Curses and Cursing: What Is a Curse?

Cain killing Abel punished by god

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A curse is the opposite of a blessing: Whereas a blessing is a pronouncement of good fortune because one is initiated into God’s plans, a curse is a pronouncement of ill fortune because one opposes God’s plans. God may curse a person or a whole nation because of their opposition to God’s will. A priest may curse someone for violating God’s laws. In general, the same people with the authority to bless also have the authority to curse.

Types of Curses

In the Bible, three different Hebrew words are translated as “curse.” The most common is a ritualistic formulation which described as “cursed” those who violate community standards defined by God and tradition. Slightly less common is a word used to invoke evil against anyone who violates a contract or oath. Finally, there are curses which are invoked simply to wish someone ill will, like cursing a neighbor in an argument.

The Purpose

Cursing can be found in most if not all religious traditions around the world. Although the content of these curses may vary, the purpose of curses seems to be remarkably consistent: enforcement of law, assertion of doctrinal orthodoxy, assurance of community stability, harassment of enemies, moral teaching, protection of sacred places or objects, and so forth.

As a Speech Act

A curse communicates information, for example about a person’s social or religious status, but more importantly, it is a “speech act,” which means that it performs a function. When a minister says to a couple, “I now pronounce you man and wife,” he isn’t just communicating something, he is changing the social status of the people before him. Similarly, a curse is a deed which requires an authoritative figure performing the deed and acceptance of this authority by those hearing it.

Curse and Christianity

Although the precise term isn’t generally used in the Christian context, the concept plays a central role in Christian theology. According to Jewish tradition, Adam and Eve are cursed by God for their disobedience. All of humanity, according to Christian tradition, is thus cursed with Original Sin. Jesus, in turn, takes this curse on himself in order to redeem humanity.

As a Sign of Weakness

A “curse” is not something which is issued by someone with military, political, or physical power over the person being cursed. Someone with that sort of power will almost always use it when seeking to maintain order or punish. Curses are used by those without significant social power or who simply lack power over those they wish to curse (such as a stronger military enemy).

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Your Citation
Cline, Austin. "Curses and Cursing: What Is a Curse?" Learn Religions, Aug. 28, 2020, Cline, Austin. (2020, August 28). Curses and Cursing: What Is a Curse? Retrieved from Cline, Austin. "Curses and Cursing: What Is a Curse?" Learn Religions. (accessed May 30, 2023).