The Element Encyclopedia of Witchcraft: The Complete A-Z for the Entire Magical World - Judika Illes 2005
Dangers of Witchcraft
Wormwood and Garlic: Dangers and Protection
“Stick and stones can break my bones, but words can never hurt me.” If that old adage was really true, no one would ever have to worry about curses.
A curse is the opposite of a blessing. It is impossible to truly understand curses without an appreciation of the power of blessings. The words “blessing” and “curse” are now often used very loosely, casually, and thoughtlessly—blessings are mechanically offered whenever someone sneezes; “cursing” may be considered synonymous with using profanities. “I cursed him out,” now most often just means that someone directed harsh language at another person.
These words however originally referred to something exceptionally powerful and specific: magical energy transfers from one person toward someone or something else with the intention of affecting the destiny of the target, either positively (blessing) or adversely (curse).
According to traditional belief, some people, for one reason or another (heredity, skill, knowledge, innate ability or otherwise), possess so much power that, if they so choose, they can consciously transmit good fortune or specific miraculous occurrences (healing, fertility, prosperity, safety, and so on) to other people. Although any blessing is valuable, some blessings—those from powerful people who are in touch with sacred forces—are believed to be especially potent.
A curse is the antithesis of a blessing. Conventional occult wisdom suggests that anyone possessing enough power to create good fortune also possesses the power to block, repeal or remove it as well. Blessings bring health, happiness, and success and enable your dreams to come true; curses bring the opposite.
Intrinsic to this original concept of blessing and cursing is the notion that spoken words possess the power to create reality. Blessings and curses may be accompanied and reinforced by hexes, spells or various other magical practices. A true curse is not some vague utterance, nor is it casual use of profanity. Neither is it merely angry emotions randomly directed toward someone.
A curse is a lucidly articulated wish for harm directed toward another. When you casually tell someone to “drop dead” you have just cursed him, although you may not have really intended to do so. Now if there was no intent and you are not a person of exceptional power, that curse may not be strong enough to take effect. However, if you are an exceptionally powerful person…
Curses were once taken very seriously. There was an art to cursing. People prided themselves on their creative and unusual curses and boasted of their efficacy. People competed to create more inventive curses. It was a crime associated with witchcraft during the Burning Times.
Not all curses are equal. Traditional wisdom suggests that just as some people’s blessings are more valuable than others, some people’s curses are especially dangerous:
Witches, shamans, and other magical practitioners are believed to deliver powerful curses, as do smiths and metalworkers, who often double as sorcerers and shamans in traditional cultures.
Menstruating women are often traditionally believed capable of delivering really lethal curses, one reason why they were often isolated from society.
Curses cast by dying people are believed to be exceptionally powerful and almost impossible to repeal. This counts for any words said during the dying process, however “last words” constitute the most potent curse (or blessing) of all.
Witches executed during the Burning Times were frequently prevented from uttering public “last words” for fear that this offered them an opportunity to irrevocably curse their persecutors. A witch’s curse, delivered when she was alive and well, was considered a fearsome thing; a witch’s curse cast as she was dying was once feared as the most potent curse of all. Many local legends recall curses cast by murdered witches and impossible to lift.
The Evil Eye
The Evil Eye may be transmitted with a glance; however it really has little to do with eyes. A substantial percentage of traditional witchcraft and magical practice involves attempts to boost creative, generative, fertility power. Certain magical powers are believed capable of generating this positive creative energy; the Evil Eye can be understood as producing a force that is the antithesis of this generative magic power. Rather than growth and well-being, the Evil Eye stimulates desolation, stagnation, and sterility.
Who casts this Evil Eye or how is it cast? This pertinent question has never been conclusively resolved. Different cultures, traditions, and individuals offer different explanations:
The Evil Eye may be a random universal force that is mechanically attracted to certain targets in the manner of a heat-seeking missile.
