NOTE: “The Curse of Ham” is a misnomer for the curse upon Canaan that was imposed by the biblical patriarch Noah. The narrative occurs in the Book of Genesis and concerns Noah’s drunkenness and the accompanying “shameful” act perpetrated by his son Ham the father of Canaan (Gen. 9:20–27). The story’s original objective was to argue for a subjection of the Canaanites (supposedly descending from Canaan) to the Israelites, but in later centuries, the narrative was interpreted by some Jews, Christians, and Muslims as an explanation for black skin, as well as slavery of Blacks (“Hamites”). Even religious fundamentalists now disagree with such interpretations due to the fact that in the biblical text Ham himself is not cursed and skin color is never mentioned.
This article is not about the various terms used in Patristic and Hagiographic literature that denote an anti-Black sentiment (i.e. Ethiopians and demons were interchangeable words in the Lives of Saints and Patristic texts). This article examines the racist Patristic teaching concerning the Orthodox Christian belief on where black people originate—i.e. When Noah cursed Canaan, he also cursed that God make his face black. This belief is rooted in an older Talmudic Tradition that was accepted and taught by the early Church Fathers. Essentially, Canaan, or Ham’s, white skin was changed into black through Noah’s curse. These early Patristic teachings also led to the later biblical justification of colonialism and the African slave trade, since Noah’s statement that Canaan should be the slave of Japheth and Shem was translated into blacks, or “Hamites,” should be subject to whites as a result of the “Curse of Ham” [Genesis 9:18-29].
Though today the vast majority of those involved in research on human variation would agree that biological races do not exist among humans,1 the early Patristic texts recognized three races: the descendants of Noah’s three sons, Japheth, Shem, and Canaan. For an Orthodox Christian, “the Holy Fathers—the ‘mind of the church’—are the key to the understanding of Genesis.
Chronology of a Racist Patristic Teaching
Later writers of the non-Chalcedonian churches are also included to illustrate that this teaching is universal among both the Eastern and Oriental Orthodox churches:
Origen (ca. 185-254): ―For the Egyptians are prone to a degenerate life and quickly sink to every slavery of the vices. Look at the origin of the race and you will discover that their father Cham, who had laughed at his father‘s nakedness, deserved a judgment of this kind, that his son Chanaan should be a servant to his brothers, in which case the condition of bondage would prove the wickedness of his conduct. Not without merit, therefore, does the discolored posterity imitate the ignobility of the race.2
St. Ephraim the Syrian (ca. 306 – 373): “When Noah awoke and was told what Canaan did, Noah said, ‘Cursed be Canaan and may God make his face black,’ and immediately the face of Canaan changed; so did of his father Ham, and their white faces became black and dark and their color changed.”3
The Cave of Treasures [attributed to St. Ephraim the Syrian] (4th century): Gives the explanation that Canaan’s curse was actually earned because he revived the sinful music and arts of Cain’s progeny that had been before the flood.4 “And Canaan was cursed because he had dared to do this, and his seed becamea servant of servants, that is to say, to the Egyptians, and the Cushites, and the Mûsâyê, [and theIndians, and all the Ethiopians, whose skins are black].”5
Ishodad of Merv, the Syrian Christian bishop of Hedhatha,(9th century): “When Noah cursed Canaan, ―instantly, by the force of the curse. . .his face and entire body became black [ukmotha]. This is the black color which has persisted in his descendants.”6
Eutychius, an Alexandrian Melkite patriarch, (d. 940): ― “Cursed be Ham and may he be a servant to his brothers… He himself and his descendants, who are the Egyptians, the Negroes, the Ethiopians and (it is said) the Barbari.”7
Ibn al-Tayyib, an Arabic Christian scholar, Baghdad, (d. 1043): ― “The curse of Noah affected the posterity of Canaan who were killed by Joshua son of Nun. At the moment of the curse, Canaan‘s body became black and the blackness spread out among them.”8
Bar Hebraeus, a Syrian Christian scholar, (1226–86): ― “And Ham, the father of Canaan, saw the nakedness of his father and showed [it] to his two brothers, That is…that Canaan was cursed and not Ham, and with the very curse he became black and the blackness was transmitted to his descendants… And he said, ‘Cursed be Canaan! A servant of servants shall he be to his brothers.’”9
The curse of Ham became used as a justification for serfdom during the medieval era. Honorius Augustodunensis (c. 1100) was the first recorded to propose a caste system associating Ham with serfdom, writing that serfs were descended from Ham, nobles from Japheth, and free men from Shem. However, he also followed the earlier interpretation of 1 Corinthians 7:21 by Ambrosiaster (late 4th century), that as servants in the temporal world, these “Hamites” were likely to receive a far greater reward in the next world than would the Japhetic nobility.10
The idea that serfs were the descendants of Ham soon became widely promoted in Europe. At the height of the medieval era, it was a significant trend in Genesis exegesis to interpret that the descendants of Ham were serfs. Dame Juliana Berners (c. 1388) in a treatise on hawks, claimed that the “churlish” descendants of Ham had settled in Europe, those of Shem in Africa, and those of Japheth in Asia—a departure from normal arrangements — because she considered Europe to be the “country of churls”, Asia of gentility, and Africa of temperance.11
As serfdom waned in the late medieval era, the interpretation of serfs being descendants of Ham decreased as well.12
The curse of Ham has been used to promoted race and slavery movements as early as Classical antiquity. European biblical scholars of the Middle Ages supported the view that the “sons of Ham” of Hamites were cursed, possibly “blackened” by their sins. Though early arguments to this effect were sporadic, they became increasingly common during the slave trade of the 18th and 19th centuries.13
The justification of slavery itself through the sins of Ham was well suited to the ideological interests of the elite; with the emergence of the slave trade, its racialized version justified the exploitation of a ready supply of African labour.
