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Spells are incantations, written or spoken formulas of words believed to be capable of magical effects. The term "spell" derives from the Anglo-Saxon spel, a saying or story, hence a form of words; the Icelandic spjall, a saying; and the Gothic spill, a fable.

The conception of spells appears to have arisen from the idea that there is some natural and intimate connection between words and the things signified by them. Thus if one repeats the name of a supernatural being the effect will be analogous to that produced by the being itself. It is assumed that all things are in a "sympathetic" connection and act and react upon one another; things that have once been in contact continue to act on each other even after the contact has been removed. People in ancient Egypt believed that certain secret names of gods, demi-gods, and demons unknown to human beings might be discovered and used against them by the discoverer.

The power of the spoken word was a ubiquitous belief in nearly all ancient societies and continues among pre-industrial societies to the present. Magical practitioners also developed a special language, known only to them, that became an object of mystery and a source of their power in the society. Thus the magicians of ancient Egypt employed foreign words for their incantations, such as tharthar, thamara, thatha, mommon, thanabotha, opranu, brokhrex, and abranazukhel. These occurred at the end of a spell with the purpose of bringing dreams. The development of magic was integral to the development of writing, and magical writings reveal the manner in which the simple knowledge of writing, especially of a foreign language, was a magical skill of great import.

The magicians and sorcerers of the Middle Ages likewise employed words of a similar kind that were unknown to most people, as did the medicine men of the North American Indians into relatively modern times. The reason the spell was usually couched in a well-known formula may have been that it was the most efficacious. Thus in ancient Egypt not only were the formulas of spells well fixed, but the exact tone of voice in which they were to be pronounced was specially taught. The power of a spell remained until it was broken by an antidote or exorcism.

Spells belong to what modern magicians call low magic, that which attempts to effect the mundane world, as opposed to high magic, which attempts to change the consciousness of the magician and bring him or her into contact with the transcendent realm. Spells or enchantments can be divided into several classes: (1) Protective spells; (2) The curse or taboo; (3) Spells by which a person, animal, or object is to be injured or transformed; (4) Spells to procure some minor end, love-spells, or the curing of persons and animals.

Protective Spells

The protective spell commonly appeared as an incantation, usually rhymed, imploring the protection of certain gods, saints, or beneficent beings, who in waking or sleeping hours would guard the speaker from maleficent powers. For example: "Matthew, Mark, Luke and John, Bless the bed that I lie on."

Of a deeper significance were those spells thought to be spoken by a dead Egyptian on his journey through Amenti (the kingdom of the dead), by which he warded off the evil beings who would hinder his way. The serpent who would bite the dead was addressed thus: "O serpent come not! Geb and Shu stand against thee. Thou hast eaten mice. That is loathsome to the Gods. Thou hast gnawed the bones of a putrid cat."

E. A. W. Budge stated in his book Egyptian Magic (1899), "The Book of the Dead says, 'Whoever readeth the spells daily over himself, he is whole upon earth, he escapes from death, and never doth anything evil meet him."'

The deceased placed great confidence in his words of power. The gods of Thoth and Isis were the sources from which these words sprang. It will be remembered that Thoth is called the "scribe of the gods," the "lord of writing," the "master of papyrus," the "maker of the palette and the ink-jar," and the "lord of divine words," i.e., the holy writings or scriptures. As he was the lord of books and master of the power of speech, he was considered to be the possessor of all knowledge both human and divine. The priests of Thoth were the learned magicians skilled in the written language for which Thoth had been responsible.

At the creation of the world, it was he who reduced to words the will of the unseen and unknown creative power, who uttered them so wisely that the universe came into being, and who proved himself by the exercise of his knowledge to be the protector and the friend of Osiris and of Isis, and of their son Horus.

From the evidence of the texts we know that it was not by physical might that Thoth helped these three gods, but by giving them words of power and instructing them how to use them. We know that Osiris vanquished his foes, and that he reconstituted his body and became the king of the underworld and god of the dead. It is this belief that made the deceased cry out, "Hail, Thoth, who madest Osiris victorious over his enemies, make thou Ani to be victorious over his enemies in the presence of the great and sovereign princes who are in Tattu, or in any other place."

Without the words of power given to him by Thoth, Osiris would have been powerless under the attacks of his foes, and similarly the dead man, who was always identified with Osiris, would have passed out of existence at his death but for the words of power provided by the writings that were buried with him. In the Judgment Scene it is Thoth who reports to the gods the result of the weighing of the heart in the balance, and who has supplied its owner with the words that he has uttered in his supplications, and whatever can be said in favor of the deceased he says to the gods, and whatever can be done for him he does.

