views updated Jun 27 2018


INCANTATION . The practice of incantation (Lat., incantatio, from incantare, "to chant a religious formula") differs considerably from culture to culture. For the purposes of this cross-cultural overview, however, incantation can be understood as the authorized use of rhythmically organized words of power that are chanted, spoken, or written to accomplish a desired goal by binding spiritual powers to act in a favorable way.

Since incantation uses words to move spiritual powers and accomplish a desired result, this practice is related to other uses of sacred language such as prayer, invocation, blessing, and cursing. Verbal formulas associated with prayer beseech the spiritual powers for certain actions or maintain communication by praise and submission. However, verbal formulas associated with incantation are designed to perform the desired result by "obliging" (Lat., obligare, "to bind") spiritual powers. Invocation, blessing, and cursing are used with both prayer and incantation.

The Power of Incantation

Even though practices of incantation differ widely from culture to culture, its validity or efficacy appears to depend on cultural consensus about a number of primary factors, namely, the power of the chanted verbal formula, the authority of the incantor, the receptivity of spiritual forces both good and evil, the connection with the religious or mythological tradition, and the power of the accompanying ritual.

The power of the formula

Societies that use incantations understand them to be performative, that is, they accomplish what they say. The act of chanting the verbal formula itself has power. Scholars have put forth a variety of explanations concerning the effect incantations have for people. Older theories considered incantation to be a form of magic, an attempt to control and manipulate the forces of nature. More recent theories have suggested that incantations are expressive of needs and wishes or symbolize a desired result, or that they have the psychological effect of restructuring reality in the minds of people. Although these explanations may provide certain insights into the meaning of incantation, it must be remembered that, to the people involved, the proper chanting of the formula itself has performative power. To them it does not express or symbolize some other actionit does it. When, for example, the incantation experts of the Trobriand Islanders chant over the newly planted yam vines, "Raise thy stalk, O taytu. Make it flare up, make it lie across!" (Malinowski, 1935, vol. 1, p. 146), the people know that the "hearing" of these commands by the tubers is what makes them sprout and grow.

It is not, however, just any words that have such power. Incantations are special verbal formulas that in a variety of ways, depending upon the particular cultural tradition, tap into sacred power. They may, for example, contain powerful scriptural expressions, mantras, or sacred names. They are usually rhythmically organized and chanted repeatedly. They may use special devices such as foreign or unintelligible words, "abracadabra" nonsense phrases. The Anglo-Saxon medical-incantation treatise Lacnunga provides an example, using powerful names and impressive nonsense words:

Sing this prayer over the black blains nine times: first, Paternoster. "Tigath tigath tigath calicet aclu cluel sedes adclocles acre earcre arnem nonabiuth aer aernem nidren arcum cunath arcum arctua fligara uflen binchi cutern nicuparam raf afth egal uflen arta arta arta trauncula trauncula. [In Latin:] Seek and you shall find. I adjure you by the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit that you grow no larger but that you dry up. Cross Matthew, cross Mark, cross Luke, cross John." (Grattan and Singer, 1952, p. 107; my trans.)

It should be noted that, although the primary power of an incantation resides in its oral presentation, once these formulas could be written down, the chirographic (handwritten) text itself contributed to the potency of the incantation. From before 600 ce come Jewish-related Aramaic incantation texts written by experts on bowls and designed to ward off various sorts of evil. Such power could now be extended even into the realm of the dead, as in the case of Middle Kingdom Egyptian incantations inscribed on the inside wall of coffins, by which the various gods and demons encountered by the soul would be bound to act beneficially.

