Jun 24, 2022
Before there were new-fangled conveniences like cursed phone numbers and sinister Kleenex commercials, people had to make do with plain old cursed books. You never knew what genre they might be lurking in—there were the obvious possibilities, like grimoires and other magical texts, but stories of curses have also been attached to novels, encyclopedias, historiographies, and even poetry collections.
But considering their relative scarcity, your odds of avoiding cursed books are pretty good. Back in 2010, Google estimated that 130 million unique books had been published so far, and that number has grown considerably in the last 12 years. But when author J.W. Ocker was putting together his 2020 book Cursed Objects, he struggled to find books that were cursed enough to make the cut. “One of my criteria for determining a cursed object of any kind for my book was: Is there a body count?” Ocker tells Mental Floss. “And I don’t think I ever came across a cursed book that had one.”
Another problem, Ocker says, is that, when we talk about cursed books, what we’re describing usually isn’t a curse in the traditional sense of the word. “Every time I came across a ‘cursed book,’ it wasn’t actually cursed,” he explains. “It was more supernaturally dangerous, like a spell book. For instance, owning or coming into contact with the book didn’t cause harm or misfortune the way, say, a cursed chair or vase would. Instead, if you tried the spells in the book, the spells were dangerous.”
Ocker notes there was also the matter of the curses medieval scribes would attach to the books they painstakingly wrote by hand, but those were meant as theft deterrents—and there’s no evidence they actually worked, so they didn’t count for his purposes. Every now and then, though, a book gets a bad reputation. Maybe misfortune seems to follow it wherever it goes, or maybe an urban legend catches on in some creepy corner of the internet. Or maybe—and here’s where things get especially interesting—representatives of powerful institutions simply didn’t want the book to be read. From a diabolical Bible to a mournful Japanese war poem, here are eight texts that have been blamed for madness, misfortune, and death.
1. The Codex Gigas The cover of the Codex Gigas. / Library of Congress, World Digital Library If cursing power were based solely on a book’s size, the Codex Gigas, a.k.a. the Devil’s Bible, would probably be the most dangerous book ever written. Weighing in at 165 pounds and measuring about three feet in height, the roughly 800-year-old tome is thought to be the world’s largest surviving medieval manuscript. (“Codex Gigas” literally means “giant book.”) The manuscript’s exact origins have been lost to time, but historians believe it was written at some point between 1204 and 1230 in the Kingdom of Bohemia, part of what would become the Czech Republic. According to the National Library of Sweden, the book was owned by at least three different monasteries before Emperor Rudolf II added it to his private collection (which would also soon include the Voynich Manuscript) in 1594. In 1648, it was claimed by the Swedish army during the Thirty Years’ War and taken to Stockholm. It has been housed in Sweden’s National Library since 1768.
While many illuminated texts were produced by teams of scribes, scholars believe the Codex Gigas is the work of a single copyist. Written entirely in Latin, the book contains both the Old and New Testaments, along with Czech and Jewish history texts; an encyclopedia with information on geometry, legal matters, and entertainment, among other topics; medical treatises; hundreds of obituaries; several magic spells; and a calendar. The Devil in the Codex Gigas. / Per B. Adolphson / KB, Swedish National Library The book’s sinister reputation stems from a full-color portrait of the Devil contained in its pages, and a legend about how the image got there. According to folklore, the book is the work of a monk—possibly Hermannus Heremitus, or Herman the Recluse—who had broken his vows and been sentenced to be walled up alive in the monastery. He struck a deal to save himself: If, over the course of a single night, he could write a book containing all the world’s knowledge, his life would be spared. When he realized the task was impossible, the monk sold his soul to the Devil, who helped him finish the book and “signed” it with the now-infamous portrait. (Other versions of the story say the monk added the illustration as a gesture of gratitude for Satan’s assistance.)
There are several tales of misfortune attached to the Codex Gigas, but the curse seems to be fairly benign, considering the book was supposedly cowritten by Beelzebub. One legend dating back to at least 1858 maintains that a guard was institutionalized after being accidentally locked in Sweden’s National Library overnight. He was supposedly found under a table the next morning, claiming to have seen the Codex Gigas join a procession of books as they danced through the air.
