Blog Post 115 – Cursing Psalms (part I)
Several months ago, I received an email from a reader/listener asking about the use of certain biblical texts in the context of cursing. It said:
“I have been reading Judika Illes’ Encyclopedia of 5000 Spells and came across Psalms 109 being used as a hex. I did not know that you could use Bible verses as a hex. Can you give me more info of this Psalms 109 hex?”
So I thought that today I might start to look at some of the “cursing Psalms,” with an eye to their historical precedents, their place in American folk magic, and some ideas of what to do with them. Before I get too far into the topic, however, please let me emphasize that using any curse is tricky, and biblical ones can be especially so. Many of them are based on specific theological ideas about the Old Testament G-d and His will regarding the administration of justice. If a curse isn’t justified, not only might it not work, it might backfire as according to the theology involved, the curse would go against G-d’s will, and thus invite destruction on the curser. Basically, as always, be careful with curses.
To look at biblical curses historically, the first hurdle most folks have to leap is the hurdle of modern thinking. Many who study the Bible are incredibly uncomfortable with the idea that it contains admonitions to do harm to others, yet it clearly does. Repeatedly G-d tells his chosen people to exterminate tribes, towns, and even civilizations down to the last man, woman, and child (see Deuteronomy and I Samuel). He inflicts suffering on even his most loyal subjects (see Job). Some view this all as an historical account, or a gloss for political struggles in a religious context, or as something undone by New Testament theology. Cursing in the Bible, though, is not limited to cataclysmic events on a national level or a cosmic wager between G-d and Satan—it’s often deeply personal. There are several accounts in the Bible of G-d’s representatives dishing out curses:
2 Kings 2 – The prophet Elisha curses a group of children for calling him “bald,” and the children are eaten by a pair of bears.
Numbers 5 – A magical ritual is prescribed for determining if a woman has abeen unfaithful. If she has and she is pregnant from her adultery, the ritual causes spontaneous abortion.
Acts 5 – Peter curses a man and woman who lied to him, and they die.
Acts 13 – Paul curses a man pretending to be an Apostle/sorcerer, and the man goes blind.
(You can read more about magic in the bible here, by the way)
It should be apparent, then, that the Bible doesn’t contain only sweetness and light and the works of a “good” G-d the way many modern people might prefer it. Rather, it contains a mix of history, folklore, philosophy, and even some occult information straddling the line of morality on all accounts. Rather than viewing it through the lens of today, when we might not understand why anyone would resort to cursing in the name of a higher power, it is helpful to have a little more perspective. Theologian Tomas O Curraoin writes about curses in an article for the Irish Catholic digest The Furrow:
“The stand taken by the Old Testament was certainly uncompromising; whereas the contemporary world which influences us all is, to say the least, more accommodating. The maledictions found in the psalms are merely an expression of that fundamental attitude of the Old Testament to evil and to evil-doers. They take their origin in certain human situations, and express an attitude to God, to Life, to the cosmic struggle between good and evil, which is certainly not characteristic of the world-attitude today. In fact there is no question of justifying, in the sense of excusing, the use of curses in the psalms. The psalms are inspired, and do not need to be justified…” (from “The Malediction in the Psalms”).
(Please note here that O Curraoin makes the point that the Psalms themselves, as divine passages, do not need to be justified—I still stand by my point that the use of thes Psalms for cursing must be justified, however). He goes on to point out that in many cases, the maledictive Psalms are really about justice for those who have no other recourse. In a tribal system where many legal cases come down to one man’s word against another and where death is on the line for what we might consider minor transgressions, it’s not senseless to call upon G-d to smite one’s enemies before one is destroyed by them. From a nationalist point of view, the enemy of a faithful follower is an enemy of the people, and thus of G-d, so again, a curse is a-okay. And in the case of a curse against one who is simply acting immorally to wards his neighbors, well, that is still in line with the whole “G-d’s will” idea because the laws about morality supposedly come from G-d. Or as priest John J. Greehy puts it:
“We must be fair to the Psalmists. They had a keen sense of justice. They realized that there could be no real peace (shalom—the fullness of God’s promise in every sphere of life) unless justice, truth, freedom, even some loving were present in the land. So they invoked the divine justice against unrepentant sinners” (from “The Cursing Psalms” in The Furrow, Mar. 1978).
So, what we have is a system of last resort for someone without other recourse, backed by the most powerful forces he or she can muster.
In that vein, it shouldn’t be surprising that the poor and enslaved are the ones we find using cursing Psalms in history. Harry M. Hyatt recorded a number of spells involving the Psalms among his Black informants, including some curses. One particularly interesting example follows:
HOODOO PSALM SCRATCHED ON NEW TINPAN WITH NEW PIN OR NEEDLE OR NAIL TO
9783. Yo’ kin take a tinpan an’ control a person. Yo’ kin take a
brand-new tinpan an’ yo’ kin write – lemme see. Ah got it right heah, de
psalms yo’ find where it says “Vau – v-a-u.” Yo’ kin take that an’ write
that on a brand-new tinplate. (This psalm in which the word “Vau” is
used?) Yes Sir. It’s in psalms [the psalm of a hoodoo book] an’ yo’ kin
write that. But now yo’ don’t write it with a pencil or nuthin like
that. Yo’ take a needle or pin or new nail that’s sharp – anyting that’s
sharp except a pencil – an’ yo’ write that psalm on that tinplate. Then
yo’ kin take that tinplate an’ put it away where it won’t be disturbed
or be handled by anybody else. An’ you kin control that person if yo’
write that psalm fo’ them.
[Waycross, Ga., (1166), 1959:8.]
The Psalm in question is the acrostic Psalm 119, focusing specifically on the Hebrew letter “vau”in verses 41-48 and its portion of the overall Psalm. From the King James Version:
41Let thy mercies come also unto me, O LORD, even thy salvation, according to thy word.
42So shall I have wherewith to answer him that reproacheth me: for I trust in thy word.
43And take not the word of truth utterly out of my mouth; for I have hoped in thy judgments.
44So shall I keep thy law continually for ever and ever.
45And I will walk at liberty: for I seek thy precepts.
46I will speak of thy testimonies also before kings, and will not be ashamed.
47And I will delight myself in thy commandments, which I have loved.
48My hands also will I lift up unto thy commandments, which I have loved; and I will meditate in thy statutes.
While this isn’t a particularly virulent bit of cursing, it is certainly not a pleasant spell, as it puts someone under the spellcaster’s control. Hyatt also records Psalms 20 and 93 being used to bind one’s enemies in a court situation, Psalms 35 and 102 being used to get rid of a troublesome enemy, and Psalm 70 to make them wither up and suffer. I should go ahead and say that, of course, the use of cursing Psalms even in hoodoo is fairly limited compared to using Psalms for things like success, luck, love, and protection. I generally interpret the large percentage of non-cursing spells in most folk magic practices probably indicates that curses should make up a minority of any witch’s magical work, but that’s just my perspective.
I think we’ll stop there today, as this is already a rather lengthy entry. In my next post, I’ll be including a list of cursing Psalms and their intended effects, as well as any techniques you might use to bring them to fruition. Until then, don’t do anything I wouldn’t do…
Thanks for reading!