The chanter's authority

Closely connected to the power of the verbal formula is the authority of the incantors. These may be experts in terms of learning or ecclesiastical authority, like Daoist priests or Christian monks; they may be people who have been specially initiated into the use of such power, like various kinds of shamans; they may be charismatic holy ones who keep certain special observances or practices that sanction their authority. In the incantation itself, the chanter often clothes himself in the aura of divine authority and power. A Malay shaman, drawing authority from both Hinduism and Islam, outroars a thunderstorm:

Om! Virgin goddess, Mahadewi! Om!
Cub am I of mighty tiger!
ʿAli's line through me descends!
My voice is the rumble of thunder,
By virtue of my charm got from ʿAli
And of Islam's confession of faith. (Winstedt, 1925, p. 59)

Receptivity of the spiritual forces

The power of the incantation further derives from the people's shared understanding of the nature and receptivity of the spiritual powers to be moved and bound by the powerful words. That spiritual entity may be simply an object or person that is to perform in a certain way. At other times, the incantation invokes, with careful mention of names, spirits, or gods who control aspects of nature and life, empowering or binding them to act beneficially. Ritual specialists of Java, when burying the umbilical cord of a newborn baby, intone the following words: "In the name of God, the Merciful, the Compassionate! Father Earth, Mother Earth, I am about to leave in your care the birthcord of the baby. Don't bother the baby. This is necessary because of Allah. If you do bother him, you will by punished by God" (Geertz, 1960, p. 46).

A great many incantations are addressed to evil spirits or demons, conjuring them to leave or stay away. It is extremely important that the incantor name and identify the origin and characteristics of the evil power in order to bind it. Pre-Spanish Maya incantations, for example, list detailed knowledge about the evil spirit of the disease, recounting its parentage, its lustful impulses that inspired its shameful birth, and all its characteristics; they then proceed to consign the spirit to the foul-smelling underworld or to cast it into the wind to fall behind the sky. An Aramaic incantation becomes very specific in naming one of the many demons: "I adjure you, Lilith ablas, granddaughter of Lilith Zarnai, the one who fills deep places, strikes, smites, casts down, strangles, kills, and casts down boys and girls, male and female foetuses," while another text conjures by name nearly eighty demons and spirits of evils or sicknesses (Isbell, 1975, pp. 61, 121122), showing that, occasionally, an incantation will name a whole series of evil spirits and demonsjust to be sure that the right one is included.

Connection of the chant with tradition

The successful operation of the incantation depends on its connection with the religious or mythological tradition of the people. In one way or another, the incantation fits the specific human circumstance into the larger pattern of sacred existence and power as known in the religion of the people. Incantations in which such patterns are made explicit can be called narrative incantations. For example, Scottish incantations are regularly grounded in stories or legends about Christ and his disciples, as in this example: "Christ went on an ass, / She sprained her foot, / He came down / And healed her foot; / As He healed that / May He heal this, / And greater than this, / If it be His will to do" (Carmichael, 1928, vol. 2, p. 17). An ancient Egyptian narrative incantation, relating at great length how Isis rescued her son Horus from a scorpion's bite, concludes with the main point: "It means that Horus lives for his motherand that the sufferer lives for his mother likewise; the poison is powerless!" (Borghouts, 1978, pp. 6269).

The accompanying ritual actions

While incantations can be used alone without any accompanying actions, in most cultures the chanting of incantations is usually associated with the power of other ritual actions. The incantation may be related to a ritual object that it empowers with sacred force. For treating a child with worms, the Javanese doctor chants over a special herb: "In the name of God, the Merciful, the Compassionate! Grandmother spirit, Grandfather spirit. The harmful wormsmay they all die. The good wormsmay they stay for the whole length of the child's life" (Geertz, 1960, p. 93). Cherokee specialists almost always chant their incantations over tobacco, "remaking" or empowering the tobacco to perform the desired benefit. A Daoist priest chants this incantation over a small puppet as he rubs it over a patient: "Substitute, be thou in place of the fore part of the body, be thou in place of the back parts, be thou in place of the left side, that health may be ensured to him for year upon year" (de Groot, 1967, vol. 6, p. 1260). Incantation texts are often accompanied by directions for ritual actions. For example, an ancient Mesopotamian incantation for potency commands: "Let the ass swell up! Let him mount the jenny! Let the buck get an erection! Let him again and again mount the young she-goat!"; then the ritual directions follow: "Pulverized magnetic iron ore you put [into] puru oil; you recite the incantation over it seven times; the man rubs his penis, the woman her vagina with the oil, then he can have intercourse" (Biggs, 1967, p. 33). Incantation and ritual together accomplish the desired result.

