Interview with Anna Engelking
Asst. Prof. Anna Engelking is an anthropologist and ethnolinguist. She conducts ethnographic research in Belarus and in the Polish-Belarusian-Lithuanian borderlands.
Academia: You study the magic of language in folk culture. Where did the idea come from?
Anna Engelking: I was studying Polish language and culture alongside ethnography, and for me, those disciplines came together to reveal the magic of words. I think I became fascinated by it when I was still a student, conducting field research in the Podlasie region. I noticed that people living in rural areas, especially those who were middle-aged or older, had a different attitude to language than my own linguistic perspective. I wouldn’t hesitate to say that they regarded words far more seriously.
They believed that things that are said carry a certain weight; that they have consequences, and not just in purely ethical terms, as when nasty words make someone feels hurt or offended. I’m talking about real consequences with actual tangible effects. I realized that the belief in the power of words and their effects, known to me from theoretical lectures in ethnography, is still quite widespread. I decided to gather more information on the subject, so I scribbled down a questionnaire. The first query was about blessings.
So you started by asking about words used to convey a positive outcome?
Yes. I then moved on to questions about curses and oaths. The answers were fascinating: they revealed deep connections between language and culture in their various contexts such as social and historical, and with the ritual sphere. I went on to study different aspects in which verbal rituals function.
In terms of technical aspects of curses, I wanted to analyze the speech act they convey. This turned out to be more complex than I thought, because in traditional cultural systems, the conditions of communication are very strictly defined. There are myriad kinds of curses: it’s different when someone curses a random stranger, when a mother curses her child, when a father curses his child, or when a child curses their parents. There are many different variants, and each must meet specific criteria for the curse to be effective – for it to have an impact on the recipient. I also realized the importance of questioning whether a curse is justified.
In other words, whether it is just?
That’s right. This is because words are significant, and they must not be toyed with or taken in vain. If we curse someone unjustly, the curse won’t touch them, because consequences of the words would affect someone who hadn’t deserved it. But since words aren’t meaningless, once they have been said, the unjust curse bounces back from the recipient to come back to haunt us. I think there’s something beautiful and wise in that.
Does the “cursing” phenomenon involve just the person casting it and the recipient?
No, even though that’s how they might seem at first glance. There is a higher instance, overseeing justice in the world. Curses are in a sense made through God’s intermediacy, as shown by the common English phrase “God damn you!” or the Polish “A żeby cię Pan Bóg skarał!” (“Let the Lord God punish you!”). Interestingly, the Polish word bodaj, often used in curses in the language of traditional culture, conceals an abbreviated invocation of God as well, being derived from “Bóg daj” – such as in the curse “A bodajżeś zdechł!” (May you die!).
When I was analyzing the semantic roles played by participants in the speech act of cursing, I realized that the ritual initiator (or the punishing judge) here was God, the sacrum overseeing the whole ritual. I referred to the person casting the curse as the “performer,” since in a way they deliver the judgment; the recipient is the “object” of the ritual. But there is a further complication: there is also a fourth participant, which I call the “executor” of the curse. This may not be immediately obvious, but the executor is a negative sacrum, one we can refer to as the devil. My interpretation of the act of cursing in folk culture is that as a result of the performer saying the words, the object is brought under the power of the negative sacrum, which in turn causes the object to bear the physical consequences of the curse.
Where does this faith in the power of the word come from?
That’s a very important question, although I’m not sure if I can give a sufficiently deep answer. To be honest, I’m not even sure if it’s the right way of asking. On the most basic level, I could say that cultures that are “archaic” or “traditional” simply operate that way. Anthropologists talk about separate spheres of cultural practices in modern societies, concerning practical matters, communication, and worldview. In pre-literate cultures, technology, language, religion, and art did not function as separate entities; the cultures were syncretic, where the same practices frequently performed many different functions. This means that an act of saying something was equivalent to an act of doing. For people who lived in such cultures, word and action did not function separately but came together to form a single powerful whole.
When you utter a word, you set certain powers in motion.
Uttering certain words is equivalent to acting by means of them; it has an effect in the real world. The same notion underlies rituals of all kinds, not just verbal ones. That’s why we should understand the act of uttering words as a ritual.
In your book Klątwa [“Curse”], you talk about parents cursing their children. In one instance, a mother curses her Catholic daughter who marries a Russian Orthodox man. The young woman breaks her arm on the way to the Orthodox church, and goes on to have twins, “both mentally retarded.” Do such stories have root in actual events?
It’s not so much a question of them being authentic or not. If people perceive the world in a certain way, they tend to interpret events through the prism of this image. Take a young, childless couple: some people may say, “If she can’t get pregnant, her mother must have put a curse on her.” That’s how they understand cause and effect, and they search for the moment when this curse might have been cast. Someone is in a car accident and suffers broken limbs – it must mean that his father wished that upon him. That’s the way people see it.
