The Use of Charms and Incantations
By Gary R Varner
An excerpt from a new book by Gary R. Varner.
One typical form of ancient charms and amulets, tools used to affect a curse, are the small human form figures commonly referred to today as voodoo dolls. Originally known as kolossi in Greek, they are not nearly as common as lead tablets but they are far older. Made of lead, wax, bronze, clay, mud, and dough, these dolls have been dated to the 10th century BCE. Actual voodoo dolls have been found from the Imperial Rome era in a riverbed and a sewer. It is believed that the use of voodoo dolls in Imperial Rome began at around the same time curse tablets were being used.
In antiquity, acts of magic, including spell-craft through incantation, were not considered as any form of opposition to the established religion. Ancient Rome’s law code, called the Twelve Tables, only prohibits evil incantations—not beneficial spell-craft. Scholar Marie-Louis Thomsen wrote, “They were not regarded as superstitious or forbidden, or laughed at. The rituals called ‘magical’ were the ordinary way of dealing with illness and misfortune and whatever disturbed the relations between man and god. In the eyes of the Mesopotamians they represented an old and divine knowledge and their performers were learned men with a high social status.”
A sorcerer may yield tremendous power by using his or her ability to make others ill to the point of death. Such ability may be used intentionally or unintentionally but will result in the same end. Anthropologist Beatrice Blyth Whiting, who studied Paiute sorcery, noted in her 1950 study, “When a sorcerer is angry, he may unintentionally kill someone in one of the following ways: he may think bad thoughts about the individual without being aware of his thoughts; in a fit of temper he may express aggressive wishes about an individual without the intention of injuring him; or he may dream bad dreams about an individual. In the latter case, the victim may have dreams in which the sorcerer’s power appears.”
Many individuals appear to have been accused of witchcraft due to personality defects more than anything else. One example recorded by Whiting was in the case of a man named Tom who lived near Fort Bidwell in Oregon in the 1930s. Tom was regarded as “mean”; he supposedly beat his children for little reason, was said to be “aggressive in competitive games and was domineering and threatening in his relationship with other tribal members. Naturally, he was accused of witchcraft because of his lack of control and disregard for societal norms.
Anyone who exhibited similar characteristics during the Middle Ages was also regarded as a witch or sorcerer. Such charges were a way to enforce cultural norms in behavior and group cooperation.
There are, of course, instances where people have and do desire to create harm and use many of the typical methods of witchcraft to achieve their goal—through spell-craft.
Perhaps one of the oldest forms of spell-craft using incantations is that of “metrical charms”—simple rhymes that have carried over into contemporary cultures as nursery rhymes.
The power of language, of particular words and sounds, has long been valued by cultures which have not invested their entire experience in obtaining knowledge through the written word. While I cannot think of a world without books, it is, sad to say, the written language which has robbed modern man of his ability to utilize his mind as once was done.
Caesar reported that the Druids underwent 20 years of intense education. A huge number of verses and oral history had to be mastered before an initiate could pass the Druidic training. None of the required training could be committed to writing. Likewise Australian aborigine societies continue to educate their young in a similar fashion, as did Native Americans at one time.
Incantations by verse were perhaps the first form of spell-craft. Spence reports one such spell used to bind an individual to a particular task. Called the “nine fulfillments of the fairy woman” it ran as follows:
To lay thee under spells and crosses
under (pain of being struck by) the nine
cow-fetters of the wildly roaming,
traveler-deluding fairy woman,
So that some sorry little wight more feeble
and misguided than myself
Take thy head, thine ear and thy life’s
career from thee.
Another example of a spell called a fath-fifth or fith-fath which supposedly causes invisibility is, according to Spense:
A magic cloud I put on thee,
From dog, from cat,
From cow, from horse,
From man, from woman,
From young man, from maiden,
And from little child.
Till I again return.
The term fith-fath, pronounced “fee-fa” survived in our nursery rhymes as the giant’s chant “fee-fo-fum” in Jack and the Beanstalk.
Another example of an incantation is found in Shakespeare’s Macbeth:
“Double double, toil and trouble…”
Other rhyming incantations were said to be used to transform a witch into an animal, in this example it was used to shape-shift into a hare:
I shall go into a hare,
With sorrow and sigh and mickle care;
And I shall go in the Devil’s name
Ay while I come home again.
As previously noted, the Roman Twelve Tables only prohibited spells used to harm others, not those used for the good of society. Fritz Graf, professor of classics at Princeton University, sums up the intent of the Twelve Tables:
“The Romans evidently believed in the powerful efficacy of certain vocal rites, the carmina, one could incantare or excantare. But we do not know whether the negative value of these terms is peculiar to them or whether it comes from the context…The same law of the Twelve Tables also uses Carmen in the neutral sense of verbal composition, according to Cicero: ‘If any person had sung or composed against another person a song such as was causing slander or insult to another…’ As defamatory songs, these carmina also have a destructive force…”
The use of sound to control weather, or at least to cause rain, was practiced in the Ozarks in the United States up to the early part of the 20th century. According to Vance Randolph “Singing late at night is said to ‘fetch on a shower,’ as explained in the little rhyme:
Sing afore you go to bed,
You’ll get up with a wet head.”
Egypt has had a long history of using magical incantations. Some of the oldest and most complete magical texts still in existence date to the first century BCE. Magical names and characters were common but also the simple use of long magical words repeated over and over.
Religion historian Richard Kieckhefer wrote “papyri sometimes repeat long magical words, progressively abridged with each repetition, such as:
“And so forth, until nothing but the initial ‘A’ remains.” At the same time, Kieckhefer noted, “magicians in the Mediterranean world were devising other magical words like ‘abracadabra’ and ‘abraxas’ to use on amulets or papyri.”
“Abracadabra” is a widespread incantation normally used today in cartoons or by persons not knowing its significance that, according to Mare Köiva, “has gradually taken on the meaning on the unknown and the unintelligible.”
“Abraxas” is an interesting word supposedly derived from “the holy name of God.” The sum of the seven letters equals 365 or the number of days in a year.
“The most powerful and terrible magical spells in the Judaeo-Christian tradition,” according to Jeffrey Russell, “used the Tetragammaton (YHWH, the four transliterated Hebrew letters of the Name of God), preferably reversed.”
The use of “magical words” became very popular during the Middle Ages and have been linked to cabalistic texts. Many of the written incantations were accompanied with graphic designs such as circles, squares, crosses, images of the sun, etc. These magic words were often arranged in circles or squares, called palindromes, in which each letter and word may have specific meanings. During the Middle Ages they were utilized by the Muslims and cabalists but have been found in Coptic scrolls as well.
Köiva notes “In the 18ths century at the apogee of the use of the formula (in Estonia), the incantation was attached to planks, clay tablets or plates that were put up on the walls of houses or outhouses. At times of war and extensive fires such incantations were burnt in order to prevent fire.”
This formula was used in Estonia for protection from fire, rabies, snakebite, swelling, toothache, bleeding and to ensure successful hunting ventures.
In many areas of the world, magic and spell-casting is still a very important function in survival. The Qemant, an ethnic Pagan-Hebraic group that lived in Ethiopia prior to the civil war there, practiced “white” magic to counteract the power of malevolent magic and witchcraft.
According to anthropologist Frederick Gamst who studied the Qemant, “magic is practiced by all shamans, by certain knowledgeable peasants of any ethnic group, and by some religious practitioners of the Christian and Muslim faiths.”
Qemant sorcerers, who practice black magic, rely on incantations and “objects of medicine” for their spells. All of this may be counteracted by the shaman who practices “white magic” using primarily the same methods.
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