The Evil Eye may emerge from individual people. No consensus exists as to whether it is cast deliberately. Some believe that the Evil Eye stems from resentment and jealousy and that anyone has the capacity to cast it when frustrated or angry. Other schools of thought believe that the Evil Eye is cast deliberately, and that some people are more likely to cast it than others.
Witches (surprise, surprise) are traditionally at the top of the list of dangerous people. (Other suspects include childless women, metalworkers, priests, and certain ethnic groups—inevitably minorities within a culture. Sometimes unusual physical traits are also associated with casting the Evil Eye: blue eyes in places where dark eyes predominate, dark people in largely fair-skinned societies, red-haired people almost everywhere.) Some fear witches specifically because they believe that witches maliciously enjoy casting the Evil Eye.
This association with the Evil Eye is simultaneously a terrible insult and an acknowledgement of perceived power. The person believed capable of casting the Evil Eye is not considered weak and helpless but instead as a person of extraordinary individual power. (This, however, has never stopped persecution of those believed to possess the Evil Eye.)
Although anyone may fall victim to the Evil Eye, some are believed more vulnerable than others: babies and children; brides, pregnant women, young mothers; horses and cattle; and anything new, shiny, and valuable, especially if it’s rare.
Men are not believed especially vulnerable to the Evil Eye, except for their reproductive capacities including basic sexual function.
Luckily there are many effective techniques for preventing, blocking, and removing the effects of the Evil Eye.
The Evil Eye creates a withering effect. The counter-attack often involves the concept of moisture, sometimes symbolically, sometimes literally. Spitting is a common quick-fix remedy to perceived casting of the Evil Eye.
In addition to saliva, the magically protective powers of the human body are often summoned to provide protection from the Eye. Magical replicas of moisture-producing parts of the anatomy are often used to repel and remove the effects of the Eye, such as eyes and genitals.
The gesture known as the “fig hand” repels the Evil Eye. The fig hand depicts a human fist, with the thumb thrust between the first two fingers. The gesture mimics the sexual act and is considered powerfully life-affirming, thus overriding the Evil Eye. (“Fig” literally names the fleshy, lushly seeded fruit but is also ancient Italian slang for “vulva.”) The fig hand amulet is believed to have originated in Italy; it remains popular throughout the Mediterranean as well as in Brazil.
Other protective measures include bells, particularly those cast from metal. Mirrors reflect the Eye back on itself, creating a boomerang effect. The color red repels the Eye and creates an aura of protection: this may be understood as drawing upon women’s primal menstrual power.
Technically, “hex” derives from the German word for “witch” (hexe), however it is commonly used in the English language to indicate a malevolent spell. The linguistic implication is that hexes are the common province of the hexe.
Thus in English, a hex is a malicious, harmful spell. A curse relies on the power of the individual who casts it; a hex follows the format of a spell. Although anyone can cast a hexing spell, many believe that hexes cast by a witch are more powerful than those cast by a layperson:
Witches possess secret knowledge and thus know of more lethal spells.
Witches are professional spell-casters and thus have greater access to “professional secrets.”
Witches possess greater experience with hexes and, as that old saying goes, “practice makes perfect.”
Witches are allied with potent spiritual entities who may be invoked to assist and reinforce their spells.
Those who define witches as possessing supernatural power believe that, by their very nature, witches can cast more powerful spells than the average human.
None of these reasons are necessarily true, although all are commonly believed. Intent is the key with hexes: identical material and techniques may be used to cast or break a hex. Identical spells may be used to cast a malicious hex or to create loving magic: tossing graveyard dirt at someone may be intended to stimulate disaster or to create an aura of protection. Actions and materials may be identical; the sole difference is the focus and intent of the spell-caster. That focus and intent is sufficient to produce the desired outcome.
