Today you may hear the word ‘Abracadabra’ when a magician pulls a rabbit out of his hat, but many years ago it was actually believed that “abracadabra” was a magical spell. The correct origin of the word is still subject for debate, but probably one of the oldest records of “Abracadabra” is a text by a Roman mage named Serenus Sammonicus:
The malady the Greeks call hemitritaeos is more deadly. None of our ancestors could name this disease in our own language, nor did they feel the need to. On a piece of parchment, write the so-called ‘abracadabra’ several times, repeating it on the line below; but take off the end, so that gradually individual letters, which you will take away each time, are missing from the word. Continue until the (last) letter makes the apex of a cone. Remember to wind this with linen and hang it around the neck. Many people say that the lard of a lion is effective …
Sammonicus did not make up this word on his own so we think it was used before. There are some speculations regarding its origins. First, it could have been derived from the equally magical word “abraxas” – its letters, in Greek numerology, add up to 365—the number of days in the year. It could be that early mages believed this was a strong word and somehow made “abracadabra” out of it and turned it into a “cure.”
Alternatively, the word might be derived from the Hebrew words for “father, son, and holy spirit”: “ab, ben, and ruach hakodesh” respectively. Maybe more intuitively, it could be derived from and Aramaic phrase “avra kadavra.” Harry Potter fans will certainly remember that this is what JK Rowling used when she was creating the killing curse “avada kedavra.” In an interview, she mentioned that the original phrase meant “let the thing be destroyed,” which would fit the cure-guess perfectly; abracadabra was created to “destroy” the malady.
As odd as it may look today, people wore symbols with the “abracadabra” as Sammonicus mentioned. It was believed to cure illnesses, fever, and other issues by taking it out of the person and expelling it through that bottom “A”. Of course it would have no more than a placebo effect on the person, but people seem to put a lot of stock in it.
Abracadabra was still exploited as a “cure” well into the 18th century, as evidenced by a 1722 book by Daniel Defoe titled Journal of Plague Year, which documented the use of such charms:
People deceiv’d; and this was in wearing Charms, Philters, Exorcisms, Amulets, and I know not what Preparations, to fortify the Body with them against the Plague; as if the Plague was but a kind of a Possession of an evil Spirit; and that it was to be kept off with Crossings, Signs of the Zodiac, Papers tied up with so many Knots; and certain Words, or Figures written on them, as particularly the Word Abracadabra, form’d in Triangle, or Pyramid…
How the poor People found the Insufficiency of those things, and how many of them were afterwards carried away in the Dead-Carts.
After all, people forgot the abracadabra superstition and by the 19th century the practice of hanging an abracadabra charm around your neck to cure an illness had disappeared. Then, the word began to acquire the meaning of “fake magic” which is what we are familiar with today—after all, magicians don’t actually make rabbits appear out of nowhere.
Additional Fascinating Facts:
- “Kadavra” in Turkish is “cadaver” or “corpse.”
- “Avra kadavra” might have meant “it will be created with my words.”
- A lot of other Harry Potter spells have a Latin origin: Expelliarmus, the disarming charm, mixes expellere, to drive or force out, with arma, or weapon, making it “to force out a weapon.” Lumos, the wand-lighting spell, comes from from lumen, meaning light. Crucio, or the Cruciatus Curse, is a torturing spell that translates to “I torture.”
- Hocus Pocus, another popular phrase used by magicians, didn’t come about until the 17th century when a conjurer made up the phrase for part of his act: “Hocus pocus, tontus talontus, vade celeriter jubeo.” It’s absolutely possible that this was taken from the phrase spoken at Catholic Mass: “hoc est enim corpus meum,” or “for this is my body.” Another idea is that it comes from the Norse demon Ochus Bochus, and calling his name would make him help with whatever magic was intended. It’s probable that “hocus pocus” later evolved into the word “hoax.”
- “Presto” actually means “fast” in Italian. It was used by magicians who were trying to invite demons and apparently wanted them to hurry up.