Modern Maledictions: The Curse of the Billy Goat

This article is cross-posted from AncientCurses.com. If you would like to read the full article, or would like to know more about cursing, I invite you to visit the website!

In a recent post at AncientCurses.com, we took a look at sports-related curses—i.e. curses which were employed by athletes and their fans to ensure victory against a competitor. While the ancients were busy “putting the fix in” for various sporting events, the tradition of sports-related curses is no less pertinent today.

In 2012, during an NFL play-off, New England witches provided a bit of, uh, spiritual support for the New England Patriots by supernaturally boosting Tom Brady’s mojo. No less effective were the rumours that pop superstar Jessica Simpson, then dating Dallas Cowboys’ quarterback Tony Romo, had inadvertently cursed the Dallas Cowboys, after the team suffered a string of losses while Simpson sat in the bleachers. More recently, NASCAR driver Kevin Harvick was said to be hexed by a fan of a rival racer. This time, the curse was no rumour, as the person apparently brought their own monkey skull to channel some evil forces.

While we may chuckle at these ideas, a study from the Public Religion Research Institute suggests that half of all Americans believe that sporting events are influenced by supernatural forces. Clearly, sports-related curses were not just limited to the ancient world. Even in modern times, these curses are everywhere.

As someone who grew up in Chicago, my favourite sports curse is that of the Curse of the Billy Goat, which is believed to be responsible for the Cubs’ inexplicably long run without a World Series pennant. (The White Sox, however, defeated their “Black Sox Curse” when they won the Wold Series in 2005. Southside!)

For those of you who are not aware of the Curse of the Billy Goat, I’ll provide a bit of background…

Read the full post at AncientCurses.com!

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The YUFAFUS

A few weeks ago, a letter arrived in my mailbox from the University notifying me that I had been “selected as the fall/winter 2014-2015 recipient of the York University Faculty Association Foundation Undergraduate Scholarship.”

The award was very substantial. However, I wasn’t quite sure what it was for. Usually I can figure it out, but this one left me stumped.

So I did what any rational person would do in such a circumstance. I googled it. Sarah Veale YUFA Imagine my surprise when I learned that this award is given to the student with the highest GPA in their faculty! (Each faculty has one.) In other words, I had the highest GPA of all students in the Liberal Arts and Professional Studies faculty—a division which houses over 20 programs and awards over 90 types of degrees and certificates. To further put that in perspective, York has 65,000 students overall, divided into eleven faculties. Somewhere along the line, I beat out an awful lot of people for this.

Usually this is the place where I thank my professors for helping me out along the way. While I am certainly grateful to my awesome profs, I hope they understand that I’ve worked really hard, so I’m going to take the credit for this one! Huzzah!

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Make Him Powerless With the Horses: On Sports-Related Curse Tablets

Sports-related curses were extremely prevalent in the ancient world. In fact, it was assumed that those who competed in public contests regularly employed curses. Moreover, this was not just some literary fantasy—material evidence of lead curse tablets (defixiones or katadesmoi) bears this opinion out. To get specific, these curses were inscribed on lead tablets which were consigned to a strategic location, such as a water-well, a grave, or a victim’s main locus of operation. For example, a curse that targeted a chariot race might be buried in the arena, so as to have an immediate effect on its victim (Gager 18-21).

Needless to say, games were an important feature of ancient Mediterranean life, one which overlapped with other significant areas. Many religious festivals involved a competitive dimension where athletes, dramatists, and dancers competed for glory. One thinks here of the Athenian Dionysia, or even the Pan-Hellenic Olympic games as examples of civic-religious events that involved a sporting component. Christopher A. Faraone suggests that sporting curses are evinced as early as the writings of Pindar, a poet from the 5th Century BCE (Faraone 11). He cites Pindar’s Olympian, which depicts  a charioteer named Pelops calling on Poseidon to not just give him the advantage in a race, but to damage his opponent as well (Faraone 11).

