We’ve all cursed someone. Thankfully, though, when we curse someone it is usually more of a metaphorical idea— “curse” is a euphemism for “cussing them out” or swearing at them. Our non-literal curses, then, are verbal hostility. But, this was not always the case. And in the case of Harry Potter, we see this exception to the rule take on interesting forms.
Enter: Curse Tablets.
Historically, harmful magic, or “maleficium”, has been the primary component of witchcraft. Such magic intended harm to the subject and so was usually outlawed or at the least socially stigmatized. “In Roman times” as Brian P. Levack explains, “one form that such curses took was their inscription upon leaden tablets” (14). Even though the surface was not always lead (as Daniel Ogden explains of Ancient Egyptian curse tablets made of papyrus, 11), during the Imperial time, tablets were used heavily, likely due to lead’s poisonous quality (12). A witch, then, once selecting their surface would write the victim’s name of the tablet or surface. As Ogden writes
No doubt to know and use a victim’s name was itself to exercise power over him, the name probably being seen in some way as an embodiment of the victim. Their use should perhaps be seen as an instance of pars pro toto (‘part for the whole’ or ‘synecdochic’) magic. This basic type of tablet decreases in frequency until it disappears entirely in the first century AD (6).
Thus, we have learned that ancient witches used various writing surfaces—lead but also paper-like substances; in addition, in fact, to a wide range of additional surfaces such as Iron, Silver and even Gold—to cast their spells, magic enacted by “a nail or sharp object. . . driven into the tablet, often through the name of the intended victim” (Levack 14). And thus, a spell was supposedly cast.
So, what does this have to do with the Boy Who Lived?
It is true that not many examples of curse tablets exist in Harry Potter. But, one very obvious potentiality stands out. In the Goblet of Fire, how else can we describe Harry’s entry into the Tri-Wizard Tournament except via recourse to curse tablets?
This requires some explanation. Some things in the world of Harry Potter are different than in the real world, obviously: (1) students willingly write their names on assorted surfaces; (2) These surfaces are usually on “a slip of parchment” (Rowling 255), as Dumbledore explains; (3) Harry lives in our time so if this is an instance of curse tablets being utilized, then it is far outside of the ancient period where such curses were widely used; and, finally, (4) no sharp object appears to destroy the surface. Despite all of these differences, though, I will still argue that Harry’s name is close to an instance of curse tablets being reprised as an instance of subtle, hostile magic.
Addressing each point above: (1) Hogwarts students may, in fact, write their names on a slip of parchment willingly, but Harry’s entry to the tournament is not willingly. A Death Eater writes his name and places it into the cup against Harry’s will with the express intent to cause him harm; (2) Though in the case of Harry Potter, parchment is used, we must think back to Ogden’s explanation of ancient Egyptian curse tablets; such tablets were made from papyrus, a paper-like substance. Because of this, I feel confident in maintaining that a slip of parchment could easily be used in place of a leaden tablet; (3) It is an inescapable fact that Harry’s struggle against Voldemort takes place well outside of the first century. This raises the question of why curse tablet magic would be used at all, if this is such an instance. My answer is this: precisely because of its age, curse tablet magic has been used. The Death Eater who cursed Harry would not be able to directly use harmful magic on him as it would increase his odds of being revealed as an imposter. So, he would need subtlety. Hence, an antiquated form of cursing—curse tablets—would make the perfect fit; (4) lastly, yes, no sharp object is used to pierce Harry’s name but this is largely semantical. After all, Harry’s name is thrown into a fire. A magical fire at that! Considering the long tradition fire holds in historical witchcraft, and the likely hood of historical witches possibly using fire as a method of cursing when sharp objects were not available, I think this small change does not in any way diminish the symbolic damage done to Harry’s name.
There you have it—an instance of historical witchcraft being utilized in Harry Potter and curse tablet no less! Now you know what curse tablets are and how flexible they have historically been used. Plus, you now know how Rowling was possibly inspired to use such tablets as an example of worldbuilding in her magical universe. Agree or disagree, though, the parallels between history and Harry Potter are fascinating.
The Witchcraft Sourcebook. Ed. Brian P. Levack. Routledge, 2004.
Rowling, J.K. Harry Potter and the Goblet of Fire. Scholastic, 2000.