In the parts of Africa where Christianity flourished in the early days, while it was still illegal in Rome, this idea never took hold, and its interpretation of scripture was never adopted by the African Coptic Churches. A modern Amharic commentary on Genesis notes the 19th century and earlier European theory that blacks were subject to whites as a result of the “curse of Ham”, but calls this a false teaching unsupported by the text of the Bible, emphatically pointing out that this curse fell not upon all descendants of Ham but only on the descendants of Canaan, and asserting that it was fulfilled when Canaan was occupied by both Semites (Israel) and Japethites (ancient Philistines). The commentary further notes that Canaanites ceased to exist politically after the Third Punic War (149 BC), and that their current descendants are thus unknown and scattered among all peoples.14
The fully functioning rational mind raises a few questions about the Curse:
- Why weren’t any of Ham’s other sons (Cush, Mizraim or Phut) cursed as well as Canaan? Genesis 10:6)
- Why was Canaan being punished for Ham’s misdeeds, when Deuteronomy and Ezekiel clearly state that children should not be punished for parents’ misdeeds?[Deuteronomy 24:16, Ezekiel 18:20. Note that these counter Deuteronomy 5:9 and some other Old Testament extracts which stipulate that God punishes “children for the sin of the fathers to the third and fourth generations”. Some have interpreted this as indicating God’s hatred of entire families or races descended from sinners…God is above the rules. See 2 Samuel 12:10-18 and 1 Kings 14:10-18].
- Shem and Japheth acted as equal partners in covering their father, but Japheth’s reward is far greater.
- The whole idea that every black person in the world is permanently cursed because some far-distant and almost certainly mythical ancestor saw his father drunk and naked, aside from being appallingly racist, just doesn’t make a whole lot of sense at all.
- Why punish Ham and Canaan at all for Ham accidentally getting an eyeful of wrinkly old man parts? It can be fairly certain that getting a gander at his father’s rattle-and-flute was the furthest thing from his mind that day.
- In 1950, the United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization (UNESCO) issued a statement asserting that all humans belong to the same species and that “race” is not a biological reality but a myth. This was a summary of the findings of an international panel of anthropologists, geneticists, sociologists, and psychologists. Today the vast majority of those involved in research on human variation would agree that biological races do not exist among humans. Among those who study the subject, who use and accept modern scientific techniques and logic, this scientific fact is as valid and true as the fact that the earth is round and revolves around the sun.
- Homilies on Genesis 16.1.
- Paul de Lagarde. Materialien zur Kritik und Geschichte des Pentateuchs,(Leipzig, 1867), part II.
- This sentiment also appears in the later Syriac Book of the Bee (1222).
- Cave of Treasures, E. Wallis Budge translation from Syriac.
- C. Van Den Eynde, Corpus scriptorium Christianorum orientalium 156, Scriptores Syri 75(Louvain, 1955), p. 139.
- Patrologiae cursus completes…series Graeca, ed. J.P. Migne (Paris, 1857 –66), Pococke‘s (1658–59) translation of the Annales, 111.917B (sec. 41-43)7)
- Joannes C.J. Sanders, Commentaire sur la Genèse, Corpus Scriptorum Christianorum Orientalium274-275, Scriptores Arabici 24-25 (Louvain, 1967), 1:56 (text), 2:52-55 (translation).
- Sprengling and Graham, Barhebraeus‘ Scholia on the Old Testament, pp. 40 – 41, to Gen 9:22.
- Paul H. Freedman, 1999, Images of the mediaeval peasant p. 291; Whitford 2009 pp. 31-34.13)
- Whitford 2009 p. 38.14)
- David Mark Whitford (21 October 2009). The curse of Ham in the early modern era: the Bible and the justifications for slavery. .Ashgate Publishing, Ltd.. p. 173.ISBN978-0-7546-6625-7. Retrieved 15 September 2011.15)
- Benjamin Braude, “The Sons of Noah and the Construction of Ethnic and Geographical Identitiesin the Medieval and Early Modern Periods, “William and Mary Quarterly LIV (January 1997):103 – 142. See also William McKee Evans, “From the Land of Canaan to the Land of Guinea: TheStrange Odyssey of the Sons of Ham,”American Historical Review 85 (February 1980): 15 – 4316)
- Commentary on Genesis) p. 133-142.