Sunday, October 14, 2012

Abracadabra

For years I have been fascinated by the use of and power in magic words. Recently, my over-analytic brain has fallen upon the old word “abracadabra” and wondered why it is what it is. I have also wondered if it shouldn't be in greater use these days. Certainly, a word with so much fame shouldn't be forgotten in the world of witchcraft.

The Online Etymology Dictionary tells us that the word is a . . .

magical formula, 1690s, from Latin (Q. Severus Sammonicus, 2c.), from Late Gk. Abraxas, cabalistic or gnostic name for the supreme god, and thus a word of power. It was written out in a triangle shape and worn around the neck to ward off sickness, etc. Another magical word, from a mid-15c. writing, was ananizapta.

This is interesting, albeit brief. It doesn’t really explain the use of the spell.

Wikipedia has this to say about the word:

Abracadabra
Abracadabra is an incantation used as a magic word in stage magic tricks, and historically was believed to have healing powers when inscribed on an amulet. The word is thought to have its origin in the Aramaic language, but numerous, conflicting folk etymologies are associated with it.

History:
The first known mention of the word was in the third century AD in a book called Liber Medicinalis (sometimes known as De Medicina Praecepta Saluberrima) by Quintus Serenus Sammonicus,[1] physician to the Roman emperor Caracalla, who prescribed that malaria[2]sufferers wear an amulet containing the word written in the form of a triangle:[3]
A - B - R - A - C - A - D - A - B - R - A
A - B - R - A - C - A - D - A - B - R
A - B - R - A - C - A - D - A - B
A - B - R - A - C - A - D - A
A - B - R - A - C - A - D
A - B - R - A - C - A
A - B - R - A - C
A - B - R - A
A - B - R
A - B
A

This, he explained, diminishes the hold over the patient of the spirit of the disease.[citation needed] Other Roman emperors, including Geta and Alexander Severus, were followers of the medical teachings of Serenus Sammonicus and may have used the incantation as well.[1][citation needed]

It was used as a magical formula by the Gnostics of the sect of Basilides in invoking the aid of beneficent spirits against disease and misfortune.[4] It is found on Abraxas stones which were worn as amulets. Subsequently, its use spread beyond the Gnostics.

The Puritan minister Increase Mather dismissed the word as bereft of power. Daniel Defoe also wrote dismissively about Londoners who posted the word on their doorways to ward off sickness during the Great Plague of London.[5] But Aleister Crowley regarded it as possessing great power; he said its true form is abrahadabra.[6]

The word is now commonly used as an incantation by stage magicians. It is also applied contemptuously to a conception or hypothesis which purports to be a simple solution of apparently insoluble phenomena.

Aleister Crowley replaced the C in Abracadabra with an H, which the Hermetic Order of the Golden Dawn in their Neophyte ritual linked with Breath and Life[2] as well as with the god Horus.[3] Aleister Crowley had taken the place of Horus or the Hierus officer[3] in the Golden Dawn's Neophyte ritual,[4] which means that he personally gave the response explaining the meaning of the letter H.

  1. Vollmer, Friedrich. Quinti Sereni Liber Medicinalis. Leipzig: Teubner, 1916.
  2. The Tenacious Buzz of Malaria". Wall Street Journal. July 10, 2010.
  3. Bartleby
  4. "Abracadabra". Encyclopædia Britannica (11th ed.). 1911.
  5. Daniel Defoe. A Journal of the Plague Year. London, Dent, 1911 (1722)
  6. Guiley, Rosemary (2006). "Abracadabra". The Encyclopedia of Magic and Alchemy. Visionary Living Inc.. ISBN 0-8160-6048-7.

Aliester Crowley aside, nothing is stated of the actual origin, though the note about its Aramaic origin has me curious. The part about magicians is the most interesting part, however, because that is how the word is used currently. I have my own memories of entertainers using the word during the most mysterious part of a magic trick – the part just before the end of the trick when there is supposed to be something mystical happening behind the scenes to produce the desired operation. But why would a charm of destruction be used as an incantation for creation?

This is revealed by the Brit, Michael Quinion, who writes about the word on his site World Wide Words:

What we know for sure is that it was first recorded in a Latin medical poem, De medicina praecepta, by the Roman physician Quintus Serenus Sammonicus in the second century AD. It’s believed to have come into English via French and Latin from a Greek word abrasadabra (the change from s to c seems to have been through a confused transliteration of the Greek). Serenus Sammonicus said that to get well a sick person should wear an amulet around the neck, a piece of parchment inscribed with a triangular formula derived from the word, which acts like a funnel to drive the sickness out of the body:
A B R A C A D A B R A
A B R A C A D A B R
A B R A C A D A B
A B R A C A D A
A B R A C A D
A B R A C A
A B R A C
A B R A
A B R
A B
A
However, it seems likely that abracadabra is older and that it derives from one of the Semitic languages, though nobody can say for sure, because there is no written record before Serenus Sammonicus. For what it’s worth, here are some theories:
1.      It’s from the Aramaic phrase avra kehdabra, meaning “I will create as I speak”.
2.      The source is three Hebrew words, ab (father), ben (son), and ruach acadosch (holy spirit).
3.      It’s from the Chaldean abbada ke dabra, meaning “perish like the word”.
4.      It originated with a Gnostic sect in Alexandria called the Basilidians and was probably based on Abrasax, the name of their supreme deity (Abraxas in Latin sources).

