Earlier this month I had the pleasure to attend an excellent two-day conference in Boscastle concerning the craft of cursing. Hosted by the Museum of Witchcraft and Magic, it linked to the museum’s new exhibition curated by Dr Louise Fenton, University of Wolverhampton. Dr Fenton has been researching cursing and cursing poppets since 2010. The museum itself hosts a wealth of cursing paraphernalia that includes many poppets collected by its founder, Cecil Williamson. The exhibition itself will continue until the end of the 2017 season, and the museum is well worth a visit at any time!
Cursing poppet in the Museum of Witchcraft and Magic. Boscastle, Cornwall.
The weekend saw a wide variety of speakers whose topics reached not only across time, but spanned the entire social spectrum and took us to places both near and far. Mogg Morgan was up first, speaking on Apophis and the Mother Of All Curses. He led us to Ancient Egypt where Apep the serpent of chaos dwells. Apparently Apep was a colossal demonic entity that inflicted all types of harm with its terrible ‘Biting Eye’.
Mogg Morgan at Boscastle, Cornwall. May 2017
It was enlightening to hear that the mechanics of Egyptian cursing magic remain with us today. They take the form of wax images, spitting, binding, enclosing, trampling, burning and sticking. Mogg asked the question: Could cursing magic have begun in Egypt? Specifically this might have been during the period in Egyptian history known as ‘The Bad Times’, a period of great despair occurring in the gap between the Old and Middle Kingdoms.
Ritual spitting when cursing Apep, the colossal serpent.
Of course we all realize that tales of an eternal struggle between man and harmful serpent occurred not only in Egypt as similar stories can be found in many regions and religions of the world, both past and present. England’s own Saint George is depicted fighting a great serpent (dragon), and it is interesting that the image we best associate with him curiously mirrors that of the Egyptian god Set overcoming the colossal serpent.
Set depicted fighting the colossal serpent, and St George fighting the dragon.
As medieval medicine has long been one of my ‘hobbies’ I was eager to hear Dr Alexander Cummins speak on Curse-craft and Humoural Theory in Early Modern England, and he did not disappoint. Humoural Theory is an ancient system of medicine thought to have its origins in either Egypt or Mesopotamia. It was used for diagnosis and prognosis in the Classical period and throughout the Middle Ages, and is still used today in Indian Ayurveda medicine. Dr Cummins explained how this same system was also employed in cursing magic. Known as Humours, four fluids are believed to affect the subtle workings of the body on a variety of levels for they control not only a person’s health, but the personality and temperament as well. In humoural theory they are known as Blood, Phlegm, Yellow Bile and Black Bile. The heart was thought to be the seat of the humours but it was believed that the (Christian) Devil was able to affect how the humours operated within the human body.
Dr. Alex Cummins. Boscastle, Cornwall. May 2017.
Although I had not previously considered this system of medicine for use in cursing, it was fascinating to hear about the manipulation of humours to negatively affect a victim’s emotional, psychological and physical health. For instance, if the magic worker’s intent for the victim is impending doom, anxiety or stupefaction, then the phlegmatic humour might be targeted. Utilizing, of course, the appropriate materia magica to attract, infuse and radiate the necessary influences.
Humoural Talismans. Image from Dr Cummins’ presentation.
During his talk on Cursing and Ill wishing: witchcraft, the illness of a King and the Death of a Prince, historian Jonathan Hughes suggested that certain humours contained within the land itself (hot/cold/dry/wet) might be disturbed when dug or ploughed into, thereby shift the natural balance of the area to affect such things as the wellbeing of those living nearby, atmosphere or even change in the political climate.
Jesse Hathaway Diaz’ talk on Cursing in Colonial Mexico definitely brought some spice to the session; as did Demetrius Lacroix speaking on The Art of Haitian Vodou Cursing.
Demetrius Lacroix. Boscastle, Cornwall. May 2017.
On Saturday Demetrius explained a system of magic where, as in ancient Egypt, the soul is believed to be made up of several different layers each of which can be targeted by a magical worker. Demetrius told us about Port au Prince, in Haiti, where thousands of curses can be seen nailed to trees. Not only that as everywhere can be found offerings of dolls, tobacco, liquor and chicken or goat meat. He went on to say the art of Ekspedisyon (to expedite) can cause zombification or death. The art of Dispatch (to send, dispatch) commands a spirit to help fulfil obligations or, for an annual fee, a spirit will help you with medicines and healing. On the other hand the soul of a dead person can be purchased to haunt your enemy’s dreams. Pelene (to trap) causes the victim to be stuck in some way, unable to advance or move forward in life. Crab shells are often used in this magic since crabs can only move sideways, not forwards. The kidneys, heads, lungs or stomachs of animals are often used in this kind of cursing magic to represent the victim. I will leave to your imagination the symbolism of binding such body parts with cords.
Jesse Hathaway Diaz. Boscastle, Cornwall. May 2017.
On Sunday Jesse spoke to us of how the religion of invading Conquistadores had merged with the ethnic magic and practices of Colonial Mexico. It produced an indigenous belief system ‘dressed’ in Catholic clothes. The Christian cross itself was incorporated as a magical symbol of power and the properties of Catholic saints were used for all kinds of magic, both good and ill. Fascinating to me was the idea of seizing the right-handed (good) power of a saint and funnelling it toward left-handed (bane) practices. Stolen communion bread – concealed in the mouth until well away from the church – could be used to curse an enemy. While wax figures of body parts - a hand, a foot or heart, etc. – that were typically placed at shrines for help in healing, could be stolen away by the magical practitioner and used for sending harm to an enemy instead.
Examples of Christian magic in the Museum of Witchcraft and Magic. Boscastle, Cornwall.
Wax votive heart in the Museum of Witchcraft and Magic. Boscastle, Cornwall.
Traditionally, prayers were offered to statues of saints for help in healing and daily life. St Anthony is the saint to turn in order to find love and marriage. Gifts, candles and petitions are offered to a ‘’right-handed saints’’ to have them work their benefic magic on the petitioner’s behalf. However using them as ‘’left-handed saints’’ is an entirely different thing. To entrap or force a person into love or sex the statue of St Anthony might be turned upside down and its head replaced with a lemon, only to be returned if the saint complied with the petitioner’s demands. But the most surprising information for me about this tradition was to hear that, once a year at Eastertime, there is literally no god between 3pm on Good Friday and sunrise on Easter morning. It makes sense, of course!
Saints can be used as ‘’right-handed’’ or ‘’left-handed’’ depending on purpose.
As you might guess, it has been difficult for me to write about only a handful of the fifteen excellent speakers that were present at this conference. Each one of them offered something very special and thought provoking to the whole. I find myself wishing it had been recorded so that I could listen to them all speak again! The museum staff put on some fine conferences. Rumour has it that the subject for next year will be Ritual Magic. In the meantime, should you wish to see the full line up of speakers and their topics for this particular weekend, you may find that information here , while the museum’s blog account of the conference may be found here. See you in Boscastle!
Text ©Carol Keith 2017.
Photography ©Chattering Magpie 2008 and ©Carol Keith 2017