In its most basic form, a curse is simply an invocation or magic spell placed upon people with the obvious intention of harming them, and are reputed to be the most dreaded form of magic.
The curse itself is simply the expression of desire to cause harm to a particular person, and purportedly anyone can lay such a curse; but tribal belief insists that the greater the authority of the person who lays the curse, the greater the danger, hence the supremacy of such entities as priests, priestesses, royalty, or persons who have no other recourse to justice, such as the poor or destitute and — particularly — the dying (deathbed curses are said to be the most potent, as all the curser’s vital energy goes into the curse).
Curses were a feature of ancient cultures, perhaps as a way to explain and even justify manifest injustices; when suffered by blameless persons it seemed easier to attribute it to some ancestral malediction — a variant of the concept of original sin.
Lack of tangible results does not seem to have reduced belief in such superstition, as witness the fact that the evil eye still has its adherents. Most intriguingly, according to tradition the most propitious time for laying on or breaking curses is during the waning of the moon. However, to particularise curses is, in a sense, to rob them of their power, for the tendency to avenge oneself for a presumed wrong is universal, and the casting of the curse — in effect revenge without the physicality or criminality of the act — is a universal fantasy like unlimited wealth or invisibility.
As expected, curses have a literary pedigree; The Old Testament is a virtual litany of curses, and Plato mentions them in the Republic: “If anyone wishes to injure an enemy; for a small fee they [i.e., sorcerers] will bring harm on good or bad alike, binding the gods to serve their purposes by spells and curses.” Various masterworks of literature contain curses of one variety or another.
Samuel Taylor Coleridge’s poem ‘The Rime of the Ancient Mariner’ (in Lyrical Ballads, 1798) is perhaps the most distinguished of these. An aged sailor detains a wedding guest to tell his story of how he left home and sailed southward to the equator, only to encounter a storm. When an albatross flew overhead, the crew welcomed it as a good omen and made a pet of it. But one day the Mariner killed the albatross with his crossbow, and the sailors knew that bad luck would surely follow.
The ship drifted toward the equator, where it lay becalmed for days. The sailors, blaming the Mariner, hung the dead albatross around his neck, a symbol of his crime. A skeleton ship approached; on the deck Death and Life-in-Death were casting dice, and when Death won the two hundred crew members dropped dead. Life-in-Death had won the Mariner; he was cursed with immortality. But one night, observing the beauty of water snakes, the Mariner blessed them in his heart, and the spell was broken. The albatross fell from his neck, though he remained cursed, compelled to continue on and on, recounting his story.
Improbable as it now seems, the poem was poorly received upon its initial publication: Coleridge’s friend, the poet Southey, in the ‘Critical Review for October 1798’ opined: “Genius has here been employed in producing a poem of little merit.” Even Wordsworth was dismissive, commenting that “the Author was himself very desirous that it should be suppressed. This wish had arisen from a consciousness of the defects of the poem, and from a knowledge that many persons had been much displeased with it” (cited in Lefebure, 326).
These opinions have of course been superseded by time: today it is recognized as Coleridge’s finest poem. The inspiration arose from a dream: a friend of the poet’s recounted a dream he had experienced of a skeleton craft worked by a ghostly crew. Wordsworth supplied a few lines and suggested an albatross as the victim of the Mariner’s crime.
Coleridge had never been to sea, but had read accounts of voyages around Cape Horn and elsewhere; this accounts for the sharpness of the prosaic details, which are prominent in the poem’s detail: the warping of the ship’s deck in the calm, the thin, sere sails. It is only when the Mariner shoots the albatross that we enter the domain of the supernatural, and from there the Mariner suffers the agonies of the damned, including an intolerable thirst, and the experience of death-in-life.
Critical exegesis has been the fate of the poem since its initial publication; Coleridge himself complained that it was not properly understood. It would be presumptuous to “explain” such a masterwork, but the most plausible interpretation to modern ears is that Coleridge, like many of the Romantics, was attracted to Neoplatonism, which evinced a reverence for all living things; thus, he believed, with other Romantics, that humans were united with all living things.
This interpretation, while eminently satisfactory on many levels, hardly accounts for the stature of the poem, or the richness of its metaphoric properties. Appropriately, the Mariner became a symbol of the eternally cursed and tragic figure, and the albatross the metaphorical weight such a figure must carry.
