In many primitive societies there is the belief that, by some means of accepted ritual, a hex or curse can be leveled against an individual. And unless the curse is ritually canceled, the dire predictions of pain, injury, or death will be fulfilled.
I - Retroactive Magic
While he was in the Congo in 1682, the Italian missionary Father Jerome Merolla da Sorrento heard a curious story demonstrating the sometimes fatal effects of superstitious fear. During a journey, a young black man had spent the night at a friend’s house, and in the morning the friend had prepared a wild hen for breakfast. This was a food that young people were forbidden to eat, by inviolable tribal custom, and the visitor asked his friend if the dish he had prepared was really wild hen. The host replied that it was not, and the young guest ate a hearty breakfast.
A few years later, the two men met again, and the friend asked his former guest if he would eat a wild hen. No, he said, that was impossible—he had been solemnly warned by a magician never to eat that food. The friend laughed and asked why he should refuse to eat the dish now, when he had been perfectly happy to eat it before. As soon as the guest learned the truth about the breakfast his host had once served him, he began to tremble violently and within 24 hours was dead, the victim of his own fear.
Source: American Anthropologist, New Series 44: 169-70, April - June 1942
II - A Dramatic Reversal
The active ill effects of a curse can immediately cease if the victim believes that he has been released from it. This indicates that the effects of curses, as recorded since ancient times, are psychosomatic and thus in accord with relatively recent physiological discoveries. The following incident, which occurred in Australia around 1919, was later reported by Dr. S. M. Lambert during his association with the International Health Division of the Rockefeller Foundation. An example of a dramatic reversal, it makes the point:
At a Mission at Mona Mona in North Queensland were many native converts, but on the outskirts of the Mission was a group of non-converts including one Nebo, a famous witch doctor. The chief helper of the missionary was Rob, a native who had been converted. When Dr. Lambert arrived at the Mission, he learned that Rob was in distress and that the missionary wanted him examined. Dr. Lambert made the examination, and found no fever, no complaint of pain, no symptoms or signs of disease. He was impressed, however, by the obvious indications that Rob was seriously ill and extremely weak. From the missionary he learned that Rob had had a bone pointed at him by Nebo and was convinced that in consequence he must die. Thereupon Dr. Lambert and the missionary went for Nebo, threatened him sharply that his supply of food would be shut off if anything happened to Rob and that he and his people would be driven away from the Mission. At once, Nebo agreed to go with them to see Rob. He leaned over Rob's bed and told the sick man that it was all a mistake, a mere joke—indeed, that he had not pointed a bone at him at all. The relief, Dr. Lambert testifies, was almost instantaneous; that evening Rob was back at work, quite happy again, and in full possession of his physical strength.
Source: American Anthropologist, New Series 44: 170 - 71, April - June 1942
III - Prophecy Self-fulfilled
On a Friday the 13th in 1946, a Georgia midwife was called upon to deliver three babies in the same area of the Okefenokee Swamp. For some malevolent reason, the woman put a curse on all three of the infant girls. She said that one would die before she was 16 years of age, another would be dead before she reached 21, and the third would not live to see her 23rd birthday. The first two predictions were violently accurate. One girl, at 15, was in a fatal automobile accident. The second was killed by gunfire in a nightclub brawl the night before her 21st birthday.
Two years later, in 1969, the third young woman asked to enter a Baltimore hospital, declaring hysterically that she was doomed to die before her 23rd birthday, which was only three days away. Although there was apparently nothing wrong with her physically, she was obviously under great emotional stress and was admitted to the hospital for observation.
The next morning, just two days before the fateful date, the girl was found dead in her bed—the victim, evidently, of her belief in the power of the midwife’s curse.
Source: Science Digest, 80: 45, August 1976
IV - The Relentless Kurdaitcha
In 1953 an aborigine named Kinjika was flown from his native Arnhem Land in Australia’s Northern Territory to a hospital in Darwin, the territorial capital. He had not been injured or poisoned, was not suffering from any known disease, but he was dying. Kinjika survived for four days in great pain after entering the hospital, and on the fifth day he died, the victim of bone pointing, a method of execution—or murder—that leaves no trace and almost never fails. The dead man had been a member of the Mailli tribe and had broken one of its laws governing incestuous relationships. Following this he had been summoned before a tribal council, had refused to attend, and in his absence had been sentenced to death.
Kinjika then fled his homeland, and the tribal executioner, the mulunguwa, made and ritually “loaded” the killing-bone, or kundela.
The bone used may be human, kangaroo, or emu, or it may be fashioned from wood. The design varies from tribe to tribe. Most are from six to nine inches long, pointed at one end, and shaved to a smooth roundness. At the other end, a braid of hair is attached through a hole or with a resinous gum derived from the spinifex bush. To be effective, the kundela must be charged with powerful psychic energy, in a complex ritual that must be performed faultlessly. The process is kept secret from women and all who are not members of the tribe. If the condemned man has fled from his village, the loaded bone is given to the kurdaitcha, the tribe's ritual killers.
