Curses, foiled again!

I don’t understand why Wiccans and Pagans continue to shoot themselves in the foot. The latest example is a blog I’ve just started reading that has a three part guest series on curses. Regardless of the good intentions of the author and the blog owner, what these posts actually do is create misunderstanding among people potentially interested in magic and give ammunition to people who want to believe that Pagans and magic users are wicked witches from fairytales. It’s an irresponsible thing to post and is an example of why I am sometimes ashamed of my coreligionists.

Talking about curses as actual magical practices is almost certain to do more harm than good. Most people who are concerned that they might be under a curse or suffering a psychic attack of some kind are looking for an external cause for their problems because they don’t want to face what’s actually going on. Period. Implying otherwise without knowing the exact details of a particular situation is going to add fuel to the fire of people’s imaginations at the precise moment when what those people need most is clear, hard reality.

The author explains that “entropy curses” often manifest as extremely unlikely strings of bad luck, and while he (?) points out that readers should look for very unprobable strings of events, he gives the following example:

If your house gets robbed one day, and then two days later all your pet fish die, and the next day your favorite sneakers go missing, only to have your grandmother pass the next week, well, then that’s possibly a curse.

No, it’s not. Thinking that these events result from a curse is a prime example of magical thinking that fails my “What if I’m wrong?” test. I apply this test on a regular basis: for example, I meditate, and I hold religious and magical beliefs about what meditation means and does. What if I’m wrong? Well, meditation has been proven to have physical and psychological benefits, completely independent of the religio-magical aspects of my beliefs. And if I do it wrong, at worst, I’ve wasted some time.

But what if someone is wrong about the curse? As long as you also file a claim, improve your home security, clean your fish tank, check your fish care guide, buy new sneakers, and get some grief counseling, a little bit of salt around the edges of your property isn’t a huge waste, but the real danger is that people will spend more time blessing their fish tank than learning how to use water conditioner and cleaning the filter.

In part two, the author suggests that we detect “targeted” curses by looking for a pattern of effects that could be taken as retribution being leveled against us by someone we’ve wronged who is known to use magic, and by looking for “the presence of artifacts, both physical and magickal.” (sic)

“Looking for a pattern” invites people to make up a story about how what’s happening to them is being caused by an outside force that means to do them harm. Humans are extremely good at making up these stories. They’re a wonderful defense mechanism that people use all the time to avoid taking responsibility for their own behaviors and consequences, and to keep themselves from seeing the actual problems in a situation:

Say you’re dating someone magickally talented and you slip up and cheat on them, only to have your next three lovers be unfaithful to you: that would likely be a targeted curse.

Or maybe the fact that you described cheating as a “slip up” explains why you’re having trouble establishing and maintaining a committed relationship. This kind of magical thinking is extremely likely to cause major harm and very unlikely to have any positive results, especially if the magical thinking is incorrect, which it is likely to be. The person worrying about a curse isn’t just wasting time, energy, and possibly resources; the magical thinking will perpetuate the problem and actively prevent the person from addressing the actual psychological and emotional issues involved.

The other suggestion, looking for either something important of yours that’s missing or trying to find something “nasty” or out of place in your personal environment – possibly buried! – is also likely to be misleading and a waste. This avenue of investigation is so open-ended that the theory is impossible to disprove, and thus extremely likely to be a refuge of denial.

Finally, the author suggests two main ways to break curses: one is to find the object placed near you and clean or purify it and rid yourself of it, and the other is – surprise! – a purifying bath with salt. Assuming that you do find an “artifact” near you that involves bugs, “fecal matter,” or rusty nails, carefully cleaning it is likely a further waste of your time and hazardous to your health. The author offers no suggestions on how to deal with a curse placed on an object of yours that the curser now has in his or her possession.

The suggestion to take a warm bath with salt is the only sensible part of these three posts. It just barely squeaks by the “What if I’m wrong?” test: a bath will likely make you feel better, and adjusting your mentality to “shrug off” the supposed ill-wish may help you turn the corner. It does promote the idea that the real problem was a curse, though, which is potentially dangerous, so it’s still not harmless. Finally, the author’s self-contradiction and extreme open-endedness exacerbate these issues, so not only are these posts a bad idea, they’re a bad idea poorly executed.

These posts are not helpful advice, and they’re not headology. They’re likely to cause distinct, even physical, harm to people who take them seriously. They certainly encourage the misperception that magic is about curses, which degrades the public perception of Wicca, Paganism, and magic. They are irresponsible and unethical and are an excellent example of what not to do.

