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The Power Of Words

Sources: Primitive Psycho-therapy And Quackery

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


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.

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.

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."

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.

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. 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."

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.

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, VI, 16:

"Taking the shield of faith, wherewith ye shall be able to quench all

the fiery darts of the wicked." 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


"The Devil is tying a knot in my leg,

Mark, Luke and John, unloose it, I beg."

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


Eusebius of Caesarea, 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 archaeological 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.

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


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; 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."

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."

In the belief of the Australian aborigines, "no demon, however

malevolent, can resist the power of the right word." 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.

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.

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.

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 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.

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


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 Parotidaea; 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."

In many a myth and fairy-tale, a cabalistic metrical verse pronounced by

the hero causes wonderful results.

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. 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: "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.

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


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." 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; 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.

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. 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


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


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