In Charles Robert Maturin’s masterpiece and perhaps the high-water mark of the Gothic novel, ‘Melmoth the Wanderer’ (1820), the curse of eternal damnation hangs over Melmoth. A scholar who has made a contract with the Devil for his soul in exchange for longevity and power, Melmoth becomes a world-weary wanderer, seeking a victim who will take the burden from him.
George Saintsbury in the ‘Cambridge History of English Literature’ (1907– 1921) admitted the book’s flaws: “A worse constructed book hardly exists: for it is a perfect tangle of stories within stories.” Lovecraft, a more sympathetic critic, noted that “the framework of the story is very clumsy; involving tedious length, digressive episodes, narratives within narratives, and labored dovetailing and coincidence”; nevertheless, he allowed that “there is felt a pulse of power undiscoverable in any previous work of this kind” and felt that the work represented “an enormous stride in the evolution of the horror-tale” (31). And William F. Axton averred that “[w]hile Melmoth embraces all the conventional machinery of Gothic romance, it is lifted above the artistic level of the blood-and-thunder school by its compelling statement of the grand theme of perverted faith that so haunted Maturin’s imagination in the last years of his life” (xiv).
Despite its manifest faults, ‘Melmoth the Wanderer’ is at once the apotheosis, and the culmination of the Gothic novel and Melmoth himself remains the virtual definition of the Gothic hero-villain.
Likewise, ‘The Wandering Jew’ is a mythic figure that serves as the embodiment of a curse. The Jew, also known as Ahasverus or Buttadaeus, was cursed with immortality by Jesus Christ: as Christ was carrying his cross from Pilate’s hall to his place of crucifixion, Ahasverus, a porter in Pilate’s Service, struck and mocked Christ for walking slowly. Christ, in return, told him to wait for his return — in short, the Second Coming. (In other versions Ahasverus is an officer of the Sanhedrim; in others, he is merely a shoemaker with a short temper.) It would require a sensational novel to accord the Wandering Jew literary myth-status.
In Eugene Sue’s novel ‘The Wandering Jew’ (Le Jaif errant, 1844–1845) the Jew is sentenced to eternal damnation and causes an outbreak of cholera to erupt wherever he walks. This endlessly digressive novel, though popular enough in its day, has few adherents now; nonetheless, the Wandering Jew subtheme has proved an especially durable one, culminating in variations such as Bernard Capes’s ‘The Accursed Cordonnier’ (1902), in which the Jew renews his youth every century, and is a form of the Antichrist.
In Christopher Blayre’s ‘The Man Who Killed the Jew’ (1932), he manages to find eternal rest at the hands of a quack doctor. The notorious pro-Nazi author George Sylvester Viereck and Paul Eldridge collaborated on two novels, the first being ‘My First Two Thousand Years: The Autobiography of the Wandering Jew’ (1928) with, as E. F. Bleiler notes, “a libidinized version of the fantasy theme of lion-hunting via immortality.” Their second volume, Salome, the ‘Wandering Jewess’ (1930), is simply a female version of the Wandering Jew.
Humorous variations on the Wandering Jew crop up occasionally; Robert Bloch’s ‘The Traveling Salesman’ (Playboy, February 1957) is probably the most amusing of these: a lament for the travelling salesman of all the ribald jokes who laments the weight of his briefcase, which contains bricks, since the travelling salesman of all those jokes never sells anything!
Mary Elizabeth Counselman’s ‘A Handful of Silver’ (1967), in which the Wandering Jew turns up at Joe’s Bar, unable to pass on his thirty silver coins, signalling that the Wandering Jew cannot rest — even the grave has rejected him. The story is an amusing concoction, even if, as E. F. Bleiler points out, Counselman has confused the legend of the Wandering Jew with that of Judas. But it was left to John Blackburn, who rather specialized in updating classical legends and half-truths to give us seemingly the last word on the Wandering Jew — ‘Devil Daddy’ (1972) shares with his other works a fascination with the retelling of ancient myth.
Finally, though but dimly remembered today, Frederick Marryat’s novel ‘The Phantom Ship’ (Henry Colburn, 1839) was influential in its day. The story of Philip Vanderdecker, who discovers that his father is the ‘Flying Dutchman’, is endlessly digressive and all but unreadable. As with the ‘Wandering Jew’, the concept of the ship fated to sail forever is the stuff of myth; but cut loose from its textual moorings, it is also remote and unpersuasive.