A Coptic Mother-in-Law’s Curse

Ágnes Mihálykó

Adam and Eve were the luckiest couple in the world: neither of them had a mother-in-law! Many of us would heartily agree with this joke – not just in our times, but also in antiquity. Yet, among the many harpies of mother-in-laws, few are as mean as the unnamed Coptic woman who cast a particularly malevolent curse against Tnoute, the girl who (according to her) ‘separated my son from me so that he scorns me.’

The person at fault is of course Tnoute. The mother-in-law presents herself as the grieved party, a ‘miserable wretched sinner’, and applies for justice to the Christian ‘Lord God Almighty’, ‘who performs judgment for the mistreated’, as well as to His angels, Michael, Gabriel, and others. This request for divine retribution falls in the established tradition of the so-called ‘prayers of justice’, requests made to divine agents so that they avenge alleged wrongdoings. Tnoute’s wrongdoing, in the eyes of the woman who cast this curse, is separating her son from her – the eternal complaint of mother-in-laws. 

What role Tnoute really had in the deterioration of the mother-son relationship is of course impossible to determine now, but the burning hatred of the mother-in-law survived the centuries that passed. As a punishment for her grievances she begs God to bring a series of misfortunes on her son’s companion: 

You must make her without hope in this world. You must strike her womb and make her barren. You must make her consume the fruit of her womb. You must make a demon descend upon her, [who will cast] her into troublesome illness and great affliction. You must bring a fever upon her, and a [… and a] chill and a numbness of heart and an itching. Bring upon her the twelve […] a worm and blood flow out of her all the days of her life […] She must not live; she comes to death

Translation from Meyer and Smith 1993, #93

Certainly, Coptic curses were not restrained when asking for divine retribution. Two surviving curses ask for the death of the opponents by means of an ulcerous tumor that God, the angels, and the Virgin Mary should bring upon them, and another curse attempts to force the angel serving the holy altar to bring seventy different illnesses upon the victim. The Christian ideals of charity and forgiveness did not stop them from demanding specific and rather vicious means of divine retribution for the perceived injustice. Yet, the mother-in-law’s curses are among the most malicious in the corpus, aiming not only at her daughter-in-law’s health and life but also against her reproductive capacities, in the hope that her son will leave her if they won’t have any offspring. 

The more unfortunate of us only think that our mother-in-law is a wicked witch – poor Tnoute’s was one indeed!

Technical Details
Provenance: Thebes?
Date: 7th to 11th century?
Language: Coptic (Achmimic dialect)
Collection: London, British Library; Or. 6172
Designation: P.Lond.Copt. I 1223 (according to the Checklist of Editions)
Bibliography: Marvin W. Meyer and Richard Smith (1999), Ancient Christian Magic: Coptic Texts of Ritual Power (Princeton: Princeton University Press), pp. 196–197 (#93).

In lieu of an image of the text itself (which hasn’t been photographed), here’s an image of a 2nd century AD lady from a Fayum mummy portrait

Published by JCROMWELL

Senior Lecturer in Ancient History at Manchester Metropolitan University and member of the Manchester Centre for Youth Studies.

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