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Dejan Ajdačić

Malediction in the Context of Oral Literature Genres

Malediction in the Context of Oral Literature Genres

Dejan Ajdačić

Malediction as an independent statement or a statement within other genres is uttered with the belief in the words' magic power to induce God, demon, fate or natural elements to visit evil on one [1]. Rare studies of malediction and its relation to other genres has been restricted to its role in epic poems and ballads, as well as prose and verbal genres. The meanings, functions, context and connotations of maledictive statements are interlaced in poly-genre texts at different hierarchical levels - with simple and complex genres. This paper will therefore first focus on malediction's relationship with other appellative genres and then show its incorporation in fictional-narrative genres.

Elements typical of types of appellative statements are: the relationship between the time of narration and the time dimension of the plot spoken of; the forwarder, ie, the recipient as an inhuman, human or super-human being; the individual or collective meaning of the message, the type of reasoning (mythical, magical, logical, aesthetic) and the way it is lingually shaped into a literal or figurative expression; the traits of context, the type of emotional attitude or need expressed.

In oral works, malediction is interwoven with other appellative genres depending on the correspondance of their elements with which they can be identical, similar, dissimilar or opposite. Genres, as systems of elements that make them up, are proportionally correspondent with the relationship between individual elements. In poly-genre texts, however, elements of the incorporated genres do not completely preserve the traits they possess as independent genres; they transform in manifold textual and contextual permeation.

CHARM and CURSE, genres similar in their invocations of a future action and type of emotional stand, differ in the indirect and direct sending of the message, in the demonic, ie, human recipient, in the way language forms the magic substance. In charms, secret words are spoken and mutually corresponding codes activated, evil forces are driven away to unclean places on the other side, while, in curses, everyday words are directed at a human, ill-fortune is of this world even when visited by a super-human force. The presence of charm elements in curses and maledictory elements in charms testifies of the interlacing of these two genres.

The interweaving of the CURSE and MOURNING can be found in laments in which the killers or traitors of the deceased relatives are cursed during mourning. Malediction and mourning, created in a concrete life situation by intervweaving two emotional states and expressions of them, express the ambivalence of sorrow and the wish for retaliation. The wife of Kulin-kapetan curses Serbian military leaders who defeated the Turkish army in the Battle on Mišar Plain,[2] her maledictive messages being simultaneously a lament for the killed Turkish leaders.

BLESSING, as an appellative genre which expresses most of life's values in wishes that they come true, and, the CURSE, which wards off their fulfilment by invoking the worst of misfortunes - may interweave only if they nullify each other (for example, a curse is nullified by a false curse-blessing and vice versa) or if one of these genres uses the other genre to intensify its own statement.

A false blessing contains formulas of good wishes for abundance; however, the illusion of blessing is revealed in the continuation of the statement which invokes evil:

May all trees grow in your garden
Most of all sloe! (Vuk V, 683)

Po dvoru ti svako drvo raslo
A najviše crna trnovina!

The introductory verse appears as an ironical announcement of the genuine wishes expressed in the second verse, so that the invoking of abundance appears as a malicious invoking of symbols of misfortune and waste. The duality of concealing and revealing the maledictive message expands the emotional and aesthetic aspect of the statement.

If a curse is nullified by a blessing, the blessing is formed like a false curse transforming fragments of maledictive motives. In dialogic lyric poems, the mother curses her daughter's beau and the daughter transforms the curses into a blessing and, similarly, the son transforms all the curses his mother invoked on his beloved into invocations of happiness and opulence. It is less frequent that the blessing is pronounced by the same character who had cursed - as in the poem about a lad whose girl curses him for picking basil and then nullifies the maledictive invocations with words of blessing. [3]

However, a curse and a blessing do not always nullify each other with the latter annulling all elements of the former. Some texts use the very contrast by changing the appellative genre in the closing statement after previously listing scenes of the invoked future. The initial wish, a curse of an abandoned young man, the best man at the wedding of his unfaithful girl - that she becomes a young widow - is followed by an indirect blessing that she return to him as his fated, pledged wife (suđenica, rečenica. [4]

In poems with false blessings, a series of good wishes is followed by one last wish which nullifies the previous good ones by invoking ill fate. The mother of a daughter cursing the baby brother she is rocking wishes her daughter to grow up to be beautiful and tall, to marry well, but, at the end, to have no children of her own. The image of an accomplished life transforms into an image of non-fulfilment and shame.

