The name was given by the ancients to certain classes of votive
offerings, to the nets that the fisherman laid on the altar
of the sea nymphs, to the mirror that Laïs consecrated to
Venus, and to offerings of vessels, garments, instruments, and
various other articles.
The word was also applied to the victim devoted to the infernal
gods, and it is this sense that is found among Jews and
Christians, referring either to the curse or its object. The man
who is anathematized is denied communication with the faithful,
and he is delivered to the demon if he dies without absolution.
Through the centuries the church often lavished anathemas
upon those considered heretics and enemies, though many
such as St. John Chrysostom taught that while it was well to
anathematize false doctrine, people who have strayed should
be pardoned and prayed for. The use of anathemas has largely
dropped out of contemporary Christianity.
Magicians and sorcerers once employed a sort of anathema
to discover thieves and witches. Some limpid water was
brought, and in it were boiled as many pebbles as there were
persons suspected. The pebbles were then buried under the
doorstep over which the thief or the sorcerer was to pass, and
a plate of tin was attached to it, on which was written the words
Christ is conqueror; Christ is king; Christ is master. Every
pebble must bear the name of one of the suspected persons.
The stones are removed at sunrise, and the one representing
the guilty person is hot and glowing. The seven penitential
psalms must then be recited, with the Litanies of the Saints, and
the prayers of exorcism pronounced against the thief or the
sorcerer. His name must be written in a circular figure, and a
triangular brass nail driven in above it with a hammer, the handle
of which is of cypress wood, while the exorcist declares,
Thou are just, Lord, and just are Thy judgments. At this, the
thief would betray himself by a loud cry.
If the anathema has been pronounced by a sorcerer, and
one wishes merely to escape the effects of it and cause it to return
to him who has cast it, one must take, on Saturday, before
sunrise, the branch of a one-year-old hazel tree and recite the
following prayer I cut thee, branch of this year, in the name
of him whom I wish to wound as I wound thee. The branch is
then laid on the table and other prayers said, ending with
Holy Trinity, punish him who has done this evil, and take him
from among us by Thy great justice, that the sorcerer or sorceress
may be anathema, and we safe. Harrison Ainsworths famous
novel, The Lancashire Witches, deals with the subject and
the Pendleton locality in England.