Here Mr. Quinion reveals the Aramaic origin phrase, which makes perfect sense to use if one is engaged in creation, as in the case of the stage magician mentioned above. The Chaldean phrase is an excellent phrase to use when sympathetically destroying illness, or anything else for that matter, as a kind of sympathetic magick. Could these be two distinct spells, possibly related, that became confused as one operation? In linguistic history, the language of the Chaldeans was gradually replaced by Aramaic. One need not strain to see that the older form of ke dabra evolved into kehdabra – the noun form of "word" evolved into the verb used to speak words. I think it likely that two phrases with similar sounds have been confused – culturally combined – into one word that is used for both creation and for destruction. Most witches realize that creation and destruction is actually the same thing.

The use of the word as a charm to lessen fever is a kind of sympathetic magic. The wearer shows the fever how to leave by making the glyph that represents it (the writing) systematically decrease on the paper. Here is an obvious example:
FEVER
FEVE
FEV
FE
F

Names are important magical words because they unite the identity of a person or thing, which is its very essence, into a symbol on a page or a sound to be spoken. Many creation myths tell the story of deities speaking things into being simply by naming them aloud. Eliphas Levi tells us that, “In magic, to have said is to have done” (quoted in Cavendish, vol. 5, 1418.) In ancient Egypt, Isis uses the name of Re to save him from a snake wound before using the powerful name for herself (Budge, 124). (I reused these ideas from a paper I wrote back in college on incantations and names as words of power.)

Personally, using the power name of a revered deity as a charm of lessening is a little bit improper.  If the pyramid were to be read from bottom to top however, the power of a protective deity would be invoked. I would not use the power name of a supreme deity as an example for decrease unless the deity was known as a destroyer or Cthonic type. To the Chrisitans, Abrasax may have been demonized into a malevolent spirit, so writing the name in a lessening manner would have been representative of lessening an evil force. Ultimately, all we can say with certainty is that the motivation behind the spell is not obviously revealed through its design without more information about the spell operations.

The 1911 version of the Encyclopedia Britannica gives more specific uses for the lessening charm and reveals an alternative pattern that may shed light more deeply into the spell working.

Abracadabra, a word analogous to Abraxas (q.v.), used as a magical formula by the Gnostics of the sect of Basilides in invoking the aid of beneficent spirits against disease and misfortune. It is found on Abraxas stones which were worn as amulets. Subsequently its use spread beyond the Gnostics, and in modern times it is applied contemptuously (e.g. by the early opponents of the evolution theory) to a conception or hypothesis which purports to be a simple solution of apparently insoluble phenomena. The Gnostic physician Serenus Sammonicus gave precise instructions as to its mystical use in averting or curing agues and fevers generally. The paper on which the word was written had to be folded in the form of a cross, suspended from the neck by a strip of linen so as to rest on the pit of the stomach, worn in this way for nine days, and then, before sunrise, cast behind the wearer into a stream running to the east. The letters were usually arranged as a triangle in one of the following ways:—

The design on the above right for fever-lessening shows the word being reduced from both ends of the word, rather than just one. Doing so almost perfectly leaves the name of the god, Abrasax written twice down each side of the pattern, which is quite protective magically. The word glyph would then create a wedge-shaped protective shield using the name of the supreme deity. Because the word “abracadabra” is not quite palindromic, it misses naming the god and is not useful in that kind of charm. If the Near Eastern phrases of creation and destruction were confused with the name of the god, Abrasax because they were similar words, it would explain why there are two representations of this charm. The word pyramid on the above left uses the phrase, while the one on the above right uses the deity's name, and in both is the evolution of how these two separate concepts became confused. Cleaning up this confusion would mean understanding these are two separate kinds of charms and separating the two charms with unique words. The charm on the left would be a spell of increase or decrease, in which the power is inherent in the word (i.e. an incantation), while the one on the right would be a charm to invoke the protection of a specific deity. The charm for invocation would no longer be based on the Aramaic or Chaldean phrase. Instead, it would be based on a palindromic application of Abraxas (in Latin) to produce the name of the deity down both sides of the glyph. The invocation charm would then look like this:

ABRAXAXARBA
BRAXAXARB
RAXAXAR
AXAXA
XAX
A

Using the same principle, a similar protective charm could be made by writing the name on paper of any protective deity of your choice. Folding some protective herbs inside the bundle and holding it on your person would be an excellent folk charm. However, not all names begin and end with the same letter, so a modification may need to be used. Here is a charm of protection to Achilles, who wards against ailments of the blood:
ACHILESELIHCA
CHILESELIHC
HILESELIH
ILESELI
LESEL
ESE
S

References:

Budge, E. A. Wallis, trans. The Book of the Dead. New York: Bell Publishing Co., 1960.

Cavendish, Richard. “Incantation.” Vol. 5 of Man, Myth & Magic. 1983 ed.

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