HUMA 4651 Specialized Studies in Religion: Curses and Curse Stories

York University, Spring 2016

Image: Elisha sends bears to maul the children who taunted him (2 Kings 2:23-25).

Instructor: Dr. Tony Burke
Phone: (416) 736-2100 ext. 22329
Time and Location: MW 7-10 pm, Room VH1018
Office Hours: MW 6-7 pm, McLaughlin 036

1. Course Description

Curse: to predict, wish, pray for, or cause trouble or disaster on a person or thing.

The practice of cursing is an aspect of religion that some movements promote and others call sinful. Nevertheless, it is present in numerous religious traditions and demands exploration. This course primarily investigates cursing and curse stories (i.e., tales in which the protagonist places a curse upon another) in the ancient world but allows students to write major papers on an aspect of cursing from any time and place. We will look at cursing in biblical (e.g., God’s curse on Adam and Eve from Genesis, the curses of Elijah and Elisha in 2 Kings, Jesus’ curse on the fig tree in the gospels), non-biblical (e.g., Mesopotamian incantations, ancient treaty curses, magical papyri, apocryphal Christian literature), and even non-textual (e.g., the “Evil Eye,” curse bowls and amulets) sources. Each class will address methodological problems studying curses that can be applied to the students’ own projects.

2. Required Texts

John Gager, Curse Tablets and Binding Spells from the Ancient World. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1999.

New Revised Standard Version, The New Oxford Annotated Bible with Apocrypha. College Edition. M. Coogan et al (eds.). Oxford University Press, 2001 (another Bible is also acceptable but it must be the New Revised Standard Version).

Weekly readings available as PDFs; see lecture schedule for links.

3. Methods of Evaluation

All written work in this course is expected to be of high quality—i.e., it must conform to the style and format guidelines typical of Humanities courses—and it must be your own. To help ensure that these requirements are met, you are urged to visit the on-line guides listed below. In addition, a style sheet of my own design is to be attached to your assignments (see the assignment descriptions below). No paper will be accepted without the style sheet attached. For additional writing assistance, visit
NOTE: All graded work in this course is to be submitted to (and brought to class in a hard copy). For an overview of this service and the University’s policies regarding, please see HERE. It is very simple to use. Go to for instructions on how to create a user profile. You can use whatever email address you wish but it must be a working one since you will receive emails over the course of the year. It is recommended that you NOT use internet email accounts (e.g., Hotmail, Yahoo, etc.). You create your own password so make it easy to remember. You will also require the following information to sign in initially: Class ID: 12506201. Password: curses.

A. Academic Integrity: York University is very concerned about the increase in student plagiarism. As heinous a crime as plagiarism is, sometimes it is perpetrated in ignorance. The university has set up an on-line tutorial to help students recognize acts of plagiarism. You are required to complete this tutorial (no papers will be accepted until you do so). Go to the web site and work your way through the tutorial. Print off the results of the quiz and hand them in on May 16. There is no grade value for this assignment, but no papers will be accepted until the test results are handed in to the instructor. Site address:

B.Reading Responses: for each class from May 11 to June 8 the lectures are accompanied in the syllabus by discussion and methodology questions. Come to class prepared to answer these questions, but on three occasions hand in your answers to the instructor ON THE DATE THAT THEY ARE ASSIGNED. Any three classes can be chosen, but judge well when it fits your schedule best (HINT: don’t wait until the last three of the classes!). Length: aprox. 2-3 pages. Grade value: 5% each (for a total of 15%).

C. Major Project: though the lectures of this course focus on the ancient world, students may submit a curse-related paper on any topic they desire (i.e., from any geographical area or time period). However, the essay topic must be approved by the instructor. Students will also present their topic to the class in short presentations. The goal of this process is to model academic conferences at which scholars present preliminary work on a subject, solicit input from their peers, and then publish a polished paper. The entire project is organized as follows:

1. A brief statement of the paper topic is to be presented via e-mail to the instructor on or before May 16.
2. A representative from the library will visit the class May 18 to discuss research techniques.
3. Students will present their preliminary work in a twenty-minute seminar June 13, June 15, or June 20. Grade value of Presentation: 15%.
4. The Major Paper is to be handed in for grading June 27. Essay must conform to the guidelines described on the style sheet available HERE. To ensure conformity to the style sheet, no paper will be accepted without the style sheet attached. Length: 15 pages. Grade value: 30%.