Forms of Address

Within the great diversity of forms taken by the incantation formulas in different cultures and even within the same culture, a number of standard types can be discerned in the way spiritual powers are addressed. Many operate with the command form, using imperatives or statements of obligation to bind the spiritual powers to the desired action. Other incantations use the declaratory mode to establish the hoped-for result. And there are other incantations that approach the prayer mode, beseeching or charming the spiritual powers to take the beneficial action. Many times, of course, incantations use a combination of these three forms.

The command form, at its simplest, consists in naming the spiritual power and binding it to the desired action with an imperative. The High German "Pro Nessia" incantation from the ninth century ce, driving out the worm spirit that causes disease, is pure command:

Go out, nesso,
with the nine little ones,
out from the marrow into the veins,
from the veins into the flesh,
from the flesh into the hide,
from the hide into this arrow.
Three paternosters. (Hampp, 1961, p. 118; my trans.)

In Burma, an exorcist addresses many powers of the supernatural world in a general incantation in order to focus his powerful command on the ouktazaun (minor spirit) that is possessing his client: "To all the samma and brahma devas of the sky heavens; to all the ghosts, monsters, and other evil creatures; to the ogres of the earth; to the master witches and the wizards; to the evil nats and the ouktazauns: I command you to leave. I command you by the glory of the Triple Gems [Buddha, Dhamma, and Sangha]" (Spiro, 1967, p. 177).

Very often incantations use a declaratory mode to perform the intended result of binding evil forces or compelling the good, declaring the desired state to be a reality in the present or the future. A Cherokee incantation designed to break up a happily married couple, for the benefit of a forgotten lover, simply declares the result to be so:

Now! Very quickly pillow your head upon the Soul of
the Dog, outside, where there is loneliness!

Your name is ______.

In the very middle of your two bodies loneliness has
just come to think.

You are to be broken in the Pathway.

Now! Where the joining is has just come to be divided.

Your two souls have just come to be divided somewhere
in the Valley.

Without breaking your soul, I have just come to stupefy
you with the Smoke of the Blue Tobacco. (Kilpatrick and Kilpatrick, 1965, pp. 139140)

When the Trobriand sorcerer tours the gardens with their budding leaves, he intones, "The yam rises and swells like a bush-hen's nest. The yam rises and swells like a baking-mound. For these are my yams, and my kinsmen will eat them up. My mother will die of surfeit, I myself will die of repletion" (Malinowski, 1935, vol. 1, p. 146). It is in this declaratory mode that blessings and curses are often formulated, focusing on the person or thing to be involved and declaring the favorable or unfavorable state to be a reality.

A third mode of expression in many incantations is that of beseeching or charming the sacred powers to act benevolently. This form approaches that of prayer and, at times, is indistinguishable from it. Yet the typical expressions, "May you," "Let God," "I ask you," and the like, can also be understood as compelling or binding the spiritual powers, not just beseeching them. A Burmese doctor chants a prayer-spell over a sick girl, repeating it three times as he empowers many spiritual beings for action: "May the five Buddhas, the nats, and the Brahmas rest on the forehead [of the patient]; may Sakka rest on the eyes and ears, Thurasandi Devi on the mouth, and Matali on the hands, feet, and body, and may they guard and protect me" (Spiro, 1967, p. 152). And the Malay incantor turns even to Iblis (Satan) and the other spirits and devils and firmly requests direct action on behalf of his lovesick client:

In the name of God, the Merciful, the Compassionate!
Friend of mine, Iblis!
And all ye spirits and devils that love to trouble man!
I ask you to go and enter the body of this girl,
Burning her heart as this sand burns,
Fired with love for me. (Winstedt, 1925, p. 165)

Purposes of Incantation

Purposes for the use of incantation differ widely and cover the whole gamut of life needs of individuals and societies. It is possible, however, to classify incantations, according to their purpose, into three broad categories: defensive, productive, and malevolent.

