Monday, April 19, 2010

The Sacred Responsibility of Cursing: for Noira

Recently one of my fans in the Czech Republic asked for my input on the subject of baneful magic.  This is, of course, one of the great controversies in modern magical thought. Some have claimed in the huffiest of terms that no REAL Witch would EVER cast any kind of curse on an opponent. Others, by contrast, say that the Witch who cannot hex cannot heal.

Whatever the case, few serious magicians will admit to casting a curse. Boast about it beforehand and you give your target time to formulate a defense. If your efforts fail you look like a blithering buffoon: if they succeed the skeptics will claim coincidence and the believers will think you're a sociopath. And if you tell people about the curse after the fact it looks like you are taking advantage of your opponent's misfortune to bolster your reputation as a Mighty Lord of Darkness. Like most magic, curse-work is best done in silence and secrecy. This, of course, means that nobody really knows how many modern magicians are doing baneful magic and what sort of success rate they have achieved.

But a quick look at the historical record suggests that "real Witches" had no problem with casting curses. Archaeologists have found many Greek and Roman curse tablets designed to afflict the troublesome with problems ranging from impotence and boils to slow and painful death.  In Norse legend Egil Skallagrimson used his knowledge of runes to curse the King and Queen of Norway: many Egyptian tombs were guarded by the promise that horrifying fates would befall tomb robbers in this world and the next. European witches used poppets made in the likeness of a target to inflict pain and suffering, while Hoodoo and other African Diaspora traditions have never hesitated to call the wrath of the spirits upon those who tormented their servants.

For those who were dispossessed and powerless (in other words, just about everybody in the pre-modern world and a goodly share of the people in contemporary times), curses offered a chance to level the playing field. In a feudal society the church and lords held absolute sway over the lives of the peasants.  If you were a serf, a noble could steal your crops, rape your wife and daughters, and send you off your lands on a whim. Should you protest too loudly, the instruments of church and state would punish you for your presumption.  Untrained field-hands armed with flails and clubs stood little chance of winning a battle with armored knights and professional soldiers. Those who tried were likely to meet their end by burning at the stake, breaking on the wheel, drawing and quartering  or some other equally gory and creative doom.

But those who could not rise up in arms could call on magic for their vengeance. With a few forbidden imprecations that arrogant lord could be laid low. His fields and his wife could be made barren: he and his family could suffer as you and yours had suffered. The church and state sought to stamp out witchcraft because they feared the great equalizer by which the wicked might be cast down.  Of course, it could also be used for more prosaic ends, such as killing an obnoxious neighbor or a relative who had the temerity to be more successful than you. And so it was feared by rich and poor alike. Those who might have called on their cunning-men and sorcerers for liberation instead joined forces with their oppressors to kill those they suspected of trafficking with spirits.

(French historian Jules Michelet wrote at some length about this in his La Sorcière, a volume which has been translated into English as Satanism and Witchcraft: The Classic Study of Medieval Superstition. While some of his historical contentions are dubious, his thesis is thought-provoking and highly recommended).

I believe that every competent magician should know how to cast a curse on those who truly deserve it. That doesn't mean the girl who stole your boyfriend or the guy who flipped you the bird on the way home. But we all know that there are people who pollute the world by their very presence. Often they have the financial or cultural capital to get away with their misdeeds. We can sit back and wait for the universe to right itself, or we can take matters into our own hands and assist the universe in flushing the cosmic toilet.

If we have the power to neutralize these threats and we fail to do so, then what shame do we incur for our inaction? What role do we play in enabling their future misdeeds?  Does our "forgiveness" and "turning the other cheek" come from our higher evolution or our cowardice? What is more frightening, being powerless or powerful? All these questions must be addressed by those who will work curse magic - and by those who will not.  Cursing is not something to do for boasting or petty reasons. This is the magic we work in darkness and silence, the spells which we do to right the world. This is the responsibility that comes with wisdom.  The ability to cast curse magic gives us the power of Nietzsche's superman - the ability not only to suffer for our beliefs but to make others suffer for them as well.  It takes us down a dark, thorny and terrifying path. Real magic often does that.

(I am indebted to Clifford H. Low for many conversations on this topic. If you get a chance to attend one of his presentations on Black Magic, don't miss it. And keep bitching at him until he gets his notes into manuscript form suitable for publication).