In a recent post, we talked about the categorical difficulties inherent in the term “magic.” I took the view that many of the distinguishing features which scholars use to define magical practices often apply to normative religious phenomena in antiquity. Thus, when talking about the ancient world, it is not so easy to separate magic from religion. Indeed, many of these constructions are contextual. What is considered to be magic is not so much magic as it is a way of representing the practices women, foreigners, or other low-status persons in antiquity.
It does seem, however, that some practices could be considered more “magical” than others. Cursing, with its definite goals and specific practices, would appear to be an instance of “real” magic.
However, even cursing turns out not to be so magical. In fact, curses were used by nearly everyone in antiquity, and were even somewhat common place. In this way, cursing was one practice among many that could be used to address difficult life circumstances. Furthermore, in many cases it is hard to distinguish cursing from religion. The practice of cursing, thus, does not offer a clear-cut case of magic, but rather illustrates how problematic the category of magic is.
WHO USED CURSES?
If we consider the question of who used curses, it turns out the answer is nearly everyone. The earliest curses are found in Near Eastern sources. Some curses sought to ensure that a treaty was adhered by threatening the retribution of the gods (Magnetti 815-824). Mesopotamian rulers, such as Hammurabi, invoked the gods to rain down punishment on those who did not uphold their legacies (Harper 26-28). Biblical figures were not exempt from cursing, either. Moses famously brought many curses against the Egyptian Pharaoh, while other Hebrew prophets, such as Elisha, effectively cursed their enemies (Exodus 8-12). New Testament literature is also full of curses. For example, the Apostles were always cursing someone or something (Acts 5:1-11, Acts 13:6-11, 1 Corinthians 16:22). Acts of Peter tells the tale of Sion Magus, who had his legs broken by an apostle’s curse. Even Jesus got into the act (no pun intended) by withering a fig tree (Mark 11:12-14). Oh, the poor fig tree!
While some of these curses come from historical evidence (such as the Near Eastern curses) many do not. With so many curses coming from literary evidence, can we truly say that everyone cursed?
For this question, I direct you to John G. Gager’s survey, Curse Tablets and Binding Spells from the Ancient World. Gager clearly demonstrates that our “on the ground evidence” (i.e. curse tablets, papyri, clay figurines, etc.) clearly shows that nearly everyone cursed in antiquity (Gager 218-219). From the Mediterranean to Roman Britain, persons both rich and poor regardless of gender resorted to curses to defend themselves in legal situations, and sought their power to rectify messy romantic entanglements, instances of thievery, or even just get a leg up over a business rival.
Certainly, even the practice of cursing gets “othered” on occasion. Plato famously mocked those who peddled curses (Republic 364b-c), and much literature makes it appear that it was women who were producing and utilizing curses (Dickie 79, 175). However, in reality, the situation cannot be further from the truth (Gager 80, 244). And that truth is that most people in antiquity believed in curses and utilized curses. Moreover, that curse tablets often appeal to the same gods as public cult speaks to their overlap with ancient religion, as does the fact that they were often displayed in temples (Gager 12-13, 188-190). Cursing, like “magic,” does not render itself to easy categorization.
POWERLESS PEOPLE OR POWERLESS SITUATIONS?
Those who study the history of magic will often encounter the contention that magic is something used by powerless persons. I think, however we need to distinguish between powerless people (defined as poor, marginalized, etc.) and powerless situations (i.e. events in which one lacks full agency). This may be a tenuous distinction, but bear with me here.
With respect to “powerless persons,” it is clear that this is not our demographic of curse users in antiquity. Our list of those who cursed includes Mesopotamian rulers, Egyptian pharaohs, tribal leaders, and other elite persons. These persons often filled the highest ranks of ancient society and similarly held much personal power, both with respect to themselves, but over others. Clearly, we cannot say that they were powerless.
Nevertheless, these powerful people (and others of less stature) often resorted to curses in situations where they were powerless. Such situations include trying to consolidate power posthumously (as our Mesopotamian rulers attempted), or to control a precarious outcome, such as with a law suit (Gager 116-118). Time and again, the situations in which curses are invoked illustrate that they were used in situations which were beyond one’s personal control (Gager 78). So yes, in a sense these person were powerless, but not in a sense of status, but rather with respect to the situation addressed.
IS CURSING MAGIC?
So what can we say about cursing? Was it magic?
Curses were widely used by everyone. They were often resorted to in difficult situations by the upper-classes, the lower-classes, and everyone in between. Though some ancient authors pejoratively write about them and tie them to the usual suspects (women, foreigners, etc.), the actual evidence suggests that such clear cut distinctions aren’t realistic. Many elite and enfranchised persons believed in curses, and used them themselves.
We can say that curses were a specialized technique. Cursing required one to procure special materials and inscribe certain formulas. Though curses usually invoked well-known deities, the use of voces mysticae, unfamiliar vocalic sounds which represented the gods, suggests that those who made them laid claim to a special skill set that involved having access to divine words and images. We can perhaps say that those who made curses were religious specialists of some kind. This religious dimension is heightened by testimony that suggests that some curses were displayed in temples and sacred precincts.
Obviously, cursing was a normative phenomenon of ancient life. In many ways, it drew upon religious traditions by believing that the gods had it within their power to respond to human entreaties. As we’ve seen, the distinction between religion and magic was not so easily separated in the ancient world, and curses are one form of praxis which illustrates this clearly. What appears to our modern sensibilities to be the most magical act of all was, by ancient standards, quite the opposite.
Dickie, Matthew W. 2001. Magic and Magicians in the Greco-Roman World. New York: Routledge.
Gager, John G. 1992. Curse Tablets and Binding Spells from the Ancient World. Oxford: Oxford University Press.
Harper, Robert Francis. 1904. “Babylonian and Assyrian Imprecations,” in The Biblical World 24: 26-30.
Magnetti, Donald L. 1978. “The Function of the Oath in the Ancient Near Eastern International Treaty,” in The American Journal of International Law 72: 815-829.
Plato. 1993. Republic. Trans. Robin Waterfield. Oxford: Oxford World’s Classics.