“To handle a language skillfully is to practice a kind of evocative sorcery” – Charles Baudelaire
In a time of pandemics, it’s always helpful to have a few tricks up your sleeve. One need look no further than a good old-fashioned stage magician, and their favorite phrase uttered whilst pulling a rabbit out of a hat – “abracadabra”. The precise origins of this ancient sorcerous incantation are lost in the mists of time, but it was popularized in the 2nd Century A.D. by Serenus Sammonicus, physician to the Roman emperor Caracalla as a useful tool in healing malaria and other lethal diseases.
When faced with a suspected case of malaria, Sammonicus’ De Medicina Praecepta Saluberrima, which we only have incomplete versions of, prescribed the inscription of an amulet representing the word “abracadabra” in the form of a triangle, removing one letter per line until you wound up with “A” at the point of the inverted triangle. Here’s what that would look like.
Like all magical rituals, there are a few additional steps involved. “After wearing the charm for nine days it had to be thrown over the shoulder into a stream running east wards. In cases which resisted this talisman Serenus recommended the application of lion’s fat, or yellow coral with green emeralds tied to the skin of a cat and worn round the neck” (Wootton, 1910, p16). Magic in the ancient world was not kind to cats.
Quinine be damned, at least you’d have a cool looking amulet. You’d probably be dead, but why not have a little bling to take to the grave? By the 16th Century, while they still hadn’t completely given up on the concept of magical amulets, there was the nascent idea of a placebo effect. Auger Ferrier (1513-1588), physician/astrologer to French Queen Catherine de Medici, in his Vera medendi methodus de homerica medication commented, “Songs and characters have not alone this power: it exists also in a believing mind, which is produced in the unlearned by the help of visible signs, and in the learned by an acknowledged and peculiar influence” (Ennemoser, 1854, p121). The basic philosophy shared among 16th Century physicians was that these amulets might not do any good, but they certainly wouldn’t do any harm.
Later Roman emperors like Geta and Severus Alexander, were followers of the medical teachings of Serenus, and no doubt perpetuated the use of the “abracadabra” formulation, but it was also picked up by the Gnostics of the sect of Basilides (a 2nd Century Christian Gnostic religious teacher in Alexandria, Egypt), which persisted until at least the 4th Century A.D. We know this because there exist a vast number of “Abraxas Stones”, carved healing amulets with “abraxas” or “abrasax” inscribed on them, which many believe to be derived from “abracadabra”, although this is considered speculative and many scholars disagree, despite the suspiciously coincidental timing of its popularity in the Roman world.
Traditionally, the word “abracadabra” is thought to derive from phrases in Hebrew that mean “I will create as I speak”, or alternatively Aramaic’s, “I create like the word”. Still other scholars maintain it is a compound of Egyptian words abrak and sax, meaning “the honorable and hallowed word,” or a variety of Greek derivations. The truth is nobody knows, but the use of variations on “abracadabra” for healing amulets has no doubt been around for an awful long time.
Thomas Pettigrew had a curious opinion on the origins of “abracadabra”, which he said derived from native Judean, historian and traveler Sextus Julius Africanus (died around 240 A.D.), claiming “Julius Africanus says that pronouncing the word in the same manner will be equally efficacious as writing it . Abracadabra was a god, and worshipped as such by the Tyrians” (Pettigrew, 1844, p54). By Tryians, we presume he means residents of the ancient Phoenician city-state of Tyre (now in Lebanon, but considered to be one of the oldest continuously inhabited cities in the world). There were of course, over 70 Phoenician gods, none of which we know were named Abracadabra. We can find Resheph, the god of plagues, and his companion Anath (the warrior goddess), but that doesn’t get us very far. Perhaps a scholar of Phoenician religion could weigh in with insights, but that’s not exactly a lucrative career choice, so I doubt there are many out there.
“Abracadabra” was still in use as a healing incantation during the Great Plague of London, from 1665 to 1666 (the last instance of bubonic plague in London), as Puritan minister Increase Mather and writer Daniel Defoe disdained it, when Londoners were posting the word on their doorways to ward off illness. Defoe commented, “I might spend a great deal of time in my exclamations against the follies, and indeed the wickedness, of those things, in a time of such danger, in a matter of such consequences as this, of a national infection. But my memorandums of these things relate rather to take notice only of the fact, and mention only that it was so. How the poor people found the insufficiency of those things, and how many of them were afterwards carried away in the dead-carts and thrown into the common graves of every parish with these hellish charms and trumpery hanging about their necks” (Defoe, 1935, p35).
Let’s not completely forsake our family physicians in this modern age in favor of amulets, but it doesn’t hurt to juice the karmic odds in your favor. As Thomas Jefferson said, “I’m a great believer in luck, and I find the harder I work the more I have of it”. Plus, it beats drinking bleach.
Defoe, Daniel, 1661-1731, and Arthur Wellesley Secord ed. A Journal of the Plague Year and Other Pieces. “First edition.” Garden City, N. Y.: Doubleday, Doran & Company, 1935.
Ennemoser, Joseph, 1787-1854, Mary Botham Howitt, and William Howitt. The History of Magic. London: H.G. Bohn, 1854.
Pettigrew, Thomas Joseph, 1791-1865. On Superstitions Connected With the History And Practice of Medicine And Surgery. London: J. Churchill, 1844.
Tavenner, Eugene, 1878-. Studies in Magic from Latin Literature. New York: AMS Press, 1966.
Wootton, A. C., d. 1910. Chronicles of Pharmacy. London: Macmillan and Co., 1910.