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Old 06-05-2015, 09:58 AM
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What is the origin of rhyming magical spells?

In William Shakespeare's play Macbeth the witches are casting a spell:

Originally Posted by Shakespeare
Double, double toil and trouble;
Fire burn and cauldron bubble.

Second Witch:
Fillet of a fenny snake,
In the cauldron boil and bake;
Eye of newt, and toe of frog,
Wool of bat, and tongue of dog,
Adder’s fork, and blind-worm’s sting,
Lizard’s leg, and howlet’s wing,
For a charm of powerful trouble,
Like a hell-broth boil and bubble.
Macbeth is believed to have been written in 1606. In almost every presentation of magical spells in movies and plays and other literature they rhyme.

So where did the concept of rhyming magical spells originate? Did actual members of occult societies do this, or was this a product of entertainment? Was Shakespeare the first to present a rhyming spell for effect?

Last edited by Omar Little; 06-05-2015 at 09:59 AM.
Old 06-05-2015, 10:12 AM
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As with most issues regarding language, the ultimate origin is lost in the mists of time.
Rhyme is just one of many types of specialized speech found in spells and charms: you also find repetition and alliteration and (as in Shakespeare) a specific meter (rhythm). It is comparatively unusual in Old English poetry, but not entirely absent.
Shakespeare is not the first.
What Shakespeare gives is nice, but it isn't the sort of spell real people would use: even for the 1600s, it's cartoonish.
Most spells were used by ordinary people, not "members of occult societies," and when people conceived of what evil witches did, they tended to model it on the kind of things they themselves did, though naturally witches' motivations were diabolical.
Old 06-05-2015, 10:22 AM
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Rhyming magic spells go back at least 1800 years to the still world famous


(from link):
one of the oldest records we have of “Abracadabra” being used is a snippet from a Roman sage named Serenus Sammonicus in the 2nd century AD from his Liber Medicinalis:

"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."...

It’s unlikely that Sammonicus came up with the word on his own and it is thought to have been in use before then. There are a couple of theories as to where it might have ultimately come from. First, it could have been derived from the equally magical word “abraxas” whose letters, in Greek numerology, add up to 365—the number of days in the year. It could be that early sages thought this was a powerful word and somehow created “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. Perhaps more intuitively, it could be derived from and Aramaic phrase “avra kadavra.” ...

As strange as it may seem today, people did wear talismans of sorts with the “abracadabra” cone as Sammonicus described. It was thought to cure diseases, fever, and other problems by siphoning it out of the person and expelling it through that bottom “A”. ...
Old 06-06-2015, 09:17 AM
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For anyone who cares, it seems hemitritaeos is Latin for a certain type of intermittent fever that peaks every other day. The closest direct English translation is the archaic word semitertian.

Last edited by BigT; 06-06-2015 at 09:20 AM.
Old 06-06-2015, 10:36 AM
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Rhyme also makes things easier to remember, a strong reason for using it.
Old 06-06-2015, 01:44 PM
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^ This. That's why plays used to be written in verse, it made them easier to remember for the actors.

It's also why a lot of old, pre-literate entertainment was written in some form of poetry, it made it easier to remember.

I've also heard a few centuries old recopies for things like cake that were composed in rhyme, to make them easier to remember.

So it may be more a reflection of entertainment styles (remember, Shakespeare's plays were first and foremost entertainment) and memory aids that magical spells rhyme than actual magical practice in the old days.
Old 06-06-2015, 03:40 PM
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I don't know abut rhyme, but personally I suspect that the concept of ritual magic dates back to the Hittites who had a thing for rituals, and would plunder other countries for gods and rites. They had a very engineering aproach to things, do this, that should happen. If it does not happen, get a priest to debug your ritual.