When games became both more numerous and more frequent in the Roman era, so too did sports-related cursing…

Read the full post at the Ancient Curses blog!

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Is Cursing a Magical Act?

In a recent post at the Ancient Curses blog, I 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.

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.

Read the Full post at AncientCurses.com!

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Defining the Magical Practitioner in Antiquity

When we think of curses, we think of a magician, or even a witch, who’s up to no good in the dark of the night. Ancient literature teems with this figure: the witch of Endor, Medea, even followers of Jesus figure into this portrait of the evil magical practitioner (Gordon 253).

I want to set aside the specific question of cursing for a moment, and look at how we define the magical practitioner in antiquity. I would argue that we can’t define such a person—or at the very least, that it’s hard to pinpoint such a figure.

While I may not draw a hard and fast line between religion and magic, others have attempted to define what separated magicians from their religious counterparts. I want to look at some of these categories and determine whether or not they are useful for analysing magic in antiquity. In many ways, these categories reflect the similarities between the two spheres rather than any inherent differences.

Read the full post at Ancient Curses…

Photo via Wikimedia Commons.

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Curses as Divine Authenticator: The Wrath of Moses in the Book of Numbers

Much of the Hebrew Bible (aka the Old Testament) is devoted to Moses—who he was, his miraculous deeds, and stories which affirm his leadership in the Israelite community.

The Book of Numbers, in particular, highlights this last dimension of Moses’ leadership skills. Time and again, Moses is depicted as having a special relationship with the Hebrew god, one that reaches an intimacy not afforded to other Israelites or other worshipers.

I want to look at two examples where God curses those who dare to question Moses’ primacy: These events are recounted in Numbers 12 and 16, and detail what happens when Moses leadership is challenged…

Read the full post at the Ancient Curses blog!

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Announcing the Ancient Curses Project!

Ancient CursesI’ve been very fortunate in my time at York to work with some amazing professors who have encouraged me to research areas that are not always accessible to undergraduates. This year is no exception, and I am currently undertaking a directed research project on Curses and Curse Stories with Professor Tony Burke. Obviously, this fits in well with my general research interests and gives me the opportunity to pursue these phenomena from a variety of angles. Part of my course mark involves a digital humanities component. So yes, this means that there is a companion website to by research project. Of course there is. So without further ado, I am happy to announce AncientCurses.com! This website will serve multiple purposes. On the one hand, it will act as a repository for the material I collect as I move through this project. As such, you will find handy resource guides to curses found in classical literature, Biblical stories, and other materials. It also provides research resources, such as bibliographies, online digital libraries, and other relevant websites. There is also a blog where I explore in more detail some of the more interesting curses I find and also sort through some of the issues which surround the study of curses. While some of the pages are admittedly sparse, the website is already up-and-running. Obviously, what’s there is a work-in-progress and I’ll be adding to it throughout the year (and maybe even thereafter). Here’s an excerpt form the first blog post:

This blog will mostly cover curses and curse stories as I encounter them in my research and attempt to understand the role of curses in ancient society. The study of cursing in antiquity is fraught with methodological issues. How do we define curses? Who practiced them? Why are similar phenomena labelled differently depending on the context? These are just some of the questions which confront those who study this area. The editorial colour which shades these practices must be noted, for what often lies underneath the rhetorical veneer are many shades of grey. My approach is a bit minimalistic: A curse, is a curse, is a curse. My view is that plenty can be said about curses and the societies that produced them without resorting to caricatures, hagiography, or convoluted taxonomy. Thus, this project will cover a large range of material in an attempt to comprehensively survey the subject matter and find points of convergence as well as roads of departure.  Among the sources are Near Eastern curses, literary curses (from classical and Biblical literature), and materials such as curse tablets and other forms of sympathetic malediction practices.

I hope you have the chance to stop by and let me know what you think of the site. In my opinion, the best part is the random curse generator on the sidebar—so you can get cursed anew with every visit.

Posted in Academic, Ancient, Curses | 2 Comments