NB: This post takes the place of my usual new moon post on divination because this is a perfect counter-example of the evaluation of harm that I do about divination.

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About Literata

Literata is a Wiccan priestess and writer. She edited Crossing the River: An Anthology in Honor of Sacred Journeys, and her poetry, rituals, and nonfiction have appeared in works such as Mandragora, Unto Herself, and Anointed as well as multiple periodicals. Literata has presented rituals and workshops at Sacred Space conference, Fertile Ground Gathering, and other mid-Atlantic venues. Literata offers healing and divination services as well as customized life-cycle rituals. She is currently completing her doctoral dissertation in history with the support of her husband and four cats.
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31 Responses to Curses, foiled again!

  1. Bay says:

    As a Pagan/Wiccan religion expert on Allexperts.com I often get questions along the lines of “How can I tell if I’m OMGCURSED!!!” from hysterical teenagers. Do you mind if I include a link to this blog post with my reply in the future? I think it lays things out nicely and rationally.

  2. Vivienne Grainger says:

    Oh, thank you. We so badly need some simple common sense in our lives on every level, and here you’ve hit it out of the park in two sequential posts.

  3. Dav says:

    Yikes. Yeah, there’s a lot of potential harm there. People are so good at this sort of thing. Also, entropy really, really doesn’t need any help to go forward – one of the natural physical rules of the universe is that ordered things tend to go towards disorder unless energy is applied. (It’s a system that applies to the universe, of course, so the energy applied doesn’t have to be human, and order on Earth is probably increasing, but still, that crack in your basement wall is not just going to knit together.)

    This is right up there with “correlation isn’t causation”. Our brains do like to pick up these patterns and string them together to make interesting stories.

    Also, “Look for something out of place, often times this is something iron, like nails, or something disgusting. A common curse involves a jar filled with bugs, bones, excrement, and nails. You’re looking for something nasty.” made me laugh. The place where I gardened last was a fairly normal plot by a park, and you would not believe the stuff that turned up over the course of several years. As a non-cursed individual, over the course of a single summer, I found: the mummified corpse of a bird, a recently killed rabbit, a 6-foot piece of rebar covered in red paint and thrust through the middle of a chunk of concrete with a face painted on it, a peanut butter jar filled with beetles, and a nest of centipedes inside a child’s football helmet. (I was mostly okay with all this, but I admit the centipedes got the heart going a bit faster.)

  4. Kyros says:

    As the writer of the posts under “scrutiny” I’d like to point out a few bits:

    I did mention that absolutely, regardless the circumstance, there may be a perfectly normal explanation. In fact, that was a point I threw out multiple times. Anything “magickal” in life may well be explained normally. Whether it’s a spiritual encounter, the euphoria of a native dance, or even just feelings, there is always a natural explanation.

    When it comes to dealing with curses, we have two possible stances in terms of belief:
    Either magick doesn’t exist. Period. Energy exists only in the mathematical physics sort of way.

    Alternatively, magick exists and can do harm (as well as good.)

    Now, if you don’t believe in magick, well, then I completely understand. That’s fine. Go for it. Rip apart the idea of curses.

    But if you believe in magick, or spells, or any such form, you have to accept that curses and negative energy exist, and can be targeted.

    My advice isn’t meant to be the end all or be all. It’s designed to deal with the magickal aspect of curses. Nowhere, anywhere, at all, in any way, shape or form, does my writing say “This is absolutely 100% a curse. Cast magick and be healed of it!”.

    Humans naturally find patterns where there are none. There are those among us who are paranoid, or who seek to create or enhance the drama in our lives. That doesn’t mean curses don’t exist, or that they don’t affect us. That doesn’t mean we don’t use magick as a part of dealing with it. Not to say we only use magick, and not to say every possible negative pattern is a curse, but that some negative patterns, given the presence of other phenomena, may potentially be curses.

    (~Sorry if that was a bit long, )

    • Literata says:

      Thanks for coming by, Kyros.

      You did, in fact, mention that curses may not be the cause of whatever someone is experiencing. But you never said anything like “Check all the possible non-magical issues first,” which I would consider an absolutely necessary precaution, and you never said “Be sure to pursue non-magical remedies in concert with magic if you choose to do protection magic,” which is also an absolutely necessary statement.

      You took on a hard topic, and I recognize that it’s easier to criticize than to write originally; nonetheless, by taking on that difficult topic, especially one where so much potential for harm exists, you open yourself up to these critiques, especially on ethical grounds.

