6 Famous Curses and Their Origins

6 Famous Curses and Their Origins

Throughout history, people have promoted stories of curses for a variety of reasons. To sports fans, curses can help explain their favorite team’s loss. When a cause of death is misunderstood, curses can provide an explanation. For an imperial nation, curses can betray anxiety about being punished for colonizing and taking artifacts. And sometimes, curses come about because someone just wanted to make up a story.

Here are some prominent curses in history.

1. King Tut’s Curse (and Other ‘Mummy’s Curses’)

In February 1923, a British archaeological team opened the tomb of Tutankhamun, or “King Tut,” an Egyptian pharaoh during the 14th century B.C. Two months later, when the team’s sponsor died from a bacterial infection, British newspapers claimed without evidence that he’d died because of “King Tut’s curse.” Whenever subsequent members of the team died, the media dredged up the alleged curse again.

King Tut’s curse and other famous “mummy’s curses” were invented by Europeans and Americans while their countries removed priceless artifacts from Egypt. After the Titanic sank in 1912, some newspapers even promoted a conspiracy theory that the ship had sunk because of a “mummy’s curse.”

READ MORE: The Craziest Titanic Conspiracy Theories, Explained

Though it’s not clear how many people actually took these “curses” seriously, these stories became extremely popular subjects for horror movies like The Mummy (1932) and its many iterations, as well as comedies like Mummy’s Boys (1936) and Abbott and Costello Meet the Mummy (1955).

2. The Curse of the Polish King’s Tomb

In 1973, a group of archaeologists opened the tomb of the 15th-century Polish king Casimir IV Jagiellon in Kraków, Poland. As with the opening of King Tut’s tomb 50 years before, European media hyped up the event, and the researchers involved allegedly joked that they were risking a curse on the tomb by opening it.

When some of the team members began to die shortly after, some media outlets speculated it was due to a curse. Later, experts discovered traces of deadly fungi inside the tomb that can cause lung illnesses when breathed in. This was the cause of their deaths.

READ MORE: 8 of Halloween's Most Hair-Raising Folk Legends

3. The Hope Diamond Curse

In the 1660s, the French gem dealer Jean-Baptiste Tavernier purchased a large diamond of unknown origin during a trip to India. Yet by the 20th century, a myth had sprung up in the United States and Europe that Tavernier had stolen the diamond from the statue of a Hindu goddess. The newspapers and jewelers who spread this story claimed the diamond was cursed and brought bad luck to those who owned it.

By 1839, the diamond supposedly ended up with Henry Philip Hope, a Dutch collector based in London and the source of the stone’s modern name—the Hope Diamond. Sometime after this, European and American newspapers began claiming that the Hope Diamond carried a curse.

The French jeweler Pierre Cartier reportedly used these stories to enhance the diamond’s value when he sold it to American heiress Evelyn Walsh McLean in the early 1910s. After she died, it went to a U.S. jewelry company, which exhibited it before donating it in 1958 to the Smithsonian Institution, where it remains today.

WATCH: Full episodes of The Curse of Oak Island online now.

5. The Curse of Tippecanoe (or Tecumseh’s Curse)

In the mid-20th century, U.S. media began to note a pattern in presidential deaths. Starting with William Henry Harrison and ending with John F. Kennedy, every 20 years the country elected a president who would die in office.

Harrison, the first president to die in office, was elected in 1840. The other presidents who died in office include Abraham Lincoln, elected 1860 (and 1864); James A. Garfield, elected 1880; William McKinley, elected 1900; Warren G. Harding, elected 1920; Franklin D. Roosevelt, elected 1940 (as well as 1932, 1936 and 1944); and JFK, elected 1960. The only president between Harrison and JFK to fall outside of this pattern is Zachary Taylor, who was elected in 1848 and died in 1850.

In the 1930s, Ripley’s Believe It or Not claimed the “pattern” was due to a curse Shawnee Chief Tecumseh placed on Harrison and future presidents after Harrison’s troops defeated Tecumseh’s at the Battle of Tippecanoe in 1811. (Tecumseh died two years later in another battle against Harrison’s troops.) This story likely originated with non-Native Americans and bears a similarity to other “curses” in U.S. books and movies about disturbing Native burial grounds.