2. The Book of Soyga Dr. John Dee (1527-1608) scientist philosopher, mathematician / Apic/GettyImages The Book of Soyga, a.k.a. Aldaraia sive Soyga vocor, is an occult text that dates to at least the 1500s. We know about it only because it was once owned by John Dee, a famous 16th-century polymath whose fields of study and expertise included mathematics, physics, chemistry, and astronomy. Dee was also an occultist who was particularly interested in communicating with angels. The Book of Soyga must have been irresistible to him—besides magical spells and writings about demonology and astrology, the text includes the names and genealogies of angels. According to Benjamin Woolley’s Dee biography The Queen’s Conjurer, Dee believed the book “contained an ancient, even divine message written in the language originally spoken to Adam—in other words the true, unspoiled word of God.” It also includes 36 cryptic tables that remained undeciphered for centuries. Dee attempted to crack their code with the help of Edward Kelley, a crystal-gazer who convinced Dee he could channel the voices of angels. (Kelley sometimes spelled his name Kelly or went by Edward Talbot; having aliases was probably helpful to the supposed medium, who had reportedly been convicted of counterfeiting and possibly had his ears cut off as punishment.) According to Sky History, Dee was so eager to talk to angels that, when Kelley told him the angels wanted the two men to swap wives for an evening as payment for celestial communication, Dee agreed. Nine months later, Theodore Dee was born. Edward Kelley (From: The order of the Inspirati), 1659. Artist: Anonymous / Heritage Images/GettyImages Using Kelley as a go-between, Dee dialed up the archangel Uriel and asked him if the Book of Soyga was the real deal. Uriel, speaking through Kelley, assured him that it was, but told him that only the archangel Michael was authorized to translate the tables. Apparently, Michael wasn’t available.
This exchange might be the source of the Book of Soyga’s reputation as a cursed book, or, as it is sometimes known, “the Book that Kills.” At one point, Dee mentioned to Uriel that he’d been told he’d die within two and a half years if he ever read the encoded text. Uriel assured Dee he’d live for more than 100 years.
About that “reputation,” though: Most of the references we could find to the Book of Soyga being a cursed text come from online sources, and there don’t seem to be any verifiable tales of misfortune attached to the book.
Dee died in 1608, at the age of 81. The Book of Soyga changed hands a couple of times before vanishing from the historical record. Fast-forward 300 years, to the summer of 1994: Deborah Harkness had just finished her doctoral dissertation (“John Dee’s Conversations with Angels”) and was browsing through the catalog at Oxford’s Bodleian Library when she found a reference to Aldaraia sive Soyga. She had the book brought up, and soon found herself staring at the holy grail of Dee scholarship. The experience inspired Harkness’s first novel, A Discovery of Witches, which kicked off a bestselling trilogy and has since been adapted for television.
In 1998, mathematician Jim Reeds cracked the code of its mysterious tables. Reeds discovered a pattern involving the frequency and position of certain letters in relation to other letters—or, in his words, “a letter is obtained by counting a certain number of letters after the letter immediately above it … in the table.” Reeds came up with a set of mathematical formulae that allowed him to decipher the tables, each of which turned out to be based on a six-letter “code word.” But we still don’t know the meaning of those code words or what message the tables were meant to communicate (or even if there is one). As for the “curse,” it appears to have been a dud. According to Google Scholar, Reeds was still publishing at least as late as 2010.
3. The Book of Abramelin This one should sound familiar to horror fans—it played a pivotal role in the 2016 film festival standout A Dark Song.
The Book of Abramelin—or, more formally, The Book of the Sacred Magic of Abramelin the Mage—is a Jewish magic text that is thought to date back to the 14th or 15th century, but it owes its current notoriety to the 19th- and 20th-century magicians who made up the Hermetic Order of the Golden Dawn. One of the Order’s founders, S.L.M. Mathers, created the book’s first English translation in the 1890s, working from a 1750 French version. According to writer and occultist Lon Milo DuQuette’s foreword to a 2006 edition, Mathers’s translation caught on with his peers, and The Book of Abramelin—or simply “the Abramelin,” as it’s known in the magic community—became a key text of modern occultism, supposedly helping to inspire Aleister Crowley’s system of “magick.”
Aleister Crowley, English Writer and Magician / Hulton Deutsch/GettyImages The centerpiece of the Abramelin is an elaborate, multi-month ritual aimed at allowing the sorcerer to commune with their “Holy Guardian Angel”—essentially their celestial other half. The trouble lies in what happens after a three-day period in which the mage is “locked in blissful intimacy with the Angel,” DuQuette writes. Once the honeymoon is over, the sorcerer must summon up and conquer “each and every ‘unredeemed’ spirit of the infernal regions”—in other words, one might surmise, all the demons of hell. Supposedly the angel will be there to coach the magician through all that conquering, but it still sounds really hard. According to DuQuette, the Abremelin’s reputation as a cursed book might stem from the fact that it contains instructions for defeating “the world’s evil spirits.” Surely the spirits would prefer to keep this information quiet, and word got around that even owning a copy was risky business.
But it might be worth the gamble. Besides how-to guides for summoning angels and demons, the Abramelin includes spells for turning someone into a donkey, conjuring up some juggling spirit monkeys, and compelling a spirit to bring you cheese.
