Evidence #40 | September 19, 2020

Simile Curses

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Simile curses in the Book of Mormon are similar in form and context to simile curses used in the ancient Near East.

Simile Curses in the Ancient Near East

Coptic curse (ca 6th century AD). Image via coptic-magic.phil.uni-wuerzburg.de.

To curse in the ancient world was not merely to use coarse or offensive language. Rather, a curse was typically a petition to a deity to bring about some sort of “harm to a person, place, or thing.”1 According to Anne Marie Kitz, curses are “well attested throughout the Ancient Near East in almost every time period.”2 One type of curse, known as a simile curse, was accompanied by a ritual or conceptual comparison that was meant to emphasize the nature of the curse.3

For example, an ancient Sumerian curse reads: “Like a clod thrown into water, (so) may he perish as he slowly dissolves.”4 In this case, there is no direct evidence that a ritual action, such as actually throwing a clod of dirt into water, accompanied the curse.5 In other instances it seems that a ritual was indeed carried out in association with verbalizing the curse. Mark J. Morrise has cited several examples of this phenomenon:

Thus, the Ashurnirari treaty states, “This head is not the head of the ram; it is the head of Mati’ilu. . . . Just as the ram’s head is (torn off), … so may the head of the aforesaid be torn off [if he breaks the treaty].” Similarly, the Sefire I treaty contains simile curses which state: “Just as this wax … this GNB … these arrows … this calf, etc.” A third example is found in the Esarhaddon treaty: “Just as this sheep is cut up and the flesh of her young is put in her mouth, etc.”6

Concerning such curses, Kitz explained,

The presence of the demonstrative adjective [“this” or “these”] strongly implies that the object was present at the moment the curse was spoken, and it is equally probable that the object was manipulated in some way so as to establish a connection between the object and the target of the curse. This might have involved touching the item or actually performing the act when the curse was pronounced.7

In ancient Near Eastern texts, including the Old Testament, simile curses are typically found in treaties, religious covenants, and prophecies. Simile curses also show up in the Book of Mormon in these same contexts.8

Treaty Context

During negotiations between Nephite and Lamanite armies, Zerahemnah, the leader of the Lamanites, tried to attack Captain Moroni. One of Moroni’s soldiers knocked Zerahemnah’s sword to the earth and cut off part of his scalp. After this, Moroni’s soldier laid the scalp upon his sword and declared: “Even as this scalp has fallen to the earth, which is the scalp of your chief, so shall ye fall to the earth except ye will deliver up your weapons of war and depart with a covenant of peace” (Alma 44:14). Morrise explained, “The curse is clearly not ritual, having been devised on the spot to meet the needs of the moment. Nevertheless, like a ritual simile curse, it refers to an action, that of falling to the earth.”9

Covenant Contexts

1. Casting out of the Flock

It has been demonstrated that King Benjamin’s speech closely follows the ancient Near Eastern covenant/treaty formula.10 The following simile curse can be found near the end of Benjamin’s speech: “doth a man take an ass which belongeth to his neighbor, and keep him? I say unto you, Nay; he will not even suffer that he shall feed among his flocks, but will drive him away, and cast him out. I say unto you, that even so shall it be among you if ye know not the name by which ye are called” (Mosiah 5:14).

Morrise explained, “Although no ritual is indicated here, the curse may have been based on a previous ritual simile curse.”11 Support for this idea can be seen in the Ashurnirari treaty, which features a similar curse associated with an immediate ritual (implied by the phrase “this ram”): “Just as this ram … [taken] away from his fold, will not return to his fold, … so may … Mati’ilu, with his sons, [his nobles,] the people of his land [be taken away] from his land, not return to his land, he shall no [longer stand] at the head of his land.”12

2. Rending Garments/Casting Them on the Ground

Captain moroni and the Title of Liberty. Image by Jeremy Winborg.

