Magic words once harnessed power. Today, they are used by magicians to set the mood. In this chapter of ORIGINS, discover the roots of Abracadabra, Hocus Pocus and more.
Sticks and stones may break my bones, but words will never hurt me. We all know the mantra and we all know how wrong it is. Spells and incantations are real and have plagued mankind since we learned that words have power (something demonstrated in the book of Genesis as God spoke things into existence instead of waving a magic wand or mixing a special potion). Perhaps the most famous of words throughout history is ABRACADABRA! With a sleight of the hand and the mention of this word, a hat produces a rabbit, a cloth births a dove, and all kinds of magic escape from an unseen universe to enter our own. But what are this word’s ORIGINS?
This magic word used in stage tricks (not to be confused with the equally powerful magic words of please and thank you) historically held healing powers when coupled with an amulet. Some believe it’s root is in Aramaic, meaning “I create as I speak” or more correctly “I create like the word.” The phrase is “avra kadravra” and you’ve probably already figured out that it’s the source of J.K. Rowling’s killing curse from the Harry Potter franchise. The Hebrew translation is “it came to pass as it was spoken” and is probably closest to the word’s meaning. It’s said to be the abbreviated forms of the Hebrew words for Father, Son, and Holy Spirit, though also referenced as another form of dialect meaning a god with snakes for feet. I guess either is powerful in its own right.
First noted in a book in the third century, abracadabra could make lethal illnesses disappear when shown inside an amulet. The Gnostics or ancient Jews in the first and second century used the phrase to invoke spirits to fight disease and misfortune. By the 19th century the word and amulet combo went from healing to hoax, as less and less people believed its potency leaving only stage magicians entertaining crowds. Another possible ORIGIN of this incredible word is of Abraxas, a term scribed on stones used as talismans. Did it truly hold power at one time? And if so, shouldn’t it still today if you believe?
What once was prescribed as a magical word now works only in the imagination. But magic holds power, whether fact or fiction. Magic became religion to some. To others, magic is mere coincidence. Either way, at some point in our history magic was the norm and spells, incantations, and magic words held power through meaning. Has much changed in that regard? I vote no. Don’t believe me? Pick a trigger word and use it in context on a Facebook thread and see how emotional people become. You don’t have to believe in the power of words to see their affect.
Abracadabra holds power in its purpose, use, and roots: “I create as I speak.” When a magician says the words over a sheet and produces a dove, it’s obvious how it works. As you speak it, it’s created. When an ancient spoke the words over a diseased individual, he expected a healing. I speak it, it’s created. It’s pretty incredible that we as humans believe our words hold that much power, even if laced in superstition. Today, we still find ourselves in this place but without the magic, so it’s not as fun. Words are still powerful, way more so than sticks or stones could ever be. Take bullying for example or politics or religion, topics I won’t get into on this podcast, and you get my point.
Let’s instead look at its power in a work of fiction: Harry Potter. The killing curse, Avada Kedavra, is one of three unforgiveable curses whose power is greater than any other spell of the Dark Arts. Correctly spoken, the killing curse renders the receiver instantly dead without any possibility of escape. But that’s not entirely true. The sacrificial protection is a counter-spell, ironically one that is not spoken with words. So is action stronger than words in this case? Was that a deeply subliminal lesson J.K. was hoping the reader could see? Probably not, but we’ll never know (unless you’re listening, J.K., and you’d like to comment).
Another common magical phrase is Hocus Pocus. This is sometimes interchangeable with Abracadabra, though its roots don’t run so deep. First seen in a book in the 17th century, the term Hocus Pocus was used in conjuring spells by “jugglers”, the name once used for conjurers, and as a book title that later became that magician’s stage name. The term was based in Latin as many ancient (and Harry Potter) spells often were and if the magic seemed real, the juggler was a witch. If not, a mere performing magician. The phrase befuddled the sense of the viewer along with large movements and distractions to sight and sound. The charm itself held no power, but aided in the trick, unless of course the juggler was a witch. In that case, they were probably burned at the stake considering the year. The corruption of the phrase hoc est corpus used in Catholic mass by priests in the Church of Rome is the most widely accepted ORIGIN of the words Hocus Pocus. Ironically, this association of conjurers and Catholic priests as tricksters was made by the Archbishop of Canterbury in 1694. More likely, it was just some nonsensical words sounding magical or mystical delivered by charismatic traveling performers to make money off people’s desires to be entertained by possibilities of true magic.
