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
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
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.
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
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
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
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
Encyclopedia of Occultism & Parapsychology 5th Ed. Spells
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 Wildfire
(in Sir Walter Scotts 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 dont 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 ones family. It could even threaten the whole
community and some action would have to be taken to counter
the effects of a broken taboo.
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 allpowerful,
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 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
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
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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