WATCH: Halloween Documentaries on HISTORY Vault

6. The Curse of Macbeth

There are lots of superstitions in the world of theatre. It’s bad luck to wish actors good luck, hence the reason people instead tell them to “break a leg.” And it’s also bad luck to say the word “Macbeth” in the theatre except during a performance of the Shakespeare play. Supposedly, this is because tragedy has historically befallen productions of the play. In reality, these stories are a mix of fabrication and selective evidence-picking.

The legend about the play seems to have started with Max Beerbohm, a British cartoonist and critic born in the 1870s, nearly three centuries after Macbeth’s first performance. Beerbohm—possibly annoyed that Macbeth was such a popular play—made up a story that the first actor cast to play Lady Macbeth died right before the play’s opening night.

Since then, this story has become part of a myth that the play is cursed and has brought bad luck to those involved with it. Though there have been real accidents during runs of Macbeth over its more than 400-year history, these accidents gain more attention than accidents during other plays because of the supposed “curse.”

READ MORE: Did Shakespeare Really Write His Own Plays?

7. The Billy Goat Curse on the Chicago Cubs

As with theatre, there are also a lot of superstitions in the world of sports. One of the most famous is the supposed “billy goat curse” on the Chicago Cubs.

In 1945, a tavern owner named William “Billy Goat” Sianis was reportedly prevented from bringing his pet goat, Murphy, into Chicago’s Wrigley Field to see the Cubs play the Detroit Tigers in the World Series. Supposedly, Sianis put a curse on the Cubs, saying they wouldn’t win this or any other World Series ever again.

Before this, the Cubs had only won the World Series twice before, in 1907 and 1908. When they lost the World Series in 1945, the curse gained credence. In 2016, when the Cubs won the world series for the first time in over a century, U.S. media promoted the idea that the curse was broken.

The billy goat curse is similar to the curse of the Bambino, which supposedly began when the Boston Red Sox traded Babe Ruth in 1919 and ended when the team won the World Series in 2004. There’s also rapper Lil B’s curse on Kevin Durant, which Lil B issued in a 2011 tweet and lifted in 2017 in another tweet. When the Golden State Warriors won the NBA finals that year with Durant earning MVP, sports media jokingly (or not?) proclaimed that Lil B had helped by lifting the curse.

WATCH: Full episodes of The Curse of Oak Island now.

3. The Eureka Diamond

This diamond was the first ever discovered in South Africa, one of the world’s most prolific sources of diamonds. The diamond was found by a young boy, while he worked as a shepherd, along the shores of Hopetown’s Orange River. This diamond weighed in at 231 carats before being faceted. The Eureka diamond eventually traveled to England for the inspection of Queen Victoria at Windsor Castle. This famous diamond, like many on our list, was destined to change owners many time, before being purchased by the diamond conglomerate, De Beers, in 1967 it is now on permanent display at the Kimberly Museum in South Africa, where it remains a symbol of one of South Africa’s most lucrative national resources.


The Hope curse, it turns out, was more or less a sensational story added by journalists in the late 1800s to sell newspapers. While some of the owners are known to have indeed died bloody deaths (Marie Antoinette's beheading by guillotine being a prime example), many of the other tragedies attributed to the stone have never been confirmed and are little more than rumor.

As with other famous curses, such as the Pharaoh's Curse (also known as King Tut's Curse), a seemingly disastrous history of doom for the Hope diamond can be constructed by simply combing through its history and highlighting anything bad. Since nearly everyone (certainly any adult old and rich enough to own such a precious jewel) has something bad or tragic happen to him or her &mdash from an accident to a disease to a death in the family &mdash it's not difficult to make a list of such events and attribute them to the Hope diamond.