The kurdaitcha take their name from the special slippers they wear when hunting a condemned man. These are woven from cockatoo feathers and human hair and leave virtually no footprints. The hunters clothe themselves with kangaroo hair, which they stick to their skin after first coating themselves with human blood, and they don't mask of emu feathers. Usually operating in twos or threes, they are relentless and will pursue their quarry for years if necessary. When the hunters finally corner their man, they approach to within 15 feet or so, and one kurdaitcha, or “hit man,” dropping to his knee, holds the bone in his fist and points it like a pistol. At this instant, the condemned man is said to be frozen with fear. The kurdaitcha thrusts the bone toward him and utters a brief, piercing chant. He and his fellow hunters then withdraw, leaving the pointed man to his own devices. When they return to their village, the kundela is ceremonially burned.
The condemned man may live for several more days or weeks. But convinced of the kundela’s fatal power, his relatives and members of any other tribe he may meet (who will certainly have heard that he has been pointed) treat him as though he were already dead.
The ritual loading of the kundela creates a psychic counterpart of the bone—a “spear of thought,” as it has been described—which pierces the condemned man when the bone is pointed at him. Once he has been wounded, the victims' death is certain, as though an actual spear had been thrust through him.
I - John Godwin, Unsolved: The World of the Unknown, pp.163-76
II - Ronald Rose, Living Magic, pp.30-36
V - The Song of Death
In middle April 1956, in Arnhem Land, Australia, a young aborigine named Lya Wulumu fell sick and was taken by airplane to a hospital in Darwin. He was unable to eat or drink because, although he tried, he could not swallow. There was, however, no apparent cause for his malady. Examinations, including X-rays, blood tests, and spinal taps, revealed nothing unusual.
What was going on in the victim's mind was another matter. He asked an attending Methodist minister to pray for him because, as he said, “me bin sung and me finish.” The singing to which Wulumu referred is a form of ritual execution practiced by his people. In his case, a group of women were requested by his mother- in-law to sing him to death, perhaps in reprisal for some taboo that he had broken. To in augur ate the ritual, the women stole Wulumu's spear and throwing stick (woomera) and put the mina ceremonial log. Then they sang the songs that are believed to put the curse of death on the owner of the captured objects. After the singing, his club (nulla nulla) was displayed in a treetop to signify the successful conclusion of the curse. When Wulumu saw the weapon, he knew what had transpired, and when he tried to swallow, he could not.
Wulumu would surely have died had it not been for their own lung. Because of its respiratory support capability, he became convinced that the white man's magic was greater than that of his tribe. He was right.
I - John Godwin, Unsolved: The World of the Unknown, p.169
II - The Times (London), August 14, 1956)
VI - A Mother's Curses
Not all curse-deaths take place in primitive places. The following events, for example, occurred in Oklahoma in 1960. The case involved a man who had been raised by a very domineering mother. When he decided to open a nightclub, she helped him finance it and then stayed on to assist with the management.
Some 14 years later, at age 38, he married and soon after decided to sell the club. His mother warned that if he sold out, “something dire will happen to you.” Two days after her threat, the man, with no prior history of respiratory trouble of any kind, began to experience a mild attack of asthma. Nevertheless, he went ahead and sold the club. The day after the transaction, he called his mother to tell her about it. She once again told him that “Something will strike you.” His asthmatic condition worsened at once, and he was rushed to the hospital.
A psychiatrist was able to help him see the link between his illness and his mother's warnings, and the asthmatic condition began to subside. Feeling better, the man began plans for another business, this time without his mother. Then one day, he called to tell her about it. She did not try to dissuade him, but told him to expect more“dire results” if he persisted. Within an hour of that fateful phone call, he had another attack of asthma and died.
Source: Psychosomatic Medicine, 26: 104 - 07, 1964
VII - Living on the Run
The kundela is used by the aborigines for initiation ceremonies, against enemies, and against those who have broken tribal laws. Within those spheres its power is awesome. There seems to be only one instance of a man surviving after being condemned to die by the bone without the antidote of white man's medicine.
The man, Alan Webb, a full-blooded aborigine of the Arunt a tribe, had shot a fellow tribesmen during a struggle over a rifle. In April 1969 the court found that Webb had been attacked and that the rifle had gone off accidentally. He was declared not guilty of the manslaughter charge. Outside the courtroom, after the verdict had been returned, Webb was met by a tribal delegation. The white men's court was irrelevant, he was told, and he would have to stand trial before his peers among the Arunta. Webb knew very well what the tribe's verdict would be. He had killed a member of his own tribe; therefore, he must die. He promptly left Alice Springs and was sentenced to death in absentia by the Aruntas.
This time the kurdaitcha had a more difficult task than usual. Their quarry was driving a van and living in it with his wife, two children, and three dogs. He slept with a rifle at his side, ready to be awakened at any moment by the barking of the dogs.
By 1976, the date of the last available information, Alan Webb had managed to evade the kurdaitcha for seven years, earning his living doing odd jobs and moving on whenever he heard that the death squad was coming his way. It is improbable that anyone has survived an aborigine death sentence for a longer period. But Webb knew—and perhaps still knows—that the kurdaitcha would never abandon their pursuit. And although he spent his life on the fringe of white society, he realized that if his hunters ever came close enough to point the kundela, he would be as good as dead—killed, without trace of injury, by nothing more substantial than a spear of thought.
Source: John Godwin, Unsolved: The World of the Unknown, 175—76