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In every word there is a magic influence, and each word is in itself the breath of the internal and moving spirit. ~Joseph Ennemoser: The History of Magic.
There is magic in words, surely, and many a treasure besides Ali Baba's is unlocked with a verbal key. ~Henry van Dyke: Little Rivers.
For it was neither herbs, nor mollifying plaster that restored them to health, but thy word, O Lord, which healeth all things. ~Wisdom of Solomon, xvi, 12.
The power of words in stimulating the imagination is well expressed in the following sentences:—
Words, when well chosen, have so great a force in them, that a description often gives us more lively ideas than the sight of the things themselves. The reader finds a scene drawn in stronger colors, and painted more to the life in his imagination, by the help of words, than by an actual survey of the scene which they describe. In this case the poet seems to get the better of nature. He takes indeed the landscape after her, but gives it more vigorous touches, heightens its beauty, and so enlivens the whole piece, that the images which flow from the objects themselves, appear weak or faint in comparison with those that come from the expressions.[Joseph Addison, On the pleasures of the Imagination]
The medical science of the ancient Romans was largely theurgical, and was founded on a pretended influence over spiritual beings, whether gods or demons. Their system of therapeutics included prayers, invocations, and magical sentences. In speaking of verbal charms, Lord Bacon commented on the fact that amongst the heathen nations, either barbarous words, without meaning, were used, or "words of similitude," which were intended to feed the imagination. Also religious texts, which strengthen that faculty. Mystical expressions were favorites, as were also Hebrew sentences, as belonging to the holy tongue. No examples of magical formulas are found in the Bible, but Rabbinical literature contains a large number of them, the majority being designated as "heathen," and their use forbidden.[The Jewish Encyclopædia.]
A belief in the potency of written or spoken words, for the production of good or evil, has been characteristic of all historic epochs and nations. The exorcist of ancient Egypt relied on amulets and mysterious phrases for the cure of disease; and a metrical petition traced on a papyrus-leaf, or a formula of prayer opportunely repeated, "put to flight the serpents, who were the instruments of fate."[G. Maspero, The Dawn of Civilization]
The efficacy anciently attributed to verbal charms appears to have been partly due to a current opinion that names of persons and things were not of arbitrary invention, but were in some mysterious manner evolved from nature, and hence were possessed of a certain inherent force, which was potent either for good or evil.[Larousse, Dictionnaire]
Our Lord, when on earth, went about healing the sick by the sole power of words. A notable instance of this is the case of the centurion of Capernaum, who deemed himself unworthy of the honor of having Christ enter his dwelling, in order to cure his servant, who lay sick of the palsy. "But speak the word only," he said, "and my servant shall be healed." And the Master replied: "Go thy way; and as thou hast believed, so be it done unto thee." And his servant was healed in the self-same hour. That evening, we are told, many that were possessed with devils were brought unto him; and he cast out the spirits with his word, and healed all that were sick.[Matt. 8:6, 13, 16] The popularity of Scriptural texts in primitive therapeutics is doubtless largely due to the many wonderful cures wrought by words, which are recorded in the Bible.
Usually, in the Gospels, the healing word is addressed to the patient, but occasionally to his master, or to one of his parents. Whenever the belief in the power of sacred words appears outside of Holy Writ, it is generally expressed in the guise of a superstitious formula. This belief is found, however, in the mystical tenets of the ancient Jewish sect, known as the Essenes. It is also clearly stated in the Zend Avesta, as follows: "One may heal with herbs, one may heal with the Law, one may heal with the Holy Word; amongst all remedies, this is the healing one, that heals with the Holy Word; this one it is that will best drive away sickness from the body of the faithful; for this one is the best healing of all remedies."[Encyclopædia Biblica]
The religious and devotional sentences, which are so commonly seen above the entrances of dwellings in Germany and other European lands, and the passages from the Koran similarly used among Moslems, are not necessarily evidence of the piety of the members of a household. For, as has been remarked, these sentences are often regarded merely as protective charms.[Elworthy, The Evil Eye]
According to an old Welsh custom, fighting-cocks were provided with prophylactic amulets before entering the arena. These amulets consisted of biblical verses, inscribed on slips of paper, which were bound around the cocks' legs. A favorite verse thus used was Ephesians, 6:16: "Taking the shield of faith, wherewith ye shall be able to quench all the fiery darts of the wicked."[Elias Owen, Welsh Folklore] Some of the old English medical verse-spells are sufficiently quaint exponents of popular credulity.
