[Contents] [Index] [Home]

From Ovid's Ibis

What follows is an excerpt from, perhaps, the longest-recorded curse in history: Ibis. By way of introduction, I've included a passage from the section titled Preliminaries at the altar. It follows a section detailing Ibis's crime. After establishing preliminaries, the poet writes a Litany of Maledictions. This is the curse proper; it concludes with a benediction, called Amen ["so be it"]. Notice, therefore, that the structure of a poem that curses is identical (isomorphic or homologous) to the structure of a poem that blesses. Notice also, if you've spent any time at all in a church, synagogue, or mosque, you know this form.

From Preliminaries at the altar

Up to this time, when I have already completed fifty years, all the song of my Muse has been harmless; and not a letter of Naso, who wrote so many thousands, exists to be read that is stained with blood: nor have my writings hurt anyone save me, when his own Art proved the artist's bane. One man (and this is itself a mighty wrong) suffers not my title to innocence to endure.... I shall be thy devoted foe. Sooner shall moisture cease to be opposed to fire, and the sun's light be joined to the moon; the same part of heaven shall send forth western winds and eastern, and the warm south blow from the cold sky; spring shall mingle with autumn, summer with midwinter, and the same region be both evening and sunrise; sooner shall a strange concord unite the brothers' smoke, which ancient anger separates on the kindled pyre then the arms that we took up be laid aside, and between thee and me, shameless wretch, there be that friendship which thy crime sundered. That peace shall we enjoy, while life remains to me, which wolves are wont to keep with the defenceless flock. First will I join battle in the measure I have begun, although wars are not wont to be waged in this strain; and as the spear of the soldier who is not yet fired to battle first attacks the yellow, sandy soil, so will I not yet shoot at thee with sharpened steel, nor shall my javelin seek forthwith thy hateful life; and no name nor deeds shall I mention in this work, and I will suffer thee a short while to dissemble who thou are. Afterwards, if thou dost continue, my satire unrestrained shall hurl at thee missiles tinged by Lycambean blood.... So many (woe upon thee!) And such destructions shall come on thee, that I ween I too could be compelled to weep. Those tears will make me happy without end; that weeping will be sweeter to me than laughter.

From Litany of Maledictions

Thou wert born unfortunate (so willed the gods), no star was favourable or kindly at thy birth. Venus shone not, nor Jupiter in that hour, neither moon nor sun were fitly placed, nor did he whom shining Maia bore to mighty Jove set his fires in position to bring thee aught of profit. The savage star of Mars that promises naught peaceful bore thee down, and the star of the aged wielder of the scythe. Thy natal day too, that thou mightest see naught save gloom, was foul and black with pall of cloud. This is the day to which in our Annals deadly Allia gives her name, and the day which brought Ibis to birth, brought destruction to our people. So soon as, fallen from a mother's impure womb, his unclean body lay on the Cinyphian soil, a nocturnal owl sat over against him in tree-top, and uttered dismal sounds with death-fortelling mouth. Forthwith the Furies washed him in the waters of the mere, where flowed a channel from the Stygian stream, and anointed his breast with poison of a snake of Erebus, and thrice smote their blood-stained hands together. His infant throat had they moistened with bitches' milk: this was the first food to enter the child's mouth: thence drank the fosterling the madness of his nurse, and o'er the whole city his snarling voice is heard. They swathed his limbs in bands of dusky hue, snatched from a pyre abandoned as accursed; and lest it lie unpropped on the naked earth they set a flint-stone beneath his baby head....

And mayest thou send with thee to the pyre the bodies most dear to thee, and end of life that befell Sardanapalus. And like them who prepared to violate the shrine of Libyan Jove, may the sand driven by the South wind o'erwhelm thy face. And like those slain by the fraud of the second Darius, even so may the sinking ashes devour thy countenance. Or like him who once set forth from olive-bearing Sicyon, may cold and hunger be the cause of thy death. Or like the Atarnean, mayst thou, sewed in a bullock's hide, be basely carried as booty to thy lord. And mayest thou be murdered in thy chamber like him of Pherae, who was slain by the sword of his own spouse, and like Aleuas of Larissa mayst thou by thine own wound find faithless those whom thou thinkest faithful. And like Milo, under whose tyranny Pisa groaned mayst thou be hurled alive into hidden waters. And may the missiles sped by Jove against Adimantus, who lorded it over the Phyllesian kingdom, seek thee also. Or like Lenaeus faring once from Amastris' shores mayst thou be left destitute on Achillean soil. And as either Eurydamas was thrice dragged round Thrasyllus' tomb by Larissean wheels, or he who with his own body purified the walls, so soon to fall, which he had often saved, or as the adulterer was dragged, they say, o'er attic soil, while the daughter of Hipomenes suffered a new kind of doom, so, when the hated life has left thy limbs, may avenging steeds pull thy dishonoured corpse. In such wise may some rock pierce thy flesh, as the Greeks were pierced in the Euboean bay; and as the bold ravisher perished by thunderbolt and by sea, so may fire aid the waters that will drown thee. Mayst thou in mind to be as distraught and frenzy-driven as he who in his whole body has but one wound; or as the son of Dryas who held the realm of Rhodope, and wore unlike gear on his two feet; or the Oetean of old, or the son-in-law of serpents, or Tisamenus's sire, or Callirhoe's husband Nor may thy mother be more chaste than she for whom as his daughter-in-law Tydeus might have blushed: or as the Locrian who joined in love with her husband's brother, when she had been disguised in the person of her slaughtered handmaid. And so, Heaven grant, mayst thou find joy in the faithfulness of thy spouse, as did Talaus' or Tyndareus' son-in-law: or in such a spouse as the daughters of Belus, who dared to plan death for their own cousins, and whose necks are bowed with constant carrying of water. May thy sister burn, in its special way, with the fire of Byblis and of Canace, nor prove her love save by a crime. If thou hast a daughter, may she be what Pelopea was to Thyestes, Myrrha to her father and Nyctimene to hers....

