A spell is a verbal charm, the incantations of which can be spoken or chanted. Surprisingly, spells are as popular today as they were in ancient times, blind belief in their efficacy seemingly persisting. A quick search on the Internet brings up money magnet spells; various types of love spells; lottery, magic and ‘make me confident’ spells, as well as exam spells, and a myriad of others. Nothing much seems to have changed over the millennia!

Ancient societies believed that the power of spells and incantations was without limit. In Homer’s Odyssey, the bleeding wound in Ulysses’ thigh is healed by a spell, and Virgil is said to have copied love spells to prevent being jinxed.37 The enchantress, Circe, could change men into beasts with her incantations. According to Pliny the Elder, the belief that the witches of Thessaly could enchant the moon out of the sky was so strong that once, during its eclipse, a great many people, fearing the heavenly body might tumble out of the sky, set up a persistent noise of brass trumpets to prevent the moon from hearing the witches’ spells.38 

Pliny also refers to the Roman belief that vestal virgins had the power to root runaway slaves to the spot with a spell.39 It was further believed that spells had the power to blight crops, control blazing fires, make rivers flow backwards, and bring or drive away rain. Spells were intended to cure or create illness, arouse or repel affection and passion, and inhibit or promote fertility by rendering men impotent and women submissive. Words used in spells are usually characterised by their unintelligibility and strangeness – the very characteristics thought to impart power to this type of verbal charm. Spells might consist of garbled rhymes or prayers, or their efficacy relies on the repetition of sacred names. Often, spells are stereotyped, employing invocation, repetition, alliteration, and word patterns spoken in rhythmic form, as demonstrated in the following example:

Hickup, hickup, go away,

Come again another day.

Hickup, hickup, when I bake,

I’ll give you a butter cake.

The weirdness of many spells was and still is due to a deliberate attempt to baffle and impress the uninitiated listener. Although the etymology of the word spell comes from the Anglo-Saxon word spel, meaning ‘speech, discourse or idle talk’, there is a non-verbal usage of the term as well. Thus, a spell can also refer to the paralysing power exerted on a person without the use of words, but with a look instead. An example of this type of spell is the very powerful and universally feared evil eye.


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