4. The Orphan’s Story Historia del Huérfano, or The Orphan’s Story, is a novel written by a Spanish monk named Martín de León y Cárdenas sometime between 1608 and 1615. Martín de León originally planned to publish the novel in 1621 under the pseudonym Andrés de León, but that never happened. According to The Guardian, it’s been speculated that he left the book unpublished because he feared it would damage his standing in the Roman Catholic Church. (He was appointed bishop of Trivento in 1630 and archbishop of Palermo in 1650.) The book was long thought lost, but in 1965, a Spanish scholar found what’s thought to be the only surviving copy in the New York archives of the Hispanic Society of America. There were several attempts to publish it, but none of them worked out, and rumors began to circulate that The Orphan’s Story was cursed. The project eventually found its way to a Peruvian philologist named Belinda Palacios, who spent two years preparing the manuscript for publication. Soon after she signed on to edit the book, the warnings began. “When I started working on it, a lot of people told me that the book was cursed and that people who start working on it die,” Palacios told The Guardian in 2018. She was more specific in an interview with The Telegraph that same year: “It’s taken a while because the people who have worked on it have died—one from a strange disease, one in a car accident and another of something else.” According to the Endless Thread podcast, the casualties include a Spanish scholar named Antonio Rodríguez-Moñino, who died in 1970, and a professor of Spanish named William C. Bryant.
In 2017—400 years after it was written—The Orphan’s Story was finally published. Palacios has so far been untroubled by the “curse”: She teaches Spanish-American Literature at two universities in Switzerland, and in 2022, she published a novel of her own called Niñagordita.
5. The Grand Grimoire While some stories surrounding allegedly cursed books can be chalked up to coincidence and superstition, some tell another, stranger tale—one that’s tied to the power of literacy, and a conspiracy to frighten people away from books that threaten the status quo. In his 1898 text The Book of Black Magic and Pacts, British occultist and scholar Arthur Edward Waite identifies the Grand Grimoire as one of “the four specific and undisguised handbooks of Black Magic.” The book contains detailed instructions for summoning Satan’s right-hand man, Lucifugé Rofocale. According to historian Owen Davies, the Grand Grimoire has been dated to 1702, but it more likely made its debut around 1750. It became a publishing sensation; in his 2010 book Grimoires: A History of Magic Books, Davies calls it “the first explicitly diabolical mass-market grimoire.”
It’s the book’s popularity, rather than its content, that might have led to its reputation as a dangerous or cursed book. In France, the Grand Grimoire was one of several spell books that were widely distributed in chapbook form and sold in bookstores in the 19th century. Davies suggests that church officials feared the books threatened their authority and embarked on a successful campaign to vilify them. People began to view books like the Grand Grimoire as sinister—even the simple act of buying a copy was thought to be dangerous.
6. The Great Omar The book known as “the Great Omar” was a custom-made edition of a collection of quatrains by 11th-century Persian poet Omar Khayyám, who became known in the West after writer Edward FitzGerald translated some of his verses in 1859. The book seems to have been relatively untroubled until 1911, when renowned bookbinder Francis Sangorski put the finishing touches on an elaborate edition commissioned by the manager of a London bookshop. Sangorski was given an unlimited budget for the project and only two mandates: that the final product be worth whatever price Sangorski decided on, and that it be “the greatest modern binding in the world.”
Sangorski labored over every detail for two years. To get design elements right, he borrowed a human skull for reference and bribed a zookeeper to feed a live rat to a snake so he could see “the angle of his jaws” as the reptile fed. According to the BBC, he used 100 square feet of gold leaf, 5000 pieces of leather, and more than 1000 precious gemstones, including rubies, topazes, and emeralds. But once it was finished, the commissioning bookshop—which priced it at £1000, or roughly $150,000 USD in today’s market—had trouble selling it. They decided to give the American book market a try, but a dustup with U.S. customs officers sent the book back to London. It finally sold at auction to an American buyer (for less than half of its original asking price), so the Great Omar hitched another cross-Atlantic ride—on the Titanic. Ten weeks later, Sangorski drowned while on vacation with his family. He was only 37 years old.
Sangorski’s masterpiece was never recovered from the wreckage of the Titanic, but the Great Omar was recreated in the 1930s using his original plans. Bookbinder Stanley Bray finished his version just as World War II began. To protect the new edition from German bombs, it was placed in a vault on London’s Fore Street—which ended up being one of the first sites targeted by Nazi warplanes. The safe that held the book survived the Blitz, but the book didn’t: Temperatures inside the container rose so high that the book’s leather and paper components were melted and charred. According to The Independent, only the jewels were spared.