Defensive incantations

Among defensive incantations, a major purpose is prophylactic or apotropaic, that is, warding off evil spirits and their troubles, especially in the critical passages of life. Classic among apotropaic incantations are those widespread in the ancient Near East, directed against demonic powers called lilithsghostly paramours of men, who attack women during their periods and at childbirth and who devour children. An incantation bowl binds these demons:

I adjure you, every species of lilith, in the name of your offspring which demons and liliths bore. Woe, tramplers, scourgers, mutilaters, breakers, disturbers, squeezers, muzzlers, and dissolvers like water. You are fearful, terrified, and bound to my exorcism, you who appear to the sons of mento men in the likeness of women and to women in the likeness of menyou who lie with people during the night and during the day. (Isbell, 1975, pp. 1718)

Vedic incantation from ancient India is directed against the fiends who cause pregnant women to abort: "The blood-sucking demon, and him that tries to rob health, Kanva, the devourer of our offspring, destroy, O Prisniparni [medicinal plant], and overcome!" (Atharvaveda 2.25.4, as cited in Bloomfield, 1964, p. 22). The Egyptian Coffin Texts testify to the need for incantations to ward off the evil powers who feast on the soul in the passage of death.

The other major use of defensive incantations is for the expulsion of evil powers that have taken up abode. A Malay Muslim shaman exorcises the demon of disease, reciting first the creation story and then chanting,

Where is this genie lodging and taking shelter?
Genie! if thou art in the feet of this patient,
Know that these feet are moved by Allah and His prophet;
If thou are in the belly of this patient,
His belly is God's sea, the sea, too, of Muhammad. (Winstedt, 1925, pp. 6263)

Sickness can also be seen as the result of attack by rival humans, and then the appropriate measure is a counterincantation. The Atharva priest of ancient India chants over a special ritual plant: "The spell which they skillfully prepare we drive it away! With this herb have I destroyed all spells. Evil be to him that prepares evil, the curse shall recoil upon him that utters curses: back do we hurl it against him, that it may slay him that fashions the spell" (Atharvaveda 10.1.1, 45, as cited in Bloomfield, 1964, p. 72).

Productive incantations

A second purpose of incantation is beneficial, that is, it promotes growth, health, and happiness either by urging on the responsible inherent powers or by causing beneficial interference by divine powers. A curer in Java uses a massage and a spitting ritual with this incantation:

In the name of God, the Merciful, the Compassionate!
May the Prophet Adam repair [the person],
May Eve order [the person].
Untangle the tangled veins,
Right the dislocated bones,
Make the fluids of the body feel pleasant,
Health falls with my white spittle,
Well, well, well, by the will of God. (Geertz, 1960, p. 94)

A great many incantations of the productive type have to do with love and sexual attraction, marriage, home and family, potency, successful birth, and the like. The Cherokee, for example, have a large variety of love incantations, for creating loneliness in the desired person, for retaining affection of a wandering mate, for acclimatizing a newlywed wife, or compelling a runaway spouse to return. Cherokee men and women can use incantations to "rebeautify" themselves and thus become attractive to a potential mate:

Now! I am as beautiful as the very blossoms themselves!

I am a man, you lovely ones, you women of the Seven Clans!

All of you have just come to gaze upon me alone, the most beautiful.

Now! You lovely women, already I just took your souls! I am a man!

You women will live in the very middle of my soul.

Forever I will be as beautiful as the bright red blossoms! (Kilpatrick and Kilpatrick, 1965, pp. 8687)

At times, productive incantations are needed to bring about pregnancy, as this one from ancient India: "Into thy womb shall enter a male germ, as an arrow into a quiver! May a man be born there, a son ten months old!" (Atharvaveda 3.23.2, as cited in Bloomfield, 1964, p. 97).