      Please note that nowhere did I say that curses or “negative energy” don’t exist. I’m not trying to “rip apart the idea.” I object to the way you presented what you did.

      The first commenter confirms my impression that the idea of curses is actually a much larger problem than actual curses, and that’s why I disagree with what you wrote and find it an irresponsible approach to a difficult issue.

    • Delores W says:

      Kyros- Literata is the ultimate authority on all things, magical or not. If she says you are wrong, you are. Don’t argue. Fix it. Because she is a Witch. She says so about 50 times per post, and she has read SEVERAL books on the subject. Actual years of practicing magic are of little issue here, her opinions are what really count. If she says curses don’t exist then don’t argue! Dark magic has been around for centuries but if Twiterata says curses don’t exist then they don’t!

  5. Andrew Glasgow says:

    @Delores W:

    Did Literata run over your dog or something? She never made any of the claims you’re attributing to her.

  6. Delores W says:

    @ Andrew Glasgow

    Have you read her past posts? She is quick to “critique” the writings of others, yet seems to offer very little in the way of experience or background to support the strong opinions that she tosses around. As a result, she comes across as arrogant and dismissive, and frankly, immature. If she truly aspires to be the wise witch she claims to want to be, she will stop trying so hard to prove herself by pointing out the “errors” others make. Her spending her time challenging and picking apart her peers who have done her no harm, begs the question: Who ran over HER dog?

    • MadGastronomer says:

      Criticism is both an important part of learning and an important part of teaching. Examining what’s wrong with something is an incredibly useful tool for both the writer and the reader of it.

      You don’t have to like or agree with the criticism, but claiming that there is something wrong with her for making it, and claiming she has no authority or experience to do so, is petty and ridiculous. If you disagree, then present your points on how and why, just like she did.

  7. Sita says:

    For those who don’t recognize my name, I’m Sita, owner of A Witchy Life blog. Literata, thank you for your opinion and for stopping by my blog. I respect that everyone has the right to their own opinion, and to air that opinion. Freedom of speech is one of the greatest advantages of our country. If you or anyone else would like to discuss curses further, please feel free to send me a message via the blog. My feedback form and e-mail are very easy to find, and I would be happy to debate the merits and ethics of cursing with any who can debate in a respectful and intelligent manner. Any message for Kyros can also be sent to the blog’s e-mail, and I will pass them along to him.

  8. mmy0 says:

    @Delores W: As a result, she comes across as arrogant and dismissive, and frankly, immature.

    People who argue by hurling ad mulierem statements at their opponent undermine rather than buttress their own position.

  9. Laiima says:

    As a Pagan who isn’t sure she believes in magic, I found this an interesting take on the subject of curses, which I’d never thought much about.

  10. Kit Whitfield says:

    Delores W: Literata’s criticisms were directed at the harm that poor advice could cause to third parties – which is to say, they were motivated by concern for the common good. Your comment was nothing but a personal attack with childish name-calling. (Really, ‘Twiterata’? And you called her immature?)

    If the only reason you can think of for making a criticism is ‘proving yourself’, that says a lot more about you than about Literata.

    As to the issue of whether she has experience – so what? A criticism is either fair or it isn’t. If it’s unfair, it doesn’t matter if the author has fifty years of non-stop expertise: they’re still wrong. And if it’s fair, it doesn’t matter if the author has no experience at all: they’re still right. Let’s see a little more love of truth and a little less interest in status.

  11. mmy0 says:

    @Kit Whitfield: Let’s see a little more love of truth and a little less interest in status.

    Indeed.

    In addition (as those who teach/study classic rhetorical strategies know) ad hominem/mulierem statements are commonly resorted to when the disputant has little/nothing substantive to say and thus resorts to vilifying their opponent rather than their opponent’s argument.

