a whole will be. There`s rarely any reason not to pile on as many links as possible, particularly since the victim may be aware of one of them and have already taken steps to break it.
What to do to the doll is largely dependent on your own twisted imagination. Pagans who watch a lot of B movies will probably want to stick pins in theirs. A more traditional method involves crafting the poppet from something which will waste away, so that your enemy will likewise waste away and eventually be consumed. The easiest materials to work with to form a poppet (at least before the invention of Plasticine) were clay, beeswax or tallow. By virtue of their malleability, it is very easy to destroy poppets made from these materials, and to allow a natural force to do that destroying. A clay poppet can be placed in a stream, so the water gradually erodes clay, and with it the life of your victim. Likewise with a tallow or beeswax poppet over a fire. By allowing the other forces to destroy your poppet, you call upon those same elemental powers to destroy your enemy. Sticking your poppet with pins, nails or knives seems to me to be more useful to neutralize their magickal potence, due to the traditional powers of iron.
An idea that seemed to be most popular during the big magickal wars earlier this century between the various Golden Dawn factions is to baptise the focus of your magick with the name of your enemy, then do nasty things to it. Usually the baptised object was animal or vegetable in nature, such as an egg, pea, or cockerel, though there is no intrinsic reason why you should not baptise a poppet. This form of magickal link seems to be more effective if the baptism is done by someone who at one time or another was ordained as a Christian priest. It still works for other magicians because it uses that powerful magickal idea: that if you can name an item you can control it.
I am now going to examine techniques of cursing based on Thelemic ideas, that being one of the major influences on my own magickal development. For a Thelemite the obvious starting point when researching any new magickal techniques is Liber Al, the Book of the Law, because we are told that "The Book of the Law contains the supreme spells" (). I often use phrases or techniques from Liber Al, as they provide a simple but highly effective basis for various acts of magick.
We are provided with an array of phrases suitable for use in cursing in the 3rd Chapter, since that is the one concerning Ra-Hoor-Khuit, Horus as "a god of War and of Vengeance." The most clear instruction as to curse magick is provided in the section on making and using Cakes of Light (III: 23-29). Verses 25 and 26 detail the use of the Cakes in magickal attack:
"25. This burn: of this make cakes and eat unto me. This hath also another use; let it be laid before me, and kept thick with perfumes of your orison: it shall become full of beetles as it were and creeping things sacred unto me.
26. These slay, naming your enemies; and they shall fall before you."
Obviously this requires a certain amount of experiment. It is uncertain whether it refers to the Cakes themselves or the mix from which one bakes them. What exactly "perfumes of your orison" refer to is not explicit, but has often been construed to mean a sex magick technique. The reader will note that again we have the idea of naming the representation of your enemy to create the link.
There is nother lengthy section on cursing: chapter 3, verses 49-55. These verses refer specifically to attacking the established Old Aeon religions, eg "With my Hawk`s head I peck at the eyes of Jesus as he hangs upon the cross" (III: 51). Perhaps the most widely used magickal phrase from this section is verse 54: "Bahlasti! Ompehda! I spit on your crapulous creeds!" This is a highly effective verbal curse, particularly when used face-to-face and accompanied by spitting in the direction of the opponent. The context seems to refer to its use against representatives of Old Aeon morality, though those "crapulous creeds" might be outdated political or philosophical beliefs as well as religions. The words "Bahlasti" and "Ompehda" were not in use until their appearance in Liber Al, and according to Crowley are Enochian words which seem to refer to blasting with thunder and lightning. They are also used in Liber Israfel (see Gems from the Equinox): "Bahlasti! Ompehda! In the Name of the Mighty and Terrible One I declare that I have banished the Shells unto their Habitations!" This calls on Horus to blast the Shells (ie the Qlipot of Qabalistic tradition) away from the magician and into their correct places. Perhaps most relevant to this article are the gestures which accompany the phrase in Israfel, known as the Sign of the Enterer. This involves drawing the breath in and the hands up to the level of the eyes, whilst in a standing position, then shooting the hands and left foot and upper body forwards whilst blasting the breath out and speaking the phrase given above. Because this Sign is so directional, it can be adapted for use in magickal attack, facing the victim (or their known location or place of power if they are not in line of sight) and using a variant phrase beginning "Bahlasti! Ompehda!..." and continuing with a phrase specific to the circumstance. The great advantage of the Enterer is the large amount of energy you can fire off with very little effort, making it quick and easy to perform but fairly suitable for even daily use if you have anyone you hate that much.
Hope this article has proved useful. May all your curses work (except any directed against me of course)...
i) Whilst we`re on the subject of debunking daft old moralistic crap, the idea that "Curses return threefold to the sender" is incredibly unscientific. Energy can neither be created nor destroyed, right? If only curses did return threefold to the sender, we`d all have a fine time cursing all and sundry with longevity and vast wealth, just so we, the sender could be sure of living to be 300 and being three times as rich as a very rich person.
ii) See Futhark by Edred Thorsson
iii) References in this section are to Liber Al. For example, "II: 27" means the verse 27 of chapter 2 of Liber Al.