Magical chants work very much like mantras. They provide for us a device that helps to focus our mind on the single task at hand – raising power. Just as a burning feeling builds in a muscle when it is repeatedly used, so the energy of the witch builds when one uses a chant. When writing magical chants, there are a few principles to keep in mind to write the kind of chant to which generations after you will gravitate.
The process of thinking is a taxing one. The mind puts incredible energy into organizing all of the many thoughts that it processes. It is designed to seek out order, even to the point of creating patterns when none exist. This is a by-product of our mind clinging to the principle of cause and effect. “This happened because that happened first, right? Doesn’t everything happen for a reason?”
Because the mind loves patterns, rhythm, which is simply a pattern of sounds and silences, activates the storage ability of the mind very easily. Adding rhythm to chants makes them memorable, but it also makes them fun to speak, much like singing a song or humming a tune.
Rhyme, which is a manifestation of pattern, isn’t necessary to put in chants, but it does help the mind to more smoothly experience the patterns that it craves.
There are many rhythms already present in the world today. In both poetry and music, rhythm is typically called “beat.” Both poems and songs can provide you with some interesting rhythms to borrow when building a new chant. Remember how attractive – almost addictive to the ear –is the rhythm and rhyme in Poe’s The Raven? There is no reason to reinvent the beat in your chant from scratch.
Adding metaphor to chants is a great way of expanding your options when trying to compose a chant. To create metaphors, you look for associations between concepts that may be somewhat similar. For example, if someone is a coat-tail rider, you may also metaphorically refer to them as a flea on a dog. Fire is symbolic of passion, because the feeling acts as quickly and completely as does a burning flame. You can make connections between any of the properties or characteristics of two things to establish some kind of symbolism.
The Germanic peoples were particularly accomplished at a kind of metaphor called “kenning.” A kenning is a metaphor in which the description for one well-known thing is used to create the metaphorical name of something else. For example, if I had a particular dog that became somewhat famous for chasing the rabbits in the yard, I might metaphorically refer to all dogs in general as “bunny bullies,” which is simply a kenning for the word “dog.”
Many witches discount a chant’s atmosphere in an effort to score on rhythm and rhyme. Though you may have a very rhythmic and memorable chant, filled with all kinds of symbolism, you may still have a chant that doesn’t feel right when the circle is cast. Atmosphere is the overall feeling that a chant conveys. It creates a flavor, through the connotations built into the words of our cultures and languages, helping to paint a thorough picture of the scene in which a chant is most appropriate to use.
Many nursery rhymes feel childlike, because they were written to convey an atmosphere that was appropriate for children. Here is the earliest printed example (1881) of what we know today as “Ring around the Rosie.”
A pocket full of posies;
We all fall down!
Though this the rhyme’s connection to the Black Plague is highly contested, it could still make an excellent representation, through each line, of the symptoms, a possible ward, more symptoms and then the deadly result of the Plague. Yet its atmosphere is decidedly childlike.
To change the atmosphere of this rhyme, one could consult a thesaurus to find words with similar meaning, but darker connotations. I decided to consider each line and rewrite the same message using darker verbiage. Here’s how a darker rhyme about the Plague might look.
Big ole’ blackened bubo,
Posy hurled high and low;
No one sees the dawn.
Though the atmosphere might still feel a bit childlike, perhaps because most of us cannot help but hear the original words in our minds when we hear that particular rhythm, the new rhythm is decidedly darker.
Creating a darker atmosphere is particularly important for chants that ward or curse, as these actions require a seriousness in our moods that help to keep us focused on the particular intent. Here’s a chant I wrote to disturb the thoughts of anyone who may be opposing you. It isn’t necessarily for cursing, but it can create a kerfuffle in the mind of someone competing for the same job as you.
Stones and sticks and broken bits,
Wreck and ruin rival wits.
By leveraging metaphor and atmosphere together, you ensure that the chant represents the appropriate theme for your spell. Your spell’s intent should have a picture – a kind of mental snapshot representing in one mental image everything for which the spell is cast. That picture should be well represented by your chant. Certainly, there are chants that are good for general use, because they represent general pagan concepts or have very little connotations attached to the words that comprise them. But most chants need to be thematically related to the spell being cast. For example, the previous chant would not be appropriate to use as a healing chant.
A witch’s spell written by children’s book writer, Mary Norton in 1943 and represented in the Disney film, Bed Knobs and Broomsticks, shows lots of rhythm and the atmosphere is just right. It is a spell for turning any creature into a white rabbit.
Filigree, Apogee, Pedigree, Perigee
What makes it thematically correct is that it uses some higher level vocabulary including two from science (apogee and perigee) and a word relating to animals (pedigree), yet the words are relatively obscure for common speech, almost to the point of being esoteric. So the mind could perfectly agree that this chant could be a valid spell for turning a human into an animal. The key here is that the mind can agree with the appropriateness of the chant. Since most people’s minds are a bit flexible, one doesn’t have to be literal, but one shouldn’t wander too far off target either.
The last quality that is important in a chant is maintaining some degree of simplicity. Despite that the mind remembers things rather well when it has the help of rhythm, chants need to do more than simply stick in the mind. They also need to be spoken with ease. Unfortunately, our minds move more quickly than do our mouths.
The sounds we speak are made by the muscular flexibility and quickness of a variety of structures, including lips, tongue, jaw, vocal cords and diaphragm. We use all of these harmoniously, or else we wouldn’t speak with very much precision. We tend to worry about speaking with precision because no one wants their communication to be constantly misunderstood. But when we put together sounds at which we aren’t very practiced at making repeatedly, our bodies can’t move quickly or precisely enough to form them precisely.
As a witch gets further into the ecstatic moment – closer to the moment of release - this precision may become so unimportant that one may be simply muttering nonsense (rhythmically). But at the start of a chant, we need to minimize the difficulty. Too much oral difficulty steals focus. We begin to worry, even unconsciously, that we aren’t speaking correctly. Our brain starts putting more and more of its focus into the acrobatics of the mouth, which means we are not giving that focus to the intent of our spell.
Some poetic devices can be useful for creating the sought-after chant simply, but those same devices can also work against you. Alliteration puts the same sound at the beginning of concurrent beats. As in our previous example, “stones and sticks and broken bits,” there are two alliterative phrases (a repeating “s,” followed by a repeating “b”) that flow easily off the tongue. But be wary that too many repeating sounds may be too difficult to speak. A chant should not be a tongue twister. Unfortunately, there are no rules that apply. You will simply have to try the chant aloud to discover if it trips up your mouth.
A great chant will check all the boxes. It will be memorable, easy to speak without tying up the tongue, metaphorically describe the theme of the spell and convey the atmosphere of the theme. Often you will unconsciously know that it is a good chant because you will find that you, as well as others who may use it, will gravitate back to that chant over again. Well-made chants will seem to take on a life of their own, making themselves a part of your magickal tradition.