Abracadabra

The magic word with a magical/medical past.

The exact origin of abracadabra is unknown but what is known is, before its modern usage by stage magicians, it was used as a real magical incantation. The earliest documented instance is the 2nd century medical text Liber Medicinalis by Serenus Sammonicus. As physician to the the Roman emperor Caracalla, Sammonicus prescribed wearing an amulet with the word abracadabra written on it to cure malaria.

The 2nd century medical text Liber Medicinalis by Serenus Sammonicus showing abracadabra written in triangular form.

Abracadabra’s use in healing magic may have to do with its possible etymologies. One possibility is that it comes from the Hebrew “ebrah k’dabri” or “I will create as I speak”. Or it may have come from “Abraxas” the mystical word/god from the Gnostic belief system. One language it’s not from is Aramaic (which the internet likes to say it is). Often quoted as coming from “Abra Kadabra” meaning “May the thing be destroyed”, this false Aramaic etymology became a popular internet “factoid” because J.K. Rowling used it as the basis for her “Avada Kedavra” spell in the Harry Potter series (a spell that does not cure malaria … or anything else).

Abracadabra became a popular protective magical word to cure a variety of ills. One application was to write abracadabra out 11 times but each time removing the new last letter, forming a triangle pointing down. This could be written on parchment and worn around the neck, or carved into a pendant of some kind, but the idea was the same – you used the word to summon protective spirits. As you worked your way down, abracadabra would disappear and hopefully so would your illness.

In a metal pendant or written on parchment, abracadabra in triangular form was said to have protective / healing powers.

From Real Magic to Stage “Magic”

Over the millennia, as our scientific knowledge grew, we learned more about medicine and our belief in magic diminished. In general we no longer rely on magic to cure/protect us from the unknown. Our scientific understanding of the world leaves little room for magic; in a similar way to how we no longer have sea monsters on our maps. Magic went from being a highly-regarded area of study, to fun entertaining tricks illusions with rabbits in hats, decks of cards, sleight of hand, magic wands, etc. Similarly, abracadabra went from being a real magic word to being a performative word for stage magicians.

Added info: In A Journal of the Plague Year, Daniel Defoe mentions that some citizens of London, so desperate for relief from the plague in 1665, took to writing abracadabra in the triangle design on the doors of their homes. The Victorians took to the triangular abracadabra pendant as Western esotericism became popular. Today you can still find abracadabra pendants, should you want a little extra magical protection from the viruses of today.

Conspiracy Theories

Belief in conspiracy theories comes from a desire to make sense of complex or troubling events. They try to reduce the anxiety and confusion generated by things that are hard to understand and/or don’t fit with one’s world view.

The Jews of Medieval Europe were often believed to have committed a variety of nefarious plots. From being responsible for the death of Jesus, to poisoning water wells during the Black Death, to a sinister association with money (which serves as a foundation for later conspiracy theories), the Jews have been victims of conspiracy theories for thousands of years. But why conspiracy theories are so attractive to so many people is complicated.

Out of Control

Conspiracy theories are a way of making sense of events that are hard to understand. Humans dislike uncertainty, so having an explanation (however flawed) is more attractive than doubt. Uncertainty generates anxiety and stressful times actually increase the number of people turning to conspiracy theories as a way to alleviate their anxiety.

For example, there are numerous conspiracy theories surrounding coronavirus – it was engineered by the Chinese government, or it was engineered by Bill Gates, or it’s being spread by 5G cell phone towers. The 1889 global influenza pandemic (the “Russian flu”) was blamed on electric lights, telegraph poles, and even just electricity in general. What’s old is new again. People are afraid of a deadly virus that isn’t fully understood and so they blame a new technology that they also don’t fully understand.

Fighting the 1889 influenza pandemic, or fighting the 2020 coronavirus pandemic, for years medical professionals have also had to fight conspiracy theories.

The world is largely out of our control and major world events can remind us of how little control we have. Conspiracy theories give a feeling of control to people who feel anxious about a situation they can’t control. Many events are the complex result of a confluence of factors, and sometimes things just happen at random. Neither of these make people feel good. Complexity is not the soundbite people want. Instead it is much more attractive to believe in a fictional simplistic narrative where there are clearly defined good guys and bad guys and you can blame the bad guys for what’s happening. People like easy to understand stories rather than complicated chaos. In having a target to blame, a conspiracy theory believer can take action and have some degree of control rather than being powerless to a complicated abstract concept.

