Curses, foiled again!

I don’t understand why Wiccans and Pagans continue to shoot themselves in the foot. The latest example is a blog I’ve just started reading that has a three part guest series on curses. Regardless of the good intentions of the author and the blog owner, what these posts actually do is create misunderstanding among people potentially interested in magic and give ammunition to people who want to believe that Pagans and magic users are wicked witches from fairytales. It’s an irresponsible thing to post and is an example of why I am sometimes ashamed of my coreligionists.

Talking about curses as actual magical practices is almost certain to do more harm than good. Most people who are concerned that they might be under a curse or suffering a psychic attack of some kind are looking for an external cause for their problems because they don’t want to face what’s actually going on. Period. Implying otherwise without knowing the exact details of a particular situation is going to add fuel to the fire of people’s imaginations at the precise moment when what those people need most is clear, hard reality.

The author explains that “entropy curses” often manifest as extremely unlikely strings of bad luck, and while he (?) points out that readers should look for very unprobable strings of events, he gives the following example:

If your house gets robbed one day, and then two days later all your pet fish die, and the next day your favorite sneakers go missing, only to have your grandmother pass the next week, well, then that’s possibly a curse.

No, it’s not. Thinking that these events result from a curse is a prime example of magical thinking that fails my “What if I’m wrong?” test. I apply this test on a regular basis: for example, I meditate, and I hold religious and magical beliefs about what meditation means and does. What if I’m wrong? Well, meditation has been proven to have physical and psychological benefits, completely independent of the religio-magical aspects of my beliefs. And if I do it wrong, at worst, I’ve wasted some time.

But what if someone is wrong about the curse? As long as you also file a claim, improve your home security, clean your fish tank, check your fish care guide, buy new sneakers, and get some grief counseling, a little bit of salt around the edges of your property isn’t a huge waste, but the real danger is that people will spend more time blessing their fish tank than learning how to use water conditioner and cleaning the filter.

In part two, the author suggests that we detect “targeted” curses by looking for a pattern of effects that could be taken as retribution being leveled against us by someone we’ve wronged who is known to use magic, and by looking for “the presence of artifacts, both physical and magickal.” (sic)

“Looking for a pattern” invites people to make up a story about how what’s happening to them is being caused by an outside force that means to do them harm. Humans are extremely good at making up these stories. They’re a wonderful defense mechanism that people use all the time to avoid taking responsibility for their own behaviors and consequences, and to keep themselves from seeing the actual problems in a situation:

Say you’re dating someone magickally talented and you slip up and cheat on them, only to have your next three lovers be unfaithful to you: that would likely be a targeted curse.

Or maybe the fact that you described cheating as a “slip up” explains why you’re having trouble establishing and maintaining a committed relationship. This kind of magical thinking is extremely likely to cause major harm and very unlikely to have any positive results, especially if the magical thinking is incorrect, which it is likely to be. The person worrying about a curse isn’t just wasting time, energy, and possibly resources; the magical thinking will perpetuate the problem and actively prevent the person from addressing the actual psychological and emotional issues involved.

The other suggestion, looking for either something important of yours that’s missing or trying to find something “nasty” or out of place in your personal environment – possibly buried! – is also likely to be misleading and a waste. This avenue of investigation is so open-ended that the theory is impossible to disprove, and thus extremely likely to be a refuge of denial.

Finally, the author suggests two main ways to break curses: one is to find the object placed near you and clean or purify it and rid yourself of it, and the other is – surprise! – a purifying bath with salt. Assuming that you do find an “artifact” near you that involves bugs, “fecal matter,” or rusty nails, carefully cleaning it is likely a further waste of your time and hazardous to your health. The author offers no suggestions on how to deal with a curse placed on an object of yours that the curser now has in his or her possession.

The suggestion to take a warm bath with salt is the only sensible part of these three posts. It just barely squeaks by the “What if I’m wrong?” test: a bath will likely make you feel better, and adjusting your mentality to “shrug off” the supposed ill-wish may help you turn the corner. It does promote the idea that the real problem was a curse, though, which is potentially dangerous, so it’s still not harmless. Finally, the author’s self-contradiction and extreme open-endedness exacerbate these issues, so not only are these posts a bad idea, they’re a bad idea poorly executed.

These posts are not helpful advice, and they’re not headology. They’re likely to cause distinct, even physical, harm to people who take them seriously. They certainly encourage the misperception that magic is about curses, which degrades the public perception of Wicca, Paganism, and magic. They are irresponsible and unethical and are an excellent example of what not to do.

NB: This post takes the place of my usual new moon post on divination because this is a perfect counter-example of the evaluation of harm that I do about divination.