Source:Echoes:Ch11:7:Cursing litigants

Cursing an Opposing Litigant with Speechlessness

Cursing an Opposing Litigant with Speechlessness

While browsing through the BYU Bookstore a few years ago, I came across a book that described the ancient legal practice of invoking a curse on one's opponents. This study was based on recently discovered Greek epigrams and inscriptions. I was intrigued. While I read these texts, it dawned on me that Alma's curse on Korihor in Alma 30:49—"In the name of God, ye shall be struck dumb, that ye shall no more have utterance"—closely resembles an ancient Greek practice of cursing a litigant with speechlessness. When Alma's curse materialized, God's disapproval of Korihor was so clearly manifested that he was compelled to yield the case and concede legal defeat.

Such curses were common in the ancient Mediterranean world, especially in the legal sphere. In recent decades more than a hundred ancient Greek and Roman binding spells—curses inscribed on small lead sheets that were folded up and pierced with a nail—have been recovered from tombs, temples, and especially wells near the law courts, where they were placed in hopes that a deity from the underworld would receive and act upon them. These spells are known as defixiones because their words and powers were intended to "defix" (restrain or hinder) an opponent. In ancient Greece those targeted by these spells could be commercial, athletic, or romantic rivals, or adversaries in litigation.23

The largest body of Greek binding spells deals with litigation, with sixty-seven different defixiones invoking curses on legal opponents. The earliest of these date to the fifth century BC, not far from the time of Lehi. Eleven of them ask the gods to bind the tongue of a legal opponent so the opponent would lose the lawsuit.24 One third-century BC inscribed stone slab from the Greek island of Delos expresses the gratitude of a victorious litigant who believed he had been helped in court by a god: "For you bound the sinful men who had prepared the lawsuit, secretly making the tongue silent in the mouth, from which [tongue] no one heard a word or an accusation, which is the helpmate in a trial. But as it turned out by divine providence, they confessed themselves to be like god-stricken statues or stones." 25

The speechlessness of Korihor, and the stunning of Sherem, was precisely the kind of sign or restraint that people in the ancient Mediterranean world expected a god to manifest in a judicial setting when false accusations or unfair ploys placed an innocent party at a distinct disadvantage. The stricken litigant would sometimes then confess his guilt, exposed by a god through "illness or accident."26 In hopes of appeasing the offended god, a punished litigant would inscribe in stone a clear profession of his newly admitted faith and would warn others not to disdain the gods.

Similarly, God was seen as an active participant in the courts of Hebrew law in biblical times,27 and the trials of Sherem and Korihor show the same use of confession. Sherem recanted his public teachings, confessed the truth of the god who had intervened against him, admitted his error, and expressed concern that he would never be able to appease that god (see Jacob 7:17–19). Korihor's confession acknowledged the power of God, probably to assure those concerned in Zarahemla that the curse would not afflict any others, as well as to terminate the dispute (see Alma 30:51). Such reactions are very similar to the responses of others in the ancient world whose judicial perfidy had been exposed by the intervention of a god responding to the restraining curse of a beleaguered litigant.

Although not mentioning the curse of speechlessness explicitly (and thus leaving it unknown to Joseph Smith), Hebrew law in Lehi's day made frequent use of other curses to anathematize and to invoke divine punishment upon those who transgressed the law. In Deuteronomy 27:15–26 one finds a string of twelve curses, and in Numbers 5:21–22 one encounters the curse imposed in the trial of a suspected adulteress. Yet until recent archaeological discoveries were made, one would not have suspected that placing a curse of speechlessness upon an opposing litigant was common practice not far from Lehi's world itself and, by implication, perhaps right in Jerusalem as well.[1]


  1. John W. Welch, "A Steady Stream of Significant Recognitions," in Echoes and Evidences of the Book of Mormon, edited by Donald W. Parry, Daniel C. Peterson, and John W. Welch (Provo, Utah: FARMS, 2002), Chapter 11, references silently removed—consult original for citations.