What Is Magic Spells
Surviving written records of whole magic spells were largely obliterated in many cultures by the success of the major monotheistic religions, Islam, Judaism and Christianity, which label some magical activity as immoral or associated with evil. Spells would be distinguished from magic symbols, words, patterns, recipes, practices and other forms of magic that were not directly exercised by a collection of words. However, some spells were combinations or repetitions of words that were considered to have magic power, but which were not in sentences or verse.
Surviving examples from northern Europe include For a Swarm of Bees, the Nine Herbs Charm, and the Merseburg Incantations
Due to the surviving written record of ancient Egyptian culture, a number of references to magic and complete examples exist. In particular, the embalming and interring process involved the use of many documented spells, for example from the Book of the Dead.
Modern uses and interpretations
The performance of magic almost always involves the use of language. Whether spoken out loud or unspoken, words are frequently used to access or guide magical power. In The Magical Power of Words (1968), S. J. Tambiah argues that the connection between language and magic is due to a belief in the inherent ability of words to influence the universe. Bronisław Malinowski, in Coral Gardens and their Magic (1935), suggests that this belief is an extension of man’s basic use of language to describe his surroundings, in which “the knowledge of the right words, appropriate phrases and the more highly developed forms of speech, gives man a power over and above his own limited field of personal action. Magical speech is, therefore, a ritual act and is of equal or even greater importance to the performance of magic than non-verbal acts. Another potential source of the power of words is their secrecy and exclusivity.
Much sacred language is differentiated enough from common language that it is incomprehensible to the majority of the population and it can only be used and interpreted by specialized practitioners (magicians, priests, shamans, even mullahs). In this respect, Tambiah argues that magical languages violate the primary function of language: communication. Yet adherents of magic are still able to use and to value the magical function of words by believing in the inherent power of the words themselves and in the meaning that they must provide for those who do understand them. This leads Tambiah to conclude that “the remarkable disjunction between a sacred and profane language which exists as a general fact is not necessarily linked to the need to embody sacred words in an exclusive language.