Toasting motives in toasts are followed by praise and blessing, which - as the expressions of good wishes and benevolent feelings towards the man who is toasted - represent a type of statement opposite to curses, this, however, does not represent an obstacle for their interlacing. In reconciling "irreconcilable" genres in poems of oral origin, it is necessary to build such an emotional and narrative situation in which toasting evil might be possible and convincing. In one ballad, the hero raises a "cup of sorrow" in a curse-toast, damning his sister for be-traying him in exchange for "white dresses" - if she has a son, may she not live to see him return from the army:

but live to see a good horse
a good, saddled horse
and a glove on its back full of blood,
sheathed in dark silk.

već čekala dobra konja,
dobra konja osedlana,
puna krvi nalivena,
mrkom svilom zapletena.

Raising a "cup of sorrow" (čašom jada) is associatively linked to the future death of the sister's still unborn son by a glove full of his blood, as an even more ominous cup which cannot be drunk off.

PRAISE and CURSE. In a curse underlining the particularity of a certain being, maledictive wishes are transformed by expressions: "Just look at her, may the wolves devour her" (Ja kakva je, izjeli je vuci), [6] which, expressing admiration in the genre sense actually represent praise. The curse then has a non-maledictive meaning and a function different from cursing. The commendatory function of a curse has arisen from the belief in the damned nature of special beauty and power when admiration replaced the hatred or fear of that particularity which must be punished.

REPROACH and CURSE. While reproach represents a judgment of another person's faults and regards the past and present tenses, the curse invokes evil to visit a person in the future. In the moral system of national culture, reproaching another person is, as a rule, condemned, except in the case of ritual reproaching. A girl of marrying age is particularly not to be reproached. In this very important moment of her life, when her wishes for starting her own family are socially supported, each ill rumour may cast ill fortune upon her marriage and the girl therefore has the right to curse her reproachers. By repeating the reproaches of her three reproachers, a girl transforms their judgments of her into curses of them. A certain similarity of negative emotional attitude is shared by both reproach and malediction, and it forms the basis of their genre correspondence and transformation, however, the different attitude towards the possible tragic reality - unexpressed in the reproach and underlined in the curse - makes them different. The transformation of the curse is directly conditioned by reproachful statements. [7] A song sung on the way to the groom's home and included in Vuk Karadžić's collection shows that a song about the curse of the reproachers aimed at discouraging possible reproaches had its place in the ritual course of a wedding feast in ancient times. [8] A curse can have the meaning and function of a reproach, if the invocation of evil is not followed by the wish that evil actually occurs.

OATH and CURSE. The effects of a curse can be conditioned by the persons" future behaviour, when the maledictive evil is activated if the damned person does or does not do what it had been cursed for. [9] By incorporating a curse in an oath, the person taking the oath expresses the need to insure himself against his own or collective evil, but also the suspicion in human weaknesses which might cause it.

If the curse dominates the oath, the conditional elements of the oath "ornamentally" expand the curse. A mother curses her daughter to have no children until she hears a fish sing and stone speak. Conditioning the end of the cursed destiny by events which cannot happen increases and confirms maledictive wishes. Presenting the impossible is based on anti-logical figurativeness and, as a motif of achieving the unachievable, can be found transformed in fairy tales and humorous stories.

INCREASING CURSES. The stringing of curses broadens the circle of objects cursed or the volume of evil invoked. A didactical curse at the end of a poem or story consciously transforms the individual destiny of the sinner into a fatal type and curses future sinners, warning them they will meet a destiny similar to the one described. Such a lesson is frequently based on the narrated text, transforming it into the context in which it is implied what sin and punishment the curse refers to.

The curse as a simple statement is directed at invoking an evil fate in one of life's segments (healthy fertility, wealth). There are, however, developed curses made up of a series of individual statements which add up to comprise a series of human needs and relationships. The aim of such a curse is to magically invoke misfortune, leaving not even one fragment of life in which the cursed person may find happiness. In maledictive destruction, ill wishes are directed at life, honour, health, offspring, respect, possessions, while, depending on the dramaturgy of their mutual links, they can be equal or graded from least to most important values. In the conditioned linking of curses, an avoided misfortune is annularly linked to invoking another, worse fate. In such linking, the gradation of misfortunes is crowned by the last curse, which is also the strongest one.

Mythical knowledge and magic experience in the segment of traditional culture regarding malediction as the cause or effect of a certain action is included in texts belonging to different genres as a text of pre-genre whose implied content is conveyed by poems, legends and stories.

