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.

Double, Double, Toil and Trouble

The witches’ ingredients for the cauldron in Macbeth are mostly coded names for medicinal plants.

Macbeth’s Act 4 opening scene is probably one of the most well known scenes in Shakespeare. The Three Witches (aka the Weird Sisters) are in a dark cave with a boiling cauldron at the center. The witches gather and begin an incantation of dark magic, adding ingredients as they go. “Double, double, toil and trouble; Fire burn, and cauldron bubble.” Each witch then lists a series of ingredients that, at face-value, sound disgusting and macabre. But the ingredients are not what they seem.

Witches, like early alchemists, kept their knowledge a closely guarded secret. After putting all of that effort into R&D you didn’t want the competition getting a hold of your findings. But witches had other reasons for secrecy. Unlike the fictional witches in Macbeth, most “witches” were in reality female medical workers using herbs & botanicals to create medicines. In Medieval Europe medicine was a male-dominated profession and women caught practicing medicine were sometimes branded as witches. As such they had to keep their activity, and their recipes, secret. By using alternate names for their ingredients, the contents of one’s “spell book” were kept secret. Also, using alternate names worked as a safe-guard to keep their proprietary medical knowledge out of the hands of the general public who might mistakenly try to prepare these treatments themselves.

Some believe that almost all of the 23 ingredients in the witches’ brew are actually coded plant names, even the problematically named “liver of blaspheming Jew”. How much of this Shakespeare knew is unclear. All the ingredients together would make an unrealistic ridiculous concoction, so they were probably chosen for theatrical shock value. He may have found a list of real “witches” ingredients and used them without knowing they were coded names. Still, if you want improved blood circulation some eye of newt (aka mustard seed) might help.

A list with pictures of the 23 ingredients in the witches' brew in Macbeth
A list of the 23 ingredients in the witches’ brew, and their real world counterparts.
Learn more about these and other alternate ingredients.