The following, for example, was in vogue as a remedy for cramp in the leg:—
"The Devil is tying a knot in my leg,
Mark, Luke and John, unloose it, I beg."[Robley Dunglison, Medical Dictionary]
Mr. W. G. Black, in his "Folk-Medicine" (p. 170), remarks that many of the magic writings used as charms were nothing else than invocations of the Devil; and cites the case of a young woman living in Chelsea, England, who reposed confidence in a sealed paper, mystically inscribed, as a prophylactic against toothache. Having consented, at the request of her priest, to examine the writing, this is what she found: "Good Devil, cure her, and take her for your pains." This illustrates the somewhat trite proverb, "Where ignorance is bliss, 'twere folly to be wise," and is a proof of the wisdom of the popular belief that the inscription of a healing formula should not be seen by the wearer, inasmuch as its mystic words are ordinarily invocations of spiritual Beings, and are not therefore adapted for comprehension by the human intellect!
The mere remembrance of some traditional event in the life of our Lord has been accounted of value in popular leech-craft, as in the following charm against ague, taken from a diary of the year 1751, and still used in Lincolnshire within recent times: "When Jesus came near Pilate, he trembled like a leaf, and the judge asked Him if He had the ague. He answered that He neither had the ague nor was He afraid; and whosoever bears these words in mind shall never fear the ague or anything else."[Notes and Queries; W.G. Black, Folk-Medicine; Pettigrew, Medical Superstition]
Eusebius of Cæsarea, in his Ecclesiastical History, gives the text of two letters alleged to have formed a correspondence between our Lord and Abgar, King of Edessa. They were said to have been originally written in Aramaic or Syro-Chaldaic characters, and were discovered beneath a stone some eighty miles from Iconium, the modern Konieh, in Asia Minor, in the year 97, and afterwards lost. Regarded as authentic by some learned authorities, they were nevertheless rejected as apocryphal by a church council at Rome, during the pontificate of Gelasius I, in the year 494. According to Eusebius, King Abgar, who was afflicted with a grievous sickness, learning of the wonderful cures wrought by our Lord, wrote Him a letter begging Him to come to Edessa. And the Master, although not acceding to this request, wrote a reply to the king, promising to send one of His disciples to heal him. And in fulfilment of that promise, after His resurrection, Thomas the Apostle, by divine command, sent Thaddeus, one of the seventy disciples, to Abgar. Such is the popular tradition. Full particulars of the visit of Thaddeus, together with copies of the letters taken from a Book of Records preserved at Edessa, may be found in a work entitled, "Ancient Syriac Documents," edited by W. Cureton, D.D. Copies of these letters were used as charms by the early Christians, and for this purpose were placed upon their door-lintels; they were still to be seen within recent years in many a cottage of Shropshire and Devon, where they are valued as preservatives from fever. In the opinion of not a few scholars they are ingenious literary forgeries; but strong evidence in favor of their authenticity is afforded by the discovery, announced by Professor Bohrmann to the archæological congress at Rome, April 30, 1900, of copies of the same letters, inscribed in Doric Greek, in the stone-work above the gateway of the Palace of the Kings at Ephesus. The translated text of the rediscovered letters is as follows:
From Abgar to Christ: I have heard of Thee and the cures wrought by Thee without herb or medicine, for it is reported that Thou restoreth sight to the blind and maketh the lame to walk, cleanseth the leper, raiseth the dead, chaseth out devils and unclean spirits, and healeth those that are tormented of diseases of a long continuance. Hearing all this of Thee, I was fully persuaded that Thou art the very God come down from heaven to do such miracles, or that Thou art the son of God and performeth them. Wherefor I have sent Thee a few lines entreating Thee to come hither and cure my diseases. Hearing that the Jews murmur against Thee and continue to do Thee mischief, I invite Thee to my city, which is but a little one, but is beautiful and sufficient to entertain us both.
