curses


curses
   Although invoking God's power to curse is generally done by the clergy, in previous centuries some lay people who believed themselves deeply wronged would utter a ritualized curse, kneeling on their bare knees in some public place in the presence of witnesses. Records of a Hereford diocesan court describe how in 1598 one man cursed another on his knees in the churchyard, 'praying unto God that a heavy vengeance and a heavy plague might light on him and all his cattle', and in 1614 a woman cursed a man she believed had killed her husband, 'and prayed to God that his house, his children and all he had were one wild fire' (Thomas, 1971: 506-8). Psalm 109 was called 'the cursing psalm' for its vidictive words; it was said that if a dying man recited it while thinking of someone who had wronged him, the latter was doomed (Bottrell, 1873: 227-33).
   There was a widespread belief that when monastic estates were confiscated at the Reformation the monks laid the curse of God on those who received them; they and their descendants suffered financial disasters (since 'ill-gotten gains never prosper'), and sometimes untimely deaths and personal misfortunes. These ideas were widely discussed in books and pamphlets from the 17th century onwards, notably Henry Spelman's The History and Fate of Sacrilege, published in 1698; the fourth edition, in 1895, was updated with further local traditions (Thomas, 1971: 96-104).
   Cursing through black magic was greatly feared, and is mentioned in many *witchcraft trials and traditions. Occasionally, material objects are found which definitely prove that someone had been turning theory into practice. In 1899 a lead tablet was found buried in Lincoln's Inn, bearing invocations to the moon and the wish that Ralph Scrope (a Governor of the Inn in 1570-2) should never succeed in anything he did. Two more, also probably of the 1570s, were dug up from a barrow on Gatherley Moor (North Yorkshire); they had astrological symbols and rows of figures, and a curse that several members of a family named Philip should 'come presently to utter beggary', and 'flee Richemondshire' (Hole, 1973: 92-3). Another, found in a cupboard at Wilton Place near Dymock (Gloucestershire) in 1892, and now in Gloucester Museum, was also designed to drive away its victim. At the top is the name 'Sarah Ellis', written backwards in 17th-century script; then come complex designs and some numbers, all referring astrologically to the moon, and then the curse itself, which invokes eight demons, the first being one linked to the moon: 'Hasmodait Acteus Magalesius Ormenus Leius Nicon Minon Zeper make this person to Banish away from this place and Countery amen. To my desier amen' (Mer-rifield, 1987: 147-8).
   In 1960, an 18th-century doll was found hidden in a house in Hereford, with a written curse pinned to its skirt: 'Mary Ann Ward. I act this spell upon you from my holl (whole) heart wishing you to never rest nor eat nor sleep the resten part of your life I hope your flesh will waste away and I hope you will never spend another penney I ought to have. Wishing this from my whole heart' (Hereford Times (22 Jan. 1960)).
   No doubt others too vented their anger in similar ways, using whatever magical rituals they knew; a more recent development is the belief that *Gypsies can lay potent curses.

A Dictionary of English folklore. . 2014.

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