D. Book Review: John Gager’s Curse Tablets and Binding Spells is an excellent introduction to “magic” in the ancient world, with examples of a variety of magical formulae and a discussion of how a variety of ancient authors perceived this material. As a lead-in to our own discussion of magical curses, prepare a review of Gager’s book. A scholarly book review should contain the following features: roughly 60% of the review is descriptive (i.e., a summary of its contents; the aim is to inform the reader about the book), and 40% is analytical (what are the book’s strengths and weaknesses? what are the author’s biases or particular viewpoints on the subject matter? what is the expected audience of the book? does the author write effectively for that audience? is the book a “good read”?, etc.). For more guidance on scholarly book reviews read the samples available HERE. The reviews will be discussed in class. Length: 5 pages. Grade value: 20%. Due: June 6.

E. Participation: to encourage an optimum of instructor/student interaction, a portion of your final grade is allocated to class participation. Grade value: 20%.

Missing papers: In the event that papers go missing, it is your responsibility to keep a hard copy of all written work submitted for the course.

Late papers: the instructor, like you, is a very busy person. He likes to receive papers on time so that he can give them back to you within a reasonable time and then get on with other things he has to do (the instructor has other courses to teach and other papers to grade). Late papers complicate his life. So, he cannot accept late papers unless they are accompanied with documentation from Special Needs or Health Services. Contact the professor if you foresee problems handing in papers on time.

4. Important Dates

May 13: Last date to enroll without permission of instructor
May 20: Last date to enroll with permission of instructor
June 3: Last date to drop course without receiving a grade

5. Lecture Schedule

Please come to class having read the assigned primary and secondary readings. A lecture outline for each week’s class will be posted on-line by Friday evening and by Tuesday morning of each week. It is your responsibility to print your own copy of the outline and bring it to class.

May 9: Defining “Curse”
Read after class today: Scheper, “Cursing.”
Online Resources: check out Sarah Veale’s Ancient Curses web site (a site set up specifically for this course).

May 11: Curses in the Ancient Near East and Ancient Greece
Read for Today: Harper, “Babylonian and Assyrian Imprecations”; Magnetti, “The Function of the Oath in the Ancient Near Eastern International Treaty”; Gevirtz, “West-Semitic Curses and the Problem of the Origins of Hebrew Law”; Ankarloo-Clark, Witchcraft and Magic in Europe.
Discussion Questions: In “Babylonian and Assyrian Imprecations” who are the invokers of the curses? Who are the targets? What is the function of the curses? In “The Function of the Oath…” what is the function of the curses in treaties? In Witchcraft, Ankarloo and Clark discuss the differences between magic and religion, with curses being almost exclusively associated with sorcery. Is that distinction fair? Consider their description of a professional sorcerer on p. 106—how does this description differ from the responsibilities of a religious official?
Online Resources: this course grew out of a research project on cursing and curse stories. Click on THIS LINK for information about the project and an annotated bibliography that can help with your major paper.

May 16: Curses in Ancient Israel
Read for Today: from the Bible (available also online): Genesis 2-3; Exodus 8-12; Numbers 5:11-31, 12, 16; Leviticus 26; Deuteronomy 27-28; 2 Samuel 24 (=1 Chronicles 21); 1 Kings 13, 20:35-43; 2 Kings 2, 5:19-6:23; Job 2-3; Psalms 35, 58, 69, 83, 109, 137; Blank, “The Curse, Blasphemy, the Spell, and the Oath”; Luc, “Interpreting the Curses in the Psalms”; Zielkowski, Evil Children in Religion, Literature, and Art
Discussion Questions: How do you feel about the “wrathful” God of these biblical passages? Do you think the audience of these texts had any problem imagining a God who curses as well as blesses? Consider Blank’s article on the origins of the curse. If one declares “May God curse you…” is the invoker of the curse controlling God? What power lies behind a curse that does not invoke the name of a deity? The exploits of Elijah and Elisha (1 Kings 13, 20:35-43; 2 Kings 2, 5:19-6:23) feature a number of curse stories. Is it possible to isolate a common structure to these stories? From Luc’s article on the psalms, what implication can be drawn about the Christian view of God from the New Testament writers’ use of the imprecatory psalms?
Methodology: In Evil Children in Religion, Literature, and Art, Zielkowski traces how the story of the Bad Boys of Bethel (2 Kings 2: 23-25) has been interpreted over the centuries. For a humorous take on the story watch the Bald Avenger cartoon or Elisha, the Children, and the Bears. Consider Zielkowski’s method for your own work: are there other interpretations of curses we could trace through history? The Bad Boys of Bethel is a problematic text. How do the patristic writers cited by Zielkowski feel about it? Do they embrace the violence of the story, or do they try to explain it away?
*** Your paper topic is due today ***
*** Academic Integrity Tutorial results due today ***

May 18: Second Temple Judaism
Note: the first hour of today’s class will be led by Scott McLaren, who will provide a tour of library resources  to aid in preparing your paper.
Read for Today: Selections from the Dead Sea Scrolls; Selections from Josephus; Testament of Solomon; Nitzan, “Blessing and Cursing”; Eve, The Jewish Context of Jesus’ Miracles.
Discussion Questions: Both the Dead Sea Scrolls and Josephus’ writings were composed around the time of Jesus. What can we learn from them about first-century attitudes toward cursing and curse stories?
Methodology: Book Curses. Readings: Early Jewish and Christian Book Curses; Drogin, Anathema! What is the function of book curses?— i.e., Why are they necessary? Would they still be required today? Take note from the readings the great value placed on books in ancient and medieval times.
Online resources: check out Sandra Anderson’s web site dedicated to book curses, Bibliomania.