Humans are also pattern recognition machines. Unfortunately we also imagine patterns where there are none. Gamblers and sports fans see streaks and patterns where mathematically there is nothing more than normal chance. People who see non-existent patterns in normal life are more likely to believe in conspiracy theories. In conspiracy theories people construct connections and see patterns where there are none in an attempt to create a story that feels better than uncertainty.

Humans are pattern recognizing machines, but sometimes we find patterns that don’t exist.

On the Inside

While people who believe in conspiracy theories come from all economic levels, genders, political affiliations, and racial backgrounds, there are a few patterns that exist. For one, people who believe in one conspiracy theory are statistically more likely to believe in additional unrelated theories. Also, belief in conspiracy theories is fueled by the anxiety of not understanding why things happen, and the people who are most likely to not understand things are the less educated.

While conspiracy theories range from the small to large, major world events are more likely to be the focus of conspiracy theories because the effects of such events are so impactful. People want big meaningful events to have equally big and meaningful explanations. This is proportionality bias. The JFK assassination is the focus of numerous conspiracy theories, but the attempted assassination of Ronald Reagan is not. Even though both events are similar in nature, for most people nothing really resulted in the failed assassination of Reagan and so a simple explanation was sufficient. For the JFK assassination however, the idea that one deranged person could cause so much chaos wasn’t a big enough answer for such a big event.

On the Inside

Ultimately believing in conspiracy theories is about belief – it is not about facts. People who believe in conspiracy theories have an insular and circular logic that shields them from the real world. Facts that contradict a conspiracy theory are met with suspicion and are thought of as part of the conspiracy. At the same time the absence of proof to support a conspiracy theory can be seen as proof of the conspiracy theory. It’s an echo chamber shielded from reality.

In 2016 Dr. David Grimes created a formula for how long a conspiracy could realistically stay a secret before being exposed to the public. The more people involved, and the more time that passes, the more likely that someone will say something. For example, the moon landing involved around 411,000 NASA employees. As of today it is extremely unlikely that the moon landing was a hoax because it would have meant that almost half a million people were sworn to secrecy and not a single one of them ever let anything slip for decades. Grimes’s formula demonstrates just how unlikely it is for most conspiracy theories to be true. Information wants to be free. But belief in conspiracy theories continues.

The QAnon conspiracy theory started around 2017. It has since grown into a wide-reaching network of beliefs including a pedophile ring controlled by celebrities & liberals who are controlling the media, secret deep-state government operations, aliens, human sacrifice, and (wouldn’t you know it) the only person who can stop it all is Donald Trump.

Unraveling

Conspiracy theories are contradictorily both known and unknown. The believer has secret knowledge but also lacks any real evidence. That a conspiracy could have been partially leaked but no real evidence is revealed is very unlikely. But believers are not deterred because conspiracy theories aren’t about facts.

In an age of unprecedented access to information some people have sought emotional refuge in baseless fictional narratives. Conspiracy theories are a symptom, but not the cause, of ignorance. It is easier to prevent a conspiracy theory from taking hold than to change someone’s mind once they believe. For those who already believe, psychologists say it is better to treat the root cause of a believer’s ignorance than to try and dissuade them from a particular conspiracy theory.

So whether it’s the suspicion of witches, the Knights Templar, the Freemasons, the Communist red scare, the Protocols of the Elders of Zion, the Illuminati, crop circles, water fluoridation, Area 51, the Royal Family assassinated Princess Diana, 9/11 was an inside job, chemtrails, Obama wasn’t born in America, QAnon, flat earth theory, the deep state, anti-vaxxers, or that coronavirus is being spread by cell phone towers … knowledge from reliable sources and improving critical thinking skills are the best ways to reduce belief in conspiracy theories.

Jack-o’-Lanterns

The Jack-o’-Lantern is an iconic part of modern Halloween but its origins are in much older traditions.

Humans have been hollowing out vegetables to use as lanterns for at least 10,000 years. The Māori of New Zealand use the word “‘ue” for both “gourd” as well as “lampshade.” While the jack-o’-lantern is Irish in origin, the pumpkin is a New World vegetable. So before 1492 the Irish used other vegetables to create makeshift lanterns, and one Irishman in particular used a turnip.

Jack of the lantern

Stingy Jack, Drunk Jack, Jack of the Lantern – his name varies about as much as his story does. The common thread among the variations of this folk tale is that Jack was a jerk. A bad drunk, or a liar, or both, Jack generally made trouble for the people of old Ireland. Eventually the devil came for Jack but, clever as Jack was, he talked the devil into going for a drink before taking him to Hell. Jack convinced the devil to turn into a silver coin that he could use to pay for the drinks (again, Stingy Jack). Once in coin form Jack put the devil in his pocket beside a crucifix, torturing the devil. He released the devil on the condition that the devil go away for some period of time – some versions say 1 year, others say 10. Eventually the devil came back for Jack but, incredibly, was tricked again. This time Jack asked for one final taste of this life and tricked the devil into climbing up an apple tree to fetch an apple. Once in the tree Jack either carved a cross in the trunk, or he placed a cross at the foot of the tree, but either way he trapped the devil up in the tree. This time the devil agreed to go away forever and to never take Jack’s soul.