Others trace the root back to a pseudo-Latin or Dog Latin phrase of hax max pax Deus adimax, again used as a magic formula for conjurers. Another claim is the Norse demon and magician Ochus Bochus gave the phrase power as words of pseudomagical import. Now it is even said that Mr. Bochus is a corruption of the god Bacchus, the god of conjuration, who turned water into wine. Certainly saying that together makes sense. A variation of this theory, one that I find the most interesting, is that it is a hoax from a Welsh hobgoblin called Pwca, Pooka, or Puck. This Welsh shapeshifter is often synonymous throughout Europe with devil.
In 1590, another fun word was being thrown around by Italian magicians. No, it’s not Prego (though if you can make that jarred sauce taste like mama’s homemade, you just might be a magician). The term is Presto, as in presto-chango, one of my favorites. It means to change quickly as is among the more common phrases in a magician’s bag or hat, if you will. I’ve not found any correlation to any real power behind the phrase, but it is fun to pretend. Another incredible nonsensical phrase used by magicians is Sim Sala Bim used by the magician Danta, a.k.a. The Great Jansen. He learned it from a Danish nursery rhyme and it’s basically the Danish equivalent to Abracadabra. Perhaps this phrase is real magic like it’s American counterpart is portrayed to be.
A great film based off some popular and not so traditional magical words, systems, and beliefs, is Now You See Me and its sequel Now You See Me 2. I thought this was a great cat and mouse chase with the addition of magic that appears to be a mix of sleight of hand and the real deal. A friend of mine is an actual magician who won best magician of the year for Florida. His name is Danny Sanz, and you should check him out on Facebook. I asked him what he thought of this film and, as expected, he mentioned having trouble seeing past the tricks that he knew were not possible, much in the same way I know ballroom dancers who flinch when they see the tango performed by non-aficionados.
Today, magic words have lost some of their oomph and we are left with shadows of the power they once held. Like walking through the doors of Disney’s Magic Kingdom, there is still magic left in the world, but most of it remains behind the confines of our minds. We see a glimpse of what the world would be like if physical magic were real each time we watch Sam and Dean Winchester take down a ghost with salt bullets or paint an image to conjure a demon. We listen to them recite enchantments and spells to rid some poor fool of a demon who is using his skin as a coat and part of us wishes it were real. I always wonder where we can find the books they use and, more importantly, what form of the world wide web they perform their internet searches because I don’t ever find the information they discover at their fingertips. Maybe I need cheap hotel internet, fast food, and a beer. Or maybe, I just need to whisper ABRACADRA before I start.
I’m Jaimie Engle, and you’ve just discovered ORIGINS.
ORIGINS is a bi-weekly podcast that shares the story behind legends and lore, where myth and science meet; written and produced by me, award-winning author Jaimie Engle of The Write Engle. If you like stories with a supernatural slant, I happen to write them. Please follow on all social media @theWRITEengle. I follow back. As always, subscribing, liking, and sharing this podcast is your greatest compliment. Thank you. I’ve also opened a Patreon account. If you like what you hear, consider an ongoing monthly pledge of $1 so I can keep creating podcasts for you. And finally, if you’d like to stick around you can hear a short story from my book The Toilet Papers titled “The Sword of Kusanagi” a short selection from my novel Clifton Chase and the Arrow of Light, in which words have the power to move storms and save one boy from disaster.
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Music by Johann Jacob Froberger http://www.musopen.org