Christ's reply to Abgar: Blessed art thou for believing me when thou hast not seen, for it is written of me that they that have seen me shall not believe, and that they that have not seen me shall believe and be saved. But concerning the matter thou hast written about, this is to acquaint thee that all things for which I was sent hither must be fulfilled and that I shall be taken up and returned to Him that sent me. But after my ascension I will send one of my disciples that shall cure thee of thy distemper and give life to all them that are with thee.
John Gaule, in the "Magastromancer," declares that sacred words derive their force from occult divine powers, which are conveyed by means of such words, "as it were through conduit-pipes, to those who have faith in them."
Among the Hindus, the mantra is properly a divinely inspired Vedic text; but quite generally at the present day it has degenerated into a mere spell for warding off evil; the original religious or moral precept being accounted of little force, when compared with the alleged magical potency of its component words.[Monier-Williams, Religious Thought in India]
The exorcism of morbiferous demons was the chief principle of primitive therapeutics, and as a means to this end, the written or spoken word has always been thought to exert a very great influence. Possibly indeed in remote antiquity the art of writing was first applied in inscribing mystic words or phrases on parchment or other material, for use as spells.[C. W. King, Early Christian Numismatics]
In treating the sick, the Apache medicine-man mumbles incoherent phrases, a method adopted quite generally by his professional brethren in many Indian tribes. He claims for such gibberish a mysterious faculty of healing disease. Much of its effectiveness, however, has been attributed to the monotonous intonation with which the words are uttered, and which tends to promote sleep just as a lullaby soothes an ailing child.
It is noteworthy, however, that meaningless words have always been the favorite components of verbal charms, whose power, in the opinion of medieval conjurers, was in direct ratio to their obscurity;[R. M. Lawrence, The Magic of the Horse-Shoe] and this fact is well shown in the incantations used by savages.
According to the late Dr. D. G. Brinton, the principle involved is, either that the gods are supposed to comprehend what men fail to understand; or else that the verbal charm represents "the god expressing himself through human organs, but in a speech unknown to human ears." Reginald Scott expressed a popular modern idea of the force of certain words and characters, when he said that they were able of themselves to cure diseases, pull down, save, destroy and enchant, "without the party's assistance."[A Discourse concerning the Nature and Substance of Devils and Spirits, 1665]
The term incantation signifies a most potent method of magical healing; namely, "that resting on a belief in the mysterious power of words solemnly conceived and passionately uttered."[39:3]
In the belief of the Australian aborigines, "no demon, however malevolent, can resist the power of the right word."[D. G. Brinton, Religions of Primitive Peoples] Ignorant people are usually impressed by obscure phrases, the more so, if these are well sprinkled with polysyllables. Cicero, in his treatise on Divination (lxiv) criticizes the lack of perspicuity in the style of certain writers, and supposes the case of a physician who should prescribe a snail as an article of diet, and whose prescription should read, "an earth-born, grass-walking, house-carrying, unsanguineous animal." Equally efficacious might be the modern definition of the same creature as a "terrestrial, air-breathing, gastropodous mollusk." The degree of efficiency of such prescriptions is naturally in inverse proportion to the patient's mental culture. An average Southern negro, for example, affected with indigestion, might derive some therapeutic advantage from snail diet, but would be more likely to be benefited by the mental stimulus afforded by the verbose formula.
