Similia Similibus: Sympathy in Magic and Cursing

This article is cross-posted from AncientCurses.com, a research project about curses and cursing in the ancient world. If you would like to read the full article, or would like to know more about cursing, I invite you to visit the website!

Scholarship on curses often explores the significance of cursing rituals—how did performers of curses expect them to work? Did they believe that the malicious things they wished upon their target would come true? For example, a famous “voodoo doll” at the Louvre depicts a female figure with nails driven into various points on the body. Did the person who made this curse hope that the woman would literally suffer from being pierced, or was something else at work?

A Case of Sympathetic Magic?

The term “sympathetic magic” was popularized by Sir James Frazer, an anthropologist who released his influential book on magic and religion, The Golden Bough, in 1890. While much of his work has been questioned (for example, the idea that certain stages of belief were more primitive than others), there can be no argument that his work laid the foundation for investigating magic. For example, it was Frazer who first described how the “magician’s logic” worked:

“From the first of these principles, namely the Law of Similarity, the magician infers that he can produce any effect he desires merely by imitating it: from the second [the Law of Contact or Contagion] he infers that whatever he does to a material object will affect equally the person with whom the object was once in contact, whether it formed part of his body or not.”

“Both branches of magic, the homoeopathic and the contagious, may conveniently be comprehended under the general name of Sympathetic Magic, since both assume that things act on each other at a distance through a secret sympathy, the impulse being transmitted from one to the other by means of what we may conceive as a kind of invisible ether, not unlike that which is postulated by modern science for a precisely similar purpose, namely, to explain how things can physically affect each other through a space which appears to be empty.”

(Frazer, The Golden Bough, III.1.1, III.1.2)

Fritz Graf observes that the concept of sympatheia did not originate with Frazer. In fact, ancient thinkers such as Plotinus and Theocritus also believed that everything in the universe was linked and that some things were more connected than others due to sharing similar properties or what not (Graf 205-206). Nevertheless, modern scholars dispute that instances of sympathetic magic indicate a straightforward equivalence on the part of the practitioner, or that a magician is manipulating an “invisible ether.” While there is something to the ideal of similarity, Frazer’s view has generally fallen out of favour, and we’ll see why shortly.

Instances of Sympatheia

So what would constitute sympathetic magic? I mentioned the figurine at the Louvre (pictured here), but there are other ways a curse could be considered in sympathy with its target. In addition to figurines, many curses also included what is called ousia, a Greek word that literally means being or substance. In this context, it refers to physical objects that belong to the victim—things like hair or bits of clothing which stood-in for the persons they represented (Gager 16-17). For example, one “love spell” from the Greek Magical Papyri specifically requests the “magical material” of ousia:

“Wondrous spell for binding a lover: Take wax [or clay] from a potter’s wheels and make two figurines, a male a female. Make the male in the form of Ares fully armed, holding a sword / in his left hand and threatening to plunge it into the right side of her neck. And make her with her arms behind her back and down on her knees. And you are to fasten the magical material on her neck…” PGM IV.296-466

I left out a lot of the rest of the spell, but it would be fitting to disclose it here. Copper needles are stuck in various places on the figurine and supernatural figures are appealed to in order to bind the target and compel her affection. Many of the pin placements (brain, mouth, genitals, etc.) correspond to specific requests that the victim lose her appetite, have restless thoughts, and be hindered sexually. Can we say there is a correspondence? If so, to what extent were such effects expected? Graf argues that “sorcerers did not wish to wound the victim’s members in the same way that they pierced the members of a figurine” (Graf 145). So what was going on then?

Read the entire post at AncientCurses.com!

Photo by Marie-Lan Nguyen.

Posted in Uncategorized

Advanced Greek Resource: Hansen and Quinn

Greek: An Intensive CourseAt the upper levels of ancient Greek, it’s easy to focus on translating material and ignore the nuts-and-bolts grammar that underlies the words on the page. I must admit, I am a bit of a cowboy when it comes to translations—I jump right in and translate the words as they are, devil may care!

Of course, the problem with this is that I often occasionally get things wrong. Lately, I’ve been trying to slow down and understand not just the gist of a given sentence, but also how each word is working to generate that meaning.

In other words, I’m paying attention to grammar.

On a practical level, knowing the finer grammatical points helps to smooth out those more bumpy passages, for sure. Plus, professors usually aren’t only looking for one’s translation abilities; they want to see you know your stuff. In the end, being able to distinguish between a natural result clause and an actual result clause simply makes one’s life easier all around.

So I’ve been spending some time brushing up on those areas I’m not quite so firm on. Luckily, my tutor recommended an advanced textbook by Hardy Hansen and Gerald M. Quinn called Greek: an Intensive Course. Unlike introductory textbooks that often have oodles of vocab and practice readings, Hansen & Quinn focuses on grammar. All of it.

There are a few things I really enjoy about this text. First, each section clearly explains the concept at hand and provides the sorts of clues you need to diagnose similar material in the wild. Second, the examples all use a similar (relatively simple) vocabulary. Instead of trying to learn a ton of vocab, you can focus on  syntactical structures and grammatical concepts—noting how small changes can significantly affect otherwise identical sentences. Finally, each section has a set of drills which are very useful and adhere to the textbook material. Again, the focus is on practicing the concept, not on learning vocab, reading, etc. Not that vocab and reading aren’t important—they are!—but working with the examples as they are presented in Hansen & Quinn helps one to better diagnose primary source material.

Best of all, the exercises are of reasonable length. It’s enough to get the concept down, but not so much that you spend all day on it!

If you are in a similar situation, I recommend you get yourself a copy of Greek: An Intensive Course. Even if you don’t work through the exercises, you’ll find it helpful as a general resource. I hope you’ll find it as valuable as I do!

Learning Greek? Here are a few other posts you might find helpful:

Posted in Greek

Curse Words

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!

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!

The Terms

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!

Sources:

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.

Posted in Ancient, Curses

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!

Posted in Curses

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!

Posted in Personal | 6 Comments

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!

Posted in Ancient, Curses | 2 Comments

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!

Posted in Curses