Did you hear about the Catholic school that banned Harry Potter because it has curses in it?
These books present magic as both good and evil, which is not true, but in fact a clever deception. The curses and spells used in the books are actual curses and spells; which when read by a human being risk conjuring evil spirits into the presence of the person reading the text.
Huh. Look, millions of children around the world have read the Harry Potter books. I’m fairly sure that essentially 100% of those children have tried out spells like “wingardium leviosa.” How sweet would it be to make something float? If spells like this one actually worked, we would know.
Of course, the school’s claim isn’t necessarily that these spells work (although the use of the word “actual” suggests as much), but rather that they risk conjuring evil spirits. The most charitable reading of the school’s concern (albeit one that ignores the word “actual” as applied to the spells and curses) is that they believe that attempting to carry out a spell or curse will bring on evil spirits.
I’m not entirely sure how you’d test that, as evil spirits tend not to make themselves manifest. But I want to bring up something else entirely: the Bible. Did you know that the Bible is full of curses and spells?
Have a look at the passages discussed in this blog post, for instance:
Paul and Barnabas have traveled to Cyprus and meet the proconsul of Paphas who is accompanied by “a certain magician, a Jewish false prophet, named Bar-Jesus” [also known as Elymas] (13:6). When Elymas tries to prevent Paul and Barnabas from speaking to the proconsul about Jesus, Paul curses him: “You son of the devil, you enemy of all righteousness, full of all deceit and villainy, will you not stop making crooked the straight paths of the Lord? And now listen—the hand of the Lord is against you, and you will be blind for a while, unable to see the sun” (13:10–11). And, as one might expect, Elymas is blinded.
There’s also the story of Ananias and Saphira, in which each are struck dead when they lie to Peter about their tithes. Did Paul curse them? Even if Ananias was struck dead without Peter’s knowledge, Peter knew what would happen when he called Saphira before him and asked her the same financial question.
The story is a frightening warning to those who dare to cheat or lie to the community. Readers of the text, or hearers of the tale, would feel some hesitation in doing the same. They may also have felt that the successors of Peter would have the same ability to curse those who disobey the church’s commands and justifiably worry if they are called before their superiors.
Jesus curses a fig tree in Matthew chapter 11:
The next day as they were leaving Bethany, Jesus was hungry. Seeing in the distance a fig tree in leaf, he went to find out if it had any fruit. When he reached it, he found nothing but leaves, because it was not the season for figs. Then he said to the tree, “May no one ever eat fruit from you again.” And his disciples heard him say it.
In the morning, as they went along, they saw the fig tree withered from the roots. Peter remembered and said to Jesus, “Rabbi, look! The fig tree you cursed has withered!”
And then there’s 2 Kings 2:23-24:
From there Elisha went up to Bethel. As he was walking along the road, some boys came out of the town and jeered at him. “Get out of here, baldy!” they said. “Get out of here, baldy!” He turned around, looked at them and called down a curse on them in the name of the Lord. Then two bears came out of the woods and mauled forty-two of the boys.
True, this passage does not include the words of the curse Elisha made, so the reader can’t attempt to replicate it. But have a look at Numbers 5:11-31:
Then the Lord said to Moses, “Speak to the Israelites and say to them: ‘If a man’s wife goes astray and is unfaithful to him so that another man has sexual relations with her, and this is hidden from her husband and her impurity is undetected (since there is no witness against her and she has not been caught in the act), and if feelings of jealousy come over her husband and he suspects his wife and she is impure—or if he is jealous and suspects her even though she is not impure— then he is to take his wife to the priest. He must also take an offering of a tenth of an ephah of barley flour on her behalf. He must not pour olive oil on it or put incense on it, because it is a grain offering for jealousy, a reminder-offeringto draw attention to wrongdoing.“‘The priest shall bring her and have her stand before the Lord. Then he shall take some holy water in a clay jar and put some dust from the tabernacle floor into the water. After the priest has had the woman stand before the Lord, he shall loosen her hair and place in her hands the reminder-offering, the grain offering for jealousy, while he himself holds the bitter water that brings a curse. Then the priest shall put the woman under oath and say to her, “If no other man has had sexual relations with you and you have not gone astray and become impure while married to your husband, may this bitter water that brings a curse not harm you. But if you have gone astray while married to your husband and you have made yourself impure by having sexual relations with a man other than your husband”— here the priest is to put the woman under this curse—“may the Lord cause you to become a curse among your people when he makes your womb miscarry and your abdomen swell. May this water that brings a curse enter your body so that your abdomen swells or your womb miscarries.”
“‘Then the woman is to say, “Amen. So be it.”
“‘The priest is to write these curses on a scroll and then wash them off into the bitter water. He shall make the woman drink the bitter water that brings a curse, and this water that brings a curse and causes bitter suffering will enter her. The priest is to take from her hands the grain offering for jealousy, wave it before the Lord and bring it to the altar. The priest is then to take a handful of the grain offering as a memorial offering and burn it on the altar; after that, he is to have the woman drink the water. If she has made herself impure and been unfaithful to her husband, this will be the result: When she is made to drink the water that brings a curse and causes bitter suffering, it will enter her, her abdomen will swell and her womb will miscarry, and she will become a curse. If, however, the woman has not made herself impure, but is clean, she will be cleared of guilt and will be able to have children.
“‘This, then, is the law of jealousy when a woman goes astray and makes herself impure while married to her husband, or when feelings of jealousy come over a man because he suspects his wife. The priest is to have her stand before the Lord and is to apply this entire law to her. The husband will be innocent of any wrongdoing, but the woman will bear the consequences of her sin.’”
That is pretty clearly a curse, and the telling includes the words used. In theory, one could attempt to replicate this (it is possible that the one doing the curse must be a priest for it to work; it’s worth noting, of course, that muggles also cannot do magic in Harry Potter, rendering their attempts at curses or spells ineffective as well.)
There are actually a lot of curses in the Old Testament. A very large number, in fact. There are a lot of really shocking passages, as well. As a child, I found the story about Ananias and Saphira disturbing. I found the story of the rape of Tamar even more disturbing. Tamar’s pleas, David’s response—you can’t read that passage and not find it disturbing. There were other passages too, such as that of the daughter of Jephthah.
The Bible is in many ways a very gritty book. It’s not all lambs and meadows and long-haired, hippie white Jesus. The Bible can be very, very dark. There are spells and curses, and there is loss and tragedy.
The issue isn’t really that there are spells and curses in Harry Potter. It’s that those who fear the Harry Potter books live in a world of real and present darkness, encroaching demons, and evil powers. I remember living in that world. I grew up with that fear, and it wasn’t just Harry Potter we were afraid of. Even listening to the wrong kind of music could break the hedge of protection around one’s house and let in demons.
Some nights I had trouble sleeping, and would squeeze my eyes tight shut because I was afraid that if I opened them I would see a demon at the foot of my bed. I would imagine I could feel one. What had I done that would let a demon in? I had no idea. But any little slip was enough to do it, based on the stories I’d heard. Had I thought a bad thought? Surely there was something I might have done, something that might let a demon in.
It’s not Harry Potter that’s scary. It’s being told that the world around you is full of demons out to get you—and that any little slip could let them at you—that’s scary. I should know.
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