Such ills shall befall thee whom my anger execrates with merited curses, or ills no less than these! Such a lot as was that of Achaemenides, when abandoned on Sicilian Etna he saw the Trojan sails approach: and that of Irus the double-named, and of them who haunt the bridge, shall be greater than thou canst hope for. May the son of Ceres be ever loved by thee in vain, and ever for all thy seeking fail thy fortune: and as when the wave by alternate ebbings glides away the soft sand is withdrawn from the foot's pressure, so in some subtle wise may thy fortune ever melt, and glide and flow away ever through thy hands. And like the sire of her who was wont to change from shape to shape though full mayst thou be wasted by inextinguishable hunger; nor mayst thou shrink from human flesh; but where thou art strongest thou shalt be the Tydeus of these days. And thou wilt do such a deed as shall make the horses of the Sun in terror dash from evening to the East again; thou shalt repeat the foul banquet of the Lycaonian board, and try to deceive Jove with counterfeited food; and I pray that someone may serve thee up and provoke the god to wrath, that thou mayst be Tantalus' son and the son of Teleus. And may thy limbs be so scattered o'er the broad fields as those which stayed a father's march. Mayst thou imitate real bullocks with the bronze of Perillus, whilst thy cries match the shape of the bull. And like fierce Phalaris, thy tongue first severed with the sword, mayst thou bellow like an ox imprisoned in Paphian bronze. And while thou wishest to return to years of lustier life, mayst thou be deceived like the aged father-in-law of Admetus. Or on horseback mayst thou be sunk in the midst of a morass of mud, so long as thy fate hath no renown. And wouldst that thou mightest perish like those sprung from the teeth that a Sidonian band scattered on Grecian fields....

[M]ay thy flesh too be torn by the horse's savage tooth....

[M]ayst thou be wounded and buried beneath high-piled earth....

[M]ayst thou fall by a heavenly avenger's fire....

[M]ay a lioness of thy land, lately delivered, meet thee in thy native fields and bring thee the death Phalaecus suffered. And may the boar that slew Lycurgus' son, and him that was born of a tree, and courageous Idmon, tear thee too asunder. And even dying may he wound thee, as him upon whom fell the head of the boar he had transfixed....

May the first night of wedlock be the last of thy life....

Or rent asunder mayst thou be strewn in the woods by thine own kin, as at Thebes he was strewn who was born of the serpent's son. And over wild mountains mayst thou be dragged by a tearing bull, as was dragged the imperious spouse of Lycus. And, what the unwilling rival of her own sister suffered, may thy tongue cut out fall before thy feet. And like the author of tardy Myrrha, whose surname wrought him harm, mayst thou be found in countless parts of the city. And may the craftsman bee, as he did to the Achaean seer, bury in thine eyes his noxious dart. And chained on the hard rocks mayst thou have thine entrails torn, as he whose brother's daughter Pyrrha was. Like the young son of Harpagus mayst thou recall the example of Thyestes, and carved in pieces enter thy father's bowels. Mayst thou have limbs maimed and parts mutilated by the savage sword, as they were those of Mamertas. Or as with the Syracusan bard whose throat was strangled, so may a noose stop the way of thy breath. Or may thy flesh be exposed by stripping off the skin, like him whose name a Phrygian river bears....

[M]ay Cretan honey choke thy breath....

[M]ay a thumb close the passage of thy voice....

[M]ayst thou be crushed small in a deep mortar, and thy pounded bones sound like the wonted grain.

[M]ay hurled weapons pierce thy vitals....

Receive this message meanwhile that my hasty volume brings, lest thou complain I have forgot thee. Brief is it, I confess; but may the gods give more than they are asked, and by their favour send my prayer manifold increase. Thou shalt read more anon, bearing thine own true name, and writ in a measure wherein bitter wars rightly should be waged.