Cursing as a practice is looked at from several different angles by scholars. On the one hand, some look to the historical import of cursing to understand the societies that produced material objects such as curse tablets (someone like John Gager fits this bill). Others attempt to categorize curses by the language they use or the subject matter addressed (Christopher A. Faraone, who attempts to categorize cursing formulas fits well here).
It seems fitting that we take a step back and a look at curse words themselves in order to understand the world of of cursing. This is only a partial list—there really are so many terms that a single list would inevitable miss something! Nevertheless, I will do my best to introduce some of the terminology that is associated with curses and the practice of cursing. Think of it as a starter kit for the study of cursing!
Anathema A term for a curse used by the Roman Catholic Church. It originally referred to book curses (curses inscribed in books to prevent thievery), but later came to refer to curses in general (Drogin 60).
Ara (ἀρά) Like many “curse words,” this Greek word is a bit ambiguous as it means both a prayer and a curse.
Defigens Someone who creates a defixiones or attempts to bind another person. [see below] (Faraone 5)
Defixiones Curses which are usually inscribed on a lead tablet, though other mediums might be used (Gager 3-4, 14-15). The word indicates that the primary goal of such a curse is to “bind-down” a person.
Epoidos (ὁ/ἡ ἐπῳδος) An ancient Greek term which refers to someone who recites an incantation in order to heal the sick (Dickie 24-25). Also means “wizard” or “witch.” Note also that some funerary curses are composed in meter, perhaps suggesting a similar performative aspect (Strubbe 41-42).
Goaw (γοάω) A Greek word meaning to wail, lament, or mourn. This word is related to several terms such as goeteia (γοητεία) which means sorcery or witchcraft; goes (γόης) a sorcerer “who howls enchantments”; and goeteis (ὁ φοήτης), a term modern persons tend to take as synonymous with sorcerer or magician, but according to the LSJ actually means “wailer.”
Katadesmos (ὁ κατάδεσμος) The Greek counterpart to defixiones with the same linguistic implications of binding. Literally means a tie, band, or “magic knot.”
Euxomai (εὔχομαι) A Greek word with the dual sense to pray and to boast.
Imprecation A curse.
Judicial Prayers/Prayers for Justice A category of curses defined by H.S. Versnel wherein a person who is wronged inflicts a curse on the unknown guilty party, this curse usually appeals to the gods directly and/or placing the goods in question within their care (Versnel 68-81).
Jussive A grammatical term used by some to describe the wording of curses. (For the grammar nerds out there this refers to an independent use of the subjunctive in the subjunctive mood.) A jussive command is rendered by the formula “Let them…” See, for example, the biblical passage in 1 Samuel which literally commands that the author’s enemies be cursed (1 Samuel 26:19).
Magos (ὁ μάγος) A term which originally referred to Persian fire-priests, but as early as the fifth century BCE it becomes a pejorative term used to refer to those whose religious practices were not easily understood, such as magicians or charlatans (Dickie 27). See also goaw.
Malediction A curse. From the Latin meaning “to speak ill” (male dicere).
Similia Similibus Formula A cursing formula which uses an analogy to effect an outcome. For example, comparing the target’s efficacy to that of a corpse (Faraone 5).
This list is certainly not exhaustive of the many terms which are used to discuss curses and cursing in the ancient world. By all means, if you know of one that was left please contribute in the comments!
Blank, Sheldon H. 1950. “The Curse, Blasphemy, the Spell, and the Oath.” Hebrew Union College Annual 23: 73-95.
Dickie, Matthew W. 2001. Magic and Magicians in the Greco-Roman World. New York: Routledge.
Drogin, Marc. 1983. Anathema! Medieval Scribes and the History of Book Curses. Montclair, NJ: Allanheld & Schram.
Gager, John G. 1992. Curse Tablets and Binding Spells from the Ancient World. Oxford: Oxford University Press.
Faraone, Christopher A. 1997. “The Agonistic Context of Early Greek Binding Spells,” in Magika Hiera: Ancient Greek Magic and Religion. Christopher A. Faraone and Dirk Obbink eds. Oxford: Oxford University Press.
J. H. M. Strubbe, “Cursed Be He That Moves My Bones,” in Magika Hiera: Ancient Greek Magic and Religion, Christopher A. Faraone and Dirk Obbink, eds. New York: Oxford UP, 1991, pp. 33-59.
Photo by Adam Rosenberg.