After Captain Moroni rent his own coat and turned it into the title of liberty,

the people came running together … rending their garments in token, or as a covenant, that they would not forsake the Lord their God; or, in other words, if they should transgress the commandments of God, or fall into transgression, and be ashamed to take upon them the name of Christ, the Lord should rend them even as they had rent their garments. (Alma 46:21; emphasis added)

Two more simile curses can be found in the next verse:

We covenant with our God, that we shall be destroyed, even as our brethren in the land northward, if we shall fall into transgression; yea, he may cast us at the feet of our enemies, even as we have cast our garments at thy feet to be trodden under foot, if we shall fall into transgression. (v. 22; emphasis added)

Two of these simile curses were acted out in a type of ritual action (rending the garments and casting them on the ground), and all were clearly given in the context of a sacred covenant.13

3. Felling a Tree

In 3 Nephi, when a group of robbers were captured by a Nephite army, “their leader, Zemnarihah, was taken and hanged upon a tree” (3 Nephi 4:28). After this, “the people did cry with a loud voice, saying: May the Lord preserve his people in righteousness and in holiness of heart, that they may cause to be felled to the earth all who shall seek to slay them because of power and secret combinations, even as this man hath been felled to the earth” (v. 29; emphasis added). Legal scholar John W. Welch has shown several ways in which the ritual aspects of this execution and its associated covenant have ancient Near Eastern legal precedents.14

Monumental inscription concerning one of the Aramean kings who ruled from the early 900s to 713 B.C.E. It pronounces a curse that whoever smashes the inscription will have their head smashed. Image and info via dornsife.usc.edu.

Prophecy Context

During his preaching in public and before King Noah and his priests, Abinadi invoked several simile curses:

  • “the life of king Noah shall be valued even as a garment in a hot furnace” (Mosiah 12:3)
  • “thou shalt be as a stalk, even as a dry stalk of the field, which is run over by the beasts and trodden under foot” (v. 11)
  • “thou shalt be as the blossoms of a thistle, which, when it is fully ripe, if the wind bloweth, it is driven forth upon the face of the land” (v. 12)

While prophetic simile curses in the Book of Mormon are certainly appropriate and authentic for an ancient text, they, on their own, have less value as evidence. As explained by Morrise, “The simile is such a universal literary form that its mere existence in Book of Mormon prophetic writings does not formally demonstrate any parallels.”15

Simile Curses in Ancient America

While the above examples compare simile curses in the Book of Mormon to those found in ancient Near Eastern settings, there is at least some preliminary evidence that simile curses may have been used in ancient America as well. For example, in the Popol Vuh two boys, when dealing with an enemy, cook a bird in an earth-covered pit and state that, “in the same way, therefore, he (their enemy) will be buried in the earth.”16


After extensively comparing and analyzing simile curses in the Book of Mormon with those found in the ancient Near East, Morrise concluded,

The similarity of contexts in which the simile curse occurs in the ancient Near Eastern, Old Testament, and Book of Mormon texts suggests that the simile curse was part of an oral tradition in these cultures. It was perhaps as easy for them to utter these curses on appropriate occasions as it would be for [Americans] to recite the pledge of allegiance today.17

Donald W. Parry, “Hebraisms and Other Ancient Peculiarities in the Book of Mormon,” in Echoes and Evidences of the Book of Mormon (Provo, UT: FARMS, 2002), 156–159.

John A. Tvedtnes, “As a Garment in a Hot Furnace,” in Pressing Forward with the Book of Mormon: The FARMS Updates of the 1990s, ed. John W. Welch and Melvin J. Thorne (Provo, UT: FARMS, 1999), 127–131.

Mark J. Morrise, “Simile Curses in the Ancient Near East, Old Testament, and Book of Mormon,” Journal of Book of Mormon Studies 2, no. 1 (1993): 124–138.

Donald W. Parry, “Symbolic Action as Prophetic Curse,” in Reexploring the Book of Mormon: A Decade of New Research, ed. John W. Welch (Provo and Salt Lake City, UT: FARMS and Deseret Book, 1992), 206–208.

