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Tuesday, December 14, 2010

Abracadabra and all that Hocus Pocus...

Stone age cave painting of aurochs at Lascaux, France.
Magic.  Since the dawn of time, the concept has enchanted humans.  The oldest cave painting are thought to be a form of hunting magic.  Some of the most ancient texts are about magic.  Today magic shows and magicians are still popular, as they have been for centuries. There are a couple of terms, associated with magic, that everyone has known and used, albeit I have never heard that they worked.  They are very old and yet very commonplace.

Abracadabra is a cabalistic word which is supposed to possess the power to heal, especially when written in a triangular shape, folded in a way that the writing is concealed, stitched with white thread, then worn around the neck as an amulet.  It was a remedy for fever and ague.

A  B  R  A  C  A  D  A  B  R  A
A  B  R  A  C  A  D  A  B  R
A  B  R  A  C  A  D  A  B
 A  B  R  A  C  A  D  A
 A  B  R  A  C  A  D
  A  B  R  A  C  A
  A  B  R  A  C
   A  B  R  A
   A  B  R
   A B

The first four letters may stand for the first letters of the Hebrew words for Father, Son, and Holy Spirit - Ab Ben Rauch Acadosh.  Some believe it came from the Hebrew phrase abreg ad habra, which is an invocation to strike dead with lightning.

Abracadabra charm from Britain.
The first mention of the word is from a book from the 2nd century CE entitled Liber Medicinalis, or De Medicina Praecepta Saluberrima, by Quintus Serenus Sammonicus. Sammonicus was physician to the Roman emperor Caracalla, and he prescribed it specifically for malaria.  He stated that the evil spirit of the disease would release its hold when this amulet was worn.  The Roman emperors Geta and Severus followed his teachings and may have worn the amulet as well.

Victorian era amulet with Egyptian symbols and turquoise.
Image courtesy of Adin, fine antique jewellers.
It's claimed that the Alexandrian sect of Basilides, a group of Gnostics, used it to invoke beneficial spirits against disease.  The inscription is found on Abraxas stones that were worn on amulets.  According to their history abracadabra was an Aramaic curse meaning, "let the thing be destroyed."  Its use spread, although today it is considered gibberish, commonly used by stage magicians and on cartoons.

Hocus pocus is another term used in play to bring about a change magically.  This term has an interesting history, and may have been derived from an ancient language.  Its derivation has been attributed to several sources.

According to the OED, it originates from hax pax max deus adimax, a pseudo-Latin phrase, used by conjurers to convince their audiences.  Another thought is that it's a parody of the Roman Catholic liturgy of the Eucharist that states hoc est enim corpus meum.  This theory was espoused by Anglican prelate John Tillotson in 1694.

Ochus Bochus?

Yet another theory exists stating the word came from the name of a Norse folklore demon and magician, Ochus Bochus.  O.B. himself maybe derived from the god Bacchus, who was a conjuror known for turning water into wine (where have we heard that before?) and the hero of oenophiles everywhere.

The Welsh have a term - hovea pwca, which is a trick played by a hob-goblin.  (Keep in mind that in Welsh some consonants, like "w", are vowels.)  This character is also called a pooka and personally Puck.  He was a shape-shifter and sometimes considered an incarnation of the devil.

Thomas Ady, writing in 1656, said the following, from his book A Candle in the Dark:

I will speak of one man... that went about in King James his time... who called himself, The Kings Majesties most excellent Hocus Pocus, and so was he called, because that at the playing of every Trick, he used to say, "Hocus pocus, tontus talontus, vade celeriter jubeo", a dark composure of words, to blinde the eyes of the beholders, to make his Trick pass the more currently without discovery, because when the eye and the ear of the beholder are both earnestly busied, the Trick is not so easily discovered, nor the Imposture discerned.

And with that, I'm off to eat an Abba-Zaba bar.  Let's see what happens with that.


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