Malevolent incantations

A third purpose of incantation is related to the need to harm, punish, or take revenge on enemies or rivals. A jilted woman can target her erstwhile lover with this fierce imprecation:

As the best of the plants thou art reputed, O herb; turn this man for me today into a eunuch that wears his hair dressed! Then Indra with a pair of stones shall break his testicles both! O eunuch, into a eunuch thee I have turned; O castrate, into a castrate thee I have turned! (Atharvaveda 6.138.13, as cited in Bloomfield, 1964, p. 108)

The Cherokee bent on revenge learns from the shaman to recite the name of his adversary, repeating the following incantation four times and blowing his breath toward him after each rendition: "Your Pathways are Black: it was wood, not a human being! Dog excrement will cling nastily to you. You will be living intermittently. Your Black Viscera will be lying all about. Your Pathway lies toward the Nightland!" (Kilpatrick and Kilpatrick, 1967, p. 127).


Incantations, as rhythmic or formulaic words of power used to accomplish a desired goal by binding spiritual powers, have sometimes been considered as magic rather than religion, or as a form of religious practice lower than prayer. It is true that incantations oblige the powers to perform the action rather than prayerfully request them for it. And it is also true that incantations have to do with self-interest, sometimes at the expense of others. Yet they do represent a religious mode of being in the world, albeit a mode of aggression rather than simple submission to spiritual powers. The power of chanted words fits the events of human life into the pattern of the sacred realities that underlie and support human existence. Far from being trivial, incantations provide help for whatever deeply troubles or concerns humans: health, birth, love, marriage, family, prosperity, death. Human existence is understood as a drama involving the interaction of many spiritual powers, and, through the power of the chanted formula, a restructuring of these powers is performed so that life can become more healthy, secure, prosperous, and happy.

See Also

Magic; Mantra; Names and Naming; Spells.


Among the many works that include incantations from all over the world, the following provide a representative survey from ancient, medieval, and modern cultures.

Biggs, Robert D. à. zi. ga: Ancient Mesopotamian Potency Incantations. Locust Valley, N.Y., 1967. Translations and textual studies of incantations used in Mesopotamian society for this universal sexual problem.

Bloomfield, Maurice, trans. and ed. Hymns of the Atharva-Veda. Delhi, 1964. Reprint of "Sacred Books of the East," vol. 42 (Oxford, 1897). Translations and interpretations of the most important incantations and hymns of the fourth Veda from ancient India by one of the outstanding American Sanskritists of the nineteenth century.

Borghouts, J. F., trans. Ancient Egyptian Magical Texts. Leiden, 1978. Translations of a representative range of incantations from ancient Egypt, dealing with concerns of everyday life, mostly from the Middle Kingdom and later.

Carmichael, Alexander. Carmina Gadelica: Hymns and Incantations, vol. 2. Edinburgh, 1928. Various incantations collected orally in the highlands and islands of Scotland and translated into English.

Geertz, Clifford. The Religion of Java. Glencoe, Ill., 1960. Extensive information about incantations in this important study of the Javanese religious system, which combines Islam and native spirit beliefs.

Grattan, J. H. G., and Charles Singer. Anglo-Saxon Magic and Medicine. Oxford, 1952. Some incantations and healing rituals especially from the semipagan text Lacnunga, translated into modern English.

Groot, J. J. M. de. The Religious System of China (18921910). 6 vols. Reprint, Taipei, 1967. Especially volume 6 of this multivolumed work contains traditional Chinese rituals and incantations against specters.

Hampp, Irmgard. Beschwörung, Segen, Gebet: Untersuchung zum Zauberspruch aus dem Bereich der Volksheilkunde. Stuttgart, 1961. A rich sourcebook for incantations from German cultures, providing also a study of types and purposes.

Isbell, Charles D. Corpus of the Aramaic Incantation Bowls. Missoula, Mont., 1975. Texts and translations of all the published Aramaic texts inscribed on incantation bowls, from Jewish-related societies in Babylon.

Kilpatrick, Jack Frederick, and Anna Gritts Kilpatrick. Walk in Your Soul: Love Incantations of the Oklahoma Cherokees. Dallas, 1965. Incantations used in situations of love and marriage among the Cherokee.

