There were a number of ways witches and sorcerers in the European medieval era were able to cast curses.
Most of these do not involve the elaborate, time-consuming rituals sometimes seen in various Hollywood movies.
In most cases, simple words and gestures are enough to perform a curse. The simplicity of casting a curse makes sense even when analyzed within Christian practices.
After all, the Church constantly says a simple prayer ending in Amen is enough for God to impart divine blessings.
In the same logic, a curse can be cast with a few short words and an invocation of the Devil.
With that out of the way, below you will find the most common methods medieval witches and sorcerers used to perform their curses or magic.
Casting curses through familiars
One of the most common accusations against people accused of witchcraft or sorcery was that they possessed familiars.
Familiars were spiritual “clone” of a person, usually in animal form, and bound to obey their commands.
Familiars fulfilled a wide variety of roles and could even manifest curses uttered by their master into real consequences.
One of the most infamous such cases involves Elizabeth Francis, a woman executed in the late 1570’s under charges of fatally cursing people through her cat, Sathan.
According to the confession she gave under torture, at the age of twelve, Elizabeth Francis learned from her mother how to summon and command a familiar.
The process of summoning the familiar involved:
- Renouncing God.
- Find a new born cat and name it Sathan.
- Throughout the cat’s life, feed it with drops of Elizabeth’s own blood, mixed with bread and milk.
Once the cat reached adulthood, Elizabeth was able to communicate with Sathan, who spoke to her in a “in a strange hollow voice, but such as she understood by use.”
Over the course of 16 years, Elizabeth confessed to making repeated requests to Sathan, all of which came true.
These involve asking for the death of a man who would not marry her, the demise of her firstborn child, and crippling the leg of her husband, Christopher Francis.
According to the Elizabeth’s confession, each such request required she give Sathan a drop of her blood as payment.
A similar case is the story of Ursula Kempe, who was likewise found guilty of witchcraft through familiars and executed in 1582.
According to Ursula’s confession, she possessed four spirits, two male cats called Jack and Tittey, a female black toad named Pigin and the lamb Tyffin.
Thus, Jack brought plague upon the wife of a neighbor; the toad Pigin caused a young child to become ill; and the black lamb Tyffin spied on people.
As a reward, Ursula said she let her animals feast on the blood coming from her left thigh.
Curses through dolls, images, and wax figures
Casting a curse through the use of dolls, wax figures, or statues that look like the victim is usually associated with voodoo witchcraft; however, this practice was extremely widespread during the medieval witch hunt craze.
One such example involves a certain “Mother Dutton” who was tried, found guilty and executed during the Abington witches trial of 1579.
Mother Dutton was accused of murdering four people through the use of wax figurines resembling the victims.
According to the trial documents, Mother Dutton used the thorn of a hawthorn bush to pierce the figurines “”where she thought the hearts of the persons to be set, whom the same pictures did represent.” Allegedly, the four victims died suddenly.
Another case of casting curses through figurines is that of John Palmer and Elizabeth Knott, both found guilty and executed at St. Albans in 1649.
According to the charges, the two had murdered a woman by creating a clay figurine of the victim and then throwing the statue in a fire. Reportedly, the victim suffered extreme suffering and promptly died once the fire was extinguished.
The book Wonderful Discovery of Witches in the County of Lancaster, published in 1613, even records a confession from a certain Mother Demdike that says:
The speediest way to take a man’s life away by witchcraft is to make a picture [figurine] of clay, like unto the shape of the person whom they mean to kill, and dry it thoroughly. And when you would have them to be ill in any one place more than another, then take a thorn or pin and prick it in that part of the picture you would so have to be ill. And when you would have any part of the body to consume away, then take that part of the picture and burn it. And so thereupon by that means the body shall die.
Curses through a person’s possessions
A witch or sorcerer could cast curses even through the everyday items of the victim, not just through figurines of them.
The logic in this case is that objects are intrinsically tied to their owner, and so a magical practitioner can use an owner’s possessions to harm him or her.
This belief brought about the execution of the Flower sisters and their mother in Lincoln in 1618.
As per the trial, Mother Joan Flower, along with her daughters Margaret and Phillipa, were dismissed from their positions at the Castle of Lord Henry Rose, the Earl of Rutland.
Outraged at their dismissal, the three women plotted revenge upon Lord Henry Rose.
Thus, they stole one of the man’s gloves, rubbed in on the back of their familiar (a cat named Rutterkin), boiled the glove in water, pricked it with a needle and then buried it in their yard, cursing Lord Rose never to thrive again.
As a result of this curse, the eldest son of Lord Rose passed away soon after.
A similar case can be found in the American Colonies during the Salem witch trials of 1692–1693.
A man named Thomas Gage accused Roger Toothaker of murdering his daughter through witchcraft after obtaining some of her urine and boiling it in a hot oven.
Toothaker would die in jail a few months later after being accused of bringing about the death of his main competitor’s daughter.
