The Power of Spells and the Etymology of Abracadabra

Authored or posted by | May 27, 2016
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Picture of the Etymology of the Word AbracadabraBy Dr Massimo Bonasorte, contributor for Ancient-Origins.net

Modern culture is dominated by science and technology, which for the most part offers an explanation for human behavior and the forces of nature. But it hasn’t always been like that.  Words like “spell”, and “magic” do not have the same effect on us today as they had in the past; they are greeted with laughing and mockery, and they are linked to misleading illusionist’s tricks, or – more often – to swindlers’ scams. In the past, the role of the magician and shaman was highly respected in many cultures since these were people who were thought to control the invisible forces and interpret god’s will. Moreover, they were able to protect the king’s or the family’s power, and give stability to an empire.

Before starting with our analysis, we need to clarify the type of approach we adopted in preparing this, and other arguments, that deal with esoteric knowledge: it is a serious anthropological study, because magic, just like alchemy, divination, and complex astronomy, was historically not for entertainment or for pure amusement. It was part of the esoteric disciplines, for which knowledge wasn’t accessible to everyone but rather was passed down through generations of its practitioners.

So, what is the most common spell of all time? Abracadabra, of course!

The origins of ‘Abracadabra’

It is probably the most common magic word, but it actually has no defined meaning: it was used as a magical and evocative word for the esoteric value that popular tradition attributed to it.

In the past, the word was considered a powerful spell to use in case of fever or infection. The oldest source that mentions the word abracadabra is the Liber Medicinalis – also known as De Medicina Praecepta Saluberrima – by Quintus Serenus Sammonicus, a physician at the court of Roman emperor Caracalla in the third century AD. We know that Sammonicus prescribed that the emperor always took with him an amulet containing the word written as an upside-down triangle:

The first known mention of the word abracadabra was in the third century AD in a book called Liber Medicinalis. The word, when written upside down and worn on the body, was thought to have restorative powers.

The first known mention of the word abracadabra was in the third century AD in a book called Liber Medicinalis. The word, when written upside down and worn on the body, was thought to have restorative powers. Wikimedia Commons

It was believed that once a patient put on the amulet, they would feel a reduction in illness. It can be noted here that even in ancient Mesopotamian medicine there were exorcism rites against the demons of illness, and ritual and astronomical practices date back to prehistoric times.

De Medicina Praecepta Saluberrima, by Quintus Serenus Sammonicus, 1662.

De Medicina Praecepta Saluberrima, by Quintus Serenus Sammonicus, 1662. Credit: Deutsche Digitale Bibliothek

Caracalla wasn’t the only one choosing to practice magic in order to forestall evil forces; Emperors Geta and Severus Alexander followed Serenus Sammonicus’ recommendations as well, using the spell for the same purpose.

The enigma of the name

Some researchers think it is possible to understand the etymology of the word “abracadabra”, as it actually has more than one explanation, but there are a few main theories.

The first one takes in consideration the Aramaic expression “Avrah KeDabra”, which means, “I will create as I talk” or “The magician’s word will become reality.” Other studies report the word coming from Arab “Abra Kadabra”, which means “let the things be destroyed,” which would in this case refer to illness. Rather than a curse, researchers think the Aramaic sentence was used as a means of curing illness.

The second theory has it that abracadabra could indicate the Hebraic words “ab” (father), “ben” (son), and ruach hacadosch” (holy spirit).

One last theory is that the word derives from Abraxas, a term found on stones and gems that were used as talismans. Abracadabra could have described a mediation occurring between humanity and a Sun God.

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Original title: Abracadabra! The Power of Spells Against the Forces of Evil

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Category: Etymology & Word Magic

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