Popular lore warns that if you take a rock or object from a sacred land, a curse will fall upon you until you return the object. What is the origin of the curse legends and are they real?

Curses are spooky – mainly, if you believe in them. The idea that rocks or objects taken from a certain place can bring bad luck upon you is just as widespread as it ever was, perhaps more than ever, thanks to the internet and media coverage.

Rocks that are supposedly cursed are called “misfortune” or “sorry rocks” because they deliver misfortune to the person who took it, and they end up sorry for it.

Famous locations of cursed items

The most popular locations for stories of misfortune rocks are from Hawaii and Arizona, but, every year, more places are added to the list of curse lore.

  • Hawaii’s Volcanoes National Park is well-known as the land of Fire Goddess, Pele. Pele’s life force exists in the rocks and even the sand grains of the island that she created. If you remove these pieces, you will be cursed with misfortune for taking Pele from her home.
  • Arizona’s Petrified Forest holds a legend even older than Pele’s curse. In the 1930s, a story was popularized that stealing pieces of the opalized wood would bring a Native curse upon you. But this was a way to prevent pilfering the rocks; there is no Native history about a curse.
  • Uluru/Ayres rock in Australia is a UNESCO World Heritage Site. Rocks taken from this location, which is sacred to the native people, have been returned from all over the world with letters of regret.
  • Pompeii, Italy, a popular “dark tourism” site famous for remains of people preserved in place after a volcanic eruption, has most recently appeared in well-circulated news stories about people lamenting their bad luck after taking artifacts home with them.
  • Other places of special natural or historical value have accreted curse legends including Iceland, Gettysburg National Battlefield, Bryce Canyon, UT and the Great Smoky Mountains.

Every year, the postal services or park personnel receive “conscience letters” from people who send back the item they say was taken from the place. They report that ever since the piece was taken, misfortune fell upon them. They beg forgiveness and hope the return of the item releases them from the “curse”.

Researcher Rowan Murry calls the legends of cursed rocks “tourist folklore” because the bad luck is not an issue for locals. Caretakers of historical sites and park rangers see the benefit in discouraging the removal of pieces from protected places and may encourage it in areas where it’s impossible to observe theft. Murry also connects the curse idea to that of “contagion magic” meaning that the piece holds the essence of magic that rubs off on the thief, and sometimes, their entire family. The article Curses as Crowd Control: Tourist Folklore at Pompeii describes that people might pick up artifacts not just a souvenir but as a way to challenge the universe or have a unique piece of history that can be fetishized.

News spreads about bad luck

Media coverage about people returning objects because of bad luck grew in the 1970s. The tales were propagated in tour guides. This might also have had the effect of daring a person to take an object. Increased media coverage also leads to more people returning items, which can be a problem for officials. Most of the return rocks are dumped in a pile to be used as road fill. But some sites use the letters and returned pieces as warnings. For example, in Pompeii (from Murry):

By displaying returned cursed objects in the Antiquarium and in the media, the custodians of Pompeii are simultaneously creating further interest in the site while protecting it from future damage. The curse brings more visitors to the park, but the threat of magical contagion keeps them in line. At a place like Pompeii, which spans 170 acres, it is impossible to always surveil guests. This is where the curse plays a crucial role.

What to do if you took a rock and have bad luck?

It’s best to not try to return the item – that can cause extra curses from those who must handle the packages. To be released from the “curse”, simply ask forgiveness from the Universe and bury it someplace nice.

Check out the video presentation about Misfortune Rocks.

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