May 25: The New Testament
Read for Today: curses in Paul (Gal. 1:6-9; 3:10-14; 5:7-12; 1 Cor. 5:1-5; 12:1-3; 1 Cor. 16:22; Rom. 9:3; 12:14), the gospels (Mark 11:12-14, 20-24 par; Mark 15:38 par; Luke 1:20; Luke 6:20-31; 9:52-56; Matt. 27:24-26; Luke 10:13-15//Matt 11:20-24; Luke 11//Matt 23; Acts 1:15-20; 5:1-11; 9:3-9; 12:20-23; 13:6-11); Carter, “Matthew 23:37-39”; Comber, “Composition and Literary Characteristics of Matt 11:20-24”; Hull, “The Cursing of the Fig Tree”; Allen, The Death of Herod; Strubbe, “Cursed Be He That Moves My Bones.”
Discussion Questions: Consider the evidence from the primary and secondary readings for a Jesus who curses. Do you think the evidence is strong that Jesus uttered curses? Is this view of Jesus troubling for Carter and Hull? For you? Look at the curse stories in Acts—is it less troubling when the apostles (or God directly) curse others? Given what we know about pre-Christian curse practices and literature, should it be that surprising to see Jesus and the apostles curse?
Methodology: Funerary Inscriptions. In Strubbe’s article “Cursed Be He That Moves My Bones,” what is the function of curses in funerary inscriptions? What are the various types of curses found in the inscriptions? (e.g., some invoke gods, some do not; some involve images; some are metrical, etc.).

May 30: Conference (no class)

June 1: The New Testament Apocrypha
Read for Today: Achtemeier, “Jesus and the Disciples as Miracle Workers in the Apocryphal New Testament” (read this article before the primary readings); The Infancy Gospel of Thomas (from Miller, The Complete Gospels); a new edition of The Infancy Gospel of Thomas; selections from the Apocryphal Acts; Lykiardopoulos, “The Evil Eye: Towards an Exhaustive Study.”
Discussion Questions: Compare the two versions of The Infancy Gospel of Thomas assigned for today’s class. Assuming the “new edition” is an earlier form of the text, note how the text has changed over time (considering particularly how later scribes have dealt with the more obnoxious aspects of the text’s portrayal of Jesus). What does Achtemeier say about the motives for the curse stories in the Apocryphal Acts?
Methodology: the Evil Eye. The Evil Eye is an example (the only example?) of a non-literary curse. Consider what life is like for someone with the Evil Eye as part of their belief system. What are the advantages and disadvantages of holding this belief? Note also what Lykiardopoulos says about the effectiveness of the Evil Eye (p. 225).

June 6: Magic
Read for Today: Gager, Curse Tablets and Binding Spells.
Methodology: today’s class will focus on what we learn from Gager about “magical” curses and attitudes toward “magic” in antiquity.
Online resources: for more on magic in the ancient world take a virtual library tour of the University of Michigan’s display of Greek Magical Papyri (as well as gems and bowls).
** Your Book Review is due today **

June 8: Patristic Literature (the “Church Fathers”) and Rabbinic Judaism
Read for Today: Theodoret, Phil. hist. 1; Justin, excerpts from the Dialogue with Trypho; Theissen, The Miracle Stories of the Early Christian Tradition; Lauterbauch, “The Belief in the Power of the Word”; Cannon, “Voodoo Death.”
Discussion Questions: As you read Theodoret’s stories of James, note the author’s reaction to the curse stories. Is Theodoret uncomfortable with these stories? How does he justify James’ actions? Lauterbauch’s “The Belief in the Power of the Word” describes an anxiety over oral cursing similar to concerns about the Evil Eye. What precautions are necessary when speaking if you believe your words could have such devastating consequences?
Methodology: do curses work? To prepare for the discussion read Cannon’s “Voodoo Death” and review Gager’s and Lykiardopoulos’ opinions on the issue.

June 13: Seminars

Kristen Liddie
Ivan Tregubenko
Samantha Felix
Misbah Arshad

June 15: Seminars

Daniel Lim
Marina Rojas-Carvajal
Raheem Isaac
Francine Buchner
Natasha Pereira
Sunita Saniary

June 27: The Major Paper is Due Today