If the curse were simply that whoever owned it would soon die a bloody death, that would be both terrifying and supernatural. However, the Hope diamond curse becomes far less mysterious when we realize that it's not just death but any misfortune (including, apparently, financial ruin, suicide, beheadings, and being eaten by wild dogs) that's included in the legend&mdashand it's not just bad things that afflicted the owners but also their extended families and friends as well. With such a large pool of hundreds of people (and such a broad range of maladies), it would be surprising if a few dozen tragedies hadn't affected people tangentially connected to the Hope diamond over three centuries. [Image Gallery: Two Ancient Curses]

The Hope diamond curse story is in some ways a morality fable about the cardinal sin of greed. The original thief, according to legend, died a slow and painful death, while the later owners, oblivious to the curse until it was too late, suffered as well. It was said that only a person with a pure heart could escape a doomed fate &mdash in this case a "pure heart" meaning someone who did not try to sell it but instead generously gave it away. Thus the curse &mdash if indeed there ever was one &mdash ended when jeweler Harry Winston donated (not sold) it to the Smithsonian Institution in 1958, where it can be seen today.

The Current use of curses

The word hex is sometimes used synonymously with curse. Among the Pennsylvania Dutch Witches hex can designate either a good or bad spell. In neo-Pagan Witchcraft, some Witches use the term hex to designate a binding spell, which is different from a curse.

A curse is the expression of desire of harm to come to a particular person. Anyone can lay a curse on another person, but it is believed that the authority of the person who lays the curse on increases its potency and makes it more dangerous.

Such persons are believed to be priests, priestesses or royalty persons possessing magical skill, such as Witches, sorcerers and magicians and persons who have no other recourse to justice, such as women in many societies, the poor, the destitute and the dying. Deathbed curses are the most potent, since all the curser’s vital energy goes into the curse.

There is a belief that if the victim knows that he has been cursed and believes that he is doomed, that the curse is all the more potent for the victim helps to cause his own demise.

However, many Witches and sorcerers claim that curses can be just as effective without the victim’s knowledge of them. They further say that they would never let the victim know the curse had been laid on him because then he might go to another Witch seeking to get it removed.

This has happened. Persons feeling that they have been cursed have will go to a Witch or sorcerer, sometimes in ignorance to the same person who put the curse on them, to have the spell broken.

If the Witch or sorcerer has laid the curse on the person, then he makes an additional fee for taking it off. When two opposing Witches or sorcerers are involved, a magical war might erupt to see whose has the stronger magical powers.

In the various traditions of neo-Pagan Witchcraft it is against the ethics and laws of the Craft to lay curses. Most Witches abide by this, thinking that the curse will return to the curser in the same form as given.

Although there are those that believe that cursing against one’s enemies is justified. Witches from ethnic cultures such as the Italian Striga, the Mexican Bruja, and branches of the Pennsylvania Dutch also believe that cursing is justified.

Just as many methods exit for breaking cursers as there are for making them. If a magically charged object has been hidden in someone’s dwelling it may be discovered by divination or clairvoyance and ceremonially destroyed.

Sometimes other banishing rituals or protective workings are used to overpower the curse, protective talismans and amulets can be worn, and magical oils and washes can be used to attempt to lift the curse’s effect.

A major side effect in removing a curse is that when the curse is broken, its energy can recoil on the person who cast it, and if such person has not taken adequate precautions, he/she may end up receiving the entire effect intended for the curse’s victim.

This is another famous Souther exclamation that we’re sure many of our readers have heard, usually in a sentence like “What in tarnation?”

So what does tarnation even mean? Scholars believe that it evolved from a mixture of “eternal” and damnation.” Mix those words together, and you’re left with something like “tarnation.” Obviously, eternal damnation is something worth getting worked up over!

7. What In The Sam Hill?

This is another Southern expression that is used when people are surprised, angry, or feeling some kind of strong emotion. It’s an exclamation similar to “hell,” or other curse words.

So who was Sam Hill? Well, no one really knows. Depending on who you ask, he might have been a geologist, a millionaire, or even the devil himself. We’ll probably never know.

8. In High Cotton

If something is in high cotton, it’s very successful, profitable, or promising. For example, you might have a hot dog stand that’s in high cotton.

The meaning behind this phrase is also pretty obvious. If you have a crop of cotton and it’s growing high, then you’re in for some serious cash when harvest time rolls around. People in the south have a deep connection with farming, and this phrase shows how their culture is linked with agriculture.