What’s that old gender stereotype? Women are the frail, gentle species; men are the stronger sex? Well, there may be an even more ancient, primordial stereotype that turns the tables on that cliché: physical power isn’t the strongest force on Earth. Women were once considered to be the more magically potent gender, as demonstrated by their spiritual alliance with powerful natural phenomena like the moon, tides, and Earth herself. The following were considered to demonstrate proof of women’s magic power:
Women’s ability to bring forth life from their own bodies
Women’s ability to miraculously provide food from their own bodies
Menstruation, the monthly flow of blood that indicates the potential for fertility and the promise of life rather than death
Women were initially revered, respected, and worshipped because of this power. It is no accident that the earliest sacred images took the form of females.
No material on Earth, nothing, is traditionally considered more magically powerful than menstrual blood; no practitioner is as powerful as a menstruating woman—with the exception of a menopausal woman. This isn’t a contradiction; women weren’t perceived as losing power as they aged but gaining it.
The respect, reverence, and fear of menstrual power are fairly universal and are commonly perceived by anthropologists to be extraordinarily primordial beliefs.
Traditional metaphysical wisdom suggests that menstrual blood creates a solid wall of magical protection: it can break and prevent curses, hexes, and the Evil Eye. It can counteract virtually every other power, ward or spell. (See DICTIONARY: Ward.)
Consumption of as little as a single drop of a woman’s menstrual blood is believed to stimulate undying love and devotion for her. Should you consume a woman’s menstrual blood, knowingly or unknowingly, it is believed that she will for ever command your heart.
Once upon a time, very long ago, many historians, scholars, and anthropologists suggest that menstrual blood provided the very first blood sacrifices: no one was killed, no one got hurt. However, only women—and women of a certain age—were capable of making these offerings. It thus offered a certain segment of the population monopoly on spiritual power.
However, anything so potent is also potentially dangerous. There is a theory that the real reason behind the tradition of isolating menstruating women is not because they were temporarily “unclean” but because they were temporarily too powerful and dangerous to be left unsupervised. (In many traditional cultures, as in offices where women work very closely together, menstrual cycles tend to become synchronized, therefore all the women in one community might menstruate simultaneously, creating a formidable magical army.)
What else can menstrual blood magically do? Because menstrual blood is such an intensely yin (female) power, it may counteract or deactivate yang (male) energy. It can deactivate men’s amulets; it may be able to deactivate men and their magic as well. Admonitions to avoid sexual contact with menstruating women may have been initially intended to preserve male power.
In traditional Romany culture, a curse delivered by a menstruating woman, particularly if she flaps her skirts in your direction, is believed to be virtually irremovable.
In ancient Hawaii, a menstrual rag carried as a flag created an aura of protection around a party traveling through dangerous territory; it was the equivalent of a white flag of safety.
Menstruation came to embody the most shameful, sinful aspects of the female gender. However ancient legends and awareness of its power never entirely disappeared from the general population. Witches still reveled in the moonlight and gathered lunar plants like mugwort, among whose primary uses is aligning one’s personal cycle with the moon.
If the witch is understood as embodying this primordial potent female power, then this is a crucial reason why she became so feared and why she is perceived as potentially dangerous and capable of being destructive. Her curses and hexes are especially potent because of her ability and willingness to access this power.
Over the millennia, substitutes have evolved that echo and closely approximate that power: anyone regardless of age or gender can learn to use them, although in general they are affiliated with women’s magic and power. While not as innately powerful as the real thing, they come pretty close, and in the hands of an expert practitioner they may be extremely effective. Furthermore, even those with access to true menstrual blood may not find it convenient or socially acceptable to use and so the following substitutes are very popular magic spell ingredients: henna; iron, iron oxide powder, and ground hematite; vermillion powder, red ochre or red brick dust; red botanical material like bloodroot, dragon’s blood resin or red sandalwood powder; dried ground scarlet flower petals like carnations, roses or poppies; and red witch candles.
See also BOTANICALS: Mugwort, Opium Poppy; MAGICAL PROFESSIONS: Metalworkers; PLACES: Bathhouse; WOMEN’S MYSTERIES.