Bray was undeterred, and he spent some 4000 hours over the course of 40 years creating a third edition of the Great Omar. This version seems to have escaped the “curse”: Bray lived to be 88 years old, and the third Omar is safely housed in the British Library. As for the source of the book’s troubles, some suspect the trio of bejeweled peacocks on the cover. According to the Encyclopedia of Superstitions, some cultures believe peacock feathers bring bad luck.
7. Written in Blood Written in Blood is the work of Robert and Nancy Heinl, who spent years enmeshed in Haiti’s political turmoil. When the book was published in 1978, Robert Heinl was a retired Marine Corps colonel who had served as a defense adviser to the Haitian government. He and his wife, a London-born journalist, had lived in Haiti for several years when they, as well as other Americans, were kicked out of the country in 1963 as relations deteriorated between the United States and the government of François “Papa Doc” Duvalier. Heinl’s Washington Post obituary says he “was declared persona non grata as a result of policy differences between the United States and Haiti’s president François Duvalier,” but stories surrounding the publication of Written in Blood tell an eerier story.
According to The Washington Post, Nancy Heinl “became so immersed in voodoo beliefs” that Duvalier was convinced she was a priestess with mystical powers. Duvalier died in 1971, seven years before the Heinls’ book was published. But according to Vikas Khatri’s 2007 book Curses & Jinxes, Duvlier’s widow, Simone, apparently took offense to Written in Blood’s unflattering depiction of the late leader and placed a voodoo curse on the book. The Washington Post says the manuscript was somehow lost at the printers, then stolen as it was being sent back to the publisher. When the book was eventually sent for binding, the folding machine malfunctioned. The curse apparently extended to the book’s publicity campaign: The first Washington Post reporter assigned to cover it was derailed by an appendicitis. At home, the authors claimed all their non-electric clocks stopped. Other misfortunes suffered by the Heinls were less benign. Robert was injured when a stage collapsed beneath him while he was delivering a speech, and a few days later he was attacked by a dog while walking near the couple’s Embassy Row home. In May 1979, while the Heinls were vacationing in the French West Indies—just months after Written in Blood was published—Robert Heinl died suddenly of a heart attack. After his death, Nancy reportedly said, “There is a belief that the closer you get to Haiti, the more powerful the magic becomes.”
If the Heinls were in fact the victims of a voodoo curse, it wasn’t the first time the Duvalier family had allegedly turned to black magic to exact revenge on their perceived enemies. According to the Encyclopedia of U.S. – Latin American Relations, Duvalier claimed the assassination of John F. Kennedy Jr. in November 1963 was the result of a voodoo curse he had placed on Kennedy after the young president, suspecting financial malfeasance on Duvalier’s part, had suspended aid to Haiti the previous year.
8. “Tomino’s Hell” “Tomino’s Hell” dates back to 1919, when it was included in Sakin, a book of poems by Japanese poet and songwriter Saijō Yaso. The poem seems to recount a young boy’s journey through hell; it has been speculated that Tomino has committed an unforgivable sin and has been damned to hell as punishment. But according to folklorist and translator Tara A. Devlin, Western readers are missing some important context clues and cultural references, and “Tomino’s Hell” is more likely an allegory for a young man’s deployment to the battlefield, where he may have been killed in action.
The poem’s long journey to creepypasta stardom is thought to have started in 1974, when it helped inspire a film called Pastoral: To Die in the Country by avant-garde filmmaker Shuji Terayama. Shuji lived for nine years after he made the movie, but somehow a legend was born that blamed his 1983 death on “Tomino’s Hell.” (Liver disease was the more likely culprit.) At some point, rumors also began to circulate about a college student who had supposedly died after reading the poem. Thus the stage was set in 2004, when author and film critic Yomota Inuhiko reportedly wrote, “If you by chance happen to read [‘Tomino’s Hell’] out loud, after you will suffer from a terrible fate which cannot be escaped.” The poem made the leap to the internet, and it’s now a classic example of “creepypasta”— an internet horror story that is passed around until it becomes a kind of urban legend. (“Creepypasta” is a derivative of “copypasta,” a term for text that has been copied and pasted multiple times.) The idea that “Tomino’s Hell” is cursed seems to have gained more traction in the West than in the poem’s native Japan. Mental Floss reached out to two Japanese folklore experts—Meiji University’s Lindsay Nelson, author of Circulating Fear: Japanese Horror, Fractured Realities, and New Media, and Zack Davisson, author of Kaibyō: The Supernatural Cats of Japan and Yūrei: The Japanese Ghost—and neither was able to shed any light on the legend’s roots. “It’s highly possible this idea of it being a ‘cursed poem’ originated in the West,” says Davisson, citing a paucity of references to the legend in Japanese-language sources.
As for whether the poem has actually managed to make good on its alleged curse, Devlin writes that “people have claimed to feel ill whilst reading this poem,” but she points out that any physical effects can probably be chalked up to autosuggestion.