The Irish physicians of old had a keen appreciation of the healing influences of incantations upon the minds of their patients, and the latter had moreover a strong faith in the ancient Druidic charms and invocations. It is probable that in very early times, invocations were made in the names of favorite pagan deities. After the introduction of Christianity by Saint Patrick, the name of the Trinity and the words of the Christian ritual were substituted. Such invocations, when repeated in the presence of sick persons, are regarded by the Irish peasants of to-day as powerful talismans, effective through their magic healing power. So great is the faith of these simple people in the ancient hereditary cures, that they prefer to seek medical aid from the wise woman of the village, rather than from a skilled practitioner.[Lady Wilde, Ancient Charms, Cures, and Usages of Ireland]
The influence of the mind upon the physical organism, through the imagination, is well shown by the seemingly marvellous cures sometimes wrought by medical charms. But the efficacy of magical medicine has been usually proportionate to the degree of ignorance prevalent during any particular epoch. Yet some of the most famous physicians of antiquity had faith in superstitious remedies. The medical literature of the last century before Christ, and from that period until late in the Middle Ages, was an actual treasury of conjuration and other mummeries. Even the great Galen, who was regarded as an oracle, openly avowed his belief in the merits of magic cures.[Dr. Hugo Magnus, Superstition in Medicine]
Galen wrote that many physicians of his time were of the opinion that medicines lost much of their efficacy, unless prescribed by their Babylonian or Egyptian names. They fully appreciated mental influence as a factor in therapeutics. Hence, instead of regular prescriptions, they sometimes wrote mystic formulas, which their patients either carried as charms, or rolled into pellets, which were then swallowed.[Otto A. Wall, M.D., The Prescription]
In a "Book of Counsels to Young Practitioners" (1300) are to be found some interesting items regarding contemporary manners. Fledgling doctors are therein advised to make use of long and unintelligible words, and never to visit a patient without doing something new, lest the latter should say, "He can do nothing without his book." In brief, a reputation for infallibility must be maintained.
It is not surprising that curative spells were popular in the dark ages. A modern-writer[H. D. Traill, Social England] has been quoted as saying that these were to be used, not because they could effect direct physical changes, but because they brought the patient into a better frame of mind. We know that nervous affections were very prevalent in those times among the ignorant masses of the people, and verbal charms were doubtless of value in furnishing therapeutic mental impulses. The Germanic sooth-saying physicians maintained that every bodily ailment could be cured by the use of magical spells and enchanted herbs. The medieval charlatan oculists inherited ancient medical formulas, by means of which they professed to treat with success ophthalmic disorders. Their methods included the recitation of ritualistic words, accompanied with suitable gestures, and passes over the affected eyes.[George F. Fort, Medical Economy of the Middle Ages]
In Cotta's "Short Discoverie of the Unobserved Dangers of several sorts of Ignorant and Unconsiderate Practisers of Physicke in England" (1612) occur the following passages, quoted also by Brand, in "Popular Antiquities of Great Britain."
If there be any good or use unto the health by spels, they have that prerogative by accident, and by the power and vertue of fancie. If fancie then be the foundation whereupon buildeth the good of spels, spels must needs be as fancies are, uncertaine and vaine. So must also, by consequent, be their use and helpe, and no lesse all they that trust unto them. . . . How can religion or reason suffer men that are not void of both, to give such impious credit unto an insignificant and senseless mumbling of idle words contrary to reason, without president of any truly wise or learned, and justly suspected of all sensible men?
In the early part of the seventeenth century, many diseases were regarded in the light of magic seizures. Therefore they were not amenable to treatment by materia medica. More could be accomplished through the patient's faith and imagination.
"Physicians," wrote the German scholar, Valentine Schindler, "do not discover and learn everything that they ought to know, in the universities; they have often to go to old wives, gypsies, masters of the Black Art, old peasant-folk, and learn from them. For these people have more knowledge of such things, than all the colleges and universities."[Johannes Janssen, History of the German People at the Close of the Middle Ages]
The influence of technical language on the uneducated patient is exemplified in the effect produced on his mind by the mention of Latin names. The writer was impressed with this fact while engaged in dispensary practice some years ago. Such a patient, affected with mumps, for example, appears to experience a certain satisfaction, and is apt to be somewhat puffed up mentally as well as physically, when he learns that his ailment is Cynanche Parotidæa; and he expects a prescription commensurate with its importance.
The effective force of a verbal charm is increased by the rhythmic flow of its words; the solemn recitation or murmuring of mystic phrases. "Hence," said Jacob Grimm, "all that is strong in the speech wielded by priest, physician, or magician is allied to the forms of poetry." [Teutonic Mythology] In many a myth and fairy-tale, a cabalistic metrical verse pronounced by the hero causes wonderful results.[Andrew Lang, Myth, Ritual, and Religion]
As already intimated, the manner of reciting prayers, charms, and formulas was anciently deemed to be of more moment than the meaning of their constituent words. In Assyria, for example, healing-spells were repeated in a "low, gurgling monotone"; and in Egypt the magical force of incantations was largely due, in the popular mind, to their frequent repetition in a pleasing tone of voice.[T. Witton Davies, Magic, Divination, and Demonology] The temper of mind which prompts words of good cheer, is in itself a healing charm of no mean value. For we read in the Book of Proverbs 17:22: "A merry heart doeth good like a medicine, but a broken spirit drieth the bones."