9. Madder’n A Wet Hen

You probably don’t want to approach someone who’s “madder than a wet hen.” This means that they’re seriously angry, and they might even be throwing something of a hissy fit.

When hens were brooding (angry and troublesome), Southern farmers used to dunk them in cold water in an effort to make them snap out of this phase. By doing so, they could collect eggs more easily.

10. Have A Conniption

While some people get madder than a wet hen, those who have a conniption are on a different level. If you’re having a conniption, it means you’ve completely lost it. You’re hysterical, crazy, and off the rails.

Scholars believe that conniption is linked to the word “corruption.” Southerners long ago may have likened these tantrums to being corrupted by the devil!

11. That Old Dog Won’t Hunt

When someone says “that old dog won’t hunt,” what they’re really saying is that your idea is terrible. This is a phrase used by people who feel cynical and doubtful towards things. “That dog won’t hunt” is like saying “that’s not going to work.”

This piece of slang obviously roots from the use of hunting dogs. When dogs get too old or frail, they can’t hunt anymore, quite as odd as southern sayings can be.

12. Till The Cows Come Home

If you’re waiting till the cows come home, you’re waiting for a very long time. The phrase may even refer to things that will continue on forever – or at least until the foreseeable future.

Southerners are no strangers to cattle, and they know that cows can take a very long time to wander home once they get lost. That’s where this phrase comes from.

13. Can’t Never Could

Although this phrase is filled with negatives, it’s actually an example of positive thinking. This is like saying “you can’t get anything done without a positive attitude.” Or in other words, if you’re thinking about all the things you can’t do, you won’t be able to achieve much.

Southerners summed up this sentiment beautifully with the phrase: “Can’t never could!”

14. Fair To Middling

This is actually just a very complicated way of saying “Okay.” If you ask a Southerner how they’re doing and they say “fair to middling,” what they mean is that they’re doing all right. Not good or bad – just in the middle.

The word “fair” is pretty obvious in its meaning. It means satisfactory or “so-so.” But what does “middling” mean? Apparently, it’s an old Scottish word which means “of average quality”, now part of the oddest southern sayings you will ever hear.

15. If The Creek Don’t Rise

This means that if everything continues to plan, things will be okay. It’s often said in a reassuring way, to calm people down and encourage them to keep on trying.

A rising creek could spell trouble, as it can lead to flooding and other issues.

Well there you have it! 15 odd Southern sayings, and their meanings and origins explained!

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Holy Sh*t: A Brief History of Swearing by Melissa Mohr – review

Mohr's account is 'cracking', despite the lack of reference to Cartman from South Park.

Mohr's account is 'cracking', despite the lack of reference to Cartman from South Park.

I t's wonderful stuff, swearing. It stiffens the sinews and summons up the blood, and not just metaphorically. Obscenities actually do act on us physiologically. Swearing increases electrical conductance across the skin, pushes the heart rate higher and measurably increases resistance to pain.

Obscenities are also linguistically interesting in themselves: the more currency they have, the more their emotional colouring and the associations they trigger overwhelms what they actually mean. "Fucking", these days, only rarely means "having sex". And they become marvellously plastic, grammatically.

Swearing doesn't just mean what we now understand by "dirty words". It is entwined, in social and linguistic history, with the other sort of swearing: vows and oaths. Consider for a moment the origins of almost any word we have for bad language – "profanity", "curses", "oaths" and "swearing" itself .

Melissa Mohr's title, then, is more than just an attention-grabber: the history of swearing is one of a movement back and forth between the holy and the shit. At different times in the history of the west, the primary taboo has been to do either with God, or with the functions of the human body. (The latter, though, does subdivide in a meaningful way between the sexual and the excremental. Really, this book should have been called "Holy Fucking Shit".)

Though Mohr is mainly interested in English, she is generous in roping in examples from outside it. A helpful and interesting chapter on ancient Roman filth does much to sketch the background, too. How do we know what was obscene in a dead language? By literary genre, essentially: if it was written on the toilet wall but didn't appear in satire, it was likely to be properly rude. English has a "Big Six": "cunt", "fuck", "cock", "arse", "shit" and "piss" (though Mohr plausibly suggests that "nigger" should now be in there). The Romans had a "Big 10": cunnus (cunt), futuo (fuck), mentula (cock), verpa (erect or circumcised cock), landica (clitoris), culus (arse), pedico (bugger), caco (shit), fello (fellate) and irrumo (er, mouth-rape).

