Curses for All Occasions:

Binding Spells and their Contexts

What — what is the magical ritual or object

Who — who is performing the ritual, using the magical thing?

Why — what is the motivation for the use of magic? what does the practitioner hope to achieve?

Where — where does the ritual take place? where is the object used?

How — how does the effect work? what is the source of the power? by what means does it operate? difference between perspective of practitioner and modern analyst?









Plato, Republic 364b-365c

But the strangest of all these speeches are the things they say about the gods and virtue, how so it is that the gods themselves assign to many good men misfortunes and an evil life but to their opposites a contrary lot; and begging priests and soothsayers go to rich men's doors and make them believe that they by means of sacrifices and incantations have accumulated a treasure of power from the gods that can expiate and cure with pleasurable festivals any misdeed of a man or his ancestors, and that if a man wishes to harm an enemy, at slight cost he will be enabled to injure just and unjust alike, since they are masters of spells and enchantments that constrain the gods to serve their end. And for all these sayings they cite the poets as witnesses, with regard to the ease and plentifulness of vice, quoting:

"Evil-doing in plenty a man shall find for the seeking; Smooth is the way and it lies near at hand and is easy to enter; But on the pathway of virtue the gods put sweat from the first step, and a certain long and uphill road."

And others cite Homer as a witness to the beguiling of gods by men, since he too said:

"The gods themselves are moved by prayers, And men by sacrifice and soothing vows, And incense and libation turn their wills Praying, whenever they have sinned and made transgression." And they produce a hubbub of books of Musaeus and Orpheus, the offspring of the Moon and of the Muses, as they affirm, and these books they use in their ritual, and make not only ordinary men but states believe that there really are remissions of sins and purifications for deeds of injustice, by means of sacrifice and pleasant sport for the living, and that there are also special rites for the defunct, which they call functions, that deliver us from evils in that other world, while terrible things await those who have neglected to sacrifice.

What, Socrates, do we suppose is the effect of all such sayings about the esteem in which men and gods hold virtue and vice upon the souls that hear them, the souls of young men who are quick-witted and capable of flitting, as it were, from one expression of opinion to another and inferring from them all the character and the path whereby a man would lead the best life?


Aeschylus, Eumenides 300ff.

No, neither Apollo nor Athena's strength can save you from perishing abandoned, not knowing where joy is in your heart--a bloodless victim of the gods below, a shadow. You do not answer, but scorn my words, you who are fattened and consecrated to me? Living, you will be my feast, not slain at an altar; now you will hear this hymn, a spell to bind you.

Come now, let us also join the dance, since we are resolved to display our hated song and to declare our allotted office, how our party directs the affairs of men. We claim to be just and upright. No wrath from us will come stealthily to the one who holds out clean hands, and he will go through life unharmed; but whoever sins, as this man has, and hides his blood-stained hands, as avengers of bloodshed we appear against him to the end, presenting ourselves as upright witnesses for the dead.

O mother Night, hear me, mother who gave birth to me as a retribution for the blind and the seeing. For Leto's son dishonors me by snatching away this cowering wretch, a proper expiation for his mother's blood. This is our song over the sacrificial victim--frenzied, maddened, destroying the mind, the Furies' hymn, a spell to bind the soul, not tuned to the lyre, withering the life of mortals.

For this is the office that relentless Fate spun for us to hold securely: when rash murders of kin come upon mortals, we pursue them until they go under the earth; and after death, they have no great freedom.

This is our song over the sacrificial victim--frenzied, maddened, destroying the mind,the Furies' hymn, a spell to bind the soul, not tuned to the lyre, withering the life of mortals.



Aeschines 3.109-111

Collecting a great force of the Amphictyons, they enslaved the men, destroyed their harbor and city, and dedicated their land, as the oracle had commanded. Moreover they swore a mighty oath, that they would not themselves till the sacred land nor let another till it, but that they would go to the aid of the god and the sacred land with hand and foot and voice, and all their might. They were not content with taking this oath, but they added an imprecation and a mighty curse concerning this; for it stands thus written in the curse : "If any one should violate this," it says, "whether city or private man, or tribe, let them be under the curse," it says, "of Apollo and Artemis and Leto and Athena Pronaea." The curse goes on: That their land bear no fruit; that their wives bear children not like those who begat them, but monsters; that their flocks yield not their natural increase; that defeat await them in camp and court and market-place, and that they perish utterly, themselves, their houses, their whole race; "And never," it says, "may they offer pure sacrifice unto Apollo, nor to Artemis, nor to Leto, nor to Athena Pronaea, and may the gods refuse to accept their offerings."