They left no songs or plays behind.
Old 06-07-2015, 10:31 AM
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The concept of ritual magic had been around for tens of thousands of years before the Hittites.
Old 06-07-2015, 07:13 PM
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Originally Posted by Wallydraigle View Post
The concept of ritual magic had been around for tens of thousands of years before the Hittites.
I am not so sure of that. The concept of religous ritual, definitly. The concept that you could copy some other nations ritual, plug in your own names, and you ought to get the same effect? I am not so sure of that. Pre-Hittite, nations or tribes seem to have seen their rituals as part of their national self.

The Hittites treated other nations rituals like the Romans broke apart the ships of Catrhage to improve their navy. I think that was new.
Old 06-08-2015, 12:59 AM
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In an oral culture, rhyme and meter were the surest way to make sure the text got preserved. Rhyme or meter could be and were applied to pretty much anything, like the recipes that Broomstick mentioned. The Alfiyah by Ibn Malik is an old textbook of Arabic grammar. It's a poem of a thousand lines in rhymed, metrical couplets which students had to memorize. Avicenna wrote a medical textbook in rhymed metrical couplets too. There are countless examples like this in Arabic literature.

If you look at ancient poetry, whether Chinese, Greek, Latin, or Sanskrit, it always follows a given meter, but there's no rhyming. The oldest preserved Arabic poems, dating back to I think the 6th century, always rhyme. As far as I've been able to find out, rhyming poetry was first used by the Arabs and the use of rhyme in other languages came about from the influence of Arabic poetry. Rhyme in Persian poetry apparently began with the 10th-century Shahnameh of Ferdowsi, which was the first re-emergence of Persian literature after the Arab conquest. The first rhyming poems in European languages were in early Romance languages that followed Arabic models, such as the 12th-century Sicilian school, which in turn became the model for Italian poets like Petrarch & Dante. Also the trobar poems of Spain and Provence around that time. Sicily, Spain, and Provence had all been ruled by Arabs. Rhyme spread to English poetry only in the 14th century or so, due to French influence, after the langue d'oïl had adopted it from the langue d'oc.
Old 06-08-2015, 09:59 AM
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Rhymes were certainly found outside of and earlier than Arab culture. You find occasional rhymes in Greek, Latin, and Old English. Rhyme in Old Irish is rather different than in English (the vowels match, but the consonants only have to be in the same group); in Welsh, the rhyme is on the pitch accent, not the stress accent. Celtic rhyming poems are much earlier than the Romance languages, though I'd agree with you that Arabic is a more likely source for the popularity of medieval rhyme. (That, and sound and grammatical changes in French that make creating a rhyming poem much easier than in Latin.)

This is a famous rhyming poem from Old Irish, "the Scholar and his Cat." It's easy to see that the first two lines (in Bán and -dán) rhyme; seilgg and -cheirdd also rhyme (same vowel, final consonants are both sonants + palatalized stops). There is a lot of Old Irish rhyming poetry, and I know of no mechanism that would have brought an Arabic literary concept to Ireland in the Old Irish period (before AD 900).

The thing about the Hittites is just flat-out wrong. There are Babylonian spells that are pre-Hittite. It sounds like Grim Render has just fixated on the Hittites for some reason, and has chosen to make them a lot more significant than they are in this arena.

Last edited by Dr. Drake; 06-08-2015 at 10:00 AM.
Old 06-08-2015, 11:44 AM
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Originally Posted by aldiboronti View Post
Rhyme also makes things easier to remember, a strong reason for using it.
"Klaatu! Barada! N..N...Necktie?"
Old 06-08-2015, 02:51 PM
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"Hocus Pocus" I was told was a corruption of the consecration of the host in the latin mass - "Hoc est corpus meum" - most likely done for the purposes of the black mass, hence black magic. But yes, it just brings the standard "make it rhyme" idea to a particularly anti-authoritarian mystic behaviour.
Old 06-08-2015, 08:14 PM
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Anglo-Saxons loved rhyming riddles. I suspect the rhyming spells may be a variant of that.

Last edited by Marion_Wormer; 06-08-2015 at 08:14 PM.

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