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Magic in a Word


The belief that words, spoken and written, are instruments of power is probably as old as language. Because words of command and coercion can sway and influence humans, they are thought to have the same effect on supernatural forces when used in magic ritual. Any word was thought to have a creative force, which is why the knowledge of names was so important, as it could be used to gain control over people and objects. By reciting not only the names, but also the characteristics and acts of a god, a magician could capture that god’s essence and hence exert control over the deity. In ancient Egypt, mummy wrappings were inscribed with words intended to make the body imperishable – a mixture of command and prayer combined with solemn, striking language – confirming the belief that saying a thing ‘is as it is’, makes it so. 

The ancient Egyptians also practised magical cursing of their actual or potential enemies. In the Berlin Museum are fragments of pottery proving this practice. Clay bowls had been inscribed with the names of foes and then smashed. This act was thought to break the enemy’s power. In the Cairo and British Museums are figurines inscribed with curses, no doubt intended for the same ritual. Various ancient Near Eastern texts describe magic rituals, designed to ward off evil spells, to protect from demons, to avoid the consequences of omens, and to ensure success in life. 

Amongst the most remarkable finds recovered from the Roman baths in Bath, England, are the many dedications, vows, and curses inscribed on pewter sheets and dedicated to the goddess, Sulis Minerva, thought to reside in the sacred spring. These dedications, vows and curses cast into the waters over the centuries by thousands of pilgrims, list stolen property, lost loves, or grievances, with an appeal to the goddess for the guilty party to meet with a foul end. Common also are spells to counter the curses of others, very often written backwards, thus thought to imbue the magic with extra potency.

Superstitious tendencies towards achieving wished-for ends continue. They appear in the form of repeating certain catch phrases, believed to produce the desired reality if repeated often enough. For example, we still intone that ‘every cloud has a silver lining’, ‘prosperity is just around the corner’, or ‘everything will be all right’, in the forgotten belief that voicing this will make it so. 

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