Eventually Jack died and was obviously refused entry into Heaven, but as per their agreement the devil refused him entry to Hell. So Jack was forced to forever wander between worlds. To light his way in this shadow world of existence, the devil gave Jack a burning coal which he placed inside a turnip as a lantern. This was the first jack-o’-lantern.

Samhain lanterns

The Halloween we know has its roots in the ancient Irish pagan festival of Samhain. A Gaelic harvest festival marking the end of the pagan year and the start of the new year, Samhain is the beginning of the dark half of the year. Festivities begin at sunset on October 31st and go through the night to November 1st. This one evening is believed to be especially supernatural where the boundary between this world and the spirit world is blurred. The ghosts of the deceased as well as the supernatural fairy folk (the aos sí) are said to temporarily cross over into our world. To appease these spirits, and for protection from any tricks they may play, the ancient Irish would light bonfires, prepare special meals, and perform sacred rituals. Making lanterns from hollowed out vegetables was also believed to help ward off evil spirits.

Eventually the Samhain lanterns and Jack’s lantern came together. Jack-o’-lanterns supersized to pumpkins as early as 1834 as Irish immigrants brought the custom to America. Today most pumpkins grown in the United States and the United Kingdom are grown solely for decoration. Despite being high in fiber as well as vitamin A, most pumpkins are never eaten. Billions of pounds of pumpkins are thrown in the trash each year after serving as seasonal decorations.

So after your jack-o’-lantern wards off the evil aos sí during Samhain, find a second use for that pumpkin as food.

“Haunted” Houses

The feelings associated with haunted houses can be explained with science.

Chemical Spirits

Fear, the chills, seeing visions that disappear, hearing things without a source – some people also have headaches, nausea, temporary paralysis, a feeling of weakness and or dizziness. These are all classic signs of a haunted house … and carbon monoxide poisoning.

As far back as 1921 there has been a connection between “haunted” houses and carbon monoxide. Dr. William Wilmer published an account of his patient, “Mrs H.”, in the American Journal of Ophthalmology. Mrs. H., her family, and her servants moved into a large mansion and over time suffered a whole host of paranormal fear-inducing experiences. After months it was discovered that the furnace in the basement was pouring fumes containing carbon monoxide into the house instead of up the chimney. Upon fixing the furnace all symptoms of the “haunting” ended. This is not an isolated incident. As recently as 2005 a woman reported seeing a ghost in her shower, but it turned out that her visions were caused by a newly installed water heater that was leaking carbon monoxide.

When carbon monoxide enters your body it attaches itself to your red blood cells preventing oxygen from attaching to the cells and being delivered to your organs. This lack of oxygen is what affects your brain into seeing & hearing things that aren’t happening (among other effects).

The Fear Frequency

Another feeling in a “haunted” house is an overall sense of dread – a fear with no known source. People say they can feel a presence, that there is something in the room with them but they can’t see it. This too can be explained but instead of an invisible gas it’s invisible sound waves.

Infrasound are sound waves just below the range of human hearing. Even though we can’t hear infrasound we can feel it. The low wave vibrations of infrasound can cause panic, fear, disorientation, and it can even vibrate your eyeballs into seeing something that isn’t there. In 1998 British engineer Vic Tandy was the first to connect infrasound and “hauntings” in his paper Ghosts in the Machine published in the Journal of the Society for Psychical Research. The Warwick lab he was working in at the time was said to be haunted, where people would feel uncomfortable, scared, and occasionally see a shape move in the room. It turns out this was all the result of a 19 Hz infrasound wave coming from the lab’s newly installed extractor fan. They fixed the fan and the “haunting” stopped.

So before you call 555-2368 to bust your ghosts, turn to science for a more logical explanation.

The Headless Horseman

A legend of a headless horseman and the need to cross a body of water for safety isn’t unique to Washington Irving.

Washington Irving’s 1820 story The Legend of Sleepy Hollow centers around an encounter with the headless horseman, a Hessian soldier of the Revolutionary War who rises from the grave at night in search of his head (which was shot off by a cannon). After attending a harvest festival at the Van Tassel house our protagonist, Ichabod Crane, is pursued in the night by the headless horseman. Crane’s one chance of safety is to cross the Pocantico River as the headless horseman’s power ends at the boundary of the river. As Crane and his horse Gunpowder cross the bridge the horseman gives one last attack by throwing his own head at Crane (or so the story goes).