So the cause-effect reasoning is added so that people have an explanation for why certain things happen?
That’s right. One excellent example of the belief in the power of curses – in this instance not just cast by parents, but directly by God – is punishment for sacrilege, a subject I frequently encountered in Belarus. During the Soviet era, the authorities imposed strict restrictions on religious expression, and frequently destroyed or closed churches, pulled crucifixes down from church towers, removed icons, and so on. The deeds were generally performed not by Soviet officials but by local youths, who – as members of Communist organizations – were encouraged and coerced into action. Most villages have similar stories, all with the same ending: a few years later, the perpetrators had been found run over with their spines crushed by tractors, for example. People believe that the inevitable punishment will always come – it is just a matter of time. God may not move fast, but He is just.
Is there additional symbolism in such curses?
There is a certain logic, since curses tend to follow the “an eye for an eye, a tooth for a tooth” format. If you desecrate a crucifix, the punishment will affect your spine. Generally, the punishment affects the part of the body which was the “instrument of sin.” If you were to hit someone, for example your parents, you’d use your hand, wouldn’t you? The same goes for theft, hence the use of curses wishing for the perpetrator’s hand or arm “to shrivel up.” If you say something nasty or derogatory, your tongue will be cursed, and so on.
You are drawing a connection between the ritual of curses and Christianity. But doesn’t magic really have roots in an ancient, pagan world?
The religious beliefs and lives of the villagers in Belarus and the Podlasie region are centered around Christianity, at least in their own eyes. However, they also include many elements that don’t fit in with Christian theology, as well as beliefs and practices dating back to pre-Christian days. Folk religious beliefs are a syncretic phenomenon in any case. Popular perceptions of God, not necessarily consistent with Christian dogma, have been described beautifully by Florian Znaniecki and other historical and contemporary authors. On the other hand, if we look to the Old Testament for motifs of curses and blessings, we’ll see a close relationship between the folk perception of a vengeful and merciful god and the God of the Old Testament.
So the Old Testament fits in better with this vision of the universe?
I think so – after all, the very idea of curses is that they are a divine punishment. It is God’s justice, meted out by words uttered by people. But there are other types, too, that don’t involve words in their execution. The sacrilege example I mentioned earlier illustrates “automatic” punishment. You don’t even need to use words for someone to be cursed; it’s clear that God will make sinners face up to the consequences of their actions.
Which kinds of stories did you hear more of – about blessings or about curses?
They often accompanied one another. I think that if we look at the structures and meanings behind the two rituals, it turns out that blessings and curses are two sides of the same coin. They are invocations: verbal rituals intended to bring about an effect, with blessings for positive outcomes and curses for negative ones. Blessings tend to be more elaborately ritualized than curses. For example, marriage blessings are a ritualized way of imparting the sacral powers of fertility, health, and prosperity onto the young couple. They are ingrained so deeply that without this essential ritual, the couple would not be able to become a new family. There are also many blessings in our everyday lives: the ritual of making the sign of the cross over freshly baked bread, or using phrases such as “all the best” or “God bless” as a greeting. There are many of these mini speech acts, short ritualized formulas used in everyday human contacts. It’s as though we invoke blessings over all our activities to make sure they turn out well.
So much so that we rarely notice them.
Blessings are speech acts that aim to proliferate and spread goodwill. From a psychological perspective, we tend to regard good, positive events as obvious and natural; our attention and concerns are drawn to threats to our daily order. This is why we are fascinated by curses; they are less obvious and more threatening, they are linked with fear and danger, and they stir powerful emotions. They also manifest differently, frequently with a dramatic, even traumatic act. They tend to be one-off events, while blessings can be recurring minor rituals.
Is all this essentially limited to archaic, traditional societies? The kind of thing only elderly individuals believe?
I spoke with people in rural areas, both middle aged and the elderly, but perhaps the most interesting tales came from a lady around fifty years old. I should also add that I did my field research in the Podlasie region in the early 1980s, then I worked in Belarus later, during the 1990s. In Belarus, beliefs in the power of words were a lot more thriving and intertwined with people’s everyday lives. For example, casting spells against illness is very much a daily occurrence, and isn’t something exclusive to old ladies.
Indeed, even worldly, educated people often say, “Go to hell!”
Or “don’t jinx it,” “touch wood,” “talk of the devil”… Of course we say these things, but in our culture they are no longer elements of a coherent visualization of the world, of “language magic.” Still, this doesn’t mean that when we speak, our words aren’t accompanied by a sense that language and reality are connected by an almost tangible, physical bond. After all, there is something of folk magic in us all.
Interview by Anna Zawadzka
© Academia nr 2 (38) 2013