The mother's curse quickly came true because a Juda (female demon in Bulgarian folklore) was sitting on her shoulder. People believe that the strongest curse is the one uttered by the groom's best man [10] - for he represents a powerful mediator between the living and the dead. [11] Poems also reflect the conviction that curses affect great sinners-seducers in their graves, thus expanding the power of the word to the world of the dead, with which only ritual communication is possible. [12] Mythical meaning frequently links the curse and punishment for violating the sacred time-space of demonic and chtonic beings. In a poem arising from the belief in obligatory conduct prescribed by the folk calendar, the mother first warns her daughter to respect the tabooed holi, [13] day, and when she does not despite the threats, the mother curses her and the daughter meets with an ill fate.

Magic experience and ritual meaning, which are not always necessarily always verbalized, are included in the text as part of the meaning. The magical in the curse is achieved through the verbal invoking of a divine power, through describing the course or outcome of destruction with the help of the magic power of certain words, and, sometimes, through actions accompanying the curse (kneeling, taking off one's hat, collective stoning, the mother showing her breasts while uttering her oath).

The linking and mutual intensification of verbal and non-verbal magic can be found in poems in which a deceived girl vengefully curses her unfaithful boyfriend and gives his other herbs or maple branch which will prove fatal to the groom and bride. [14] In a slightly different version, the girl curses the young man who had left her, but undertakes magic actions to free her-self of her love for him. [15] The curses of deceived lovers are also accompanied by other actions of love magic - for example, the girl sprinkling the deceitful lover with a handkerchief soaked with her tears. [16]

The magical is present in the ritual renewal of sacred time-space - both in the language of gestures and in the verbal statement. In those processions in which the passing of procession groups is banned, the curse represents a verbal introduction to the mutual destruction of the groups - as in the case of the Lazaricas (songs sung on the eve of Palm Sunday). [17] The obligation to destroy the rival group testifies of traces of the "mimetic crises" revived by the processions. Another type of curse in a procession (of Koledari, young men singing ritual folk songs on Christmas Eve, for instance [18]) is made by the participants in the procession who have not received gifts or offers from the host they are visiting.

In narrative genres, the curse, as the beginning or end of a certain action, with different comprehensions of how much is due to character or destiny, to super-human or human forces, fits into the ethic story of sin and punishment.

Not one text with the motif of curse comprises all elements of malediction, because some of these elements appear less frequently than others, while others nullify each other as they are not correspondent. The listing of these elements - the announcement of sin, warning, sinning, uttering the curse, uttering a curse in return, the attempt to avoid the curse, the fulfilment of the curse, the lesson drawn from it - does not illustrate the "ideal", the "complete" version, but it does draw attention to the situations which can be presented in a text. Some of them appear relatively rarely (the attempt to avoid the curse, the non-fulfilment of the maledictive invocations).

A poem may begin with a curse, with the "inversive insertion of a curse", [19] as Hatidža Krnjević writes a propos of ballads, with the curse being a an presage of the ill fate awaiting the hero. The psychological motivation of the relationship between the characters at the beginning of the poem is sometimes determined by the disproportion between the curse and the sin (the mother curses her daughter for using too much gold for her embroidery), which on the ethic level poses the question of the justifiability of hubris, while on the aesthetic level, renders it difficult for the narrator to convincingly depict the characters and their suffering.

The curse primarily fulfils the social function of restoring social order and the psychological function, most often of the endangered individual's satisfaction of justice or revenge. In narrative genres, the curse fits in the plot as a verbal-magical attempt to restore order or amend injustice by establishing a connection between the sin and the punishment inflicted by a divine power. The curse also renders the act of punishment both possible and necessary. In different narrative genres, however, the different stresses and denotations of the dramaturgy of the sacred and the profane achieve differently shaped sin-curse-punishment chain.

In etiologic legends and poems, the curse of the Virgin Mary or saints can only conditionally be called a curse, because their words are not an invocation but merely the fulfilment of an intention to punish a lesser being for a good reason or for no reason at all. In these texts, the mythic-magical knowledge of the creation of certain plants, animals and phenomena is accompanied by the ethical evaluation of their gestures. Lazar's curse transforms his wailing sister into a cuckoo. A daughter, cursed by her mother because she hit her brother, is also turned into a cuckoo. [20] The people who slandered Gregory Blagoslov are cursed by him and become a nation of wandering Gypsies. St. Nedelja cursed oat flour not to be brought into church after it failed to pay reverence to her. [21] With the magic power of words, St. George or Elias determine the ill fates of oats, maple and privet. [22]