Headless Riders

Irving’s story is an American classic but it’s also part of a larger tradition of supernatural headless horsemen. The British Isles and Northern Europe have a variety of spectral headless riders but one of the most famous are the dullahans of Ireland. The dullahans are a kind of sinister magical creature. They’re dressed in black, riding ride black horses (who are also headless in some versions), and when they stop riding it’s to announce the name of someone who is about to die. Their decapitated head, which they carry in their hand, is said to have magical sight and speaks the name of the person to die. In their other hand they crack a whip made of a human spinal cord.

In some parts of Ireland a dullahan doesn’t ride a solitary horse but instead is the headless coachman of the Cóiste Bodhar, the death coach. The death coach rides to pick up someone who is about to die and carry them to the afterlife.

A dullahan as imagined by Ryan Van Dongen

Take Me To The River

In The Legend of Sleep Hollow Ichabod Crane’s one chance of safety is to cross the bridge and reach the other side of the river. This supernatural nighttime chase, and trying to reach the other side of the river, is similar to Robert Burns’s 1790 poem Tam o’ Shanter. In the poem, the titular Tam o’ Shanter has ended an evening of drinking at the pub and sets out into the night on his horse Meg. As he is riding along he sees an old abandoned church with light coming from inside, so he stops to take a closer look. Inside is a satanic witches’ sabbath complete with the Devil playing bagpipes.

Upon seeing a witch in a nightshirt that is just a bit too small, an intoxicated Shanter comments aloud, which is heard by the supernatural creatures. The lights go out and what follows is a daring chase where Shanter has to reach the other side of the River Doon. Like the headless horseman of Sleepy Hollow, the witches won’t cross the river and so Shanter’s only chance of survival is in making it to the other side. As he gallops across the Bridge of Doon a witch pulls off Meg’s tail.

A detail from Tam o’ Shanter and the Witches, with Tam looking in from the window

Added info: Beyond being an inspiration for Washington Irving’s The Legend of Sleepy Hollow, Tam o’Shanter is also the naming inspiration for the Scottish hat of the same name. The Bridge of Doon, aka the Brig o’ Doon, is the inspiration for the name of the 1947 Broadway musical Brigadoon and its fictional town that appears once a century.

Tam o'Shanter inspired the name of the Scottish hat as well as the name of the 1947 Broadway musical Brigadoon. In this image is the Tam o'Shanter hat and the Brigadoon record cover.

Ghosts As Sheets

Ghosts represented as sheets come from the tradition of burial shrouds.

For thousands of years, unless you were wealthy, you weren’t buried in a coffin. Most people were buried in other ways and one of the most common was in a shroud or sheet of some kind (the original green burial). Coffins didn’t become common in Europe until the 18th century. So until then there were a variety of different kinds of shrouds but the basic idea was that the deceased was wrapped in cloth and lowered into their grave.

In this context, the idea of seeing a sheet/burial shroud walking about in the dark is terrifying. This is the origin of ghosts being portrayed as sheets – it’s from the understanding that a deceased person in their burial shroud was out of the grave and back from the dead. In 19th century Britain impersonating a ghost in this fashion became both a prank fad and a real problem. At best a prankster would wear a sheet, run around at night, and generally frighten people in humorous ways. At worst it was a way to terrorize and assault women. There are even a few incidents of these “ghosts” frightening people out of their homes, leaving the house temporarily free to be burglarized (the original Scooby-Doo villains). It was also used in mid 19th century America by the Ku Klux Klan who pretended to be the ghosts of Confederate soldiers, come back to terrorize the people of the south.

This motif of ghosts being represented as moving burial shrouds/sheets found its way into entertainment by way of the theater in the late 19th century. The ghosts of the stage would be in white sheets, move silently, and generally do the spooky things we think of today. Early animated cartoons portrayed ghosts in a similar manner, most notably with Casper the Friendly Ghost (who is shroud-like). Today the motif is fairly harmless and pretty ubiquitous. You see it in the iconic Ghostbusters logo, the ghosts in Pac-Man, Boo from the Mario games, the ghost mascot of Snapchat (aka “Ghostface Chillah”), Boo Berry cereal, the ghosts of LEGOs, Halloween Tootsie Pop ghosts, etc. The burial shroud ghost continues to live on.

A collection of pop culture sheet ghosts.