Kilpatrick, Jack Frederick, and Anna Gritts Kilpatrick. Run toward the Nightland: Magic of the Oklahoma Cherokees. Dallas, 1967. Incantations of the Cherokee for use in various situations.

Malinowski, Bronislaw. Coral Gardens and Their Magic. 2 vols. London, 1935. Texts of many incantations interspersed with descriptions of the Trobriand Islanders to the east of New Guinea, with important interpretations by this famous anthropologist.

Roys, Ralph L., trans. and ed. Ritual of the Bacabs. Norman, Okla., 1965. Translations of healing incantations from the pre-Spanish Maya culture.

Spiro, Melford E. Burmese Supernaturalism: A Study in the Explanation and Reduction of Suffering. Englewood Cliffs, N.J., 1967. A careful study of the Burmese spiritual world, including translations of incantations used in this Buddhist culture.

Winstedt, R. O. Shaman, Saiva and Sufi: A Study of the Evolution of Malay Magic. London, 1925. Includes translations of many incantations in a study of religious practices in Malay culture, which mixes Islamic, Hindu, and indigenous religious influences.

Theodore M. Ludwig (1987)


views updated May 21 2018


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.


Abbott, John. The Keys of Power: A Study of Indian Ritual and Belief. London: Methuen, 1932. Reprint, New Hyde Park, N.Y.: University Books, 1974.

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.

González-Wippler, Migene. The Complete Book of Spells, Ceremonies, and Magic. St. Paul: Llewellyn Publications, 1978.

Graves, Samuel R. [Osirus]. Potions and Spells of Witchcraft. San Francisco: JBT Marketing, 1970.

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

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

Hohman, John George. The Long Lost Friend. Harrisburg, Pa., 1850.

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.

Martello, Leo. Curses in Verses. New York: Hero Press, 1971.

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

Morrison, Sarah Lyddon. The Modern Witch's Spellbook. New York: David McKay, 1971.

Norris, David, and Jacquemine Charrott-Lodwidge. The Book of Spells. London: Lorrimer, 1974.

Rose, Donna. Love Spells. Hialeah, Fla.: Mi-World Publishing Co., n.d.

Waite, Arthur E. The Book of Ceremonial Magic. London: William Rider, 1911. Reprint, New Hyde Park, N.Y.: University Books, 1961. Reprint, New York: Causeway Books, 1973.


views updated May 21 2018


Incantation, the speaking or singing of words that are thought to have, by the mere fact of being said, power to work magic and produce the results desired. The practice is found universally from remote antiquity. In the Odyssey, reference is made to incantation's stopping the flow of blood, and working other wonders. There is evidence that in the early historical period of both Greece and Rome, people believed in the efficacy of incantation, but subsequently philosophers and lawgivers condemned it. In the Hellenistic period it had a considerable vogue, as is indicated by magical papyri, inscriptions, and literary works. Orpheus, the legendary singer, was a magician, as were also Musaeus and others. The best-known practitioner of the art in Greek literature was Medea, who was the daughter of the sun. In the magical papyri the incantations read almost like prayers, but these utterances were undoubtedly thought to have in themselves magical powers to accomplish results. Christianity from the beginning opposed this and other forms of magic.

See Also: magic.

Bibliography: f. phister, "Epode," Paulys Realenzyklopädie der klassischen Altertumswissenschaft, ed. g. wissowa et al. Supplement 4 (Stuttgart 1924) 323343. k. prÜmm, Religionsgeschichtliches Handbuch für den Raum der altchristlichen Umwelt (2d ed. Rome 1954) 366371. s. thompson, Motif-Index of Folk-Literature, 6 v. (rev. and enl. ed. Bloomington, Ind. 195558) v.5 index s.v. "Incantation."

[t. a. brady]


views updated Jun 08 2018

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.


views updated May 18 2018

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


views updated Jun 11 2018

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.


views updated May 23 2018

Incantation: see MAGIC.