But apart from being the protector and friend of Osiris, Thoth was the refuge to which Isis fled in her trouble. The words of a hymn declare that she knew "how to turn aside evil happening," and that she was "strong of tongue and uttered the words of power which she knew with correct pronunciation, and halted not in her speech, and was perfect both in giving the command, and in saying the word," but this description only proves that she had been instructed by Thoth in the art of uttering words of power with effect, and to him, indeed, she owed more than this. Spells to keep away disease are of this class.

The amulets found upon Egyptian mummies and the inscriptions on Gnostic gems are, for the most part, of a protective nature. The protective spell may be said to be an amulet in words and is often found in connection with the amulet on which it is inscribed.


The curse or taboo may appear as (a) the word of blighting, the damaging word, or (b) the word of prohibition or restriction.

The curse is of the nature of a spell, even if it is not in the shape of a definite formula. Thus we have the Highland Scottish curses: "A bad meeting to you," "Bad understanding to you," and "A down mouth be yours," which are popular as formulas.

Those who had seen old women, of the type of Madge Wild-fire (in Sir Walter Scott's novel The Heart of Midlothian ), cursing and banning, say their manner is well-calculated to inspire terror. Some years ago, a party of Scottish tinkers quarreled and fought, first among themselves, and then with some Tiree villagers. In the excitement, a tinker wife threw off her cap and allowed her hair to fall over her shoulders in wild disorder. She then bared her knees, and falling on them to the ground in a praying attitude, poured forth a torrent of wishes that struck awe into all who heard her.

She imprecated: "Drowning by sea and conflagration by land; may you never see a son to follow your body to the graveyard, or a daughter to mourn your death. I have made my wish before this, and I will make it now, and there was not yet a day I did not see my wish fulfilled."

Curses employed by witches usually invoked a blight upon the person cursed and their flocks, herds, and crops. Barrenness, too, was frequently called down upon women. A person under a curse or spell was believed in the Scottish Highlands "to become powerless over his own volition alive and awake but moves and acts as if asleep." Curses or spells that invoked death were frequently mentioned in works that deal with Medieval magic (see summons by the dying ).

The taboo was a word of prohibition or restriction. This is typified in the mystic expression "thou shalt not." Thus a number of the Biblical commandments are taboos, and the book of Leviticus teems with them. The taboo is the "don't" applied to childrena curb on basic desire for the sake of the community. To break a taboo was to bring dire misfortune upon oneself, and often upon one's family. It could even threaten the whole community and some action would have to be taken to counter the effects of a broken taboo.

Transforming Spells

There are copious examples of injury or transformation of a person, animal, or object. These were nearly always affected by a spell of a given formula. No fewer than 12 chapters of the Egyptian Book of the Dead (chapters 77 to 88) are devoted to providing the deceased with words of power, the recital of which was necessary to enable him to transform himself into various animal and human forms.

S. Baring Gould, in his Book of Folklore (1913), states that in such cases the consequence of a spell being cast on an individual required him or her to become a beast or a monster with no escape except under conditions difficult to obtain. To this category belong a number of so-called fairy tales that are actually folktales. Wherever the magical art is believed to be all-powerful, one of its greatest achievements is the casting of a spell so as to alter completely the appearance of the person on whom it is cast, so that this individual becomes an animal. One need only recall the story in the Arabian Nights of the Calendars and the three noble ladies of Baghdad, in which the wicked sisters are transformed into dogs that have to be thrashed every day. Also of this class are the stories "Beauty and the Beast" and "The Frog Prince."

Procurement Spells

Procurement spells are spells to procure some minor end. Love spells were engraved on metal tables by the Gnostics and the magicians of the Middle Ages. Instances of these are to be found in The Book of the Sacred Magic of Abraham the Jew. Spells were often employed to imprison evil spirits.

Jewish folklore has many opinions and legends relating to this subject, which appear to have derived in a great measure from the Babylonians. The ancient historian Josephus affirmed that it was generally believed by his countrymen that Solomon left behind many spells that had the power of terrifying and expelling evil spirits. Some of the old rabbis also described Solomon as an accomplished magician. It is possible that the belief in the power of spells and incantations became general among the Hebrews during the captivity, and that the invention of them was attributed to the wise Solomon, as a more creditable personage than the deities of the Assyrians.

Those fictions acquired currency, not only among the Arabs, Persians, and other Islamic nations, but, in the process of time, also in many Christian communities. They were first adopted by the Gnostics and the dualistic sects in whose beliefs pagan rituals mixed with Jewish and Christian notions. In the Middle Ages they found their way among Catholics too, principally by means of the apocryphal gospels and the hagiography of the saints.