Imitation Eyes

Eyespot mimicry is used throughout nature to defend against predators

Mimicry is a useful method of disguise employed by a variety of species for both offensive and defensive reasons. Eyespot mimicry is frequently used defensively where a decoy set of eyes are used to help a vulnerable species. This is especially true of creatures lower down the food chain but you can find it higher up as well. Tigers have spots on their ears that look like eyes when they vulnerably lean over to drink water.

Sometimes the decoy eyes serve as a scare tactic, such as in Batesian mimicry. The owl butterfly has owl-like eyes on its wings. It’s believed that in being able to flash the eyes of an owl, the owl butterfly is able to scare small predator birds into thinking a large owl (who eats such birds) is present. In other species the eyespots are a distraction. In flashing a set of eyes a species can surprise & confuse a predator just long enough to escape. Some species use eyespots to draw attention away from their more critical body parts. The foureye butterflyfish for example has dark eyespots near its tail (which is less important) and draws attention away from its head (which is very important). When feeling threatened it can even swim backwards, making its tail seem more like the head and vice versa.

The owl butterfly whose eyespots mimic that of an owl to frighten away predators.
The foureye butterflyfish, eyespots by its tail.

Eyes looking out, for you

The northern pygmy owl of North America has eyespots on the back of its head, helping to mislead predators into thinking they are being closely watched. In 2016 an experiment was conducted in Botswana of painting eyes on the rumps of cows to prevent lion attacks. The cows with painted eyespots were less susceptible to predation by lion attacks than normal cows, as the lions felt they were being watched.

Finally, for those who believe in the supernatural malevolent force of the “evil eye”, you have some options of magical defensive eyespots. The nazar (a blue & white eye-like amulet) has been used for thousands of years from Turkey through to India and elsewhere. Similarly the hamsa (which also features an eye but sitting in the palm of a hand) has been used around the Middle East for a similarly extended period of time.

Both symbols are said to attract the negative energy of evil eye attacks, and destroy/repel them. If your nazar is cracked then it’s “proof” that it has worked, and of course you’re supposed to buy a new one. After all, you have to keep your magical eyespot functional.

Left: the hamsa. Right: the nazar.

Sea Monsters on Maps

The rise and fall of map sea monsters

Between the Middle Ages and the Renaissance exotic sea creatures were sometimes included in the watery regions of world maps. Many of the monsters were hybrid creatures – the top half was some land animal combined with the bottom half of a fish. This was in keeping with a long held idea from the ancient Greeks that anything on land had an aquatic counterpart in the sea. Sea rams, sea elephants, sea pigs, sea humans were all real possibilities. Over the centuries as explorers and traders traveled further abroad, they brought back tales of other strange creatures from around the oceans. Some of these beasts turned out to be real animals (such as whales) but others were just mistaken identity or entirely fictional stories. Either way, they ended up in maps.

Two kinds of maps

Generally speaking there were two kinds of maps in use during the Middle Ages and the Renaissance: nautical maps and general maps of the world (mappae mundi). Nautical maps were more utilitarian and typically did not include sea monsters as it cost extra to include them and the illustrations were generally not very useful when sailing a ship. As such, most of the maps that included sea monsters were world maps for home use, to learn about the world beyond your home town/city and the possible dangers at the borders of our knowledge. Sea monsters were frequently found at the edges of the map which showed that the world beyond what had been mapped was unknown & possibly dangerous. They illustrated in a real sense the wonders of the world. They were also a way to hide gaps in the cartographer’s knowledge by taking up space with big animal illustrations (rather than big empty areas). Sea monsters also helped the marketability of these maps which was good for business.

A detail of a 1587 map of Iceland by Abraham Ortelius
A detail from the 1539 Carta Marina by Olaus Magnus
Another detail from the 1539 Carta Marina by Olaus Magnus

Eventually, the more sailors traveled the oceans the further out on maps the sea monsters were pushed. By the end of the 16th century much more of the globe had been explored & documented. The scientific knowledge of the flora & fauna of the world had grown and started to disprove some of these sea monsters. The more we learned, the unknown corners of the world in which to place these fantastical monsters eventually disappeared. By the 17th century instead of sea monsters on the margins there were illustrations of whales, other real life animals, or ships. This left us with more accurate, if a bit less interesting, maps of the seas.

Added info: Some sea monsters were included with ulterior motives. It is believed that Olaus Magnus’s 1539 map of Scandinavia included sea monsters in the Norwegian Sea to scare away potential foreign fisherman, and thereby protect the waters for the local fishing industry. A very Scooby Doo villain plan.

For more sea monsters, check out Chet Van Duzer’s Sea Monsters on Medieval and Renaissance Maps.