From Gandalf’s “Naur an edraith ammen” to Harry Potter’s “Expelliarmus,” words carry the power to work magic in many stories. The idea is not a new one. Here, for example, is some medical advice from the early Roman writer Cato the Elder’s treatise on agriculture:
A dislocation can be made whole with this incantation. Take a green reed four or five feet long, split it in half, and have two people hold it at your hips. Begin to chant: “Motas uaetas daries dardares astataries dissunapiter” and continue until the halves touch. Flourish an iron blade over them. Where they touch one another, take them in your hand and cut left and right. Bind the pieces to the dislocation or fracture and it will be healed. Keep chanting every day like this: “Haut haut haut istasis tarsis ardannabou dannaustra.”
– Cato the Elder, On Agriculture 160
(My own translation.)
Cato was a Roman traditionalist who preferred folk remedies like this one to the more scientific Greek medicine that was becoming popular in Rome in his day, but Greeks had magic words of their own. A set of six words, known as the “Ephesian letters,” were believed to be particularly powerful: askion, kataskion, lix, tetrax, damnameneus, and aision. These words may have been used for spoken incantations like Cato’s charms, but they were particularly used in writing. Reportedly, they originally came from an inscription on the statue of Artemis at Ephesus. It later became a common practice to write the words on scraps of papyrus which were then tied up in small pouches and carried or tied to various parts of the body for magical protection. Boxers were especially known to use these sorts of amulets for strength and defense in competition.
Magic words often seem to sit somewhere on the line between meaning and nonsense. These magic words—both Cato’s spells and the Ephesian letters—are not meaningful in themselves, but they suggest meanings to those who know Latin and Greek. Cato’s incantation implies the movement of something broken. The Ephesian letters suggest words relating to power—damnameneus, for instance, seems to derive from the verb damazo, meaning to tame an animal.
Other examples of magic words from Greece and Rome are derived from real words in other languages the Greeks and Romans had contact with, such as Egyptian, Hebrew, and Persian. Osoronnophris, for example, another magic word used in various Greek and Roman spells, comes from an Egyptian phrase meaning “Osiris (god of the dead) is beautiful.” In much the same way, although J. K. Rowling’s “expelliarmus” may not be a real word, it sounds a lot like Latin and it is not hard to guess that it is intended to disarm an opponent.
Another way of invoking the magic of nonsense is to use words in ways that disrupt normal understanding. Repetition, for example, like Cato’s “haut haut haut” makes real words into magical nonsense. In written spells, words were sometimes written backwards or with letters reversed.
There’s magic in words, spoken or written.
Image: “Expelliarmus” from Doctor Who, “The Shakespeare Code” via Giphy
History for Writers is a weekly feature which looks at how history can be a fiction writer’s most useful tool. From worldbuilding to dialogue, history helps you write. Check out the introduction to History for Writers here.