Marble Stele from Cyrene, dating from 4th century BC

On these conditions a sworn agreement was made by those who stayed there and by those who sailed to found the colony [of Cyrene], and they invoked curses against those transgressors who would not abide by it - whether those settling in Libya or those who remained. They made waxen images and burnt them, calling down the following curse, everyone assembled together, men, women, boys, girls: "The person who does not abide by this sworn agreement but transgresses it shall melt away and dissolve like these images - himself, his descendants and his property; but those who abide by the sworn agreement - those sailing to Libya and those staying in Thera - shall have an abundance of good things, both themselves and their descendants."



Hesiod, Works and Days, ll. 11-24

So, after all, there was not one kind of Strife alone, but all over the earth there are two. As for the one, a man would praise her when he came to understand her; but the other is blameworthy: and they are wholly different in nature. For one fosters evil war and battle, being cruel: her no man loves; but perforce, through the will of the deathless gods, men pay harsh Strife her honour due. But the other is the elder daughter of dark Night, and the son of Cronos who sits above and dwells in the aether, set her in the roots of the earth: and she is far kinder to men. She stirs up even the shiftless to toil; for a man grows eager to work when he considers his neighbour, a rich man who hastens to plough and plant and put his house in good order; and neighbour vies with is neighbour as he hurries after wealth. This Strife is wholesome for men. And potter is angry with potter, and craftsman with craftsman, and beggar is jealous of beggar, and minstrel of minstrel.



Pindar, Olympian 1

And when he blossomed with the stature of fair youth, and down darkened his cheek, he turned his thoughts to an available marriage, to win glorious Hippodameia from her father, the lord of Pisa. He drew near to the gray sea, alone in the darkness, and called aloud on the deep-roaring god, skilled with the trident; and the god appeared to him, close at hand. Pelops said to the god, "If the loving gifts of Cyprian Aphrodite result in any gratitude, Poseidon, then restrain the bronze spear of Oenomaus, and speed me in the swiftest chariot to Elis, and bring me to victory. For he has killed thirteen suitors, and postpones the marriage of his daughter. Great danger does not take hold of a coward. Since all men are compelled to die, why should anyone sit stewing an inglorious old age in the darkness, with no share of any fine deeds? As for me, on this contest I will take my stand. May you grant a welcome achievement." So he spoke, and he did not touch on words that were unaccomplished. Honoring him, the god gave him a golden chariot, and horses with untiring wings.

He overcame the might of Oenomaus, and took the girl as his bride. She bore six sons, leaders of the people eager for excellence. Now he has a share in splendid blood-sacrifices, resting beside the ford of the Alpheus, where he has his attendant tomb beside the altar that is thronged with many visitors. The fame of Pelops shines from afar in the races of the Olympic festivals, where there are contests for swiftness of foot, and the bold heights of toiling strength. A victor throughout the rest of his life enjoys honeyed calm, so far as contests can bestow it. But at any given time the glory of the present day is the highest one that comes to every mortal man. I must crown that man with the horse-song in the Aeolian strain. I am convinced that there is no host in the world today who is both knowledgeable about fine things and more sovereign in power, whom we shall adorn with the glorious folds of song. A god is set over your ambitions as a guardian, Hieron, and he devises with this as his concern. If he does not desert you soon, I hope that I will celebrate an even greater sweetness, sped by a swift chariot, finding a helpful path of song when I come to the sunny hill of Cronus. For me the Muse tends her mightiest shaft of courage. Some men are great in one thing, others in another; but the peak of the farthest limit is for kings. Do not look beyond that! May it be yours to walk on high throughout your life, and mine to associate with victors as long as I live, distinguished for my skill among Greeks everywhere.