So the Romans, like us, had a primary relationship between the body and the idea of obscenity – though their sexual schema was a little different, with shame attaching, above all, to sexual passivity. Sexual obscenity also, to complicate things, had a sacramental function – as witness the fruity ways of the god Priapus. Some of that shit was holy.

In medieval times, though, the emphasis was all on the holy. Common words for places and things contained vulgarities regarded as quite innocuous. London and Oxford both boasted a "Gropecuntelane", which is where the prostitutes hung out, and if you visited a country pond "there would've been a shiterow in there fishing, a windfucker flying above, arse-smart and cuntehoare hugging the edges of the pond, and pissabed amongst the grass". At the same time it's hard to recapture quite how shocking medieval people would find a vain oath.

Christianity was founded on oaths and covenants – as was the whole dispensation of feudal society. To swear an oath was to compel God to pay attention to your promise – and to do so in vain was to dishonour God and risk eternal damnation. Indeed, it was believed that if you swore on God's body – "'sblood!" "God's bones!" "by Christ's nails!" – you physically spilled his blood, broke his bones and tore out his nails in heaven.

Mohr credits the decline in the importance of oath-swearing to the rise of the merchant classes. Feudal society's scheme of estates was bound by chains of oaths between lords and vassals, right up to the king. Capitalism moved us from oaths to contracts: the oath before God became less important than keeping your word to business partners – and you didn't need eschatological terror to enforce that. Plus, there's the dry, old complaint that swearing constantly "devalues the currency". Between 1640 and 1660, around the civil war, men might have to swear as many as 10 conflicting oaths of loyalty if they wanted to keep their heads attached to their necks.

At the same time, something else was going on: the idea of privacy. In an age when everybody pissed and shat in public, and sex would as like as not take place in a room or even a bed shared with others, taboos around bodily functions weren't all that strong. Chaucer's "swiving", "toords", "queyntes" and "erses" were vulgar and direct, but they weren't obscene. One word was regarded in the late-18th and 19th centuries as so shocking that it was variously rendered "inexpressibles", "indescribables", "etceteras", "unmentionables", "ineffables", "indispensables", "innominables" "inexplicables" and "continuations". That word? "Trousers."

How things change. By the first world war, soldiers swore so much that the word "fucking" came to function as no more than "a warning that a noun is coming". Now even the extremest obscenities have lost their power to shock. In Irvine Welsh's novels, for instance, "cunt" is more or less a synonym for "bloke". It is telling that, where for the Romans the genitals were veretrum or verecundum ("parts of awe" or "parts of shame"), "in today's American slang, the genitalia are devalued as 'junk'".

The only actually taboo language is that of racial insult. Words like "wop", "kike" and "yid" (though not, interestingly, "nigger") were intended to give offence from the off – but only to those on the receiving end. As Mohr writes, the idea that everybody should find them offensive is a relative innovation. Not, it should be said, a bad one.

Mohr's scholarship seems to be sound and her approach positively twinkles with pleasure and amusement. She gives her chapters headings such as "Shit, That Bloody Bugger Turned Out To Be A Fucking Nackle-Ass Cocksucker!", and she's not above finding it funny that a paper on urinary incontinence was co-authored by Splatt and Weedon.

I'd like Mohr's account to have tipped a wink to Viz comic's monumental and still-growing Profanisaurus. Her argument might have been strengthened, too, by reminding us that Eric Cartman, in South Park: Bigger, Longer and Uncut, saves the world from Satan and Saddam Hussein with the words: "Fuck, shit, cock, ass, titties, boner, bitch, muff, pussy, cunt, butthole, Barbra Streisand!"

But here I pick nits. This is a cracking fucking book, and innominables to anyone who says otherwise.

The Sword in the Stone. Photo by Alexmar983 CC BY-SA 3.0

We all know the legend about King Arthur and the sword Excalibur. Pulling the sword from the stone sealed King Arthur’s glory.