Cursing vegetation is linked to the apocryphal motifs and transformed pagan beliefs [23] - with the reason and manner of cursing applying to different characters, as Cvetana Vranska noted. [24] The Virgin Mary curses an aspen because it did not trembling when angels and saints sang. [25] St. John curses it also because it did not become still when Christ was being baptised. [26] The Virgin Mary curses the aspen for not hiding her when she was fleeing with Christy while a man curses the willow for hiding the devil and the stolen child and blesses the olive-tree. [27]

The super-natural power of words is explicit also in the process of the final shaping of a still incompletely created world. In her book about legends, Albena Georgieva writes of a border, a recurrent point in the passage from "the past" to "the present", from the legendary past to presence. [28] The curse, as one of the ways to achieve the miraculous transformation-creation, is more emphatically linked to the moralistic condemnation of deeds deserving punishment. It represents pre-powers in the pre-state of the sacred, from which the everyday world arises.

Biblical apocryphal etiologic legends frequently contain a dual structure, which arises from the dualistic nature of moralistic poles (helping-not helping, justice-injustice, temptation - unsuccessful temptation). The male sex is blessed and the female cursed in a story about the blessing of their crafts, plowing and weaving, since man had admitted and the woman renounced the supernatural beings' help in mastering their skills. [29]

In lyric poems and ballads, focusing on the family and relationships within it, the curse appears in times of need to restore moral order. The state of chaos ends with the punishment inflicted on the sinner by a divine power, by the maledictively invoked action of the divine power and human punishment. The curse of the endangered individual sets a divine power in motion in most versions of incest, deceived girlfriend, in some versions of poems about abandoned mothers, betrayed brothers or sons. There is no malediction in some versions of these poems and order is restored by a divine power or human punishment, but such versions are in the minority.

On the other hand, there are poems in which the victims utter the curse - poems, in which the curse is not an ensconced part of the plot because the punishment is not inflicted by a divine power but by man himself, e.g. a betrayed or deceived husband can and is even obliged to punish his unfaithful love, a child can curse its step-mother, although, in folklore, children rarely curse. There are also versions including malediction and invocation of punishment in poems in which the victim kills himself or endures misfortunes without wishing for justice and revenge, as in ballads about forbidden love.

Sin, punishment and absolution are linked to the comprehension of justice in keeping with the collective's spiritual tradition and the feeling of necessity of revenge or just compensation, not only for good but for evil as well. Treachery, deceit, disobedience, cruelty, vanity as weaknesses causing suffering or the enraged right to strike back arise as a possibility for execrating in both the psychological and ritual spheres. This possibility is elaborated in narrative texts through conventional versions, but, in the traditional shaping of the text, the narrator has a choice of how to develop and end the situation in a way at least slightly different from the traditional viewpoints in oral works.

HISTORICAL CONNOTATION. In poems and stories evoking historical reality, the relationship between sin, guilt and punishment is subjected to evaluation which does not forgive treason, disloyalty and cowardice. Although curses cannot precipitate historical events, they, as an element of the subsequent interpretation of the unfortunate past, can present the moral and political weaknesses in a struggle between power-wielders which had to cause the fall of nations and states. Historical memory as knowledge of what had happened represents a necessary framework in which the causes of collective defeats are reassessed in view of the leaders' sins or curses invoked upon them. The reasons for the fall of the Serbian mediaeval state are much more complex than is described by oral legends, which say Christianity was defeated because St. John cursed King Dušan's lords for setting children on fire. [30] The fall of the Bulgarian state is the consequence of a curse uttered after the Bulgarian lords entered a church on horseback. [31]

In Vuk Karadžić's poem Uroš and Mrnjavčevići, Vukašin, unable to kill his son who had not ceded the empire to him because the angels had protected him, curses Marko Kraljević and the emperor blesses Marko - and as a "subsequent prophecy", [32] which is already adapted in the curses to be magically effective and historically true in its alleged future, comes true completely. [33] In Bulgarian poems, the grave of Marko Kraljević is unknown because he was cursed by a young hero whom he had deceived. Folk poems interpret the Kosovo defeat (Turks overpowered the Christian army at Kosovo in 1389), which history does not explain as treachery before or during the battle, in the light of Vuk Branković's treason. [35] The poem explains the purge of the Branković family also by a malediction which Maksim Grgurević uttered on Jerina, the wife of Despot Djuradj, for letting her daughter marry into the Otmanović family. [36]

As opposed to the fundamental reassessment of history itself, history also appears as a setting in texts in which only a few of the elements are historical. In some poems, Ivo Karlović is presented as a seducer cursed by maidens, but the historicity of his character is not significant within the framework of a non-historical plot.

