Say the Magic Word: The Origins of Abracadabra
Magic words are often used by magicians whilst performing magic tricks on stage. One of the most common of these incantations is ‘Abracadabra’. Although this word is known to many, it is likely that fewer people are aware of its origins. Apart from ‘Abracadabra’ there are several other magic words that are popularly used by stage magicians. Like ‘Abracadabra’, however, the origins of these words are also a mystery to most people.
Where Does the Word Abracadabra Come From?
While ‘Abracadabra’ is commonly used by stage magicians today for the entertainment of the masses, this word is said to have its origins in the ancient Roman world. Back then, this word was not used for performances, but was believed to contain potent magical power within it.
According to one theory, the word ‘Abracadabra’ is derived from the Hebrew words ‘ab, ben, ruach hakodesh’, which translates as ‘Father, Son and Holy Spirit’. Thus, the word ‘Abracadabra’ is in fact an invocation of the Holy Trinity.
According to another theory, this magic word is derived from another magic word known as ‘abraxas’. This word is special, as its letters, in Greek numerology, adds up to 365, i.e. the number of days in a year.
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Oil sketch for Hone's satirical painting The Pictorial Conjuror, 1775. (Public Domain)
Yet another theory for the origins of the word ‘Abracadabra’ is the Aramaic phrase ‘Avra kadavra’. Fans of the Harry Potter series would perhaps be familiar with this phrase, as a similar spell, ‘Avada kedavra’ is featured in the books. In the Harry Potter series, ‘Avada kedavra’ functions as a killing curse, and J. K. Rowling, who authored the books, is said to have drawn inspiration for this spell from the original Aramaic version of it. The original meaning of these magical words, according to Rowling, was ‘let the thing be destroyed’, and it was used for curing illnesses.
Abracadabra as a Medicinal Charm
‘Abracadabra’ written in its triangular / pyramidal form. (Public Domain)
In any case, ‘Abracadabra’ was used as a talisman over the ages. The 2nd century Roman savant, Serenus Sammonicus, for instance, provides a description in his Liber Medicinalis about the way this magic word may be used. This talisman involved the word being written on a piece of parchment repeatedly, with a letter being removed each time, until only one is left.
In the Middle Ages people believed that any event they couldn’t explain was possibly caused by magic, and much of the population of Medieval Europe deeply feared having an enchantment cast on them so they used Abracadabra to ward off any potential wrongdoing sent in their direction. As in Roman times, it was also used to “cure” disease.
The use of this ‘Abracadabra’ pyramid is mentioned by writers in later ages, including the 16th century Eva Rimmington Taylor, who wrote in ‘ The Troublesome Voyage of Capt. Edward Fenton’: “Banester sayth yt he healed 200 in one yer of an ague by hanging abracadabra about their necks.”
And Abracadabra was still around in the 18th century, as Daniel Defoe wrote in his 1722 work ‘ Journal of the Plague Year’, that the superstition was unfortunately being applied during to that epidemic:
“People deceiv'd; and this was in wearing Charms, Philters, Exorcisms, Amulets, and I know not what Preparations, to fortify the Body with them against the Plague; as if the Plague was but a kind of a Possession of an evil Spirit; and that it was to be kept off with Crossings, Signs of the Zodiac, Papers tied up with so many Knots; and certain Words, or Figures written on them, as particularly the Word Abracadabra, form'd in Triangle, or Pyramid...
How the poor People found the Insufficiency of those things, and how many of them were afterwards carried away in the Dead-Carts.”
Eventually, people stopped believing in the efficacy of ‘Abracadabra’ to heal or protect them and this word became relegated to stage magicians performing magic tricks.
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Magic words and signs on a rolled strip of paper (18th century). Upper Austrian County Museum (CC BY-SA 3.0)
Alakazam! Hocus Pocus! Bibbidi-Bobbidi-Boo!
Another common magic word is ‘Alakazam’. This incantation is said to have its origins in the Arabic language, and there is a similar-sounding word in that language, ‘Al Qasam’, which means oath. It has also been suggested that ‘Alakazam’ is a proper name, and that this magic spell was supposed to invoke the powers of a certain person by the name of Alakazam.
‘Hocus Pocus’ is another magic word that is often used by magicians. Unlike ‘Abracadabra’, the origin of this magic phrase lies in the more recent past, around the early 17th century, to be more precise. Like ‘Abracadabra’ and ‘Alakazam’, there are several theories trying to explain the origin of this phrase.
One, for instance, is offered by John Tillotson, the Archbishop of Canterbury in 1694. Tillotson suggests that this is a corruption of ‘hoc est corpus meum’ (this is my body), and is a parody of the consecration during the Catholic Mass.
Another suggestion is that the words just sounded exotic and this pair of words was coined simply because they rhymed. It may be a nonsense word made up solely to impress people during a magic trick.
In addition to these traditional magic words, there are also many others that have appeared in more recent times. Some of the better-known ones include ‘Bibbidi-Bobbidi-Boo’, used by the Fairy Godmother in Disney’s Cinderella, ‘Shazam’, used by DC Comic’s Billy Batson to transform into the superhero Captain Marvel, and ‘A-la Peanut Butter Sandwiches’, which is uttered by the Amazing Mumford in Sesame Street.
Top Image: Vintage magic book with symbols floating above it. Abracadabra was described as a talisman in books in the 2nd century and maybe even earlier. Source: akarb / Adobe
By Wu Mingren
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