Well, there is another sword in a stone at the ancient Montesiepi hermitage, near the Cistercian Abbey of San Galgano in Tuscany, Italy. And its legend is somehow a reversed version of the one we know.

Excalibur from the 1981 film Excalibur at the London Film Museum. Photo by Eduardo Otubo CC BY 2.0

Galgano Guidotti was a knight known for his selfishness and arrogance. Once, while in Montesiepi, he had a vision of the Archangel Michael who told Galgano to renounce material things — to which the knight replied that such a thing would be as impossible as splitting a rock with a sword.

Queen Morgana Loses Excalibur His Sheath by Howard Pyle (1903).

To prove his point, Galgano struck his sword in a rock, and to his great surprise, the legend says, the rock yielded like butter.

Although dating metal is a very difficult task, the sword in Montesiepi has been dated to the 12th century. To this day, the rock draws tourists and travelers to the ruins of the chapel built around it.

6 The Jesus Fish Is a Vagina

Apart from the cross, the most ubiquitous symbol of Christianity is the ichthys, known to us as the Jesus Fish, and today it appears predominantly in its natural habitat -- car bumpers. The ichthys actually dates right back to ancient times, when Christianity was still an obscure sect, and considering that fish and fishing were frequently used as symbols in the Bible, you could argue that it's a more appropriate symbol for the teachings of Christ than the device used to torture and kill him.

One of the names given to the pre-Jesus Jesus Fish is the vesica pisces (vessel of the fish), and it was used as a symbol of every female fertility god ever, from Atargatis (the Syrian fertility goddess), Aphrodite/Venus (the goddess of love and sex) to the pagan Great Mother goddess, where it symbolized her life-giving vulva. Basically, whenever you encountered an image of fish in the pre-Christian world, it was probably an opposite-of-subtle metaphor for lady parts.

5. The Ring Of Senicianus: Literary Inspiration

The Ring of Secinianus , 350-450 AD, in The Vyne Estate Museum, Hampshire, via National Trust Collections UK

Magic rings have a prominent place in folklore, legend, and fiction. Here is an example of a real ring believed to be cursed. The ring of Senicianus was an artifact discovered in 1785 by a farmer plowing the land, a few miles away from Silchester in Hampshire. As the years passed, the discovery fell into oblivion until said artifact came into the hands of British archaeologists.

This Roman ring is made of 12g gold and bears the Latin inscription “ Seniciane vivas in Deum .”

By 1929, new information brought relevance to the forgotten ring when a scholar was making an inventory of the artifacts under his charge, and by chance found some curious and sinister details. These data related the ring with the findings of an archaeological excavation.

These archaeological works were carried out in the early 1900s, just 80 miles away from where the ring was found, at a place called Lydney.

At the site, archaeologists found a tablet in which a Roman named Silvianus told Nodens, the Celtic God of healing and hunting , that his ring had been stolen. He also knew the person responsible for this act and asked the god to do justice. The inscribed curse stated: “May he who bears the name of Senicianus not have health until he brings the ring back to the temple of Nodens.”

As a side note, it is said that Tolkien found out about this case and investigated it, possibly using the cursed artifact as inspiration for his famous novels of The Lord of The Rings.

Clawson’s Curse, Providence, R.I.

Clawson’s Curse derives its name from events that happened in 1661 near the North Burying Ground in Providence, R.I. in a thicket of barberry bushes.

John Clawson and Benjamin Herendeen were among the original white settlers of Providence, called 25 acre men. In early 1661, a local Indian named Waumaion attacked Clawson. He split open Clawson’s chin and chest with a blow from his ax.

Clawson did not blame the attack on the Indian, but rather was convinced that Herendeen had put the man up to the attack with lies about Clawson.

Clawson would die of his wounds, but not before he supposedly placed an odd curse on the Herendeen clan. He wished that their faces would be marred with cleft chins and their lands overrun by barberry bushes.

Clawson was a hired servant to Roger Williams, and Williams oversaw the disposition of his estate following his death. Herendeen family genealogies, meanwhile, note that for several generations members of the family had pronounced cleft chins.

Watch the video: 8 Most Mysterious u0026 Dreadful Curses Ever