  12. Sherrian says:

    (1) I’ve got to say that the term ad mulierem is new to me; is it common usage now? I’d always thought that homo, homines was man in the old sexist sense of sense of person , as in “Mankind,” and that “man” as in the man/woman distinction is vir. Is there a concerted effort to address the sexism implicit in using medieval Latin terminology? If so, I’m on board.
    (2) Literata’s an academic, and critically engaging with other people’s written, published ideas is what academics do; they also expect to be subject to the same kind of criticism in turn. As paradoxical as it may seem, analysis and criticism is not not the same thing as personally motivated abuse; it’s a sign of intellectual respect and engagement, even when it’s harsh. If a scholar says, “Well, the author’s entitled to an opinion, and I suppose these ideas make somebody happy,” well, that’s nasty.
    (3) Back to the subject of the original:
    Nobody’s mentioned this yet, but when I read this, something leapt out at me.
    The characteristics of “being under a curse” look to me like a good approximation of the symptoms of schizophrenia: Difficulties in functioning (likely to cause lost objects, lateness, unfed fish, and relationship issues), paranoia, and a tendency to perceive complex, intentional patterns everywhere . In addition to Literata’s suggestion of careful examination of one’s life, I’d suggest that a putative curse victim should consider talking to a Pagan-friendly psychiatrist (they do exist!), and fast.

    • Inquisitive Raven says:

      Very minor point, but I don’t recall the problem with the fish being identified, and in my experience, over feeding is more likely to be a problem than underfeeding. Fishy death by neglect as Literata discussed is much more likely to be a failure of tank maintenance, both because it’s a much more complex task, and well, cleaning a fish tank is work, and the bigger the tank, the more work. Cleaning a ten gallon aquarium is bad enough; cleaning a fifty-five gallon tank is a major production (speaking from experience here).

      Sorry not to leave a more substantive comment, but I think I’ve got enough substance on the subject of curses to put up my own blog post.

      • Literata says:

        Thanks for setting me straight – I should perhaps have pointed out that I wasn’t offering advice about fish; that was a purely hypothetical example in response to Kyros’ hypothetical that pet fish dying could be one event in a long string of mishaps resulting from an “entropy curse.”

        I’ll look forward to seeing your post!

  13. Kit Whitfield says:

    Likewise, subjectively experiencing oneself as ‘cursed’ – everything seems to go wrong, you have inexplicable illnesses or aches and pains, your relationships with people seem difficult and fraught with tension – can be a sign of depression.

    I’d say that in the instance of curses, ‘Or is it just me?’ is a question that merits very serious consideration.

    • Literata says:

      Good point, Kit. That need for a thorough understanding of the circumstances and probably the help of trained professionals is one of the reasons I think it’s very nearly impossible to write a generalized guide to curses like this. (Just in case I didn’t make that clear in the above post.)

  14. Sherrian says:

    Kit — Dion Fortune’s Psychic Self-Defence deals at great length with the difference between illness (physical and mental) and occult or magical influence. It’s an old book; when Fortune suggests that the victim distract himself by going to the movies, she recommends Charlie Chaplin, and her knowledge of physical illness is likewise dated.
    The theory, though, is some of the best advice I’ve ever seen.

    • Literata says:

      I’m planning on doing a review of that book soon; it’s a hard review to write because so much of her advice is good in principle but totally irrelevant in detail or if taken literally.

      • Sherrian says:

        C’mon, Lit!
        Charlie Chaplin! Charlie Chaplin !
        Plus laxatives!
        How can you pass that up?

  15. mmy0 says:

    @Sherrian: (1) I’ve got to say that the term ad mulierem is new to me; is it common usage now? I’d always thought that homo, homines was man in the old sexist sense of sense of person , as in “Mankind,” and that “man” as in the man/woman distinction is vir. Is there a concerted effort to address the sexism implicit in using medieval Latin terminology? If so, I’m on board.

    I don’t know if there is a concerted effort in the sense that it is organized however from my own experience of teaching the history of free speech to undergraduates that many students are insulted at the casual way in which textbooks/references state that “Athens was the first democracy” and then go on to write about the Roman codifications of the Athenian principals of law/rhetoric without ever addressing the fact that for all intents and purposes women were not in the full sense persons under Athenian (and Roman) law.

    When a classical rhetor made an ad hominem argument against another rhetor (that is, when law, politics or religion were discussed in a public forum) the other rhetor was with few exceptions a man, in the sense of gender/sex.

    In my opinion to not acknowledge that women were specifically excluded from the public sphere of Athens and from the world of public rhetoric is something which should be specifically addressed.

    [Personal rant — how call American women be perceived as a “special interest group” while American businessmen are perceived as “a reflection of the national interest” unless the default human being is presumed to male?]

    • Literata says:

      Good personal rant – I had tremendous trouble communicating to someone in the Pagan + Politics blog comments that Athens and Rome were only “democracies” for certain values of “democracy,” as in, representative democracy participated in by a tiny fraction of the population with great privilege in several spheres. To that d00d (sic), if people were voting, it was a democracy! And thus Westerners are good at democracy! And other people aren’t!

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