In this progressive age, when men of science are seeking remedies against the so-called "dust nuisance," which at times renders walking in our streets a penance, it may not be amiss to call to mind an ancient spell for the removal of particles of dust or cinders from the eyes. This consisted in chanting the ninety-first psalm thrice over water, which was then used as a lotion for the eye.
Popular faith in spells as therapeutic agents, an inheritance from Chaldea and Egypt, was still strong even at the dawn of modern times; and the force of medical charms was supplemented by various magic rites and by the ceremonial preparation of medicines. The use of curative spells and characts comes within the province of white magic, which is harmless; so called to distinguish it from black magic, or the black art, which involves a compact with the Evil One. In rude ages the practice of the former as a means of healing, may be said to have found its justification in its philanthropic purpose.
According to Mungo Park, the natives of all portions of the Dark Continent are accustomed to wear written charms, called saphies, grigris, or fetiches, whose chief use is the warding-off or cure of disease. Although not themselves followers of Mohammed, the savages have entire confidence in these charms, which are supplied by Moslem priests; but their confidence is based upon the supposed magic of the writing, irrespective of its religious meaning. The failure of a charm to perform a cure is attributed to the ingratitude and fickleness of the spirits. In Algeria it is not an uncommon experience of physicians who have prescribed for native patients, to meet such an one some days after, with the prescription either suspended from his neck, or carefully hidden in his garments. Evidently the sole idea of such a patient, in applying for advice, was to obtain a written formula to serve as an amulet. The Moslems of Arabia and Persia have a custom of applying to any stranger, preferably a European, for their protective written charms, which are the more highly esteemed if totally unintelligible to themselves. Such a practice, however, is not sanctioned by orthodox followers of the Prophet, who is said to have justified the use of healing-spells only upon condition that the inscribed words should be none other than the names of God, and of the good angels and jinn.[Thomas Patrick Hughes, A Dictionary of Islam]
The Hon. John Abercromby, in the second volume of his work entitled "Pre- and Proto-historic Finns," gives a vast number of the magic songs, or charms, of Finland, among which are to be found a collection of formulas, under the caption, "words of healing power," which were recited for the cure of physical ailments of every description. For the purpose of comparison the author has also grouped together many specimens of spells and incantations in vogue among the neighboring peoples, as the Swedes, Slavs, and Lithuanians. He is of the opinion that most of the magical Finnish songs were composed since the twelfth century, and in the transition period, before Christianity had fully taken the place of paganism. During this period the recitation of metrical charms was no longer restricted to the skilled magician, but became popular in every Finnish household. Hence apparently the gradual evolution of a mass of incantations for use in every conceivable exigency or emergency of life. A chief feature of many of these medical charms consists in vituperation and personal abuse of the particular spirit of sickness addressed.
The peasants of Greece have long been addicted to the use of charms for the cure of various ailments. Following is the translation of a spell against colic which is in vogue amongst them: "Good is the householder, wicked is the housewife; she cooks beans, she prepares oil, vine-cuttings for a bed, stones for a pillow; flee pain, flee colic; Christ drive thee hence with his silver sword and his golden hand." According to Dr. N. G. Polites, this charm originated in a tradition that Christ when on earth begged a night's lodging at a house, the mistress whereof was ill-tempered and unkind to the poor, while her husband was hospitably disposed toward needy wayfarers. The husband being absent, his wife bade Christ take shelter in the barn, and later provided him with some beans for supper, while she and the master of the house fared more sumptuously. In the night the woman had a severe colic, which the usual domestic remedies failed to relieve; and her husband appealed to the poor wayfarer, who at once exorcised the demon of colic.