The malediction's association or interweaving with similar appellative genres additionally qualifies the situation in which it has been uttered, the stand and the very statement about it, while the contrasting genres transform themselves, nullifying one of the genres. Within narrative genres, malediction fulfils mythic-magical, ethical or historical functions. The great diversity of curses, as well as the diversity of ways they are ingrained in folklore, renders the research of malediction in the system of oral literature genres open to the intensification of particular and general patterns of genre transformations.


  1. Stoilov 1896; Hadžov 1906/7; Marinov 1914; Prodanović 1932; Bovan 1978; Georgieva 1982: Trebješanin 1987; Popova 1987; Bogdanović 1988; Vujović 1988; Piličkova 1989; Kitevski 1991; Nedin 1991.
  2. Vuk IV 30, see Novak Kilibarda, "Višnjićeva pjesma Boj na Mišaru", Legenda i poezija, Belgrade 1976, page 73-77
  3. Verković L 121
  4. Begović 119 (in a week), Debeljković 80 (in two days, in a week, in a month), Mihailov 86 (in a year), Pirinski krai I 695 (in a year).
  5. M. Obradović, Bosanska vila I (1886) 19, page 303, see Hatidža Krnjević Usmene balade Bosne i Hercegovine, Sarajevo, page 190. Versions not linked to Deli vida: Garonja, 69; Prodanović (anthology) page 201, sister's curse on the brother who sold her.
  6. Prodanović, ibid, page 192
  7. Rajković 112, 113; Garonja, 42; Blažinčić, page 62 - the suitors themselves are reproachers which raises the question of mechanical transfer - the reproach that the girl comes from an evil family is inappropriate since they could have known that before they set out.
  8. Vuk Karadžić I, 64
  9. Prodanović, ibidem, page 197 and on; Kitevski, ibidem, page 125, 163.
  10. The curses uttered by the best man of the deceived youth: Erl 160, MH VI 26 (Hvar), Delorko (Hvar) 95, Begović 119, Debeljković 80, S. Kostić 45, Miladinovci 233, Šapkarev 640, Mihailov 86, Crnušanov 200.
  11. Veselin Čajkanović, "Kumstvo u kapi", Mit i religija u Srba, Belgrade, 1973, page 154-168
  12. ZNŽ 4 page 156.
  13. Verković 21.
  14. Delorko (Hvar) 268, MH V 56.
  15. MH V 60
  16. Pirinski krai I 594, 595; same I 686 carves a heart from an apple.
  17. Zlatanović, p. 394
  18. Perić Polonijo 1985, p. 382
  19. Krnjević, op. cit., p. 102
  20. Verković 129
  21. Iliev 261
  22. Vranska 1940, p. 136
  23. Veselovski VI-X: 245; Potebnja: 767-769; Hadžov 1906: 365-7; Vranska 1940: 135-145; Đorđević 1958, I: 130-132; Bošković-Stulli 1978: 76-77; Dobrev 1982: 184-185 (po I. Nedinu); Georgieva 1983: 39; Nikolić 1991
  24. Vranska 1940, p. 140
  25. Vuk I 197, LMS 1, Vrčević (Pomanje), p. 10, Karadžić 1900, p. 149, SEZ 7, p. 271-272, Nikolić 4
  26. Iliev 117, SEZ 16, p. 114
  27. Čajkanović 167, 19
  28. Georgieva 1990, p. 59
  29. Čajkanović (1929) 155, Đorđević (Leskovac) 115; Narodna umjetnost 5-6, p. 372
  30. Čajkanović, 138, 15. St. Nicholas and St. Elias partly as-suage St. John's curse
  31. Hadžov, op. cit, p. 363
  32. Banašević 1935, p. 19
  33. Vuk II 34, Milutinović 69 - Both Vukašin's and Marko's curses come true; see also Petranović I 17
  34. Hadžov, op. cit., p. 357
  35. Vuk II 80


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Vrčević (Pomanje) -Vuk Vrčević: Pomanje srpske narodne svečanosti uz mimogredne narodne običaje, Pančevo, 1988.
Vuk = Karadžić, Vuk Stefanović: Srpske narodne pjesme, 1-5, Beograd, 1891-1898.

На Растку објављено: 2007-03-15
Датум последње измене: 2019-03-20 08:49:40