Verbal cursing, swearing and the Evil Eye
In modern times, verbally swearing and cursing at someone is seen as rude and hostile, but not much more than that.
However, in the Middle Ages, the practice of swearing and cursing was much more religiously charged.
The people of the time saw words as having true spiritual weight and power, especially if they invoked God, or in the case of witches and sorcerers, the Devil.
Thus, the common folk absolutely believed that a well-worded curse from a witch could bring catastrophic harm to them.
After all, characters in the Bible performed such curses on a frequent basis. A famous such case is the Apostle Paul cursing Elymas with blindness in Acts 13:
“You are a child of the devil and an enemy of everything that is right! You are full of all kinds of deceit and trickery. Will you never stop perverting the right ways of the Lord? Now the hand of the Lord is against you. You are going to be blind for a time, not even able to see the light of the sun.”
Through the same logic, medieval Europeans believed witches and sorcerers could cast curses by invoking the unholy powers of the Devil.
Not only that, but a witch didn’t even need to verbally speak the words to cast the curse.
All that was required was to formulate an evil wish and an action to direct the wish upon the victim. This could mean spitting in their direction, a glance of the eye (hence the “Evil Eye”), pointing a finger, etc.
In the book Discourse of Damned Art of Witchcraft from 1608, William Perkins even describes what we today call the “Evil Eye”:
It is an old received opinion, that in malicious and ill-disposed persons, there proceed out of the eye with the beams noisome and malignant spirits, which infect the air, and do poison or kill not only them with whom they are daily conversant, but others also whose company they frequent, of what age, strength, or complexion so ever they be.
Hand of Glory
The Hand of Glory is a gruesome and disturbing magical item that has the power to curse the inhabitants of a home into a deep sleep they cannot awaken from.
The Hand of Glory appears in many grimoires and magical handbooks and is made out of the hand of a hanged person, tightly wrapped in a piece of shroud, dried of blood, and then pickled in a jar using salt, saltpeter, and long peppers.
After two weeks, the hand is removed from the jar and dried in the sun or in an oven with vervain and fern.
Witches and thieves would then use the hand to commit robberies. They would break into a house and then set the fingers on fire, just like a candle.
Supposedly, the magical properties of the Hand of Glory placed everyone in the house either in a state of deep slumber or in a sort of sleep paralysis.
The Hand of Glory is even mentioned in a trial from 1588 in the city of Guermange, where two witches were accused of digging up corpses to produce a Hand of Glory.
Ligature was a curse that produced impotency in males and was generally thought to be accomplished by tying knots in threads, leather strips, or by administering potions.
Ligature had various names in different cultures: vaecordia [Latin], aiguillette [French], or ghirlanda delle streghe [Italian].
The most common way a witch would cast a ligature curse was by tying knots in a cord or strip of leather and then hiding it.
The man afflicted with the ligature curse would remain impotent forever unless the cord was found, untied, or at least had the knots loosened.
Jean Bodin, a French philosopher and demonologist, wrote in 1567 of a woman who told him there were more than fifty different types of ligature knots, each with its own application.
These knots affected urination, copulation, reproduction, and even their duration, meaning days, months, or years.
A man under the power of a ligature curse would supposedly suffer from swellings on the body, where each swelling represented a child that would have been born if not for the curse.
Writing down curses on paper, pottery, or tablets is an ancient practice that is almost universal to all cultures.
Among the ancient Greeks, this practice was called katadesmoi, literally meaning ‘bindings’ or curses written on various objects and then buried into the ground.
One of the most famous such katadesmoi is a curse scrawled on a piece of pottery from the year 400 BC that says, “I put quartan fever on Aristion to the death”.
This practice of cursing someone through writing existed not just during medieval times but as late as the 19th century.
Most famous is the cursing well of St. Elian at Llanelian-yn-Rhos, near Colwyn Bay in Wales, which was so well known that it created a thriving curse business.
There, people paid both to inflict curses and have them removed if they were victims.
However, it’s important to note that with the proper procedure any well can become a cursing well.
All it takes is to write down the curse on a piece of paper, recite it over a well, place the paper in a box or wrap it around a rock, and toss it into the well.
- Mythology of All Races by Louis Herbert Gray and John Arnott MacCulloch
- The History Of Witchcraft And Demonology by Montague Summers
- Man, Myth & Magic The Illustrated Encyclopedia Of Mythology by Richard Cavendish
- Demons and elementals by John Gatehouse
- The Lesser Key of Solom
- The Key of Solomon
- The Kybalion by Three Initiates
- The Secret Teachings of All Ages by Manly P. Hall
- 7 Ways to Cast Curses like a Hardcore Medieval Witch - September 19, 2023
- 7 Historically Proven Ways to Break Curses and lift Hexes - September 19, 2023
- 60 Most Bizarre Superstitions (& the Stories Behind Them) - September 19, 2023