An incident in the life of St. Margaret is typical. This holy virgin, having vanquished an evil spirit who assaulted her, demanded his name. "My name," replied the demon, "is Veltis, and I am one of those whom Solomon, by virtue of his spells, confined in a copper caldron at Babylon, but when the Babylonians, in the hope of finding treasures, dug up the caldron and opened it, we all made our escape. Since that time, our efforts have been directed to the destruction of righteous persons, and I have long been striving to turn thee from the course which thou hast embraced." The reader of the Arabian Nights' Entertainments will be immediately reminded of the story of the fisherman. The Oriental origin of many similar legends, e.g., of St. George of Cappadocia, seems equally clear.

Modern Spell Magic

Spells became a large part of popular folk magic, a fact illustrated by the magic of the Pennsylvania Dutch as compiled in The Long Lost Friend by John Hohman. This book of magic largely consists of short spells that could be easily learned and just as easily repeated at any appropriate moment. Through the nineteenth century, as Western society reoriented itself around science and technology, spells supposedly became part of the superstitious pre-scientific past. However, the survival of magic into the post-scientific world has been accompanied with a reappraisal of magic in light of its social function.

As magic has been revived in the West, one can note the spread and use of spells, especially among the Wiccans, practitioners of neo-pagan witchcraft. Much of the popular Wiccan movement is focused on the improvement of the lives of the adherents and the lives of their friends and family. Low magic is common and accompanies a program that emphasizes psychic training, self-discipline, and the development of new social skills.

In modern Wicca, the emphasis is placed upon positive spells, but there is a place for curses and negative spells. Admonitions surround the use of such spells. Some pagan priestesses speak of a threefold law of return. If one seeks out a spell, and if that spell does not take, it will rebound upon the one who sent it with a triple force.


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Aima. Ritual Book of Herbal Spell. Los Angeles: Hermetic Science Center, 1970.

Budge, E. A. Wallis. Egyptian Magic. London: Kegan Paul, 1899.

Campbell, J. G. Witchcraft and Second Sight in Scottish Highlands and Islands. Glasgow: Alex, MacLehose, 1902.

Cohen, Daniel. Curses, Hexes and Spells. Philadelphia: Lippincott, 1974.

De Pascale, Marc. The Book of Spells. New York: Taplinger, 1971.

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Grimm, Macob. Teutonic Mythology. 4 vols. London: Bell, 1880-88.

Heim, Richard, ed. Incantamenta Magica Graeca Latina. Leipzig: Teubner, 1893.

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Holroyd, Stuart. Magic, Words, and Numbers. London: Aldus Books; Garden City, N.Y.: Doubleday, 1975.

Leek, Sybil. Book of Curses. Englewood Cliffs, N.J.: Prentice-Hall, 1975.

. Cast Your Own Spell. New York: Bee-Line Books, 1970.

MacKenzie, William, ed. Gaelic Incantations, Charms and Blessings of the Hebrides. Inverness, Scotland, 1895.

Malbrough, Ray T. Charms, Spells, and Formulas. St. Paul: Llewellyn Publications, 1987.

Maple, Eric. Incantations and Words of Power. New York: Samuel Weiser, 1974.

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Mickaharic, Draja. A Century of Spells. York Beach, Maine: Samuel Weiser, 1988.

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in·can·ta·tion / ˌinkanˈtāshən/ • n. a series of words said as a magic spell or charm: an incantation to raise the dead. ∎  the use of such words: there was no magic in such incantation | incantations of old slogans. DERIVATIVES: in·can·ta·to·ry / -ˈkantəˌtôrē/ adj.

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"incantation." The Oxford Pocket Dictionary of Current English. . 18 Dec. 2017 <>.

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incantation, set formula, spoken or sung, for the purpose of working magic. An incantation is normally an invocation to beneficent supernatural spirits for aid, protection, or inspiration. It may also serve as a charm or spell to ward off the effects of evil spirits. In black magic an incantation may be the means of summoning or materializing the powers of darkness.

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"incantation." The Columbia Encyclopedia, 6th ed.. . 18 Dec. 2017 <>.

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Spells. Setting of poems by Kathleen Raine for sop., ch., and orch. by Richard Rodney Bennett, comp. 1974, f.p. Worcester Fest. 1975. (2nd and 5th movts. arr. as Love Spells for sop. and orch. (1974)). F. p. London 1978.

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"Spells." The Concise Oxford Dictionary of Music. . 18 Dec. 2017 <>.

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incantation XIV. — (O)F. — late L. incantātiō, -ōn-, f. incantāre chant, charm, f. IN-1 + cantāre sing, CHANT; see -ATION.

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Incantation: see MAGIC.

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