Mosiah 5:14Mosiah 12:3, 11–12Mosiah 17:15, 17Alma 25:12Alma 44:14, 18Alma 46:21–223 Nephi 4:28–29

Mosiah 5:14

Mosiah 12:3, 11–12

Mosiah 17:15, 17

Alma 25:12

Alma 44:14, 18

Alma 46:21–22

3 Nephi 4:28–29

  • 1 Anne Marie Kitz, “Curses and Cursing in the Ancient Near East,” Religion Compass 1, no. 6 (2007): 616.
  • 2 Kitz, “Curses and Cursing,” 616.
  • 3 For examples of this practice in the Book of Mormon, see Donald W. Parry, “Symbolic Action as Prophetic Curse,” in Reexploring the Book of Mormon: A Decade of New Research, ed. John W. Welch (Provo and Salt Lake City, UT: FARMS and Deseret Book, 1992), 206–208.
  • 4 Bendt Alster, Proverbs of Ancient Sumer: The World’s Earliest Proverb Collections (Bethesda, MD: CDL Press, 1997), 19, line 7; as cited in Kitz, “Curses and Cursing,” 624.
  • 5 Kitz noted, however, that “the feat is simple enough that a person could readily perform it without much preparation.” Kitz, “Curses and Cursing,” 616. 
  • 6 Mark J. Morrise, “Simile Curses in the Ancient Near East, Old Testament, and Book of Mormon,” Journal of Book of Mormon Studies 2, no. 1 (1993): 127; emphasis added and paragraph break omitted. It is also possible that in such cases the ritual action may have been performed at some point in the past, and that over time the ritual context was simply implied in the wording, or perhaps by an accompanying gesture, when a simile curse was invoked. See Morrise, “Simile Curses,”128, 133.
  • 7 Kitz, “Curses and Cursing,” 625.
  • 8 See Morrise, “Simile Curses,” 129–132.
  • 9 Morrise, “Simile Curses,” 132.
  • 10 See Stephen D. Ricks, “The Treaty/Covenant Pattern in King Benjamin’s Address (Mosiah 1–6),” BYU Studies Quarterly 24, no. 2 (1984): 151–162. Concerning the relationship between Benjamin’s statements and the ancient treaties, Morrise explained, “Book of Mormon and suzerain treaty simile curses usually share a number of common characteristics, including one or more of the following: (1) the curse is found in the context of a treaty or covenant; (2) the curse is uttered by the oath taker; (3) the curse appears with other elements of a suzerain treaty format, such as an historical prologue or provision for public reading; (4) a ritual action is performed with the curse; (5) the ritual action is destructive or harmful in nature, such as casting out, dismembering, ripping, or causing to fall to the earth. For example, the simile curse in Mosiah 5:14 has three of these five characteristics: it is uttered in the context of a covenant, it comes at the end of a speech containing an historical prologue and provisions for obedience to the Lord, and involves a harmful action (the casting out of an animal from the fold). As previously pointed out, this simile curse almost exactly parallels a suzerain treaty curse in the Ashurnirari treaty.” Morrise, “Simile Curses,” 136.
  • 11 Morrise, “Simile Curses,” 133.
  • 12 Delbert R. Hillers, Treaty Curses and the Old Testament Prophets (Rome: Pontifical Biblical Institute, 1964), 34; as cited in Morrise, “Simile Curses,” 133; emphasis added.
  • 13 See Donald W. Parry, “Hebraisms and Other Ancient Peculiarities in the Book of Mormon,” in Echoes and Evidences of the Book of Mormon (Provo, UT: FARMS, 2002), 158–159; RoseAnn Benson, “The Title of Liberty and Ancient Prophecy,” Interpreter: A Journal of Latter-day Saint Faith and Scholarship 23 (2017): 304.
  • 14 See John W. Welch, The Legal Cases in the Book of Mormon (Provo, UT: BYU Press, 2008), 351–356.
  • 15 Morrise, “Simile Curses,” 135–136. For one more example of a simile curse in a prophetic setting, see 3 Nephi 29:7: “Yea, and wo unto him that shall say at that day, to get gain, that there can be no miracle wrought by Jesus Christ; for he that doeth this shall become like unto the son of perdition, for whom there was no mercy, according to the word of Christ!” (emphasis added).
  • 16 Allen J. Christenson, trans., Popol Vuh: The Sacred Book of the Maya (Norman, OK: University of Oklahoma Press, 2007), 110; emphasis added.
  • 17 Morrise, “Simile Curses,” 138.
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