Written charms were usually worn exposed to view, in order that evil spirits might see them and read their inscriptions. In course of time they developed into ornaments. Wealthy Hebrews were wont to carry amulets made of gold, silver, bronze, and precious stones; while their poorer brethren were contented with modest bits of parchment, woolen cloth, or lace. In eastern countries a common variety of charm consists of a small piece of paper or skin, duly inscribed. Manifold are the virtues ascribed to such a charm! It may enable the bearer to find hidden treasure, to win the favor of a man or woman, or to recover a runaway wife.
A written medical prescription of to-day, after having been filled and copied by a druggist, is usually considered to have fulfilled its mission, but the annals of popular medicine afford ample evidence of the narrowness of such a view! The practice of swallowing the paper whereon a recipe is written, as a veritable charm-formula, is of great antiquity, and is still in vogue in many lands. The idea involved in this singular custom is of course a superstitious regard for writing as a magical curative.
In endeavoring to trace the origins of this and other analogous usages, one must study the records of the most ancient civilizations. Among various African tribes, written spells, called saphies, are commonly used as medicines by the native wizards, who write a prayer on a piece of wood, wash it off with water, and cause the patient to drink the solution. Mungo Park, while in West Africa, was once asked by his landlord, a Bambarra native, to prepare such a charm, the latter proffering his writing-board for the purpose. The traveller complied, and the negro, while repeating a prayer, washed the writing off with water, drank the mixture, and then licked the board dry, in his anxiety to derive the greatest possible benefit from the writing.
The eating of the paper on which a prescription has been written is still a common expedient for the cure of disease in Tibet, where the Lamas use written spells, known as "edible letters."[L. Austin Waddell, The Buddhism of Tibet] The paper containing cabalistic words and symbols, taken internally, constitutes the remedy, and through its influence on the imagination is probably more beneficial to the patient than are most of the so-called "bitters" and patent medicines of the present day.
So likewise, when a Chinese physician cannot procure the drugs which he desires in a particular case, he writes the names of these drugs on a piece of paper, which the patient is expected to eat;[Edward Berdoe, Origin and Growth of the Healing Art] and this mode of treatment is considered quite as satisfactory as the swallowing of the medicine itself. Sometimes a charm is burned over a cup of water, and the ashes stirred in, and drunk by the patient, while in other cases it is pasted upon the part of the body affected.[Hampton C. Du Bose, The Dragon, Image and Demon]
In eastern countries generally, remedial qualities are ascribed to water drunk out of a cup or bowl, whose inner surface is inscribed with religious or mystical verses; and specimens of such drinking-vessels have been unearthed in Babylonia within recent years. The magic medicine-bowls, still used in the Orient, usually bear inscriptions from the Koran.[Austen H. Layard, Nineveh and Babylon] In Flora Annie Steel's tale of the Indian Mutiny of 1857, "On the Face of the Waters" (p. 293), we read of a native who was treated for a cut over the eye by being dosed with paper pills inscribed with the name of Providence.
Dr. John Brown of Edinburgh (1810-1882) reported the case of a laboring man affected with colic, for whom he prescribed some medicine, directing him to "take it and return in a fortnight," assuring him that he would soon be quite well. At the appointed time the man returned, entirely relieved and jubilant. The doctor was gratified at the manifest improvement in his patient's condition, and asked to see the prescription which he had given him; whereupon the man explained that he had "taken" it, as he had understood the directions, by swallowing the paper.
In Egypt, at the present time, faith in the power of written charms is generally prevalent, and forms one of the most characteristic beliefs of the people of that country.
E. W. Lane, in "Modern Egyptians," says that the composition of these characts is founded chiefly upon magic, and devolves usually upon the village schoolmasters. They consist of verses from the Koran, and "names of God, together with those of angels, genii, prophets, or eminent saints, intermixed with combinations of minerals, and with diagrams, all of which are supposed to have great secret virtues."
One of the most popular Egyptian methods of charming away disease is similar to a practice already mentioned as in use among less civilized peoples.
The sacred texts are inscribed on the inner surfaces of earthenware bowls, in which water is stirred until the writing is washed off. Then the infusion is drunk by the patient, and without doubt the subsequent benefit is exactly commensurate with the strength of his faith in the remedy.