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December 21, 2015

Holiday hex: A winter solstice primer

To curse or not to curse, that is the question.

Well, it’s certainly nobler not to go around hurling incantations at people who have displeased you, and the majority of contemporary Wiccans would say that they disapprove of casting curses.

But probe a little more deeply into the history of magic – whether we’re talking about Medieval herbalists or New Orleans voodoo practitioners – and you’ll find a rather different story. To our ancestors, cursing and hexing would have been an entirely normal part of magical practice. In Roman times, we know from the number of lead curses thrown into holy waters that cursing people was commonplace: similarly, the Egyptians, Greeks, and Europeans also had an extensive armory of aggressive magical techniques at their disposal. The gods were regularly petitioned to work harm on one’s enemies. In Britain, the work of the cunning man or woman was not exclusively a healing work, as many of the exhibits in places such as the Boscastle Museum of Witchcraft show.

Cursing, therefore, has been a part of magical practice for centuries and it is really only with the emergence of modern Wicca that we have a magical system which does not approve of the more negative arts.

With the winter solstice upon us, here’s a look into the world of Wicca, including a few handy tips on how to hex those on your naughty list.


The father of modern Wicca, Gerald Gardner, wrote a version of the Threefold Law into his practices. This suggests that if you do someone harm, it will come back on you threefold. There is some truth in this: an inevitable social dynamic is that if you routinely put out harm against other people, sooner or later, you will get your comeuppance. But the difficulty with the Threefold Law is that it is often clearly not in operation, and it tends to hamstring Wiccans, who are terrified of acting in their own defense in case they lay themselves open to some terrible retribution. Those who work within modern traditions which do use cursing (such as voodoo) say what our ancestors might have said: that if you can’t curse, you can’t heal. You need to be able to work magically in a balanced way; you need to be able to work "with both hands."

This does not mean that you are obliged to go forth and hex all and sundry. Unless you are planning to be an occult "gun for hire," there’s usually no need to employ this kind of magic in an aggressive, rather than a defensive, capacity and it is wiser not to do so. But if you are attacked, you have a right to defend yourself, your family and your home, and here magic can play a role.


There are a variety of ways in which you can turn someone’s actions upon them. You can perform a spell, or you can petition a deity to work on your behalf.

Deities such as Sekhmet or Hekate, who were accustomed for years to hear the prayers of those afflicted by their enemies, are particularly helpful in this regard. Angels and saints – rather obviously – don’t tend to work well in this respect, although there are a few Hoodoo saints, such as St. Expedite, who will curse people for you (for instance, the New Orleans story of a woman who called urgently upon St. Expedite when her house was burgled, only to see the burglar immediately felled by a flying piece of two-by-four wood). The voodoo lwa will work curses, and so will most of the Celtic and Norse deities – being of a tribal and somewhat belligerent disposition.

You can, of course, just do it yourself: a creative and original approach is often best. I know someone who, on the way to his divorce hearing, saw a Monopoly set in a charity shop for £1, and bought it, then used the little symbols to curse his ex-wife. He asked that no hat should ever fit her, that her shoes should pinch her feet, that she would develop a drinking problem, and so on.


More conventional methods include binding: this is not precisely a curse, but the aim is to prevent the person from doing further harm. For instance, you could write the name of your enemy on a piece of parchment and tie it with red thread. Then put it in a bottle, fill the bottle with water and put it in the freezer. This will "freeze" the person’s actions and ensure that they do you no more damage.


Another traditional form of cursing, and a concept with which most people are familiar, is the use of a poppet, or voodoo doll. (These can also be used for healing). They are a representation of a person – a small doll which, ideally, contains some organic remnant of the target (hair, nails etc). Once this has been made, pins can be stuck into the doll, usually in an area in which the curser would like their target to be afflicted, such as the head. The use of poppets dates back to Egyptian and Roman times, in which this was a popular form of magic, and such figures were often depicted bound or constrained in some way (e.g. with their arms tied behind their backs).


It’s best to settle your differences in non-magical ways: through negotiation and the law. But if these fail you, then other methods are available – if you choose to risk them.

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Liz Williams, author of "Snake Agent" and the rest of the wonderfully imaginative "Detective Inspector Chen" series, about a Singaporean policeman, is also the co-owner, with her husband, of Cat & Cauldron, a witchcraft shop in the centuries-old, legend-rich town of Glastonbury, England. Aside from offering supplies from crystals to candles, the shop also provides services such as hand-fasting (pagan wedding planning) and even spell-casting.

This story was originally featured on The Lineup is the premier digital destination for fans of true crime, horror, the mysterious, and the paranormal.